Shortly after her breakup with her serious boyfriend of two years, a friend confided in me that she worried that no good Christian guys would be interested in her, because of the things she had done with her ex.

“What sorts of things?” I wondered. Her response: nothing more than your average youthful makeout sessions, which was understandable considering she ended things after a long relationship and about two weeks before he planned to propose.

And yet she felt guilty and wondered if the next guy she dated would reject her because of what she had done.

She is not alone–almost every “good Christian girl” has worried about this. Some become paralyzed with guilt if they’ve “gone too far” or lost their virginity. Some feel guilty and can’t handle it, so they numb themselves and stop caring about physical boundaries or balancing trust and intimacy in a relationship, telling themselves they’re used, so why does it matter now?

I worried about this, too. At one point in our engagement, Kevin and I talked very seriously about calling things off for various reasons, and I found myself panicking, wondering, “If we break up, then what? Would any good guy be interested in me, knowing I was engaged to someone else? Would he resent the physical elements of relationship Kevin and I had?”

***

I call this “purity guilt.” And I am now convinced that this guilt is the wrong and natural result of a flagrant misunderstanding of real purity and real grace. But because we grew up in the purity (and courtship) culture of evangelical churches, we don’t know better. This guilt is the natural correlary to my last one on modesty and lust in its abuse of the law and corresponding misuse of grace. For what I can tell, it’s predominantly a female issue, but I’d be really eager to hear from the guys if this runs both ways.

***

When I turned twelve, my dad took me to a jewelry store where we picked out a ring to be my “purity ring.” Most of the girls around my age at our church were getting purity rings with precious stones for their birthdays, and my parents had planned on using this occasion as a sort of coming-of-age ceremony where they could talk to me about saving myself for marriage (e.g. maintaining chastity until after the vows—the technicalities of this were nebulous). After presenting me with the ring, they asked me to sign a document stating what “saving myself” meant to me and what I was promising (this was quite vague–I was twelve). However, this promise became nuanced with a lot of unspoken assumptions as I grew older.

The “godly” girls in our church made their purity promises too, saying things like “I will save my first kiss for the altar,” and “I will not hold hands until after I am engaged,” and “I will not tell a man I love him unless he is my fiancé.” I probably wrote down similar things in my little contract, which my parents and I then signed and stuck in my 7th grade school file. Here’s one like mine, that my friend Carley signed (along with her dad and her pastor–talk about weird).

This sort of thing was (and still is) not entirely unusual. What’s more unusual are the parents who try to enforce these pledges later on. Most don’t, trusting the self-consciousness and guilt of  the memory of these promises to keep their daughters making wise decisions. Some, however, like my friend Carley’s parents, try to hold their daughters to the letter of the law. Carley ended up eloping with her husband, because her white parents wouldn’t approve of him because he is black.

Her situation, obviously, was more rare, but the obsessive concern about girls’ purity/virginity is a troubling constant in the evangelical world.  The idea of Christian girls and virginity as a precious commodity is a value in Christian culture going back to the very beginning of the church, when many young believers chose martyrdom over marrying or sleeping with an unbeliever. These are the women of the Catholic canon of saints, and for good cause–their dedication to their faith is admirable.

But their situation and culture isn’t the same as ours–they were dealing with rape-or-death situations. We are instead dealing with young couples exploring intimacy in (often) healthy and normal ways. But girls like Carley and me are still urged to save our first kiss for the altar or asked by our parents to have short engagements, because “the temptation is too great.” And when we discover that holding hands or kissing is actually nice and doesn’t suddenly hurl us into sexual sin, we become confused and struggle with guilt: were the things we taught wrong? Or am I just being callous to sin? Am I ruining my hope of a good sex life in my married future by doing these things now?

This emphasis on sexual sin is turning good and natural things (the existence of my sex drive, discovering how my body works, kissing my boyfriend goodnight, etc.) into hotspots for guilt and shame. The gospel of Jesus doesn’t teach that sexual sin is somehow worse than anger or gluttony, and Jesus didn’t ration the grace he gave for the sexually experienced. Instead, he ate with prostitutes and protected the woman caught in adultery from stoning.

