Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sexual purity: A dirty idea

So have you ever heard of a purity ball?

It's sort of like a prom, but with a twist: daughters are accompanied by their fathers, instead of their boyfriends. There, they enjoy music, eat, drink, and dance... and then these young girls pledge to remain sexually abstinent, or 'pure', until their wedding day.

Other than sounding weirdly out-of-date, like bride-prices and trousseaus, anything else bother you about this concept?

What does this concept of 'purity' mean?

The idea seems to be that if you've never had sex with someone, you're more virtuous, more worthy, more desirable, more ....clean.

But what does this imply? That if you do have sex with someone, you've become, somehow, 'impure'? That it makes you dirty, less desirable, less worthy, less virtuous, less worthy of respect, maybe even less valuable as a person?

This idea that engaging in one of the most social, most cooperative, most intimately friendly actions that human beings enjoy with one another can ever make you 'impure', has been a bee in my bonnet ever since I began to question what the idea of sexual purity, like the Cult of the Virgin, really stands for. For ages, human belief systems have equated virginity, especially of women, with sacredness. The stories of the birth of Horus, of the Buddha, of many of the Greek gods, of Jesus, all illustrate this obsession many of the world's cultures, and especially religions, have had with virginity. (The virgin birth of the Buddha seems to be a later addition: early Buddhist texts honor the Buddha's father, as his natural father, as well.) These gods and heroes are made out to be more special, better than mere ordinary human beings, at least partly because their mothers didn't create them with the help of another human being. Gods and saints have been more revered, and brides' dowries have been higher, so long as they or their mothers are virgins.

So what does this say about our attitude towards human beings?

'How about respect?' one might ask. 'How about the idea that we should practice self-control, that we should respect each other's bodies, and not 'use' each other for our own selfish pleasure?' I answer: this is both an important issue, and an entirely separate one. Sexuality, for human beings, is generally a deeply emotional thing, unlike most other animals (so far as we know). For us, it's intertwined with the need for closeness, for intimacy, for feeling more alive, for just plain feeling good. In short, it's one of the most richly sociable activities we engage in. And we can easily hurt each other through with sex, when we lie to our partners, when we make promises we don't keep, when we profess love to get what we want only to show indifference afterwards, and worst of all, when we inflict pain and violate their right to self-determination through rape. We expect each other to practice sexual self-control, and we are right to condemn 'using' anyone as a mere tool for our exclusive pleasure.

But sex outside of marriage is more often friendly, affectionate, respectful, mutually exciting, and consensual than not. Most of the time, it's a good and valuable thing, not only for its own sake, but for what it can teach us about being good partners not only for the evening, but for life. And even when it's not, when we use our sexuality selfishly, or to harm or deceive others, our bad behavior has no impact at all on their integrity or worth. We may be said to make ourselves 'impure' through our disrespect, dishonesty, cruelty, or violence; we may metaphorically be said to sully our own moral characters by wronging another. Yet we don't have purity balls in which we pledge not to sully ourselves by lying, stealing, cheating, or murdering. There's no Cult of the Honest Woman, no god or prophet honored by virtue of their mother's never haven stolen anything. And we don't ever imply that we can be made impure if others lie to, steal from, or cause harm to us. It's sex that's been so widely singled out and associated with the concept of transmissible purity and impurity in so many of the world's ideologies, cultures, and religions, for reasons that are no longer useful, and no longer morally defensible.

When I look at the belief systems that sacralize virginity, it seems the common denominator is the inheritance of values from tribal, patriarchal cultures, in which life was wrested out of the land with great difficulty, where infant mortality was high and competition for territory was fierce. Keeping tight control over women helped ensure one's bloodline was unmixed with that of competitors, and worthy of protection by the head of the household and the tribe. The mythology of purity and impurity, of ritual, superstition, and prohibition surrounding human sexuality is such an effective method of social control that they persist in many cultures and belief systems even to this day. Over the years, the justifications have changed, but attitudes remain the same.

Yet much of the world's population has long since left that harsh ancestral world behind, and we are in an age in which personal liberty and individual human worth and dignity are valued like never before. Murder, theft, assault, and sexual coercion and violence are vilified and illegal, and most societies now go out of their way to ensure individuals can express their personalities and pursue their own goals as much as possible, in safety and security. We also care to understand how and why our social institutions and practices can enrich and beautify human life, and to celebrate them, from conversation, humor, and storytelling, to music and fine arts, to dining with friends, family, and allies, to sex itself, as countless scholarly volumes, scientific studies, and works of art and literature attest.

