Purity culture is a movement that grew up within American Christianity with an intense emphasis on a specific definition of sexual purity. Rachel Joy Welcher’s Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality approaches that culture from a perspective that agrees with some of the basic motivations while disagreeing with the baggage that comes along with it.
Welcher surveys the landscape of purity culture with a look at history behind the movement. She summarizes a number of major works, highlighting the general view of this movement. Essentially, it focuses on hardened gender roles and extreme emphasis on importance of “purity,” by which is meant not just virginity but a kind of resistance to and avoidance of sexuality in almost any instance. Thus, for example, moves to “kiss dating goodbye” in favor of courtship regulated, approved, and observed by parents.
The movement towards purity does not come without additional baggage, however. Welcher notes several of these points through chapters about “The Idolization of Virginity” and “Female Responsibilities.” In the latter, she observes that the weight of purity largely falls upon women who, according to proponents of this movement, must do things like “dress modestly” and “select… attract… [and] satisfy her spouse” (42ff). This means that women are often left in fear that something as simple as an exposed bra strap will be enough to tempt others into sin, a responsibility that women ought not have to bear. Boys and men are taught similar ideas, and this has its own weight. For example, men are taught that they are almost insatiably sexual, seeing the simplest thing (an out of place bra strap, for example) as arousing and causing intense desire. When men don’t feel that way, they can then feel inadequate. The Purity Culture movement paints with a broad brush that basically forces all men and women individually into these specific behaviors, desires, and obligations, thus alienating those who do not feel they fit neatly into the buckets presented. Welcher also notes the problems that arise with purity culture and those who have been sexually abused or don’t fit all the norms presented.
The final few chapters focus on Welcher’s corrections to purity culture. While still maintaining a fairly conservative view of sexuality, Welcher notes that purity culture simply doesn’t correspond adequately to reality. However, she also pushes back against some of the stronger objectors to it. Nadia Bolz-Weber, for example, comes into scope as Welcher states that Bolz-Weber’s more permissive sexual ethic that included opening herself to her boyfriend erotically post-divorce is a “gospel of self” and exhorts readers to “not be deceived” (134). “Holiness is not premarital sex without shame,” writes Welcher (135). These notes might strike some readers as a reinforcement of some of the sexual ethic behind purity culture, and I’m not sure that’s entirely mistaken.
The last section of the book, in a chapter about purity culture “moving forward,” features Welcher using similar language to many of the writings of purity culture: “Loneliness is real, but lust does not love you. Its only desire is to tear you apart, limb from limb” (184). Those who have been especially harmed by purity culture’s expectations and adherents may find the pushback against purity culture is not as strong here as they’d like. Fairness demands acknowledging that this is beyond Welcher’s intent, but one wonders about the use of words like “lust” in the sentence quoted above. There is a remarkable amount of wiggle-room in definitions of lust, and a lot of baggage that comes with it. While Welcher pushes back on purity culture, this reader wonders whether she may not have taken it far enough. Though critical of more progressive thinkers like Bolz-Weber, Welcher may have moved too quickly to dismiss their whole sale attack on purity culture due to the broad damage it has done.
The book has discussion questions and activities throughout, allowing it to be readily used for a group study.
Talking Back to Purity Culture is a fascinating read. It not only provided insight and directions into the movement, but directed ways forward. As I read the book, I found myself reflecting upon it and how purity culture came into my own life at times and how it shaped who I am as a person. The book will surely provide groundwork for much future discussion, and hopefully allow more to “talk back” to purity culture with more informed voices.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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