12 minute read

Purity Culture and Its Unfortunate Intersection With Porn

Last Updated: September 22, 2021

Lisa Eldred
Lisa Eldred

Lisa Eldred is the Educational Content Strategist at Covenant Eyes, and has 10 years of experience in researching and writing about porn addiction and recovery. She has authored numerous blog posts and ebooks, including More Than Single, Hobbies and Habits, and New Fruit, which was co-authored with Crystal Renaud Day. Her writing about faith and fandoms can be found at Love Thy Nerd.

It seems like every few weeks, something happens to make purity culture trend on Twitter. As of this writing, it’s trending due to the release of a podcast about the brief lifespan of a major megachurch, but nearly anything could trigger rants about purity culture: an influencer’s “deconstruction”; the revelation of a Christian leader’s moral failings; the publication of a book; or even just someone reminiscing and asking for other reminiscences.

I tend to take notice whenever purity culture comes up. For one thing, as the Educational Content Strategist here at Covenant Eyes, I’ve come to realize that purity culture and pornography use are intertwined in fascinating ways. For another, my generation was the generation that experienced purity culture firsthand.

My Own Experience With Purity Culture

I am an elder Millennial and a member of what I prefer to call the Oregon Trail generation—a group that crossed between Gen-X (like my brother) and Millennials who had computers in the classroom but still remember a time before dial-up.

I grew up listening to Adventures in Odyssey and reading Brio magazine. I signed the True Love Waits pledge and envied my friends’ purity rings. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity, the handbooks to dating as a Christian in the 1990s. I went to DC/LA 1997, a huge youth event, and watched Austin O’Brien (the “safe” Christian crush due to his role in Promised Land) talk about the importance of abstinence (followed somewhat ironically by “beach evangelism” in North Carolina). I wasn’t allowed to play with Barbie or wear spaghetti strap tank tops unless they were under a cardigan. At one point I was so firmly entrenched in modesty culture that I didn’t think I’d ever feel comfortable with even my husband seeing me naked. And I definitely didn’t date.

As an adult, I’m mostly the person purity culture wanted me to be: still a faithful church member, working at an anti-porn company, and still saving sex for marriage (a strange way to put it as I rapidly approach 40).

I share all of this because, to paraphrase Paul in Philippians 3, I am a “Christian born of Christians” and “regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.” I have all the reasons for “confidence in the flesh.”

And yet, while I can see God’s hand in all of my history, I can also say with Paul that it did basically nothing for my ultimate salvation. And while I was protected from some of the worst of purity culture, it’s also not hard to see why so many of my peers were outright damaged by it. And it didn’t prepare us for more “modern” temptations at all, the foremost of which being digital pornography.

So what is purity culture anyway? What were its goals, and where did it go wrong? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we move forward, either in healing from it or in training our children in a better way?

What Is Purity Culture?

The movement that became collectively known as purity culture was founded on good intentions: to counteract a tidal wave of sexuality unmoored from marriage. The sexual revolution, which began in the 1960s, had only grown; with the legalization of abortion in the 1970s and increasing access to birth control, teen sex was increasingly normalized.

Enter campaigns like Lifeway’s True Love Waits. Introduced as a youth group curriculum, it promoted abstinence for Christian teens and encouraged people to sign commitment cards pledging abstinence. The campaign was officially launched in April 1993; by June 1994 they had collected 102,000 commitment cards and displayed them on the lawn at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting.¹ A few years later, the Silver Ring Thing program introduced the concept of purity rings as a visual pledge of abstinence until marriage. And in 1997, I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published; in the beginning, it was held up as the ultimate handbook for Christian sexuality, but by the time its author halted its publication in 2018, it had become the ultimate symbol of the worst aspects of purity culture and the deep harms it could do to a person.

Now, this isn’t a comprehensive list of all of the aspects of purity culture, nor did everyone who grew up in it experience every aspect. My own youth groups largely ignored purity rings, for example, and none of the teens in my church “courted” each other.

What brings us all together in experiencing purity culture, though, is this: we were raised in a culture where “saving sex for marriage” was not just taught, but actively celebrated. Teens traveled in groups to put their names on pledge cards and hear musicians sing about how important it was to wait. Young girls were handed roses and were told that any sexual deviancy was like tearing petals off it.