Sexual sin is real. But why have we made it out to be more than it should be? We have inflated the concept of sex to a spiritual high (which it can be, but this ignores the physicalness and humor and ordinary joy of it), and so the sexually inexperienced good Christian girl is plagued by fear of ruining this future experience by her participation in any number of normal and healthy physical elements of a normal and healthy dating relationship.

Furthermore, we’ve allowed ourselves to make this a gendered double standard: why is it usually no big deal if a young Christian guy is sexually experienced, as long as he’s repented and trying to stay pure? Girls don’t get that sort of treatment. Virginity is “lost,” and suddenly the girl is “damaged goods.” We girls feel guilty because it’s culturally normal to make us feel guilty. The church accepts this as okay without much of a second thought (and only mild lip-service to “second chances”) because this practice, called “slut-shaming” by those outside the church, has for so long been culturally normal.

Before I get into the grace & guilt part of this, I must say: Did you know that, physiologically speaking, it’s impossible to tell if a woman has ever had sex or not? The hymen is sometimes present, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s no bleeding the first time she has sex. Sometimes, it’s impossible to have sex for the first time without significant tearing. Every woman is different, and the idea of “virginity” is an abstract concept, impossible to prove physically. (Feminist author Jessica Valenti theorizes [not a 100% endorsement, but a very interesting read] that the concept of virginity originated as a way a man could prove without a doubt that his son was his and should inherit his property and goods–if the wife was a virgin at marriage and he was vigilant and sure of her faithfulness, then the son was his and the inheritance safe. The Old Testament concept of virginity reflects this feudal mindset in the law.)

Our culture has some messed up assumptions about purity and girls, and we’ve woven them into the Bible’s teachings on sexual fidelity and made purity 1) the woman’s responsibility, and 2) all about technicalities and rules and “how far is too far.”

My brother got a purity ring, too, and I commend my parents’ equal treatment of this issue , regardless of gender. Some Christians don’t just make it a girls’ issue, but this is not very common.  Modesty is the girl’s job, and it’s easy to make purity the girl’s responsibility, too.

The whole idea of “purity rings” and virginity as the highest sexual moral good is based on some fundamental assumptions made by about sexual sin being somehow “worse” than other sins, and this is problematic. Sexual sin is serious and can have more significant emotional effects on a person, but it’s no more damning than any other sin.

Parents who teach these detailed, legalistic approaches to purity often bring these things up (and even urge their daughters to make these purity promises) when they’re only 12 or 13. At this age, girls are often still in that blissful twilight of childhood where self-consciousness is still rare and interactions with other people happen without ulterior motives or fear. They simply don’t understand what they’re promising.

When purity and modesty issues are introduced, these young girls experience a rude awakening to fear of self and fear of interacting with the other sex–boys are no longer just boys, but sex-obsessed animals. This fear of self and sex and men is perpetuated throughout adolescence with modesty talks and sermon illustrations of girls who slip up and get pregnant out of wedlock, and the purity guilt (over flirting, over slips into “immodesty,” over sexual desires) is increased.

The New Testament teachings on sexuality don’t say that virginity is the highest good, that those who have sexual experience and aren’t married are dirty and unworthy of grace, or that setting physical boundaries is either a guy’s responsibility or a that keeping physical boundaries is a girl’s job.

Instead it says: flee sexual immorality. Be content, and if you can’t be content, get married. Don’t take advantage of each other, but treat each other with respect. Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t abandon your commitment to someone in the name of piety. Love one another. Mutually defer to one another in love.

Sexual purity for a couple considering whether or not to pursue marriage is never really spelled out  (at least not along the lines of the purity teachings my peers and I received from the pulpits of our churches). Sex is held in high value and reserved for marriage. But the guilt and the shame that follow the uncomfortably detailed teachings about purity and virginity–these can’t be found.

