Sexual Purity: In Word

It had to happen, this post (and perhaps the next two after this one). The day was bound to come when I would break down and just deliver an old-fashioned rant enumerating my opinions about sex. Why? Because I’m in my twenties, I’m in college, and as far as I know, relatively fertile. So let’s get it on…

My rant starts with a claim: I do not believe in sexual purity. Now some people may be thinking, “Well, Erin, purity is a thing whether you acknowledge it or not. There are people who set out to live sexually pure lives, despite the culture.” To this I say, you’ve missed the point.

In Word

il vestitino macchiato - the little dress stainedI actually have objections to the phrase “sexual purity” (I also object to sexual purity In Theory and In Practice, but I’ll get to that later). Colloquially in Midwest, mainline America ‘sexual purity’ denotes the practice of ‘saving one’s self’ for one sex partner, to whom they ‘give’ themselves after marriage. Now the word ‘purity’ denotes the absence of extraneous or contaminating matter, the state of being unblemished, or homogeneity. Often, when people speak of sexual purity, it is not the sexual act that is remaining unblemished, it is the person. A girl ‘saves herself’  from the contamination of sexual activity. She strives to be the unblemished, white frocked bride who can ‘give’ her husband more than leftovers. (‘Leftovers’ is an analogy that was used frequently in my community to describe sex between people with previous partners. I remember a comic I was given by a Sabbath school teacher featuring a forlorn woman sheepishly offering her husband a half-eaten casserole in their bed. In hindsight, I find this analogy extremely problematic.)

So on one hand the girl who abstains from sex until marriage is ‘staying pure.’ On the other hand, the girl who has sex before marriage is seen as having lost something. Inference: sex sullies, and sex takes. Now I won’t argue with the last part. I think sex, at its best, is incredibly intimate, and intimacy is the act of giving up pieces of yourself to be cared for by another person. So the person who has sex, ideally, is losing something. But they are also gaining something: a piece of another human being to care for, and (ideally) more slabs in the foundation of trust between the intimate parties.

What I really object to is the notion that sex is something that sullies or dirties or ‘makes impure.’ The image of dirt is one deeply connected to the Western sense of shame. If having sex somehow makes you dirty, you will never be able to completely invest in the intimacy of the encounter. And why would you want to? The image of sex as something that sullies not only attaches guilt to sex, but also to the desire for sex (i.e. You: “I’m horny.” Cultural Conditioning: “Why would you want to be/do something dirty? There must be something wrong with you. Guilt….”). And this mental pattern won’t necessarily go away after you have a ring. After all, even if you feel cognitively justified in your sexual behavior, the emotional and mental patterns connecting shame to sexual desire will not disappear with the ‘I do’ spell. Emotional habits, like nearly all habits, die hard (In other words: Synaptic pathways; they’re a thing.).

I don’t believe sex is sullying. I believe it is beautiful, an opportunity to build intimacy in a relationship, a fun way to make up after a fight, and something that may be shared positively between any consenting adult parties. So why promote old phrasing that only confuses the issue? The phrase ‘sexual purity’ has been wielded for fear and shame for too long. I think it’s time to retire it.

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