I argue that this view of human nature, in which human beings are understood as both individually valuable and thorough goingly social, doesn't have room for this concept of sexual purity and impurity. In fact, to say sex with another human being can ever make you impure is just about the most personally insulting and antisocial idea one can express: the claim that the touch of another human being can make you dirty is an attack on human dignity itself.

It undermines the concept of personal responsibility, in which we are morally accountable for what we do and not for what a person does to us. It treats sex as a thing that is corrupt and evil outside of a narrow context, in a way totally divorced from what we've discovered about the history, evolutionary biology, and psychology of human sexuality. It reveals a deep scorn for human nature, in which sexuality is as basic a component as rationality, language, the need to survive, to feel pleasure, to matter, and to find love and companionship. And it implies that human beings are innately corrupt, dirty, wicked things. only redeemed by virtue of distancing themselves from their own humanity.

Just as I reject all of these, so I reject the idea of sexual purity. And I think you should, too, if you believe that human beings are valuable and worthy of respect for their own sake.

Amy Cools
Sacramento State Philosophy Alumna


  1. Amy, thanks very much for this interesting post.

    I'm inclined to agree with you that sexual purity is a rather toxic idea, especially as we tend to apply it exclusively to girls and women. But I guess I don't particularly have a problem with what purity balls attempt to achieve, which I think is to create a layer of social protection for young women who wish not to be pestered by the sexual advances of young men. There is, I'm sure you agree, a fair amount of wisdom in not having sexual intercourse until one reaches a certain level of emotional maturity and responsibility, even if we shouldn't legislate or insist on it.

    I'm also not sure there is anything really wrong with thinking of sexual relationships as, in some sense, sacred. I'm not a strong promoter of the idea, but I guess I don't regard sexual fidelity between married people, or just those who are in a serious relationship, as an arbitrary constraint on their behavior. It seems based on the idea that sex is, if not sacred, at least uniquely special.

    So I'm inclined to think that the idea of sexual purity at least partially aims at quite reasonable goals, and that it doesn't have to reveal a deep scorn for human nature as you suggest.

  2. Thanks for posting this essay, and for your comments, Randy!

    It may be that ideas regarding sexual purity, and of purity balls, have plenty of good intentions behind them for many of their proponents.

    But I'm far from sure they have their intended effect. In doing some research prior to this article, and more after your helpful critique, it appears that the more liberal the culture and/or the majority religion(s) of the country in their views towards sexual freedom and gender equality, the lower the rates of sexual violence tend to be (these numbers are hard to pin down since the legal definition varies widely by country). And, much easier to verify, the lower the rates of social acceptance of rape and of victim-blaming tend to be.

    Full disclosure: I was raised in a belief system that promotes an idea of sexual purity such as I describe. For some, in all likelihood, this idea may really have been the most important in helping them be the responsible, faithful, respectful partners they are. For others, however, it doesn't lead to what I think are fully respectful views of women: as equals in the right to full self-determination, to bodily integrity, in intelligence, and so on.

    I don't have a problem with thinking of sex as something unique, even sacred, in the sense that it can bring people together more intimately and more powerfully than many other kinds of human connection. The problem I have is with the idea that sex in and of itself can make you impure, which I argue places the moral focus on what constitutes right and wrong in our treatment of others in the wrong place.

    If I observed, anecdotally, in crime statistics, or in self-reported attitudes towards women and towards sexuality in general, better behavior and more respect accompanying ideas of sexual purity, I might be more convinced that it can be harmless and in some cases benign. But that's not what I saw growing up, and it's not what I see in the world today.

  3. Thanks Amy, these are nice points, and I can't find much to disagree with. It really doesn't matter what the purpose of a practice is once it has been empirically refuted. Compare, for example, abstinence vs.contraception in the attempt to control teenage pregnancy. At this point people who preach abstinence and object to contraception can't reasonably claim to be concerned with lowering the teenage birthrate. They must be concerned about something like purity as an end in itself. Perhaps you've read Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind yet. He has an interesting take on the differential weight liberals and conservatives give to purity along a variety of dimensions.

  4. I have read The Righteous Mind, it was very interesting and I think he got a lot right, but not everything. For example, I think he made a lot of assumptions in categorizing the different values that liberals and conservatives tend to prioritize.

  5. It's actually been scientifically proven that the more partners a female has, the less able she is to pair bond with a life partner and the higher chance she has of getting a divorce if she eventually marries.

    But go on, keep fucking all the dick you can handle, you're so empowered and liberated when you do. Don't let the evil white man patriarchy keep you down. Hopefully when you finally decide to stop sleeping around and settle down, you won't mind sharing with your partner just how many dicks you actually have fucked and sucked - after all, no shame right? There's no shame in being liberated and free!