Jesus loved unconditionally. He didn’t die for us to wallow in fear that our sexual sins or infractions of a man-made purity code would ruin our marriages or future relationships. Sex saved for marriage is ideal, but Jesus’s best for us is a life lived without shame, with forgiveness and grace and unconditional acceptance by the Father.


  • Matthew Beatty

    Definitely an issue for guys too, maybe not in the same value defining way that it often is with girls. I think in terms of how it is viewed as in terms of their eligibility/marriage potential it is viewed similarly for both but women are more often valued for their eligibility/marriage potential where as for guys since we are expected to define our worth in our jobs as well we have somewhere else to turn. Either way messed up. I know guys who have significant relationships broken off because of past sexual struggles.

    • Right, both are messed up and false grounds for finding one’s personal value. I don’t see guys who tie up their identity with their purity so much, but your comment on job/earning power is something I’ve seen as well.

  • Hannah! 🙂 Thank you for writing this post because, honestly, it’s something that I totally struggled with. Growing up, I absorbed the whispered-about and condemning talks about sexual sins (which could be bare arms in church, a too-short hem, a couple who held hands too much, couples who kissed before marriage, as well as actual sexual sin which was really confusing) made me a mess of awkwardness when I got into my first relationship.

    This was such an issue that that the first few days of my relationship with my husband was totally awkward because I was experiencing all these desires that I had no idea how to handle so I told him no touching – at all – until I could figure it out. 🙂

    It didn’t last long, but it started me on a path towards freedom in Christ and the ability to fully enjoy my relationship with my husband. I still battled guilt, and definitely slipped into some areas that I didn’t want to cross per-se, but the fact remains that God forgives sexual sins as much as He forgives lying, stealing, cheating, and anything else.

    God’s grace is way bigger than our sins and *that* is what we should focus on in our relationships. Thanks for the post!

  • Amanda

    I cried and cried after my father took me to dinner and gave me my purity (or as my mother dubbed it “covenant”) ring because I had absolutely no idea what was going on. My father has never been very good with emotions, but all he talked about was “becoming a young lady” and how our wonderful, incredibly close father daughter relationship was about to change. I felt like I was losing my father and all of a sudden had to become concerned with purity and being a “godly young woman” when nothing of the contrary had ever crossed my mind! I was never completely comfortable around my father after that because I felt I had to behave a certain way in order to fit into this purity ring mold. I also struggled with mountains and mountains of guilt after breaking up with my first boyfriend. I still struggle with some of that today but am slowly coming out of it.
    Wonderful post!

  • Most of the photos are missing for me.

  • Slash the only image. sorry hehe

  • Rachel

    Hännah, thanks for writing – this and your other posts. I have enjoyed reading these…wish we could sit down for an actual chat, complete with coffee (or tea, if you prefer) and Bibles and journals.
    I remember feeling guilty when I stopped wearing my purity ring, although it was really only a “cosmetic” decision, and not indicative of anything beyond that. ; )

  • Anonymous

    I think one of the most harmful things about this way of teaching kids about purity, is that it sets them up to be horribly judgmental and disappointed if/when God brings along a spouse who did not save him or herself for marriage in all of the same ways. And it primes the “pure one” to be angry, hurt and arrogant towards the one who “slipped up.” This has been my experience, and, even though I knew about his past before we were engaged, I have struggled with pride, anger, offense and judgment towards my husband for all six years that we have been married, and I anticipate that it will be a continual struggle.

    He is well aware of these struggles in my heart, and it has become an issue that we work on together. Because he is compassionate, he has made a point that this is not a “me vs. him” issue, it’s “our” issue. BUT … when I am completely honest, I don’t want a part in the blame. I saved myself. I chose the high road. He messed up. And I feel like he is responsible to somehow make it up to me. It is this attitude that reveals the complete and utter lack of grace and forgiveness in my heart toward him and this issue. And that, in large part, is due to the fact that grace and understanding and forgiveness never came into the picture when we were taught about these things as kids. It was the road of absolute purity, or the walk of shame. And I am still struggling to overcome that mindset today, in my marriage.

