‘‘Ooooh, sex is wonderful!’’ gushes Emily Holland, an unusual confession for someone at an evangelical college. Emily wears a smart, pale green suit, dressed as if our meeting is really a job interview. Her cheeks turn pink, her long eyelashes flutter, and her blue eyes dance as she draws out each syllable.
My eyes open wide as I try to hide my surprise.
It’s not that I haven’t met other evangelical students who have had sex. But they are typically regretful, mortified, angry, or fearful. Emily is decidedly different.
Like most of her peers, Emily grew up in a ‘‘very religious’’ household, went to church every Sunday (sometimes more than once), prayed and studied the Bible at home with her family, and was part of a youth group. She describes herself as ‘‘very involved and very religious and very spiritual.’’ In her journal, she writes that she has ‘‘religious experiences all the time’’ because she ‘‘walk[s] every day with God.’’ Emily decided to attend an evangelical college because she wanted to ‘‘surround herself ’’ with fellow students and faculty who would ‘‘hold her accountable’’ in her faith.
Nonetheless, Emily is effusive about sex.
‘‘I have a very healthy sex life,’’ she continues happily. She then does something that makes me understand why she is not conflicted about sex: she takes her left hand from her lap and displays it on the table between us, revealing a big diamond ring. At 21, Emily is already married.
In Emily, I met what most evangelicals would call a true princess of purity: an unblemished, unspoiled young woman who—at least, according to the purity culture in which she lives—had every right to wear a white dress and to hold her head high as she walked down the aisle on her wedding day. Emily had done everything right: she not only remained a virgin until her wedding night, she also made it to the special day uncorrupted by any sexual intimacy aside from the occasional kiss.
In other words, Emily lived the fairy tale and was now embarked on a happily ever after with Prince Charming. And she isn’t just proud of this accomplishment; she is smug. She knows that the overwhelming majority of her peers ‘‘fail’’ as princesses; most girls don’t get the fairy tale. And while female classmates are deep into what is popularly known on campus as ‘‘the senior scramble’’—the mad dash to find a husband by graduation—Emily can sit back, relax, and just watch. And she does.
When I ask Emily about sex at her school, her face lights up again. Even though they aren’t supposed to, students at her college participate in casual sex, Emily reports, adding that this is a sad circumstance for everyone, especially women. When our conversation returns to her own sex life, she bursts with pride, eager to regale me with tales of promise rings, first kisses, and the dream-come-true wedding night.
Growing up, Emily had for eight years worn what she called a ‘‘covenant ring,’’ given to her by her parents at her thirteenth birthday.
‘‘I made that vow to my parents and to God and to myself that I was going to save sex for marriage,’’ Emily says: God not only commands [us to wait to have sex], but he commands us to do it for a reason. It’s not just a stupid rule to follow. There are a lot of emotions and a lot of hurt if it’s not kept, so I knew the value of that. . . . And then, aside from that, I decided that the only person that I ever wanted to kiss was the man that I would spend the rest of my life with.
A series of studies have shown that young Christians find it difficult to keep the covenant these rings symbolize. In many cases, abstinence pledges do little more than postpone sexual intercourse for a few months, or turn those who try to keep them in the direction of other sexual activity. But Emily was able to keep her promise. When I ask if her husband was in fact the first person, the only person, she has ever kissed, she sits up straight, and smiles. ‘‘First person!’’ she confirms with delight. And, according to her journal, the only intimate contact she ever had with a man other than her husband was holding hands a couple of times with a longtime boyfriend in high school.
The first kiss between Emily and her betrothed took place in a carefully choreographed courtship, one that reflected the values found in evangelical dating manuals and was designed above all else to preserve Emily’s purity. Although some evangelical students insist on following the ‘‘first kiss at the altar’’ rule, Emily and her fiance´ did not kiss until they were engaged, and then agreed ‘‘not to touch each other any place that a modest bathing suit would cover.’’ ‘‘We weren’t going to cross that line until we were married,’’ she explains. ‘‘So definitely kissing was all we really had to do.’’ As Emily recounts this experience, her voice sounds nostalgic, and her eyes turn dreamy as she remembers the exciting game of maintaining very particular boundaries up until their wedding night. When I inquire whether waiting had been a struggle during their engagement, Emily replies: ‘‘I don’t regret it for a minute. It was very difficult, but I don’t regret making that choice.’’
Emily’s promise ring helped to bring her to the altar as a virgin, but it also played an important role on her wedding night. Emily chose to give the ring to her husband once they arrived at their hotel—just before they had sex. ‘‘We prayed together, and we committed everything that was going [to] happen that night to God,’’ Emily says. ‘‘We wanted it to be completely special, and I presented [the ring] to him, saying, ‘You know, I’ve saved myself for you, and here is a token of that.’ ’’
According to Emily, staying pure before marriage has made her sex life as a married woman all the better. ‘‘I think we both understand the value of having saved [sex] for each other, and it’s not at all a selfish act,’’ Emily explains. The people who don’t guard their purity, Emily says, are ‘‘setting themselves up for a lot of disappointment later on in life especially when they do find that one person.’’ She continues:
If I hadn’t saved myself, and I met my husband who did save himself, I would be a big disappointment to him, and that would be very hard.... And it would be very disappointing to me had he not saved himself. So I think that you have to be careful in dating situations to realize that the person you’re dating might not be who you end up with. It might not work out, so be careful what you give them.
