How Purity Culture Hurts Guys

Before my wife and I got married, I became a full-on feminist. The more I’ve learned about how evangelical purity culture damages girls, the more against it I’ve been. I’ve either shared or liked articles whose advice to men was more or less like this:

  • Suck it up.
  • Girls can wear whatever they want, it’s up to guys to control themselves.
  • Keep your eyes up.
  • Respect women.
  • Treat women as human beings.

Speaking now as a happily married man, I’m like, “Yeah, totally. Women should be able to wear whatever they want without feeling objectified or (God forbid) afraid of being attacked.” But as a young man in purity culture, I felt very differently, and I think I know why.

I’ve read a lot from the girl’s perspective. Like a lot. What I’m about to share isn’t intended to tell girls that purity culture isn’t hurting them as much as they say it is. I want to validate that difficulty and say, “It hurt you? Yeah, it hurt me too.”

Purity Culture Teaches Men To Objectify Women

Yeah, I just wrote that.

Instead of being sex objects to be lusted after, purity culture objectifies women as objects that men must resist the horrible temptation to lust after. Christian singer-songwriter Todd Agnew explains the struggle in his song “If You Wanted Me”:

Cause I think I’ve fallen for more than Bathsheba
Your creation’s a temptation for me

He’s talking about lust. The first time I heard that song, I completely identified with it.

Another time, I heard Shaunti Feldhahn, author of For Men Only and For Women Only on Focus on the Family and she explained her journey toward realizing how visual men are and how terrible it was to discover how women are torturing men by dressing provocatively. When I heard her say that, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and felt that finally, somebody understood how hard it was for me!

And it is hard, sisters. Ladies, hear this: for men in purity culture to be around beautiful women, particularly if they aren’t “covering up,” it is very hard, but it is not your fault.

Let me say that again.

It is hard for Christian men in purity culture to be around you, but it is not your fault.

The blame for that idiocy falls squarely on purity culture.

When your average 20-something single guy walks onto a beach full of beautiful women in bikinis, he might check them out and be interested in them, but his “temptation” is absolutely nothing compared to what a young man in purity culture feels. He knows it’s wrong, which feeds his desire, which feeds his guilt, which feeds his desire. That poor kid has a molotov cocktail of guilt, shame, and knowing-it’s-wrong with a fuse of temptation sticking out and soaked in gasoline. All he needs is the spark of a beautiful woman who isn’t ashamed of her body.

Purity Culture Makes Our Bodies Our Enemies, Too

I’ve heard over and over again that in purity culture, girls’ bodies are the enemies – problems, temptations, things that will cause men to stumble. Ladies, don’t feel alone… Purity Culture does this to men, too, but in a different way.

Guys tend to associate lust with being turned on. Honestly, sometimes that just happens. It doesn’t mean you’re lusting if your pants have a protrusion. It just means you’re turned on.

And let’s talk about the M word. Purity culture treats any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage as bad. Remember that cocktail that is a purity culture man’s mind? Yeah, try stick pornography in front of it. It’ll do the same thing, and if he’s alone, he’ll go further and feel even more guilty.

The problem’s not the woman.
The problem isn’t even the man.
The problem is the training the man got from his church.

And the worst part about it is that even if the poor schmuck burns his magazines and destroys his computer with a baseball bat, his worst enemy is still there hanging between the front of his legs, waiting to pop up like a jack-in-the-box. A jack-in-the-box bent on sin.

"Okay, Lord. No more addictions."

Yeah, girls. It’s not just your bodies that are the enemies. Our bodies are enemies, too. And this is psychopathy. It’s unChristian. Scripture teaches that God created everything good, including your body. When you teach men that their bodies are rebelling against God, you end up with all sorts of weirdness and psycho-ness and eunuchs.

This is, I think, the cause for the popular teaching that men can’t control themselves: when it comes to the little jack-in-the-box, we really can’t control it. It’s a product of evolution. Guy sees girl, gets turned on, goes and has sex with her, potentially dominates her, she gets pregnant, reproduction happens, the human race continues. But we can rise above this. That’s part of what it is to be human, I think. We don’t have to jump on top of a girl and have sex with her just because our genetics recognize that this is someone of the opposite sex and procreation is a possibility.

Unfortunately, I think most of the folks in purity culture don’t believe in evolution so they probably don’t get the genetic predisposition part and just call it “Sin nature.” It gave Augustine no end of problems, or so I’ve heard.

Purity Culture Keeps Men from Seeing Women

It’s crazy. I was in purity culture for a long time. I was fighting my desires for a long time.

Then one day at camp one of the girls did a Bible lesson. She got out paint. We all stuck our hands in the paint and left our handprints on a big white piece of paper. I can’t remember what the lesson was, but I was struck with the realization that she wasn’t just a potential wife or a temptation, she was a person.

Crazy, right?

