Many of us remember getting “the talk” from our parents when we were teenagers. My parents gave me a James Dobson book about adolescence, sent me away to read it, and told me to let them know if I had any questions. I didn’t.
More than two decades later, I am now a licensed psychologist and the mother of a toddler. I want to teach my daughter a healthy, God-honoring view of her sexuality, one that is free of the shame and false promises perpetuated by purity culture. Like many of us that grew up in purity culture, I still want to instill biblical sexual morals in my child—including the belief in abstinence before marriage and sexual faithfulness after marriage.
This article was curated by the Purity issue's guest editor, Rachel Joy Welcher.
But how do we teach our children purity without the myths of purity culture?
In my work as a psychologist and in my personal life, I see the effects of purity culture—the baggage of shame, disillusionment, and sexual disappointment. My research focuses on identifying the myths of purity culture and the consequences of these teachings.
Many of my generation who were influenced by purity culture are now raising children of our own. Before we can teach our children about sexuality, we must be clear about our own beliefs and hang-ups. I believe we first need to pay attention to which purity culture myths affected us and banish all the myths when we talk with our children.
What Not to Say
Based on the five myths of purity culture that I have identified, here is what I won’t say to my daughter:
1. You are a better Christian if you abstain from premarital sex.
I call this the Spiritual Barometer Myth—the belief that someone’s purity or virginal status is a measure of their spiritual maturity. And if being a virgin makes you a better Christian, the opposite must also be true: that those who have premarital sex are not as strong in their faith. When we use purity to evaluate faith and to judge how good of a Christian someone is compared to others, we are idolizing purity and virginity.
Instead of pride and judgement, I want my daughter to approach purity with humility and compassion. Instead of making an idol out of not having sex, I want to instill the wonderful message of God’s grace for her, not a works-based religion in which salvation is dependent on following the rules and spiritual maturity is capped by sins God has forgiven.
2. God will give you your desire for a spouse if you obey his teachings on purity.
Purity culture failed me big time on this one, which I call the Fairytale Myth. I was sure that by waiting to have sex, God would bring me a good Christian husband at an early age—someone who met every criterion on my “future spouse” checklist that the purity books told me to write. Instead, my first serious relationship in college ended unexpectedly and I spent the better part of my twenties single—and a bridesmaid six times—before I finally met my husband.
I don’t want my daughter’s relationship with God to be a transaction in which staying pure equals a dream spouse. I don’t want her to believe that God grants our wishes as long as we do “the right thing.” Real life is far more complicated and messy than that. Teaching her a purity for spouse exchange sets her up for disillusionment and disappointment. I want her to seek God and a genuine relationship with him, one in which obedience and submission to his plans will naturally follow. I want her to pursue purity for the glory of God, not the gifts of God.
3. Once you marry, sex will be enjoyable, pleasurable, and rewarding—if you waited.
Purity culture promised Christians that if we waited, our fairytales would come true—complete with amazing wedding night sex. I call this the Flipped Switch Myth that says on your wedding night you will “flip a switch” and sex is instantly mind-blowing.
The reality is that many Christian couples—even those who wait until marriage to have sex—suffer sexual shame and difficulty. After the wedding night, some Christians find that instead of pleasurable and easy, sex is frustrating and disappointing.
In my private therapy practice, I treat Christian individuals and couples with sexual problems stemming from purity culture. Religious teachings on sex can often directly contribute to sexual disorders such as vaginismus and erectile dysfunction. For some couples, it can take months after the wedding night before they are able to overcome pain and fear of sex to engage in it.
I don’t want to set my daughter up for struggle by offering the false promise of an easy, fulfilling sex life. Instead, I plan to emphasize the preparation, education, and communication that a good marriage requires in every area including sex. I believe she will be far better served by a more realistic picture of the mutual work and patience that is needed for intimacy than by a cheap and self-serving guarantee.
4. You won’t have your whole heart to give to your future spouse if you aren’t a virgin.
If you grew up in purity culture, you are likely very familiar with the Damaged Goods Myth and the corresponding object lessons used to teach it in church youth groups. Whether the lesson used a heart-shaped paper ripped into pieces, a dirty cup of water with spit in it, or a chewed up piece of gum, the message was clear: if you have premarital sex, you are dirty, tainted, and broken.
As a psychologist, I do believe that sex can be powerfully bonding. Negative sexual experiences, particularly non-consensual ones, can be extremely damaging. But we can acknowledge the emotional and physical effects of sex and sexual trauma without using these shameful analogies.
I want my daughter to learn the beauty and redemptive power of God’s forgiveness, which she will need regardless if she has premarital sex or not. Not being a virgin does not make anyone undeserving of love or unworthy of a loving marriage. Sexual sin is not the “unforgivable sin.” Sexual trauma can be healed and redeemed. And if God can forgive all our sins, we must forgive ourselves and each other too.
5. Men are more sexual, so it is up to you to enforce sexual boundaries when you are dating.
How many times have we heard rigid gender stereotypes about sexuality in the church? How many times has a young woman been shamed for her own sexual abuse? Or a wife blamed for her husband’s affair or pornography use?
The Gatekeepers Myth states that women are less sexual than men and must “gatekeep” men’s sexuality. Likewise, men cannot help but sexualize women, cannot control themselves, and always have higher sex drives.
I don’t want my daughter to enter marriage thinking that sex is her “wifely duty” and only for her husband’s pleasure. Even though I believe purity is an important value, I don’t want her to see that as her only purpose as a young woman.
Our sons need to learn the same sexual morals as our daughters. Youth groups and school health classes often separate boys and girls for their sexual education. And many teenagers have “the sex talk” with just their parent of the same sex. These practices further reinforce that the sexes are so different, we cannot even talk about sex in the same room together. It sends the message that the virtue of purity is not the same for males as it is for females. When it comes to sexuality, I would want a son to learn the same crucial skills of self-control, delayed gratification, and respect for others that I want my daughter to learn.
Teaching Purity without Purity Culture
So how then can we teach faithful Christian sexuality to our children without the harmful myths and messages of purity culture?
First, identify these myths in your own beliefs. Pay attention to which purity culture myths affected you and take steps to heal from these distorted beliefs instead of perpetuating them to your children.
Second, we want to avoid the extremes of either demonizing sex or idolizing it. Sexuality is a gift—a blessing to enjoy, but also a responsibility to steward.
Lastly, to convince our children to abstain from premarital sex, let’s not resort to these false promises and gender stereotypes. Instead, let’s emphasize the value of obedience to God, faithful submission, and integrity as we practice the spiritual discipline of purity.
Ultimately, we want our children to internalize our values and choose to follow them out of thoughtful consideration and personal choice, not out of coercion or a desire to please us. We can still teach our children the importance of honoring God’s command for sexual faithfulness without offering myths and misinformation.
Cover image by Caleb Woods.