I know this kind of argument won’t have any effect on the proponents of purity culture, who are resistant to the whole idea of evidence, but the evidence says the abstinence movement didn’t work. If anything, it had the opposite effect, and people are dealing with the fallout now.
For example, in the early 2000s, Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers began noticing an alarming trend. A clinical sex therapist, family therapist, and associate professor at Seattle Pacific University, she would ask the grad students in her human sexuality class—most of them aspiring therapists—to write the stories of their own sexuality. After years of asking the same questions, she suddenly saw a sharp uptick in students describing feelings of humiliation and disgust toward their bodies and sexual identities. These students all seemed to share a sense of general ignorance and naiveté about sex and relationships, as well as a deep discomfort with natural sexual urges. “This dramatic increase in self-loathing was really heartbreaking for me to see,” says Schermer Sellers. When the trend continued into a third year, she decided to investigate what was behind it.
Digging deeper, she found that many of her students had been involved in youth groups that taught them not only to abstain from sex before marriage, but also that they should not feel any sexual desire at all. “They learned that if you feel [desire], you’re compromising your relationship with God or with your future partner,” she explains. She heard story after story of teenagers circled up in youth group meetings. “They would pass around a slice of pizza, and tell everyone to take one bite out of it, explaining that if you give your heart away while you’re growing up, it’s like giving pieces of yourself away,” she says. “The piece of pizza would go around the circle, and all that would be left was the crust—and this is what you’d give your future partner.” She heard similar tales about shiny pieces of foil being crumpled, or flowers with petals ripped off, or a cup everyone was asked to spit into.
I remember the purity balls and chastity rings and all that other crap that was being pushed off on young kids — it was extreme and bizarre. I wasn’t hoping that my kids were virginal until marriage, which seemed like demanding that they never exhibit any symptoms of illness while not worrying whether they were actually healthy or not. Rather, I was hoping that they developed strong relationships of mutual respect, and what they did with their bodies was their decision, not mine.
I hoped they understood that pizza was something you made fresh, and that it was a bad idea to save the pizza you made at puberty and give it to your partner ten years later. Yuck.