The good motives behind the movement of following God’s design for sex rapidly became a performative event. When this message of purity was taught well, it deepened the teens’ love for Christ and desire for obedience; more often, it became a yoke of legalism and sowed confusion and dissatisfaction.

What Did Purity Culture Teach?

How did its teachings go wrong? The overarching message—that God designed sex for the context of marriage—is definitely biblical. Unfortunately, the core approaches wound up becoming legalistic stumbling blocks. Most of purity culture could be summed up as teachings about (1) abstinence and (2) modesty. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1. Teachings About Abstinence

The main point of all of purity culture’s teachings was this: don’t have sex until you’re married.

This is good teaching!

It matches what we see in the Bible (e.g. the creation of marriage in Genesis 2:18-25; laws regarding adultery and rape in Deuteronomy 22:23-29; Paul’s commands about sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20). It also matches what we see in science: the chemical cocktail that fires off during intercourse is designed to bind us to our partners. In a perfect world, this means the more you are intimate with your spouse, the closer you grow to them (see our free ebook The Porn Circuit for more details).

But purity culture usually took this teaching several steps further.

Many dating couples started asking “How far is too far?” Purity culture’s gatekeepers (sometimes national leaders, sometimes youth pastors or volunteers) responded by setting various boundaries on what true sexual purity meant. Some advocated against any form of physical intimacy (at least one teaching was that you carried every person you kissed with you into marriage, so it was not uncommon for couples to save their first kiss for their wedding day).

Books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye advocated for intentionality in dating—as in, don’t date someone you don’t think you could ever marry, which is not inherently a bad philosophy—and advocated for heavy parental involvement in the dating process, especially via “courtship.” This meant that teen boys and girls developed an unhealthy fear of even speaking to each other, let alone dating; boys got increasingly picky about the girls they would date, and girls would reject a simple invitation to coffee because they were “dating Jesus” instead.

In other words, the focus was rarely on God’s beautiful design for marriage. Instead of the joy of obedience and grace for the sinner, purity culture bound teens in legalism and shame.

2. Teachings About Modesty

In addition to abstinence, young girls under purity culture were taught about the importance of dressing modestly. Again, modesty, in general, is scriptural; we women should not intentionally provoke men to lust (e.g. Proverbs 7:10). We do not want to be a stumbling block for our brothers (Matthew 18:6-7).

We’ll go deeper into this later, but once again the problem was not the teaching, but the legalism that arose. Young girls and women were policed for their clothing; they often got blamed for the man’s lust regardless of what they wore. Boys and men, we were told, are visually stimulated and had high sex drives; our job was to make sure we didn’t activate those impulses. Ultimately, the teachings about modesty became more concerned with how well women covered themselves up and usually failed to address the heart issues that caused men to lust after them in the first place.

How Did Purity Culture Intersect With Porn?

Internet pornography came on the scene around the same time that purity culture was in its heyday.

This may seem like divine timing—and for some people, it might have been. In theory, purity culture was all about teaching teens how to prepare themselves for sexual temptation and maintain their integrity.

Shame and Silence Around Sexuality

Remember, though, that an over-emphasis on toeing the purity line meant that sexuality was generally shrouded in shame.

It’s comparatively easy to hide online porn use in the first place; the shame of sexuality just meant that teens were more likely to hide it.

In addition, purity culture tended to be promoted in denominations where there was already silence on the subject of sex. Many parents tended to avoid difficult conversations about human sexuality, letting their children and teens learn biblical sexuality from their youth pastors or other sources (I myself learned the mechanics from James Dobson’s Preparing for Adolescence).

There’s a strong correlation between lack of parental conversations about sex and unwanted sexual activity (including porn use) as an adult. In his book Unwanted, Jay Stringer found that 50% of adults seeking healing for sexual addiction never had a helpful conversation with their mothers about sex (60% for fathers).³

The Prevalence of Personal Devices and Porn

As teens were entering sexual maturity in a culture that took an extremely narrow view of it, technology was also beginning to explode in homes. Personal computers were becoming increasingly affordable, and dial-up internet was increasingly normal.