That’s what purity culture does to you. Every woman is one of two things (yes, things): A potential future spouse, or a temptation. When you start dating a woman, it gets more psycho, because she literally becomes both. You have to keep yourself pure for your future spouse (yes, at least some guys do think about this too) but what if she’s the one? Is it still cheating on your theoretical future spouse if you become physically involved with someone before you’re married – if that someone is your future spouse? (Trying to keep it PG, folks).

And then when you do get married, all women other than your wife are just temptations. (That link takes you to a wonderful blog post by Luke Harms about this, which you should read.)

Purity Culture Has No Understanding of Grace

I hesitated on that one, but I think it’s valid, or at least it was for me, and I know it’s been valid for girls as well.

When I was dating the girl I dated before I met my wife, I was struggling with a porn addiction. I use that phrasing because it was an addiction (I couldn’t stop) and because I’m confident that was caused by how wrong I felt it was. I had discontinued using pornography but the jack-in-the-box still popped up. Sometimes I won, sometimes the guilt won.

I told the girl often how privileged I felt to be dating her and how I really was a wicked sinner and had done some things that she would find horrible, but she always talked about how much she liked me and how it couldn’t have been that bad and I tried to tell her, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it until near Christmas when our pastor told me that I should tell her. I did, and my fears that she would find it all horrible were confirmed.

It took her a day or so to recover enough from the shock and horror to call me and break up with me. I honestly don’t remember much of the conversation, but one line stuck with me for years. I still remember like it was yesterday exactly where I was when she told me that her parents had asked, “I thought you wanted to marry someone who was pure.”

I wasn’t pure, and there was no way that I could turn back the clock and get back to purity, and no forgiveness for this horrible sin was remotely possible.

Why? Because purity culture is at its core a culture of self-righteous legalism. The less you’ve done, the better you are. I’m reminded of the parable of the rose that gets passed around a room until it’s lost all of its beauty and goodness from being handled. Everything you do sexually that is outside the context of marriage will destroy you forever.

Little kids, plug your ears.

Bullshit.

Grace is big enough to erase all of it. This isn’t to say, “Oh cool, everybody should go out and have sex with everybody all the time.” This is to say that purity culture has no concept of grace. If you fall, you can’t get back up, and even if you do, your relationship with your future spouse will be forever marred by that failure.

Bullshit.

My life was marred for a long time, yes, but it wasn’t by my addiction. I have the words “I thought you wanted someone pure” burned deep into my soul. Those words affected my relationship with my wife. I always thought that either she or her family would one day realize that I wasn’t pure and throw me away like that rose.

Healing started before we even started dating when I told her the story and she just loved me more (though she didn’t admit it at the time). That and our married relationship we’ve enjoyed for the past year have helped heal me to the point that it’s just a scar, and a fading scar, but it’s still there. I’ll probably still remember those words for a long time, but they don’t hurt anymore.

Purity culture hurts everyone involved. It’s horrible to women, and it’s awful to men. It turns every day living in grace into every man’s battle against temptation – and by temptation, I mean women.

Burn it.

Burn it with fire.

David M Schell About David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

20 thoughts on “How Purity Culture Hurts Guys

  1. Wow David! I think you covered this important topic better than I have ever seen before, and you were very upfront about the issues without being crude. Purity culture hurts guys by giving them a warped perspective about women and also by causing them to think healthy appreciation of them is the same as lust.

    You were well balanced in your approach, so I would not be surprised if you get some flack from both sides. However, what you said is extremely important and I think it will help many of those who read it.

    • { Purity culture hurts guys by giving them a warped perspective about women and also by causing them to think healthy appreciation of them is the same as lust. }

      Not one teaching I ever heard from anyone said this – in a very consecutive homeschool community that was often way too fear-based, so scared of anybody sinning that they were over-protective and prevented a lot of good things happening as well. Never once did anyone tell me that healthy appreciation of human beauty and lust were identical. In fact nobody ever said anything close to that.

      • Of course teachings would not say this explicitly. It would be obvious that it’s ridiculous – probably. This is “caught and taught” implicitly. I certainly caught it.

  2. David, someone linked me to this post. And it’s so good. Yes, Purity Culture hurts everyone involved so deeply. Thank you for sharing your own experience.

    I can relate so well with the idea of slowly healing from it all.

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  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I too was a Purity Culture kid. While I do believe in the call to modesty and treating our bodies (and others’) with respect and dignity, a missing part that Purity Culture neglects is that respecting our bodies mean we need to view them (ours and others) as inherently good and beautiful. They are not evil, they are not weapons. They are created by a love-loving God. It’s just tragic when, leading up to marriage, we’re told that the human body is an object of sin and lust, and that sex is bad and evil – but once we’re married, we’re supposed to automatically lose all those negative connotations attached to sex and enjoy it guilt-free? That jack-in-a-box was always made out to be something evil that needs to be shut down and resisted whenever it comes up (pun intended), and consequently a God-given function feels like a symptom of sin and weakness. By attaching so much guilt and shame to sexuality outside of marriage, sexuality WITHIN marriage inevitably gets hampered down by guilt, and this beautiful expression created by God is still seen as something bad (re: I’ve had friends tell me that because always hearing that experiencing pleasure before marriage is evil, those “evil” feelings sometimes still creep into the marriage bed). Where is the freedom in that? I could go on, but I wanted to thank you for sharing this. Keep up the conversation!

