Purity is hard, y’all. By design.

My dissertation dragon has awakened once again, if only to remind me that this time, it really must be slain. As it shakes the dust from its wings, I’m going to try and block out key concepts for the project that I hope will be useful later.

First up: how and why evangelical distinguish abstinence from purity.

Secular culture tends to conflate “abstinence” and “purity.” That is, popular media and scholars alike tend to use the two terms interchangeably to denote the evangelical emphasis on refraining from sex–ah, that narrow, all-encompassing term–until marriage. Evangelicals themselves, however, often treat the two terms as denoting separate concepts/arguments that are aimed at different audiences.

Abstinence, on the one hand, refers to avoiding sex until marriage, and is used almost exclusively when talking to a secular (read: not evangelical) audience; see discussions of “abstinence-only” sex education, for example. As this example might suggest, the practice of abstinence, from an evangelical perspective does not require faith. That is, abstinence-only cirricula do not presume an audience of all committed Christians; quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, as an evangelical blogger once put it, “anybody can be abstinent,” regardless of faith; one does not have to accept Jesus as one’s personal savior in order to practice an abstinent lifestyle.

Notably, it’s the ubiquity of the abstinence message, its ability to resonate in secular government and education that’s encouraged the emergence of “purity” as a distinct concept: a practice whose very exigence is one’s personal relationship with Jesus. To practice purity is to eschew not only physical intimacy before marriage, but emotional and spiritual intimacy as well, to hold oneself apart from others so as to keep one’s focus on a relationship with God–and eventually, with one’s spouse. Purity is HARD, much more difficult than abstinence, and purity discourse proudly trumpets both this higher level of difficulty and its exclusivity: only Christians can do this, and then only with dedicated time, attention, and affection for their God.

All of this to say that the distinction between abstinence and purity is an important one in evangelical culture. As the concept (if not the practice) of abstinence has become more prominent in the secular realm, there’s been a concomitant push in the church to take it back, to create a version of sexual restraint that can’t spread in the mainstream, one that’s only accessible to those who’ve given their lives to Christ. As a concept, purity is designed to resist circulation outside of evangelical culture: purity, it’s not for us, we in the secular world, and in that lies much of its virtue and value within the evangelical realm.


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