Pornographers were often the innovators on the internet. Perhaps the most famous example was the fact that the U.S. government only registered the .gov domain for the White House; its .com variant was quickly filled with adult content. Who knows how many students trying to do research went to the wrong URL and had their first exposure to pornography?

And, of course, because the whole concept of home Internet was so new to most people, filtering barely existed as a concept, let alone accountability software. (Covenant Eyes itself wasn’t founded in March 2000.)

In other words, purity culture was busy policing teens’ dating lives. Teens who grew up in this culture didn’t have a good picture of healthy sexuality. They only knew that they had sexual urges, and Internet pornography was there to give them an outlet.

3 Lies That Led to Toxic Purity Culture

It’s been almost 30 years since purity culture began in earnest. The teens of that first wave—like myself—have long since grown up. Many of us elder millennials are now “deconstructing” our faith—questioning whether the God we were raised to believe in really loves us and cares for us, and questioning whether the church’s teachings, including purity culture, were truth or toxic. (Even Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, is deconstructing his faith.)4

What happened? Why did so many teens who signed the pledge cards and wore the rings grow up to be disillusioned with faith? Where did things go wrong?

There are at least three lies taught by purity culture that pornography answered better. We’ll look at them in turn.

Lie 1: Marriage is a guarantee.

Much of purity culture’s focus on abstinence was related to how much better marital sex would be if you didn’t “ruin” yourself first. All of the dating advice was focused on how to pick the right spouse. It all assumed that marriage would happen.

This proved to be blatantly untrue and may have even contributed to the decrease in marriages among my generation. The U.S. Census Bureau found that the median age of first marriage rose from approximately 24 for women and 26 for men in 1990 to 28 for women and 30 for men in 2020,5 and a 2018 analysis of Census Bureau data found that 35% of the population aged 25-50 had never married.6

Now, any number of factors could lead to that delayed marriage, such as increased college debt and the increased public acceptance of cohabitation. A Pew Research survey published in November 2019 found that 71% of adults age 30-49 found it acceptable to cohabit, even if you don’t intend to marry; 78% of adults age 18-29 found it acceptable. Even 61% of adults age 65+ were okay with it.7

Personally, I’m of the opinion that pornography contributed to the lower rates of marriage. Purity culture had already made it harder for people to just date and get to know each other; pornography gave people a sexual outlet so they didn’t feel the need to date. In particular, I suspect that porn reduced the number of eligible Christian men in the church; those who remained could “afford” to be pickier about the available women. Those who were still rejected turned increasingly to porn (because, after all, they were taught their sex drives were uncontrollable bodily responses to visual stimuli, and God just “made men that way”).

Lie 2: Lust is the woman’s responsibility.

This leads us to our second lie. If modesty taught that wearing revealing clothing (even subtly revealing, like loose-fitting clothing that still showed the shape) led men to lust, it appears that purity culture failed to teach men that their bodies were still subject to the godly fruit of self-control. The guilt was laid firmly on the object of lust, and men were given a pass because they’re “visually stimulated.”

Regardless of whether or not men are more visually stimulated than women, the fact is that even if all Christian women dressed modestly, the world at large would still be full of visual stimulation, like women in bikinis on the beach or lingerie ads on billboards. There were passing references to concepts like “Bounce your eyes,” but even many popular marriage books more or less handwaved porn use. When men are trained to believe they just have a high sex drive because they happen to have been born male, then they’ll feel like God is depriving them when He doesn’t provide a spouse. They’ll turn to porn instead because “they just can’t help themselves.”

Ironically enough, modesty culture’s solution to porn was that the woman was to functionally become her husband’s porn—to be so sexually charged in the bedroom that he would have no reason to look elsewhere. Weight gain because of giving birth or thyroid/other medical issues? Even now, in churches where purity culture tends to be prevalent, the responsibility for the husband’s porn use is squarely on the wife’s shoulders—rarely his.

Lie 3: Sexual sin will ruin your life forever.

The problem with focusing on virginity is that it didn’t leave much room for those who weren’t. If you had already had sex or even just kissed someone a little too intimately, you would be defiling your eventual marriage bed by carrying all those previous partners into the marriage with you. This even sometimes included victims of abuse! There was no room for grace and repentance in purity culture; either you were a virgin or you weren’t.

