Evangelical Christians had a thing called “purity culture” back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’m not an evangelical, so I was never a part of that, but it had to do with spreading word about the dangers of premarital “fornication” and preserving one’s purity for marriage.
A popular book on the subject was titled I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and the author, Joshua Harris, has recently recanted his view that dating in itself is intrinsically bad. I never read the book, but upon hearing the title and reading the synopsis, I wondered how one was supposed to find a spouse if one never dated. You have to know what kind of person you’re looking for, right? And how else can one do that without dating a bunch of different people?
I suppose the author must have advocated, in place of traditional one-on-one dating, group dates or supervised hangouts where young people get to know each other without spending too much time alone, which can lead to a loss of purity. That’s all well and good, but there are certain things that you can only know about a person when you spend time alone with him or her. People tend to behave differently when they are in a group setting. So I can understand why the book has fallen out of favor in even the eyes of its own author.
The “purity culture” made the mistake of having teenagers, especially girls, think that their entire self-worth was based on the status of their virginity. If they were virgins, they were pure and good and righteous. If they were not virgins, they were soiled and damaged and no decent guy would want them.
One can be a virgin and have the filthiest mind on the planet. On the other hand, one can be a non-virgin and be fairly innocent and of course still be an intrinsically good person. A person is more than the sum of his or her sexuality, although in high school, that can sometimes be hard to believe.
The true aim of the “purity culture” should have been on getting teenagers to understand exactly why premarital sex was bad rather than telling them that they will shrivel up and die and go to hell if they have sex. Human beings have intrinsic worth, sex is an incredibly powerful force, and honestly, when you’re in high school or even college, there are very few teenagers who are emotionally mature enough to handle the ramifications of sex.
Obviously, if you have premarital sex, you may not go to hell. St. Augustine was a notorious playboy and kept a mistress, but he eventually had a beautiful conversion experience and became one of the greatest and well-known saints of all time. Salvation is complicated, and purity is complicated. Sins against purity are, at their base, like every other sin. If you choose to continue in your impure ways without seeking or wanting forgiveness and knowing full well that what you’re doing is wrong, then yes, you have a high chance of going to hell. However, if you were once “impure” and even had premarital sex, and you come to an understanding of why that was wrong, and you seek forgiveness and sincerely attempt to turn away from your past behavior, then you have a shot at heaven.
Abstinence or “purity” education needs to be based on not just the fact that premarital sex is wrong, but rather on why it is wrong. St. John Paul II wrote a series of lectures known as Theology of the Body, which explains in detail how valuable we are as human beings, the correct understanding of purity, and much more. That’s the foundation on which we need to be basing abstinence education, so teenagers can get a sense of “why” rather than just a judgmental statement (“premarital sex is wrong and you’re going to hell if you do it”) that only leads to more questions.