Purity culture is a subculture within Christianity that emphasizes subjective individual “purity,” generally associated with female chastity.
Purity is related to guiltless, blameless, or innocent behavior. In Exodus 23:7, an innocent person is portrayed as someone who is righteous as measured by the demands of the law. Purity is not a cultic term; in fact, it does not appear in the rules for holiness detailed in Leviticus. Yet the idea of purity does surface in a number of instances. Before they can engage in any cultic or ceremonial activity, God’s people must be consecrated or had to sanctify themselves ( Exodus 19:10 Exodus 19:14 ; Joshua 7:13 ; 1 Sam 16:5 ; Job 1:5 ).
The New Testament. In the New Testament, there is little emphasis on ritual purity. Rather, the focus is on moral purity or purification: chastity ( 2 Cor 11:2 ; Titus 2:5 ); innocence in one’s attitude toward members of the church ( 2 Cor 7:11 ); and moral purity or uprightness ( Php 4:8 ; 1 Tim 5:22 ; 1 Peter 3:2 ; 1 John 1:3 ). Purity is associated with understanding, patience and kindness ( 2 Cor 6:6 ); speech, life, love, and faith ( 1 Tim 4:12 ); and reverence ( 1 Peter 3:2 ).
Paul as God’s servant commended himself through his sufferings and his moral and spiritual qualities. His ministry was enhanced and accredited because of the kind of person he had shown himself to be. Paul encouraged Timothy to set an example in his lifestyle and his purity ( 1 Tim 4:12 ), as well as in his relationships with other believers ( 5:2 ).
In purity culture, gender expectations are based on a strict, stereotype-based binary. Men are expected to be strong, “masculine” leaders of the household, church, and (to a lesser extent) society. Women are expected to support them—to be pretty, “feminine,” sweet, supportive wives and mothers.
Sexual expectations vary by gender. Everyone is expected to maintain absolute sexlessness before marriage (that means no sexual thoughts, feelings, or actions). And upon marriage, they are expected to flip their sexuality on like a light switch. However, men are taught their minds are evil, whereas women are taught their bodies are evil. That is to say, men’s thoughts and actions are said to be either pure or impure, while women themselves are said to be either pure or impure. Sexual metaphors abound: A “pure” woman is compared to a brand new shiny car while an “impure” one is compared to a used car that everyone around town has already driven and that isn’t worth much anymore; a “pure” woman is compared to a delicious hamburger just set down on the table while an “impure” woman is compared to the last slobbery bite of that hamburger, etc.
Purity culture also teaches that women are responsible for the sexual thoughts, feelings and choices men make, and so must dress, walk and talk in just the right way so as not to “inspire” sexual thoughts, feelings, and actions in them. If they do “inspire” such thoughts, they are said to be a “stumbling block” – literally a thing over which men trip on their pathway to God. To avoid stumbling blocks, men are taught to train their minds using strategies such as “bouncing their eyes” when they see something that brings out a sexual thought or feeling—such as a woman’s cleavage in an advertisement or the knee of the woman sitting beside them at church.
Underlying these teachings are several assumptions, including those that gender is a binary, and that heterosexual desire is the only “right” and “normal” form of desire/sexual intercourse. The white, American Evangelical Christian Purity Movement is further based in nationalistic and white supremacist assumptions. As a result, purity culture influences people’s lives in complex ways resulting in highly intersectional marginalization. For example, whereas white American women may feel they must unfairly maintain the “purity” they are assumed to have been born with, American women of color and women from other cultures may feel they must attain purity, as it is not something they are assumed to have been born with within the sub-culture.