Any discussion of “purity culture” that does not discuss the harm done by this practice is incomplete.
Purity culture is ingrained, by law, in the way that we educate our young people in this country. I fully support every individual’s right to choose to engage in or abstain from sexual activity according to their own desires — however, purity culture does not recognize this choice, even though more than half of people will engage in sexual activity before they leave high school and 95% of people have sex before marriage.
Sex is a natural and healthy part of most people’s lives. Yet today in 19 states, including Indiana, public high schools teach abstinence-only sex education. According to the Indiana Code, teachers are required to “stress the moral aspects of abstinence from sexual activity” and “state that the best way to avoid AIDS is for young people to refrain from sexual activity until they are ready as adults to establish, in the context of marriage, a mutually faithful monogamous relationship.”
This is the same brand of sex education that I received when I was in high school. It emphasized diseases, risk and shame. But it did not teach me anything about contraceptives of any kind, consent, healthy relationships or pleasure. All I learned was that sex was scary, dangerous, dirty and shameful. I was taught in class that having sex with multiple people would make me like a piece of tape that had lost its stickiness or a piece of gum that had been chewed up — no one would desire or be able to form a loving relationship with me. When I did have sex with someone for the first time, that lesson stuck me in an abusive relationship.
After marriage, the negative lessons we’ve been taught about sex do not suddenly melt away. Now, as a young divorcee, I still struggle to overcome this deeply ingrained feeling of worthlessness that I was taught to feel. This puritanical obsession with sexual abstinence has evolved past a personal choice rooted in religious values and into a public policy of enforced ignorance — a policy which brings about very real harm. Individuals absolutely should be able to engage or not engage in sex as they please, but the degree to which purity culture has come to dictate public policy is unacceptable.
Charles Ault (he/him)
Graduate student in chemistry