How do you convince a room full of teenagers to chant “sex is great” while simultaneously signing abstinence pledge cards? According to Christine Joy Gardner, by making chastity sexy. Gardner attended numerous purity events hosted by groups such as Pure Freedom, Silver Ring Thing, and True Love Waits, and conducted over sixty interviews with the leaders and attendees. She notes how modern evangelical purity culture borrowed strategies from pop culture to make the message of abstinence more winsome. She writes, “Silver Ring Thing events have been described as part rave, part Saturday Night Live, and part Saturday night revival.”
The promise of sex in marriage was the carrot dangled in front of teenagers to get them to commit to abstinence. And while this sexy carrot may have convinced youth to chant, clap, and sign pledge cards, it ultimately made sex less about the union between two self-giving, embodied souls in marriage and more about a future reward for sexual restraint.
And it made promises it couldn’t keep. Sara Moslener, author of Virgin Nation, says that early purity reformers taught that men who practiced sexual self-control were “promised health, happiness, and a wholesome (i.e., married) life.” The modern purity movement made similar promises, accompanied by strobe lights and the music of Usher. One young man admitted to Gardner that he had committed to sexual abstinence in order to give himself the gift of “future happiness in marriage.” Purity advocates hoped that the promise of healthy, satisfying marriages would “curb sexual temptation” in adolescents. However, Gardner points out that this goal changed the motivation for sexual abstinence from “pleasing God to pleasing oneself.”
Sex as a Reward
Like many young stars, Justin Bieber got caught up in immorality and partying. But more recently, Bieber has been attending Hillsong Church in New York City. Not only that, but he decided to practice celibacy with his fiancee, Hailey, before their wedding day. He talked about his decision with Vogue magazine, explaining:
[God] doesn’t ask us not to have sex for him because he wants rules and stuff. . . . He’s like, I’m trying to protect you from hurt and pain. I think sex can cause a lot of pain. Sometimes people have sex because they don’t feel good enough. Because they lack self-worth. Women do that, and guys do that. I wanted to rededicate myself to God in that way because I really felt it was better for the condition of my soul. And I believe that God blessed me with Hailey as a result. There are perks. You get rewarded for good behavior.
I appreciate Bieber’s commitment to chastity before marriage, but I am concerned with his motivation. I don’t blame him—this is what we have been teaching for years. But what happens when adolescents are taught that good sexual behavior is always rewarded with timely marriage and amazing sex, and these promises fail to materialize or live up to the hype? They might wonder what else the church is lying about.
In purity rhetoric, married sex is the prize. Rebecca St. James imagines, with a romantic flourish, the honeymoon of a couple who waited for marriage to have sex, while Gresh recounts her own wedding night, sharing how it surpassed her and her husband’s expectations. Over and over again in the books of my youth, the promise was repeated that saving sex for marriage is “worth the wait.” In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris says that a commitment to sexual purity in singleness is like “delaying our gratification” and “storing up passion” that will make married sex more meaningful. And Arterburn and Stoeker talk in Every Man’s Battle about the “physically gratifying pay off that comes from obedience to God’s sexual standards.”
One woman, Marta, told me she was taught that if she saved sex for marriage, she would “have an amazing sex life with no problems at all.” Sarah added that marriage between two virgins was portrayed as “mind-blowing” and “effortlessly fantastic.” By emphasizing the joy and pleasure of sex in marriage, purity culture was able to rightly assure young men and women that there is a God-honoring context for sex. It also challenged religious arguments about procreation being the only purpose for sex in marriage. I praise God for this. But somewhere along the line modern purity culture turned married sex from a blessing into a trophy. And God never treats sex this way.
Sex is not a reward for good behavior. If it were, all the godly, chaste men and women we know would be married right now, having fantastic sex and making lots of beautiful babies without any struggles with illness or infertility. If sex is something you earn by pure behavior, then our friends who sleep with their boyfriends and girlfriends outside of marriage would all be impotent or having terrible sex. Obviously this is not the case.
The reality is that one of my closest friends has been faithful to God’s sexual ethic her entire life. She spends her time teaching at-risk children how to read. She is a foster parent. She babysits for her married friends on the weekends so they can have date nights. She paints beautifully and sings while she cooks. She loves her local church and studies the Scriptures diligently. She is beautiful, warm, and kind—and she is still unmarried.
The reality is that my husband and his first wife didn’t kiss until the altar. A year into their marriage, she got cancer and eventually got so sick that she couldn’t have sex. Before she died, she was told that the chemotherapy had made her infertile, dashing her dream of ever having children. They were obedient to God’s Word, pure and faithful, and they still suffered immensely in their marriage.
The reality is that I saved myself for my first husband. He was my first kiss, and I was a virgin on our wedding night. Then, almost five years into our marriage, he left the Christian faith and divorced me. I remember physically aching from the lack of touch and the bruise of abandonment. What do you do when you follow all the rules and find yourself divorced at age twenty-nine, childless, no longer a virgin, with a heavy load of trust issues slung over your shoulder?
The reality is that, despite being warned about guilt, STDs, and teen pregnancy, some of my peers have enjoyed numerous sexual experiences outside of marriage without any apparent consequences. Winner points out that the idea that “we will necessarily feel bad after premarital sex” forgets our sin nature. Our depravity is good at smothering our conscience. Sinful sex, Winner says, will make some people feel fantastic.
The moral of these stories is not that sexual purity isn’t worth it. But if our motivation for pursuing purity is personal fulfillment—the reward of married sex—then when the wedding never happens, our virginity is stolen from us, our marriage crumbles, our spouse dies, or sex fails to be nirvana, our conclusion will be that sexual purity isn’t worth it.
In Psalm 73, Asaph laments that the wicked seem “always at ease,” while his own obedience to God has not kept him from suffering:
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence. (Psalm 73:13 ESV)
He goes on to remember that the wicked will one day be “destroyed in a moment” (v. 19) and those who make God their refuge will ultimately be received to glory (v. 24). But he must grapple with the truth that we can’t exchange our obedience to God for earthly reward. In our struggle to obey God, we may witness the wicked thriving, enjoying various pleasures, riches, and security, and wonder: Is it worth it?
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Ultimately, reserving sex for marriage is worth it but because God is worth obeying. It’s worth it because marriage is where sex belongs. Practicing sexual abstinence doesn’t guarantee anyone marriage or awesome sex any more than taking up our cross and following Christ guarantees us health, wealth, or happiness. When we obey God for personal gain, Ferguson says, “Christ himself ceases to be central and becomes a means to an end.” Maybe one reason people leave the church is because we tell them purity is about sex, when really it should be about God.