    The truth is, his sin and his shame have been washed away by our incredibly merciful Savior. He is no longer guilty – period. And he does not continue to walk in the sins of his past. I, however, continue to struggle with my sins of arrogance and judgment. I’m the one who needs to repent – over and over again – not him. But I wrestle with accepting that truth.

    Now, I will be the first to agree that making wise choices with respect for your future marriage and your future spouse is biblical and honoring to the Lord. However, I am quick to point out that that should necessarily look different for each individual, and each couple. It should be a priority in personal life and in relationships, but it should be an area marked by the element of freedom in Christ. And the specifics of what that looks like should not be determined by parents, church leaders, or the Christian community. They should be personal convictions, formulated independently and then agreed upon by the two members of the relationship, before the face of God (not mommy and daddy). Anything else is mere legalism and rule following. Yuck!

    To sum it all up, I just wish that I had been raised with a better understanding of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. I wish we hadn’t spent so much time on “the rules.” Becoming a lover of grace and one who walks in forgiveness is much harder in your thirties. I’ve been a rule-follower all my life. I’m real good at holding myself and others (particularly my husband) to the letter of the law. Ultimately, I want to be more like my Savior.

    • Agh. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard this story. It really does set us up for arrogance later, and it makes us (in our rebellious moments) resent the other person for getting away with it and still having a good marriage, and wish we hadn’t cared so much and had let loose, too.

      But that’s not how grace works, because Jesus doesn’t make any two stories the same, and our need for him is met in unique ways. This is why we can’t compare ourselves too much to other couples, or hold up someone’s love story as an example. Their story isn’t mine. And I don’t need it to be.

    • David J.

      This was definitely my experience. My ex-wife couldn’t be convinced by anyone — female counselor, male counselor, Christian book, or pastor — that my past pornography use didn’t make me essentially a permanent leper. She would give lip service to the head knowledge that we all have feet of clay, but that particular clay was permanently disqualifying, even if 90% of Christian men struggle with it at one time or another. There was definitely no grace there.

  • I agree that too much emphasis is placed on avoiding physical intimacy. I never got lectured about emotional intimacy, even as I started to date (at the age of 25!). I don’t regret the physical intimacy I shared with my first boyfriend, but I really profoundly regret the emotional intimacy.

  • I love this. Well done, friend. Reminds me of Colossians 2:

    Under the heading “Freedom From Human Regulations Through Life In Christ.”

    “Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat, or drink, or with regard to festivals [dare I add… ‘or do with your fiancé’]… Do not let anyone who delights in false humility disqualify you from the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about himself, and his mind puffs him up with notions. He has lost connection with The Head, from Whom the whole body is held together, supported and grows as God causes it to grow.

    Since you died with Christ to these basic principles, WHY, AS THOUGH YOU STILL BELONGED TO IT, DO YOU SUBMIT TO ITS RULES?! ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ These are destined to perish because they are based on human commands and teachings. SUCH REGULATIONS HAVE AN APPEARANCE OF WISDOM, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility, their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack *any value* in RESTRAINING SENSUAL INDULGENCE.”

    Amen, God, Amen. I guess He knows what He’s talking about? Keeping rules don’t make you pure, and breaking rules doesn’t make you impure. We are ALL impure, Jesus makes us pure. Period. “God made you alive with Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him *through your faith* in the power of God… He forgave us ALL our sins, having canceled the written code with its regulations that stood against us and was opposed to us; He took it away! nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” I love Colossians 2. And freedom from all guilt – even “purity guilt.” And the canceling of all regulations.

