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Christian Critics of ‘Purity Culture’ Are Still Influenced By Its Fantasies

In response to unbiblical rules, some readers want freedom and “sex positivity” in fiction while ignoring the power of God-given desires.
on Feb 16, 2023 · 3 comments

The Christian fiction community has long debated how we should consume sexual and sensual content in fiction. Now we’re facing a trend of more potent sexual content and “deep point of view” (which often describes emotions through bodily sensations). Christian speculative novels are more often trying to keep up with the general market’s standards for higher levels of “heat.”

Despite some exceptions, most of the debate centers around two distinct parties.

The first are “clean” Christian readers who acknowledge that sexual content in books poses a unique temptation for women, and often call others to read (and write) “clean” books. The danger within this group is a purity culture mindset.1 This view can become overly judgmental, wearing the label of “clean” as a badge of honor and holiness, or may have a wide range of what “clean” means. (Readers often recommend a “clean” book to a friend who is shocked by its contents and dismayed that someone at church gave it to them.)

The second group, anti-purity-culture readers, is concerned that “clean” Christian readers are making rules surrounding sex and sensuality—a trigger for those who have been injured by or want to stay as far as they can from the very real threat of purity culture.2 The danger for this group is a reactionary position against the first group. They tend to overcorrect legalism, turning a blind eye to the strongholds of lust leading to addictions for female readers—or even themselves.

A second danger for this group is a sense of entitlement to read (or write) whatever they want in the name of being more sex positive and anti-purity culture. Ironically, those Christians who align themselves with this second position are likely forming these opinions as the result of purity culture. It’s this belief I’ll address in this article.

Are you ‘sex positive’ enough?

I’ve written about sensuality in fiction—especially young adult fiction—for years.3 I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christian women argue that struggling with lust while reading sensual fiction is uncommon and even has many benefits to the reader. They think anyone warning teens and parents away from sensual fiction is only feeding into the mentality that sex or sexual desire is bad.

Yet, oddly enough, only Christians argue that women and girls are not widely affected by this kind of content.

In September 2021, I posted a reel on Instagram that stated, “Sexual/sensual content in young adult books is like giving teens softcore porn.” The reel went viral, gaining nearly 300,000 views. With this came an overwhelming number of comments from non-Christians stating things like:

It 100% is and it’s super healthy too.

Teens are going to be sexual regardless. Why are we vilifying sexual content?

God forbid women read erotica… Disgusting.

Most of the commenters felt I wasn’t being sex positive. They assumed that teens are sexual by nature and should be reading porn in order to learn about sexuality in a “safe” environment. Despite these cringe-worthy comments, I was struck by how unafraid they were to admit the truth—that teens and women are sexual beings and enjoy reading erotica and sensuality. After years of some Christians denying that lust is a potential problem with fiction for women, these comments were a breath of fresh air because they acknowledged a reality many Christians refuse to see.

Anti-purity-culture readers minimize the dangers of lust

Dr. Juli Slattery, psychologist and co-founder of Authentic Intimacy, explained this cultural mentality in an interview with author and ethicist Preston Sprinkle:

The predominant narrative in our world … says that sexuality matters because it’s a key part of our identity. And if you want to be a whole, self-actualized person, you need to experiment and look inward to find out what is going to make you happy sexually. You can’t be a whole, mature person unless you do that. Which is why in our culture it’s considered unloving or even immoral to get in the way of somebody’s sexual experimentation.4

The kernel of truth within this worldview is that God created men and women to be sexual beings. Yes, women’s sexuality operates differently than men’s,5 but we also have sexual longings and desires.6 And that is very good.

The anti-purity movement wants us to embrace sex as God-given and good. And that’s where they really shine. But in their pursuit of a message that doesn’t produce shame, they minimize or ignore the dangers of lust. And here we need to make a distinction. Lust is a sin, and it happens when natural sexual desire goes from passive to active in your heart and mind. It is not just feeling desire but pursuing something that does not belong to you (Matthew 5:27–29, Song of Solomon 8:4).

There is a second reason Christians are often unwilling to admit sexual content in fiction is a danger and temptation: anti-purists are still unknowingly impacted by the purity culture they decry. Only in a Christianity still under the influence of these false sexual narratives can we continue to claim women are non-sexual beings or have little to no sexual appetite. Without the very real temptation for women to lust, to be addicted to various forms of pornography, to actively pursue sinful thoughts, we are stripping women and girls of what it means to be a sexual, imperfect human. In this model, women are lacking in sexual desire—good or bad—and exist only to serve their husband’s aggressive sexual appetites.