    • { . While I do believe in the call to modesty and treating our bodies (and others’) with respect and dignity, }

      Careful, this will get you labeled a lot of dirty terms around here.

      { It’s just tragic when, leading up to marriage, we’re told that the human body is an object of sin and lust, and that sex is bad and evil }

      That, I agree, is a big problem in church teaching, the idea that sexuality itself is a shameful and dirty thing. That is not “purity culture” although it can often overlap, but does not *necessarily* overlap.

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  6. Um, wow. This is so perfect. I even heard the words that were burned into your soul, spoken to me about the man I’ve been married to for 10 years now. I grew up in the Purity Culture, was homeschooled with the best of them. I’ve written on my blog how these things have hurt me and been the cause of so many personal and relational problems. We went further than the purity teachings and into emotional purity and courtship, which has its own set of problems. It’s great to hear from a man on this subject. I know my husband would feel every word you wrote, though he was always an “outsider”, he fell for me and had to deal with the baggage of the conservative homeschooling purity movement. Anyway, thank you for your honesty!

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  9. All this stuff stems from the idea that lust is a sin. Which is not true at all. This false idea comes from Matthew 5:28 where it states that if a man looks at a woman to lust for her, he has committed adultery with her in his heart.

    A little known fact is that the greek word for lust is epithumeo which means ” to covet, to seek things forbidden.” The word carries no sexual connentation at all and is actually a translation of the hebrew word chamad. Chamad also means covet and its the hebrew word used in exodus in the ten commandments when its says you shall not covet your neighbors various things ( wife , ox, whatever).

    The passage should read ” he who looks at a mans wife to covet her has already comitted adultery with her in his heart ” . Also, there is no greek word for wife, so the term gunh is used. Guhn means woman but is used to mean wife in most contexts pertaining to marriage.

    So lust is not a sin. Too many Christians put aside common sense when they read the bible which is another problem. Because common sense should tell you that it is not adultery to sexually fantasize about a single woman if youre a single man. Its not even adultery if you end up actually HAVING sex with her so how can it be adultery to just think about it?

    Anyway I dont want to go on too long but a little unbiased study would free so many Christian guys of these types of burdens.

  10. { When your average 20-something single guy walks onto a beach full of beautiful women in bikinis, he might check them out and be interested in them, but his “temptation” is absolutely nothing compared to what a young man in purity culture feels }

    Not really true.

    { I’ve heard over and over again that in purity culture, girls’ bodies are the enemies – problems, temptations, things that will cause men to stumble}

    Neither I nor any of the men in my life ever once heard any church leader teach this, and yet we were in what this sweeping article would categorize as “purity culture” (which is a plastic phrase that can mean almost anything).

    { I wasn’t pure, and there was no way that I could turn back the clock and get back to purity, and no forgiveness for this horrible sin was remotely possible}

    That’s a common issue with “religious” people and it’s not purity culture, it’s graceless legalization which can happen in any church culture.

    { Guys tend to associate lust with being turned on }

    Not sure where you dredged up this load of guys for this article, but no, most reasonable, average, semi-intelligent males are capable of determining the difference between lust and physical arousal. Most males that have gone through puberty know that arousal can just happen kind of nowhere for no apparent reason. Maybe the “NRB” wasn’t a thing in your group of dudes that anyone ever talked about?

    { Purity Culture Has No Understanding of Grace }

    This is a classic way to make a bad argument. You classify only “bad X” as X and call “good X” Y or Z instead.. Sort of like how the Christians who rail against dating call bad dating “dating” but call good dating something else.

    • I should clarify: I have heard over and over again that girls’ bodies are the enemies, but I have not heard it from within purity culture. I’ve read probably dozens of blog posts written by women who left purity culture and looked back upon it with the sense that their bodies were the enemy – something to be covered up, and a temptation. In addition, “Every Man’s Battle” is everything but explicit in treating women’s bodies as things that are dangerous to men.

      {That’s a common issue with “religious” people and it’s not purity culture, it’s graceless legalization which can happen in any church culture.}

      Forgive me for assuming that there aren’t any versions of purity culture that fail to be graceless, but there ain’t no grace in “You start out pure, but if you do anything sexually, you stop being pure and there’s no way to turn back the clock. God forgives, but you can’t go back to being ‘pure’ again.”

      Ain’t no grace in that.

      I was homeschooled and kept pretty isolated from other people outside my immediate family. I didn’t have a “group of dudes” available to discuss this sort of thing with.

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