  • Elizabeth

    As a parent, somehow I escaped the “purity ring thing” — and am thankful for that. Most of the Christian parents my age — at least the ones I know — did NOT grow up in the ‘preserve virginity at all costs’ mindset. Even if we came to Christ prior to marriage, we were also well-versed in “if it feels good, do it” and cheap grace thought. I’d be willing to bet that many of the Christian leaders we know didn’t walk down the aisle in complete purity, and now experience guilt about their own pasts instead of the freedom that true grace, mercy and forgiveness affords. The notion that having a sexual past is an unforgiveable sin is heresy.

    Sure, we reap what we sow — sure, there are consequences for impure living. Yes, our culture is rife with young unmarried mothers as head of households. But is the purity ring thing the answer? No.

    What happens when the purity ring turns out to be an ineffective chastity belt? Is it incumbent upon the wearer to not only confess to Jesus Christ, but to her parents and somehow go through a de-ringing? When it comes to sin, sometimes it’s appropriate to confess and apologize to others; sometimes it’s simply between Jesus and His forgiven child.

    I’ve observed that young Christian parents are quick to assign impure sexual motives to children who simply dance, wiggle, or giggle about body parts, when, in truth, they are simply being child-like. Their bodies/minds have not matured into sexual desire, but parents who do experience sexual desire assign their own, fully-developed thinking to those whose childhood ideas of romance don’t yet have a true sexual connotation. Let kids be kids, and give them a chance to mature before accusing them of being sexually inappropriate. Same thing with giving a 12-year old a purity ring.

    I understand how parents want to spare their children the pain and suffering of break-ups, sexual guilt, and the physical consequences (pregnancy) of premarital sexual activity. But what many Christians have forgotten (if they ever admitted it at all) is that we really cannot pick the person we fall in love with, or at what age. It’s possible to fall head over heels, crazy, and truly in love with someone at a young age. Many Christians have replaced the emotion of falling in love with the rational idea of finding someone you can live with (probably from your own in-bred church) and deciding to love them. Deciding to love isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but it can’t hold a candle to falling helplessly, hopefully, and passionately in love with someone you cannot live without. And in the end, as my wise mother said, “It takes a lot of passion to get through the tough times.”

  • I wanted to weigh in with parental intent and perspective (mine…not necessarily, the Dad’s). Our generation grew up in the wake of the “sexual revolution” and all the excesses of that. (You can still see this rampant in the hook up culture around us, and the very early sexual activity that’s assumed, and frankly often encouraged, yet is so damaging). So reacting against that….” Look at me, Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity”. This is also a self-esteem buster, the girls don’t see their sexuality as a valuable gift in the sense that they themselves are valuable. And intimacy with them shouldn’t be “cheap”, it should come with respect and commitment. So to me the “purity” ring was a way of saying “you and all of you are valuable”. It was a message I desired but never heard in my teens.
    That said…the contract thing is too heavy handed, and when I hear of that now, I cringe as I picture well meaning, but authoritarian parents trying to “enforce” these on young adults five, six, seven years after they signed.
    We did continue to give rings….but no contracts….Of course, these were Daddy-Daughter times, so I’m not sure what the Dad said, or fully intended.

  • Aprille

    I really really loved this post. I had a purity ring from the time I was 11 (almost 12) and it became this hugely significant emotional contract between my parents (mostly my mother) and I. She wrote this whole poem about it and talked about how she would watch for me and everything…. And yes I signed this card that came with my ring.

    Then I got into a failed courtship when I was 18 and although I never even kissed the guy, I felt like damaged goods. (you can read about that here: http://beautifulinhistime.com/2013/01/07/the-myth-of-the-construction-paper-heart/)

    then when I finally got into a relationship with my husband, while we both remained virgins until marriage, we definitely “crossed the line” a lot and explored a lot sexually and I still struggle with guilt about it. Thanks for this balanced perspective.

