Whitworth purity culture can be harmful

by Rosie Brown

Whitworth student leadership was recently invited to a lecture by Dr. Donna Freitas, author of “Sex and the Soul.” As a theology professor at Boston University, her students’ interest in the prevalence of “hook-up culture” on college campuses spurred her to initiate an in-depth study across the nation on the correlations between spirituality and sexuality. Her results were astounding, and she found that hook-up culture was decidedly disliked by the majority of college students, who felt obligated to participate in it so they would fit in with their peers.

Her research also led to some shocking results. She found that the evangelical schools (Whitworth is an example of one, though she did not mention whether it participated in her study) were a completely separate species from the other universities in her study. Rather than a prevalent hook-up culture, evangelical schools showed a strong “purity culture,” where students felt a very strong pressure toward being abstinent and sexually pure. Freitas mentioned that she had to change her interview techniques when collecting data from evangelical schools. Rather than asking, “Have you ever had sex?” she started these interviews with, “Have you ever been kissed?”

When she shared this particular story, there were quite a few stifled chuckles in the audience, because,  let’s face it, we all recognize that Whitworth fits well into this category of purity culture. And it’s not a bad thing. I personally have never experienced the hook-up culture, where students feel more obligated to become sexually active but remain emotionally unattached in order to fit in. If anything, being surrounded by a purity culture has, for the most part, been a positive influence on students. Right?

Well, here’s the kicker. Freitas mentioned the negative side-effects that she witnessed in the purity culture. First, students often mentioned that there was a secrecy around sexual activity. This built an environment of taboo, distrust and deception among students. Second, students complained that their sexuality was being oppressed. According to the interviews, students felt they could not be honest about their sexuality or seek support or advice on the subject because they would be judged.

When Freitas mentioned the problems associated with purity culture, the audience seemed to agree. And, as a senior at Whitworth who has lived on campus for three years, I can confidently agree with the accuracy of these sentiments. Perhaps not everyone has felt it, but one thing is certain: it is impossible to be perfect. Moral perfection can never be attained. It’s a lesson that comes inevitably on the journey of a Christian, which explains the need for God’s grace to humanity.

That being said, purity culture, where there is a strong moral standard for college students to meet in their personal lives in a social environment, is oppressive. I’m sure that oppression is an unintentional sentiment, but it’s true. College students, who generally range from 17 to 25 years old, need to know they are in a safe environment, where tough questions can be asked without judgment.

I once heard the saying, “Turn on the light, and the darkness disappears.” I strongly disagree. Jesus came into a dark world of sinners so he could bring us into the light. Likewise, we cannot ignore the “dark areas” or difficult subjects. Sexuality is a real thing, and whether it is at a public secular university or Whitworth, it is a present issue. If there is one goal that purity culture has, it is this: to understand the true, God-given purpose of our sexuality and use it properly. If there is secrecy, judgment and oppression tied to purity culture, true understanding of this purpose will be lost to the community. God made us, man and woman, sexual organs and all. So, why ignore the conversation?

If you have any questions or want to speak to someone, do not hesitate to contact the Health Center. You can also talk to any professor whom you trust, an RA, other student leader or a friend. The greatest problem with purity culture is the attached assumption that the community will not be supportive. If there is anything I have learned at Whitworth, it is that we are never alone. We are never without a shoulder to lean on or a helping hand to hold.

Brown is a senior majoring in international business. Comments can be sent to rbrown13@my.whitworth.edu.

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