You have probably heard the phrase “purity culture” at some point, usually alongside criticism of its psychological effects, and with regard to its inequalities. Maybe the concept of purity culture is something you associate with fundamentalists, purity rings, teenage promise pledges and “purity balls”. But purity culture is not limited to cults and fundamentalist sects. Any Christian community can promote purity culture in a detrimental way, including small, Christian colleges.
What exactly is purity culture?
Purity culture refers to the promotion of a way of life contrary to the popular culture, in which physical virginity and romantic inexperience are prized until marriage at (an ideally early) adulthood. The more sexually inexperienced, the logic goes, the better for the young person and their future marriage. It is a reactionary movement of indoctrination intended to save the young from themselves and from being influenced by the popular, secular culture.
Purity culture takes root in small, Christian colleges because a fear of college hook-up culture, academic non-conformity, challenges to authority and the pressure to live up to their market brand often breeds reactionary policies at such institutions.
How can purity culture manifest on Christian campuses?
Some examples of the ways in which purity culture can manifest on Christian campuses include:
- Expulsion or suspension from campus of pregnant unwed mothers
- Strict dress codes with emphasis placed on “modesty” that in practice translate to hiding the female form and body
- Prohibitions from romantic or physical displays of affection anywhere on campus among anyone unmarried, such as kissing, embracing, holding hands or walking arm in arm
- Heavy penalties for discovered sexual activity among students, including and leading up to suspension or expulsion
- Frequent campus speakers or counselors publicly promoting and expounding on the value of abstinence until marriage and or cautioning against the dangers of premarital sex
- Computer monitoring, or regulation of access to the internet
- Frequent reminders from counselors, RAs, prefects, or proctors about the importance of all the rules for the purpose of preserving physical virginity or emotional inexperience
- Strict guidelines about what movies can be viewed on campus or in dormitories
- Banning books from the library that contain sexual content
- Curfews intended to keep students from college drinking, partying or mingling with the opposite sex after dark
- No visitation policies in dormitories for members of the opposite sex
- Literature or propaganda promoted by the institution that makes the claim that if students wait until marriage to have sex, that they will find “the right spouse” and/or that they will have a successful marriage
- Any additional policy, custom, ritual or propaganda that falsely equates the loss of romantic inexperience with the loss of physical virginity or virtuous reputation, or falsely equates the loss of reputation or physical virginity with loss of value or virtue
College campuses that promote purity culture unsurprisingly face the challenge of policing rebellion among students and fanning the resentment of students toward authority figures. Authority figures, in turn, learn to distrust and fear the young students. Purity culture, which is often steeped in gender inequality, presents additional problems in campus life between members of the opposite sex, but most especially for women (this merits a whole other topic for another day).
Depending on the degree to which fear and censorship pervade every aspect of campus life, purity culture on a college campus breeds psychological, emotional or sexual repression. If fear and micromanagement reign from the student centers to the library, the dormitories to the laptops, it is unsurprising that it may work its way into the mind and heart. It is this phenomenon that mental health professionals talk about when criticizing the long term, psychological effects of a toxic purity culture on the impressionable, young mind.
The Christian college that wishes to promote and foster fidelity to dogma while avoiding the dangers of sexual inequality, undue fear in authority figures towards the young, unhealthy fear of sex, fear of knowledge of sexual matters or fear of the opposite sex faces a unique challenge. That challenge is to teach the truth, respect both the boundaries of authority and the rights of the individual, and reject fear tactics. We all inform our respective cultures and communities. We must not be daunted by the task at hand when seeking to make our college campuses free, truth-seeking and truly pure.