14 Books For Recovering From Christian Purity Culture
At the time of posting, this author is:
Unaffiliated but spiritual
A believer in Christianity as they understand it to be
As someone who grew up in the evangelical church in the 90s, my early understanding of sexuality centered around delayed gratification. Wait for sex until marriage, and God will provide a great husband, and hey, even the sex will be better (and of course, marriage could only be heterosexual). When I took theology classes at my Christian college, I began to doubt the abstinence-only message was truly in the Bible, and when I found myself single at 26 — still single, actually, as I’d never had a boyfriend — I questioned how long God wanted me to wait. Til I was 30? 40? I concluded abstinence until marriage was not required by God.
That may sound like a happy ending, but it’s anything but. The residual effects of purity culture continue to plague me, because it was never just about abstinence, but for women, about keeping your body covered, and for anyone who read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, also about restraint in kissing, hand-holding, even being alone with a love interest.
Recovering from purity culture isn’t just about adopting new moral guidelines, but about unlearning destructive fears about the nature of love, desire, and our bodies. I wrote about my journey in my short memoir, Shameless.
The books below come from a range of voices and experiences, some specifically addressing Christian purity culture, others more broadly discussing sex from an academic, journalistic, memoir, or anthropological perspective. They are loosely ordered by level of conservatism so if you are very far along in your deconstruction, you might skip to the end.
Do you have a favorite not listed here? Tell me on Twitter: @danifankhauser.
Sex God - Rob Bell
When I read Sex God in my mid-20s, I eagerly turned the pages, hoping Rob Bell, whose work helped me rethink the Bible in so many other ways, would come out and say that the abstinence-only approach was not biblical. He doesn’t, but if you are on the start of your journey rethinking purity culture, you will appreciate his writing, especially around how sex and spirituality are intertwined and how sex is one of the prime ways humans can experience God’s goodness.
Damaged Goods - Dianna E. Anderson
Read Dianna E. Anderson’s book for the chapter on consent alone! In Damaged Goods, she addresses biblical and theological arguments around premarital sex, along with sharing her personal journey, from judgment of a Christian friend who lost his virginity before marriage to later coming out as bisexual to her mom. Towards the end of the book, she addresses the link between purity culture and rape culture, saying anything short of enthusiastic consent is rape. Anderson heard the same cautionary stories I did in youth group — the high school boyfriend who pressures a girl to have sex, and thus the girl suffers the consequences of being “impure.” In fact, she suffers the consequences of being a rape victim, Anderson explains — I have to agree.
God and the Gay Christian - Matthew Vines
A big turning point for me was when I realized every argument I heard in church condemning gay relationships (and premarital sex, for that matter) actually was limited to promiscuous sex, and definitely didn’t apply to my classmate who was Christian, gay, and in a long-distance committed relationship.
“I’ve come to believe that the Bible doesn’t address the issue of committed, monogamous same-sex relationships,” Matthew Vines says in a Q&A about his book. Many sections of the Bible seem irrelevant to the modern day, but Vines doesn’t take that easy approach in his support for LGBT relationships. His book is a deep and honest biblical study which concludes that yes, you can be both gay and Christian.
Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians - Austen Hartke
From being banned from the military to having their restroom choice legislated, the rights of transgender people are under increased pressure. For that reason, I’m glad to see more and more books addressing the intersection of the transgender experience and Christian spirituality. This one I discovered via a tweet from Emmy R. Kegler.
Author Austen Hartke is the creator of the YouTube series Transgender and Christian and a graduate of Luther Seminary, part of the affirming Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. For that reason, I expect this book will have similar theological rigor to Vines’ book (Vines also wrote the foreword). It’s available for preorder and will be released in April 2018.
Sexuality and the Black Church - Kelly B. Douglas
In her 1999 book, Kelly B. Douglas argues against the silence and taboo of sexuality in the Black church, putting current events and attitudes into historical context. She writes, “Black self-esteem will continue to fall prey too easily to White culture’s historical and consistent sexual degradation of Black men and women.” Douglas is an Episcopal priest and Professor of Religion at Goucher College.
For more contemporary perspectives on race and purity culture, read D. Danyelle’s follow-up to her book Closed Legs do Get Fed, Between Two Worlds: Black Christian Men and Purity Culture, When a Black Girl Pursues Purity, and The White Church, Purity Culture, and Ferguson.