We can fight lust and celebrate God-given sex

Dr. Slattery identifies the problem in Christians’ educational model:

It dawned on me that we don’t know how to think biblically about our sexuality. At best, the church has taught us what to think about sexual issues like “Don’t have sex before marriage.” Or “Male and female matter.” … But they haven’t taught us how to think about sexuality.7

We can’t avoid analyzing and reacting to secular culture in light of problems within Christianity. Yet when we make decisions and form opinions solely on a reaction against something else rather than on the steady, never-changing word of God, we are far more likely to form the wrong conclusions. And both sides of this debate must protect against that very real, human temptation to react and overcorrect into error.

God created us to be sexual beings. And that’s very good! It’s something to celebrate as an expression of love for a spouse (if God sees fit to give us one) and to understand how deeply the Church should desire Christ, the Bridegroom. Yet this truth stands alongside and not against the very real temptation to sin sexually or cause a teen to stumble (Matthew 18:5–6). Embracing one of these truths doesn’t negate the other truth.

Dr. Slattery said, “Because sex is so powerful and so holy, it’s constantly under satanic attack.”8 Because of the holiness of this gift from God, we must be all the more vigilant to protect it from sexual distortion that Satan wants to normalize in our hearts and in our fiction.

  1. The Christian purity narrative “essentially says that your sexuality is important because it’s a moral category. And if you want to please God, you will not only save sex for marriage, but not be sexual until you get married. You shouldn’t have sexual thoughts, longings, desires. Those are bad.” See Dr. Juli Slattery, “Recovering from the Purity Culture,” interview with Preston Sprinkle.
  2. The Bible certainly values sexual purity. But to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of evangelical “purity culture,” note that sexual purity doesn’t justify you before God, and impurity won’t remove God’s grace from you. Purity is important for holy living, but it won’t save you. Only the blood of Christ can truly purify all of you. For an in-depth look into purity culture, I highly recommend the book Talking Back to Purity Culture by Rachel Joy Welcher.
  3. See my two articles at Desiring God: The Dark Alleys in Young Adult Fiction and Every Woman’s Silent Struggle, and two at Lorehaven: Sensual Scenes in Fiction Pose Unique Temptations for Women and Let’s Guard Against Temptations in YA Fiction.
  4. Dr. Juli Slattery, “Recovering from the Purity Culture,” interview with Preston Sprinkle.
  5. For a better explanation of this difference, see Juli Slattery’s interview from 1:40 – 10:00.
  6. Slattery in the same interview says of women, “They’d be more likely to be pulled into any form of pornography that has a storyline. Which is why Fifty Shades of Grey just went crazy. … It’s the fastest selling book in history. Why did that happen? Because it was helping women connect sexual desire—which some women have trouble feeling—with a romantic storyline. … They’re more likely to want that kind of connection. But that’s not always the case. And we’re seeing that particularly with younger women who just have a similar draw to pornography as men have traditionally had where it’s just, they see something exciting, stimulating. Their brain starts reacting to that with dopamine and other chemicals.”
  7. Dr. Juli Slattery, “Recovering from the Purity Culture,” interview with Preston Sprinkle.
  8. Ibid.
Staff writer Marian Jacobs has created Lorehaven stories since the first print issue, exploring magic, sexuality, and story ethics. Her work has also featured at Desiring God and Stage and Story. She and her family live in southern California. Her first nonfiction book, a theological analysis and guide to discerning fictional magic, is set for summer 2025 release from B&H Publishing.
  1. Interesting and thought-provoking. Thank you!

  2. CM Genton says:

    Thank you, Marian, for a well-thought out and much-needed article.
    The imagination is a powerful gift (therefore a target for the enemy of all that is good and true) and is engaged in sexual matters as well as the arts. I too am really concerned about Christians normalizing lust in the arts. Romance elements can fuel addiction for women, offering narratives that portray unrealistic depictions of men, just as men can be addicted to images of unrealistic depictions of women. Our sexuality and the arts need to be subjected to God, for our protection and to fully reflect his goodness.
    Please keep speaking out.

  3. Meagan Sheppard says:

    Thank you for this article. It is true that, as God-made-beings, we do have those thoughts and feelings of sexuality. You can look at a man or woman and be physically attracted to them; but even in our own thoughts, this has to be strictly guarded, as stated in Matthew 5:28 and many other verses in the Bible.
    My pastor recently stated—I’m probably not going to remember this properly—that we were given the Bible and all the grisly stories it contains so that we know what is honoring to God, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16-17). When I think about certain stories in the Bible (Lot and his daughters, David and Bathsheba, David’s son laying with their sister and etcetera) I’m amazed that the church doesn’t really talk about this.
    Yes, parents should take care to educate their children, but if the church isn’t taking stands—or even explaining the things known in scripture—a lot of people can go on quietly suffering or ashamed because they do not know how to deal with or think about these things properly. Which, I think, is why this topic is such a big issue.

What say you?