Emily is an anomaly, even at an evangelical college. Most of the evangelical women I interviewed had, according to the extreme ‘‘battle’’ terms of the prevailing purity culture, already given away too much.
Dictionary definitions of ‘‘purity’’ are: ‘‘freedom from matter that contaminates, defiles, corrupts, or debases’’; ‘‘freedom from moral corruption, from ceremonial or sexual uncleanness, or pollution’’; a ‘‘stainless condition or character; innocence, chastity, [and] ceremonial cleanness.’’
When something is impure, we imagine it is contaminated and corrupted, blemished. It is somehow dirty, profaned in a way that may make it necessary to discard or avoid. In Purity and Danger, anthropologist of religion Mary Douglas discusses in detail how we divide the pure from the impure and in the process discriminate between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the corrupt. She explains that our attempts at ‘‘purifying’’ are acts against being ‘‘polluted and toward ‘dirt-avoidance.’ ’’ This ‘‘dirt avoidance’’ can entail anything from tidying the house to avoiding sex. ‘‘For us,’’ Douglas writes, ‘‘sacred things and places are to be protected from defilement. Holiness and impurity are at opposite poles.’’ Dirt is ‘‘a relative idea’’:
Shoes are dirty not in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room; clothing lying on chairs; out-door things in-doors; upstairs things downstairs; under-clothing appearing where over-clothing should be, and so on. In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.
Following Douglas’s reasoning, we could say the same about sex: sex is not dirty in and of itself, but it is dirty to engage in sexual activity or perhaps even to indulge sexual thoughts in ways that, in Douglas’s words, ‘‘contradict cherished classifications.’’ Within contemporary evangelical Christianity, the operative classification is marriage, understood as a kind of ‘‘purifying container’’ for the messiness that is human sexuality. To engage in sex outside of marriage is to contravene a cherished classification.
In on-campus battles for purity at evangelical colleges, sex becomes the enemy. Outside of marriage, sex is corrosive of a pure body and heart. Sex eats away at your relationship with God and your community. Moreover, the consequences of sex are irreversible. If you have sex outside of a marriage, you are, in a word, ruined.
In dozens of popular Christian self-help books, protecting one’s purity until marriage is described as a young adult’s number one priority. In the best-selling Battle series (Every Young Woman’s Battle, Every Young Man’s Battle, etc.), men are taught that they must guard their purity by understanding sex as ‘‘the enemy’’ in a life-and-death battle, by raising a ‘‘sword and shield’’ against it, and even by making an ‘‘ocular covenant’’—learning to ‘‘bounce’’ one’s eyes away from ‘‘lustful objects’’ (i.e., women). Men must allow Christ to take their minds ‘‘captive’’ so nary a thought about a woman enters their imagination, all the while ‘‘building a line of defense in the heart’’ against their natural inclination to use women for sex. In other words, because men are by nature sexual predators, their pursuit of purity revolves around doing battle with their very nature.
Women have their own war to fight. Since God made women emotionally inclined, as early as middle school, evangelical girls are taught to protect their purity on four levels: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. But they also must fight the urge to use sexuality as a way of trying to ‘‘capture’’ a lustful man. This means dressing conservatively, no flirting, and no romantic fantasizing.
Women are encouraged to go on what is called a ‘‘starvation diet,’" purging their lives of all things improperly romantic, emotional, and sexual. They too must do battle. ‘‘The only way to kill a bad habit,’’ according to Every Young Woman’s Battle, ‘‘is to starve it to death.’’
Occasionally, this fight is literally framed as a fairy tale, complete with Disney imagery, quotations, and frequent mention of Prince Charming. One popular book—Lisa Bevere’s Kissed the Girls and Made Them Cry: Why Women Lose When They Give In—even frames its chapters accordingly, with prince and princess rhetoric: ‘‘Awakening Love,’’ ‘‘Sleeping Beauty,’’ ‘‘The Original Cinderella,’’ and ‘‘Breaking the Curse.’’ In one extreme passage, Bevere instructs her readers:
When it is not the right time for love, sexual desire is the wrong thing, no matter how pleasurable the sensations. When awakened at the wrong time, desire becomes lust, and lust is restless and shrouded in shame. ... We want to put lust to death [my emphasis] and in its place resurrect love without a trace of guilt or shame to rob from her beauty.
Living up to this version of the romantic ideal is very difficult. Most youth are more sexual than the quest for purity allows them to feel and acknowledge, much less actually act out. Because of its extreme restrictions, the chances of realizing romantic hopes within the purity paradigm are slim. This can create terrible angst and disappointment for young adults, who are often shattered by their failure to live the fairy tale. Purity culture has a powerful hold within evangelical youth culture. Though the evangelical students I interviewed broke almost every liberal preconception about them, proving to be diverse in their politics, nuanced in their expressions and beliefs about Christianity, and perfectly willing to swim in a sea of doubt and life’s gray areas, their pursuit of purity is the one area where almost all of them could see only black and white. Falling short of ideal purity can jeopardize not only a young adult’s standing among her peers but also, as these young adults are taught through purity culture, her relationship with God.
Excerpted from "Sex and the Soul, updated edition: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America's College Campuses" by Donna Freitas. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2010, 2015 by Donna Freitas. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.