Good Christian Sex - Bromleigh McCleneghan
Generally speaking, mainline denominations are opposed to sex before marriage, but don’t take the hard line and use fear tactics the way evangelical or fundamentalist churches do. Bromleigh McCleneghan, a U.C.C. pastor, brings this perspective and discusses how to think about sexuality and romantic relationships through the lens of faith. This is a great book for anyone looking to rebuild their personal ethics after rejecting the purity culture mindset.
Facing the Music - Jennifer Knapp
Before Jennifer Knapp became a major Christian Contemporary Music artist, singer-songwriter Marsha Stevens came out as a lesbian and subsequently was written out of Christian music history, with stories of angry Christians tearing her songs out of hymnals. This tells you the landscape Knapp found herself in as a CCM star.
Jennifer Knapp’s memoir recounts how she exited music at the height of her career and years later came out as lesbian, capturing the challenges that come with being true to your identity, especially in the public eye.
Sex and the Conservative Church - Tina Schermer Sellers
Author Tina Schermer Sellers, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist who teaches in Seattle Pacific University’s graduate program. Because of this, her book is a tool both for therapists or clergy dealing with issues stemming from purity culture, as well as for individuals.
Sellers book was written in reaction to seeing a wave of students enter her class with shame and “increased levels of humiliation and self-disgust around their bodies” — a result of both the evangelical church’s purity movement and abstinence-only education in U.S. schools.
Does Jesus Really Love Me? - Jeff Chu
Journalist Jeff Chu blends his own experience and beliefs as a gay Christian along with interviews with people gay and straight from various Christian backgrounds. The book is less of a theological study and more of a look at the changing views on sexuality and Christianity in the U.S. What Chu’s book does well is address the fact that no two Christians believe exactly the same things, and no single source should be relied on to be an authority on any religious topic.
The Purity Myth - Jessica Valenti
Writer and founder of Feministing Jessica Valenti comments on the part purity and virginity play in U.S. culture at large — a reminder that so-called Christian beliefs make their way into public education, pop culture, politics, and more.
Valenti writes, "The desirable virgin is sexy but not sexual. She's young, white, and skinny. She's a cheerleader, a babysitter; she's accessible and eager to please." This double standard is a heavy burden and Valenti’s writing is a great start for those looking to explore the destructive impact of purity thinking from a non-religious perspective.
Mating In Captivity - Esther Perel
Lifelong monogamy as the common Christian ideal, but is it reasonable? In the U.S., around 50% of marriages end in divorce. In my attempts to balance these things, I found psychotherapist Esther Perel’s work to be powerful.
In her 2013 TED Talk, Perel offers strategies for long-term relationships, from a realist’s perspective. Her book expands on this topic. She says humans crave both novelty and safety, but is optimistic that long-term relationships can work, and offers strategies.
Braving the Wilderness - Brene Brown
If you’ve seen Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability, you know she’s researched shame extensively and discovered connection requires vulnerability. This deeply contrasts with purity culture’s idea that relationships, kissing, or having sex with someone who won’t be your spouse detracts from your worth.
Brown goes a step further in Braving the Wilderness, discussing how belonging is achieved. I especially appreciated her section on maintaining relationships with people who might have different opinions, which can apply to anyone who’s rejected a set of beliefs but wants to retain their community.
Why We Love - Helen Fisher
Anthropologist Helen Fisher has spent her career studying love, and this book is based on research of scanning the brains of people in love. The result was a better understanding of why people fall in and out of love, and the nature of love: not an emotion, but a drive. “Parts of the brain associated with decision-making begin to shut down when you’re in love. Literally,” she tells Krista Tippett in an interview on On Being.
Suffice to say, love isn’t guaranteed once you’ve become married or because you’ve only had sex with one person. Read Fisher’s book to demystify romantic relationships without losing the sense of magic.
Sex at Dawn - by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
I recommend this book with a caveat: some critics blame the authors of bad science. However, the core case made by the book, that humans are not by nature monogamous, is relatable.
In my own journey, even after affirming sex before marriage, I was judgmental of acts and lifestyles I perceived as promiscuous such as polyamory, swinging, threesomes, or sex parties. This book is great for anyone like me seeking a wider context around human sexuality in order to reserve judgment on others, or reconsider their own ethics.