“Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten.”
Ah yes, the threat of divine felicide, God’s one weapon in the fight against sexual deviancy. Unfamiliar with God’s displeasure at self-pleasure? You must not have grown up evangelical in the ’90s and early aughts like I did. Let me explain.
I was first encouraged to “please, think of the kittens” by my college small group leader who had the meme as her laptop background. Kyla, as I’ll call her, was pretty well known at my campus ministry for her openness about sexuality, including her own crimes against feline kind. A woman who masturbated and openly admitted it? Unheard of in my Christian circles.
On the one hand, Kyla’s nonchalance and edgy humor was incredibly refreshing. Up until her small group, only my journals had born witness to my deep shame over masturbation, a sin boys alone were supposed to struggle with. In my mind, masturbation marked me as hypersexual and, worse, masculine. But Kyla was neither a nymphomaniac nor mannish — if she could forgive herself for masturbation then I could too. My secret sin was no longer secret, and that, in and of itself, was liberating.
But, on the other hand, Kyla’s relative sex positivity still restricted all orgasms to the confines of heterosexual marriage. Not that I questioned that at the time. Long after our small group dissolved, I considered every self-pleasure session a failure to live up to God’s best for me. No one, not even Kyla, could imagine a theology that allowed me to be single and sexual. So I lived divorced from myself, forced to persevere until marriage. That’s when I could be whole again, not because a man was completing me, but because I could reunite with my sexuality without risking my salvation. Because sexual purity is the one true measure of a person’s Christianity, as anyone who grew up in evangelicalism can attest.
Sexually active outside of marriage? You must not love Jesus. Not really.
Meet Brenda Marie Davies
“I was conditioned to believe that sex outside of marriage was a grave offense. Although we were told all sin is forgivable, premarital or gay sex seemed completely, utterly and totally unforgivable. … sex felt unforgivable because our pastors said sex, masturbation, and even desire would separate us from God,” writes Brenda Marie Davies in her book On Her Knees: Memoir of a Prayerful Jezebel.
Davies, a popular YouTuber known as God is Grey, published this autobiographical account of her journey from purity culture princess to sex-positive Christian earlier this year. The book opens with her unfavorably comparing a pastor from her youth to Marilyn Manson and closes with, well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.
In between are scenes from the Playboy Mansion — yes, including the infamous grotto! — New York Fashion Week, Hollywood parties with Kanye and Katy Perry, movie sets and modeling shoots galore. Mostly set in L.A., On Her Knees belies the notion that the city strips the faithful of their faith. The only thing Davies loses is her evangelical cognitive dissonance. It’s The Liturgists podcast but make it fashion.
These days everyone is deconstructing, especially around purity culture. Even Joshua Harris, author of the movement’s seminal text I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has recanted (then turned around and written the foreword for On Her Knees). And Davies’ dismantling does follow the same broad contours as others’ processes, weaving in and out of Fowler’s stages of faith and Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, but it’s her enduring connection with God that truly sets her story apart.
At one point, Davies sums up the tension thusly: “To have God, I must forfeit sex; to have sex, I must forfeit God.” But Davies ultimately refuses. She simply stops surrendering God and herself to the purveyors of purity culture. Because it was a false dichotomy all along.
Purity culture and disembodiment
For me, this is the real sin of purity culture. It prescribes disembodiment, denigrating the body, its needs and limitations, as the prerequisite to communion with God. And Davies agrees.
“The true evil is dividing people from their bodies. Any time we ask someone to divide themselves, to disembody and go somewhere else, we are in the wrong,” she told me in a phone interview.
“This is the real sin of purity culture. It prescribes disembodiment, denigrating the body, its needs and limitations, as the prerequisite to communion with God.”
Purity culture casts this kind of disembodiment as Christlike when in reality it is violence masquerading as salvation. And I do mean violence. Research around the effects of purity culture support this conclusion, with experts reporting that indoctrinated persons suffer from erectile dysfunction, vaginismus, and a whole host of symptoms typically associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pretty rotten fruit, yet purity proponents continue to feed it to their flocks.
This is pastoral negligence at best, pastoral deception at worst. And it produces lasting consequences that marriage itself does not cure. “In evangelical churches across America, pastors promise singles a massive ‘payoff’ for waiting while simultaneously counseling married couples through a myriad of sexual dysfunction,” Davies writes.
We need a new term
Purity involves so much more than keeping our hands to ourselves (or not, as it were). At this point, however, evangelicals have so contaminated the term as to render it useless for productive discussions about Christian sexual ethics. We need a new term to rally around.
Davies, along with many others, proposes integrity as the new paradigm. This isn’t the free love of the sixties or the mindless hookup culture of present day, although purity proponents will likely characterize it as such. Easier to dismiss that way.
No, integrity requires much more than purity ever could dream. Integrity operates on the principle of alignment: spirit and body. And that means having deep awareness of both. Perhaps that’s part of purity culture’s appeal: simplicity. Your sexuality has one very clear on switch, heterosexual marriage, and until then, you just keep it in the off position.
“Integrity requires much more than purity ever could dream.”
But integrity acknowledges complexity. It invites an ongoing conversation between you, your body, your spirit and the Spirit. In a word, it requires relationship. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Evangelicalism’s central claim is that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. Yet, at least right now, its most (in)famous doctrine sabotages that relationship by turning people against their own bodies, other people and, ultimately, God. This is the tragedy of disembodiment.
Practicing sexual integrity initiates a redemptive reversal. It reconnects us with our bodies, it enables healthy relationships romantic and otherwise, and it brings us into deeper communion with God. It sounds like good news and feels like freedom.
And by no means does sexual integrity require sexual activity. Because it’s about alignment, integrity could look like waiting until marriage or practicing lifelong celibacy. As long as those choices find resonance in your body as well as your spirit, which includes your relationship with God, then you are in alignment.
For those of us who grew up in purity culture, trusting our bodies sounds downright dangerous. After all, the heart is above all things deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). But what then of the incarnation?
If nothing else, the Word becoming flesh should teach us that our bodies are inherently good. And that God goes out of God’s way to meet us in our bodies.
Or, as Davies put it in a God is Grey episode from 2018: “God does not hate us for our humanity (as we often do). And we were put on this earth to draw closer to the Divine.”
Amy Hayes currently serves a Clemons Fellow with BNG. She is a master of divinity student at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
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