  • Kristin Kraabel

    I enjoyed your post and I had a ring and all I wanted was purity for my husband. The problem comes in when molested at a young age and then having an intimate relationship with my abusive fiance (while in high school) I felt like I was completely ruined and where was the point of saving myself now. It lead to doing whatever I wanted to do. There was no grace in my contract. There was no talking about how far things can go. I didn’t really want to have sex that first time, but I was scared and didn’t have anyone to talk to as I would have a scarlet letter. I was taught once ruined, always ruined. Thankfully, and it took years, I no longer feel guilty. Guilt is not of God, but Satans biggest trick. To never let us forget how much we screw up and remind us daily how God wouldn’t want us. Oh how that worked on me for years, but accepting God’s love and forgiviness was so releasing. Thank you for sharing.

  • David J.

    Late to the party, but a couple things you said resonated with me, including one that just might be a light bulb moment. I grew up in a conservative evangelical household that had the typical confusion of insufficient information and bad, guilt-inducing information that you’ve described. My (now ex-)wife grew up in an extreme Independent Fundamental Baptist environment, worsened by having an alcoholic, promiscuous mother (divorced from the IFB father who retained custody). Humanly speaking, she had likely disaster written all over her future married sex life. But as students together at a conservative Christian college (more conservative than my background; less conservative than hers), I think we both thought that we were in a more sane environment sexually for our 3-4 year dating and engagement experience, as well as that love would conquer all. (The latter was definitely my naive expectation.)

    I’ve already given away that love didn’t conquer all but, in our case at least, we couldn’t escape the shaming mindset of her past. We hung on for 29 years and 4 kids before she finally pulled the plug, over my objection and in the absence of a biblical ground for the divorce. In those 29 years, as a result of her background and what she’d been taught about sex, she rarely was able to enter into sex with anything close to freedom or joy, and she NEVER had an orgasm. (It didn’t help, both mechanically and emotionally, that her upbringing had her so shamed about her body and sexuality that she had never, ever in her life experimented on herself at all — masturbation was a wicked, wicked thing — so she had no idea what an orgasm was or how to get there.)

    On the flip side, I had struggled with shame over masturbation and pornography from my teens on, including periodically in the marriage. But I couldn’t let her know about that; I knew what her reaction would be. Managed to keep it a secret for the first 20 years, by which time we were having sex maybe once a month, and almost resentfully then. And she did in fact react as expected. Though I did everything possible to demonstrate repentance and change (individual counseling, marriage counseling, group counseling, accountability partners, monitoring software, etc.) — and did in fact change for a very long time — and though she purported to forgive me, the revelation of any amount of previous pornography use was essentially the death knell. In retrospect, it was simply a question of time until she would leave. By the time she filed for divorce the first time, in year 27, we hadn’t had sex for most of a year. By the time she filed the second time, we had gone without sex for more than 2 years and, in total, had sex 3 times over a period of 31 months. (Not that I was counting.)

    Oddly — or perhaps quite logically, or at least predictably, given her background and mindset — my past sin of pornography was more objectionable to her than an unbiblical divorce.

    Which is perhaps an overly long way of seconding your point that poor teaching on sex has long-term consequences.

    Here’s my possible epiphany from your post: you spoke of your panic about what you and your fiancee had done physically when you thought you might break up. Though my wife never verbalized this, your comment makes me wonder now whether the things that we did during our engagement (we remained virgins, but we certainly violated our consciences before our wedding) caused her to stay in the relationship when maybe she would have preferred to bail out before the wedding — but she felt she couldn’t because she would have been damaged goods to the next guy. I perceived early on in our marriage that there was a discernible, across-the-board disparity in our love for each other. Not just physically, but in a million different ways. I wonder now whether our sexual line-crossing before the wedding effectively trapped her, and thus explains the distance between us.

    Any thoughts on that? God bless you, Hannah (and Kevin).

  • Jason Stern

    Enjoying your series. Thank you in advance for sharing, Hannah. I wanted to comment about the section on slipping up and getting pregnant before marriage. Though often maligned, the Bible does address this issue and does so in a gracious, merciful manner. A man who impregnated a virgin was expected to marry her and take care of her. The shame would have been in not doing so. I don’t think we realize how what we think are modern sins were already discussed and provided for in Scripture.

  • I’m really appreciating this series. Thank you.