Caution on the Purity Culture

Some months ago, a campus ministry colleague from another diocese was sharing with me a later life “insight” from a former student I found somewhat troubling. It came to mind when I was reading this Catherine Woodiwiss piece in Sojourners. The article itself is excellent and thought-provoking. But I want to zero in on one small insight which began with this bit:

Confusion about personal boundaries arises in part from confusion among Christian young adults about sex. And for more sexually conservative campuses, the inclination to relegate sexual violence under a broader taboo on sexuality can leave students ill-equipped, naive, or downright misinformed about healthy sexual interaction.

And while a positive ethic of holistic purity does not itself equate to silence and blame, the rigidly simplified yet obtuse connotations the term “purity” carries too often compounds the issue.

(Kate) Davelaar pointed to one such brand of “purity culture” — one “that tells women they are ‘damaged goods’ for having sex” but “tells men they ‘made a mistake, and just do better next time’” — as a main culprit in distorted notions of sexual health and identity among Christian young adults.

I recall that my colleague related a young woman’s concern after she had lived in a “brother/sister” situation in an off-campus apartment suite (two men, two women). A spiritual director had surfaced the “damaged goods” matter–and my colleague was iron-clad certain this person had never had sex with her suitemates, nor with any other man, for that matter.

The issue is relevant for our campus situation, as we have had men and women (our campus ministry peer ministers) sharing a suite (separate bathrooms) for the past fifteen years. And I would say that the no-sex culture among our students is quite strong. But now I wonder how widespread this dial-back to the 50’s might be.

In my parents’ generation this double standard struck me when I was a teenager: the calm acceptance of male misbehavior, and the outrage when women transgressed. If purity is a true value (and I believe in principle it is) then comparable standards must be preached and lived out in example. Targeting young women is just too lazy.

It may be a fact of biology that sex out of bounds has no natural consequences for a man. But the emotional and moral consequences are inescapable.

Leaders, mentors, and guides–these people also possess a responsibility. They are responsible for telling the truth about sex and relationships. No guessing games. No lazy platitudes. No double standards. These would be out of synch with the Christian message of mercy and redemption.

If nothing else, we are reminded of the Master’s teaching on the source of impurity:

Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine? But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. (Mark 7:18-20)

Sexual activity in forced or even coerced situations is evil. But still, it is not the invasion which enters the heart. Future relationships are not damaged by a woman living with a “brother.”

In my shifting of ministry responsibilities from the parish to more campus folk, I will need to become more acquainted with the good as well as the less-polished attempts to promote purity and virtue. The scare tactics to steer sexual identity need to be outed for being a less than Christian expression of sound moral practice.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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