By Ellie Corrow
The sexual revolution brought many challenges and questions to Christians and social conservatives who saw the dangers in seemingly rampant hedonism, but felt unequipped to address it within their families. Stepping in to fill this breach was a bevy of books and programs such as True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, and I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which gained widespread largely uncritical acceptance across the breadth of conservative Christian denominations. The sexual purity movement, as it is collectively known, and its accompanying educational materials, have since become something of a roadmap for concerned parents and youth leaders attempting to guide children through the modern wasteland of sexual ethics. Should the sexual purity movement have such uncritical acceptance? What are the long term effects of its philosophy regarding sex? Is it theologically problematic? These are the sorts of questions Rebecca Lemke seeks to answer in her book, Scarlet Virgins: When Sex Replaces Salvation. In her critique, Lemke wields both her experiences as a disciple of sexual purity, and a clear theological lens. She does not ask her readers to eschew traditional Christian values regarding sex, or discard chastity, instead she suggests that much in the purity movement is often at odds with those exact values we wish to instill in our children.
The sexual purity movement amplifies and distorts classic Christian teaching on chastity, instead moving into a works-based righteousness which explicitly teaches that a person’s purity is defined by her ability to abstain from sexual sin. This purity project equates purity with not just virginity but all manner of sexual purity—from physical modesty, to passing thoughts, to innocent childhood crushes. In this framework, one is either pure or impure, and once someone is impure there is no recovering of that purity. This made it necessary to create a whole series of rules and regulations, all designed to guard everyone’s “purity,” eventually making it impossible for dating couples to share a private conversation, never mind any expression of physical affection. This sexual purity teaching has gained such widespread acceptance that often today the word purity is used in Christian circles as simple shorthand for one’s adherence to the sixth commandment. This should raise flags for Christians who see purity as a gift given to us poor, miserable sinners as we are washed white in the blood of the Lamb. Purity is not predicated on the elimination of all manner of sexual sin (as if such a thing were possible), but is rather imputed to us by Christ.
This teaching is not just problematic in its explicit assertion that purity is preserved or lost on the basis of sexual sin alone, as if the sixth commandment were the only one that matters, but also in its failure to teach a healthy view of sex. So much time and energy is spent creating rules to protect single people from the trap of sexual sin, that little thought is given to how this ongoing teaching affects couples once they are married. It is difficult to transition to a healthy sex life with one’s spouse after being told for years that sex was not only dirty, but also a threat to one’s very salvation. Lemke addresses this issue with startling vulnerability as she details her own struggles with forging healthy intimacy with her husband following their marriage.
Instead of treating sexuality as a healthy part of a person’s humanity, finding its correct expression in marriage, sexuality, particularly female sexuality, is weaponized, to use Lemke’s word, standing as a threat to men in its proximity. In the sexual purity mindset, men’s sexual purity is at the mercy of female modesty, as immodesty on the part of a woman may result in anything from impure thoughts to outright sexual assault. How are Christian girls to grow into godly women who trust and respect men when they have been actively told that young men simply cannot control themselves around young women, and female immodesty is ultimately to blame for the sins of men? Transversely, how are young men to grow to respect and value women when they are taught that women can so easily ensnare them in all manner of impurity by their mere presence? In this framework, women are taught to view men as potential predators, one hug or short dress away from attack, and men are taught to view women as temptresses and obstacles to purity. This is a mindset which hardly invites Christians to see each other as children of God, worthy of love, respect, and mercy, instead inviting measurement on the purity scale.
Scarlet Virgins is sharp and unapologetic in its critique of the sexual purity movement, bravely and unabashedly denouncing what was thought to be the silver bullet to our cultural woes. Lemke unpacks in a very simple, straightforward, and heartbreaking way not only the theological failings of this framework, but also the broken lives it leaves in its wake. She shares her personal story of being left with no basic knowledge of her own body and struggles with sex following her marriage, as it was so deeply engrained in her that her body and sex itself were inherently dirty and shameful. She speaks not as some feminist torpedoing chastity as an unnecessary relic of a by-gone era, but rather as a pious Christian woman who asks for a return to biblical chastity. Her voice is one that needs to be heard as she asks us to more openly consider whether in our rush to protect our children from the sexual revolution and its attendant excesses we have unwittingly handed them a serpent instead of a fish.