So instead of learning to constantly bring sin before the Lord and ask for a renewed heart and mind, many people who slipped up sexually were instead driven deeper into a cycle of shame that led to them acting out more and more. We talk about the shame cycle elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Jay Stringer found that shame was a key factor in pornography use as an adult.8

The Missing Heart of the Gospel of Purity Culture

I mentioned this earlier, but the real problem with purity culture is that it tended to teach morality without pointing people to the Cross. Minimally, we failed to learn the joy of repentance and renewal—we who follow Christ are considered blameless before a holy and pure God because Christ paid the penalty for each of our sins. The debt is paid. The ledger book has been erased.

Prophetic words in scripture may compare the nations of Israel and Judea to prostitutes and condemn them for their adulterous behavior, but we only ever see the embodied Jesus Christ extend grace and mercy to prostitutes and adulteresses. We are to pursue purity not because our salvation depends on it, but because Christ tells us to “go now and sin no more” (John 8:11).

Unmoored from the transformative love and power of Jesus, purity culture becomes legalism. Reconnected to Christ, pointing students to His life, death, and resurrection, purity culture’s teachings instead become applied theology—a way to trust God with our sexuality and walk in the love that He called us to.

What exactly do I mean by that?

Well, we can look at Christ. When we say he has experienced our temptations and suffering, we can know that he had perfect control over his bodily urges as well. He was male; he was born with the appropriate anatomy; he had plenty of access to prostitutes who literally fell at his feet; and yet he did not lust after them.

And lest you think that Jesus could only control himself because he was God, remember that Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 said it’s better to remain single as he himself was, because it meant your loyalties to God were undivided. In other words, our sexuality doesn’t have to rule us. And marriage itself isn’t about selfishly taking—it’s about mutually giving to each other. It’s about recognizing that your body, and therefore your sexuality, belongs to your spouse.

What This Means About Virginity

Doesn’t that just make virginity even more important? Again, God biologically created us such that in a perfect world, where people bring no baggage into marriage, sex will strengthen the bond between husband and wife. But remember too that in Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul paints marriage as a divine image of Christ and his Church (and in Revelation 21:2 the New Jerusalem, aka the Church, is dressed as a bride). It is Christ’s sacrificial love that purifies his bride, not her deeds. So too Christ is the one who looks at his sons and daughters and declares them pure, regardless of whether the world would call them “virgins.” (And yes, that goes for the person feeling trapped by porn too!)

And Modesty

Okay, but women still need to dress modestly, right? Yes, Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 that women should not dress to draw undue attention to themselves (though Paul’s focus is about not flaunting their wealth). But most of the time Jesus’s focus regarding lust is on the heart of the one lusting, not the object of the lust. Oh, so when you look at a woman you start lusting? Great! Poke out your eyes so you don’t have to look at her anymore. Can’t control your hand, whether that’s molestation or masturbation? Chop that off too (Matthew 5:27-30)!

Obviously, this is hyperbole and not medical advice, but the point remains: if someone else’s behaviors are causing us to sin, we are responsible for controlling our responses as Jesus controlled his biological impulses when visited by prostitutes. And why do we do these things? Not because we want to save ourselves for hypothetical marriage, but because it’s better to amputate limbs than to burn in hell. But even this is not about us trying to earn our salvation, but about living life as God has already declared us—cleansed from all sin by the blood of the Lamb.

Where We’re Left With Purity Culture

In the end, where does this leave us and purity culture? It’s a failed system, of course. All systems like this fail, especially when they’re not constantly pointing to Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith. It’s best handled as good advice, not the thing that will make or break a marriage that may never come anyway.

Because in the end, when we face the refiner’s fire, all the laws and regulations that bound us through purity culture—or our own works, for that matter—will burn away. The only things that will remain will be pure.

And that is a good thing.


¹ https://www.lifeway.com/en/product-family/true-love-waits/history/

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purity_ring

³ Stringer, Jay, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing
(Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2018), 39.

4 https://www.instagram.com/p/B0ZBrNLH2sl/

5 https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/time-series/demo/families-and-households/ms-2.pdf

6 https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-share-of-never-married-americans-has-reached-a-new-high

7 https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/11/06/marriage-and-cohabitation-in-the-u-s/

8 Stringer,  Unwanted, 105.