Promise Rings and Purity Culture
The Purity Movement
“You’re married?” a twenty-something Irish woman asked Darrin, one of my undergraduate students. She was backpacking through Scotland. He had enrolled in a class I was teaching on religion in the British Isles, with a band of religion and psychology students. We were all settling into one of the coolest hostels I’ve ever experienced. The accommodations were inexpensive but hip, and right across from the big castle in Edinburgh. They had, among other cool amenities, a wine lounge, a library, and a room for spinning vinyl records. That’s where Darrin found himself in conversation with this perplexed young woman from Dublin. She was obviously strongly interested in Darrin, and for a reason even she didn’t quite understand.
“No. Not married. Why do you ask? … Ah, the ring,” said Darrin. “It’s hard to explain. It’s something my church group got into: the ring represents a purity pledge. We sign a promise to remain abstinent until we’re married. We have a ceremony and then get rings.”
“Oh, wow: like Brittney Spears? How novel!” She moved closer, leaning in toward Darrin in order to hear more. Her face flushed.
“Sort of. It’s just this thing we did.”
“So you’re really not going to shag until you’re married?”
“That’s the idea.” Darrin wanted to move on. He casually turned over a Bob Dylan album cover, pretending to read the track list on the back. Nevertheless, the young woman was relentless. It was clear to me that she both respected his well-intentioned pledge and also wanted to be the one to get him to break his word. Perhaps the idea of being attractive enough to get a handsome, young, evangelical student to commit something like a mortal sin was clearly a turn-on for her. Perhaps the fact that he took his sexual behavior seriously enough to even attempt chastity put Darrin into an economic category like that of Cuban cigars (prior to 2016): Who knows whether they are really better than others? But I’ll be damned if I can’t at least get a taste. Supply and demand seems to work with sex too, I suppose. So does reverse psychology.
This anecdote remains intriguing to me. It confirms the idea that, if we respect the nobility of sexuality and seek to live with integrity towards each other, this can be incredibly sexy to potential romantic partners. It also should serve as a cautionary tale. The purity ring instigated a conversation about sex between two young singles. Because he was wearing a purity ring, sex was what the whole group ended up all thinking and talking about for most of the evening. Perhaps this conversation between Darrin and the flirtatious hostel guest helps explain why the purity movement, in its attempt to cultivate abstinence until marriage has not been as effective as many had hoped. Some alumni of the movement have even found it to have been a terribly disruptive and unhealthy experience.
There’s no shortage of studies on the relationship between Christian abstinence education and sexual activity amongst young Christians. Most suggest that there is only a slight difference, if any, between the sexual practices of non-religious and evangelical Christian individuals. For instance, in one study of Texas Southern Baptists, more than 70 percent of respondents had engaged in premarital sex, though more than 80 percent felt guilty about it, and almost all of those who married after 24 (women) or 26 (men) had engaged in premarital sex. This highlights an important tension for our day. People are waiting longer to get married, but their sex drives remain powerful in late adolescence and early adulthood. My wife’s maternal grandparents got married at age 16. What would it have been like for their sex lives had they waited another ten years to wed? Would they have even come close to maintaining chastity?
Many of my first year undergraduate students, when asked casually, surprisingly suggest they aren’t even certain they plan to get married ever. I suspect this will change for many of them over time, but it seems that the expectation that marriage is something to lock in early, perhaps as a way of guaranteeing personal independence, is a thing of the past. My father-in-law once joked with my sons: “Hey, remember, it isn’t pre-marital sex if you don’t plan on getting married.” He was being silly, but his joke wasn’t far from reality, when it comes to the young adults I know. They sometimes cock their heads in bewilderment at the phrase “pre-marital sex,” especially when they have not grown up in a church. It’s not a phrase they use outside the church much. When I first started teaching at the university level, I got lots of questions from students about sexual ethics, since they were struggling to reconcile their religious beliefs with their sexual lives. These days, I am struck by the number of young people I meet who don’t want to get married in the first place. Perhaps they’ve seen too few successful relationships. Perhaps the economy is too rough to start a family.
In any case, if more and more young adults wait to marry until their mid-twenties or beyond, we will find a greater and greater disconnect between the traditional ways of speaking about sex before marriage and the ways sexuality is navigated by younger generations. This doesn’t mean the churches should compromise in the way they treat the subject, but we all would do well to recognize the difficulties of our contemporary situation. If nothing else, empathy and awareness of social realities will be important for everyone who is interested in cultivating a virtuous community within God’s alternative kingdom.
Not all studies reveal a lack of distinction between believing and unbelieving young people, in terms of sexual practices. When Christianity has an effect on sexual behaviors, it seems to correspond to the level of participation in the language and life of the Christian community. For instance, a 2012 study conducted by Grey Matter Research, commissioned by the National Association of Evangelicals, entitled “Sex & Unexpected Pregnancies: What Evangelical Millennials Think and Practice” shows that a majority of committed evangelicals had not had, or at least did not frequently have pre-marital sex. The study sampled “millennials” who fit their operational definition of “evangelical” and were active in a Protestant congregation. The study found that, while a majority (77 percent) indicated that they believe extra-marital sex is wrong, 44 percent of 18-25 year olds had in fact had sex. Those who did have sex typically felt guilty about their behaviors, expressing regret that they could not seem to live the lifestyle they believed they should live.
Even when abstinence education—whether secular or church-based—has had a significant effect, it remains impotent overall. From the perspective of virtue theory, we should expect this. The abstract question what is the good is worthwhile to a degree, but it is far less important than asking how we are able to actually do good and be good. If in fact it turns out we’ve been doing things wrong when it comes to cultivating erotic virtue, changing our tack is no sign of compromise or licentiousness. Rather, it’s a sign of wisdom and true concern for the wellbeing of individuals and their sexual integrity.