Bringing Sex Into Focus

The quest for sexual integrity.

Three Problems with Sexual Purity

Talk of purity puts unequally burdens women and contributes to undeserved shame.

Sandy Ring photo by Derek Gavey
Sandy Ring photo by Derek Gavey
http://www.flickr.com/photos/derekgavey/5055662541/
Those who advocate abstinence education in place of sexual education often put great emphasis on sexual purity—preaching it, pledging it, and preserving it. As journalist Nancy Gibbs observes, one upside of purity pledges is that they convey that sex is serious ("The Pursuit of Teen Girl Purity"). 

But there are at least three problems with the language of sexual purity.  One is that the purity movement puts unequal burdens of women as compared to men (Abigail Rosenstein, "Purity's Appeal", p. 119). Sexual purity is often seen as synonymous with virginity, which has historically been prized in women so that men could be assured of the paternity of their off spring. Purity is still “gendered female” even if some young men take purity pledges and wear purity rings.   

A second and more serious problem is that purity is a retrospective, black-and-white matter.  Purity is talked about as if it is something people are born with and can lose. It is something you have or something you have lost.  I prefer talking about sexual integrity rather than purity because no one is born with sexual integrity. It is maturity gained by learning how to manage one’s desires and interpersonal relationships in ways that lead to human flourishing (see "What's so great about sexual integrity?").    

 A third serious problem is that talk of sexual purity focuses on bodily states rather than choices or character. Several weeks ago I was invited to another college to talk about a book that I recently published on sexuality.  There was an informal question and answer session in conjunction with the talk.  I was enjoying the give and take of discussion as students, faculty and counseling center staff shifted in and out. One student arrived just as the session was finishing up.  Since there was little time remaining for asking questions, I turned to him and asked his name and whether he had a question he wanted to ask.  He said that he did, but that he wanted to ask his question in private.  I said fine. I hovered around after the session waiting for others to leave so that he and I could talk.

When we were alone, he opened the book I wrote to a chart that was meant to help explain sexual integrity.  He pointed at this chart and asked me:  “Where on this chart would you put someone who had been sexually abused as a child?”  This wasn't some abstract question for him.  I could tell by his tone of voice and body language that he was asking a personal question about himself.  I looked him in the eye and said:  “This chart is about sexual choices that people make.  It is not about what has been done to them.” As we talked it became clear that his thinking about sexuality was colored by his sense that he had been robbed of his purity.

Years after sexual violations, the victims often live with undeserved shame and guilt—with a sense of contamination. The language of sexual purity only adds to the burdens they carry with them.

Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the author of Bringing Sex Into Focus.

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