Scene: Allie is 14 and at Pentecostal youth camp, the same one they attended for about 10 years of their childhood and adolescence. It also happened to be one of the hottest summers in recent memory. It’s the second day of camp, and after the morning preaching session, the camp’s female director steps onto the platform with a solemn expression. Everyone can tell what’s about to happen. “All of the female campers and female counsellors need to stay where they are. Boys, please go with your male counsellors to the dining hall.” There’s a bustle and the camp staff make a big deal of ushering the boys out, insisting that what’s about to be discussed was GIRLS ONLY subject matter. With the chapel devoid of male presence, the camp director and the wife of the district youth director took to the stage again. For the next 20 minutes, they lectured the 70-ish girls attending the camp about the dress code. About how the clothes they were wearing were immodest and were fuelling sexual thoughts and desires in the boys and male leaders around them. About how they were robbing their future husbands of their sexual purity by dressing in a “provocative” way that caused others to lust after them. Afterward, the female counsellors led discussions with their campers about how everyone can work better at being more modest, as not to be stumbling blocks for their brothers in Christ. Allie spent the rest of the day wondering if the clothes they had packed were good enough, or if they should stick to pants in the 30+ degree weather.
Scene: Allie is 16, attending a popular youth convention for evangelical youth. As a junior high leader, Allie accompanies several girls in their youth group to a breakout session for single girls. It is led by a man. For the allotted 45 minutes, the man tells the group of girls about what kind of a woman a good Christian man is looking for in a wife. Included among the laundry list of Psalm 31-esque qualities was a sexuality that hasn’t been “defrauded”(meaning another man hasn’t swindled your virginity away from your future husband). Virginity was the greatest gift you could give, and according to God’s plan for your life, it already belonged to the man you were destined to marry. A good Christian wife also submits to her husband’s leadership, supports his calling, and has a vibrant personality that constantly uplifts and bolsters his. Allie contemplates if they’ll ever make the grade of what it means to be a great Christian wife.
I could tell many more stories like these two. During my tenure in a Pentecostal youth group, I was taught to “guard my heart” from wily boys who would manipulate my emotions for sex, that cuddling induced the release of oxytocin and was neurologically equivalent to orgasm, and that I needed to be the ideal partner before anyone would even think about dating me. The messages from these conference sermons, youth nights, and girls events shaped my expectations of relationships, gender roles, and the type of person I would inevitably date and marry. And it was these messages that had devastating consequences in my relationship with my partner.
When I started dating Davis, I was in the throes of my evangelical phase. He was a new Christian, from an utterly different family background and religious context. Without really talking to him about it, I decided that we were going to be the ideal teen Christian couple. He was going to lead me spiritually. I was going to be feminine “wife material”. Declarations of love would be reserved for when we were absolutely certain that we would marry and physical affection was strictly prohibited, lest I let the guard around my heart down and violated my future marriage covenant. According to my education on such matters, it was the perfect formula for a God-honouring first relationship. According to reality, it made us miserable.
I struggled immensely trying to pigeonhole myself into the ideal “girlfriend” (probably should have been my first clue that the gender binary isn’t for me) and grew frustrated that Davis wasn’t the macho He-Man I’d been conditioned to seek out as a life mate. A huge emotional valley grew between us because I refused to open up to him emotionally, partially from immaturity and partially because I thought I was guarding my heart by remaining closed off. I was afraid to kiss him or be alone with him, in fear that propriety would be breached. I began projecting character flaws and issues onto him to justify why I needed to break his heart. My obsession with the standards dictated to me by purity and courtship culture, in conjunction with a sharp turn in my mental health, resulted in not one, but two break ups. There’s more to this story, but that is not for public consumption.
Our reuniting was highly improbable and to many (including us), deeply confusing. So much hurt had been inflicted that it seemed impossible that we could actually have a future in spite of all that went on between us. There was something imperceptible, unknowable drawing us back together and it was that very thing that compelled us to press the reset button on our relationship and the baggage behind it. Friends were baffled and parents upset, but we were certain that whatever it was, it was worth saving. We decided that our best bet was to ditch the method that we originally implemented in round one of our relationship. I accepted that the standards that had been laid out before me were deeply flawed and that it was unfair to both of us to force something that should be organic and beautiful into a manufactured, church culture-approved mould. In fact, we smashed the mould together and haven’t looked back. I began to affirm and enjoy the wholeness of who Davis is and not fret over what I expected him to be. We define our relationship and conduct it according to who God has made us as individuals. We love to debate and push each other, and we also love tenderness and honouring the other’s individuality. He is brilliant and kind and exuberant and invariably the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.
These are bold statements about love and commitment to be making at the age of 20, but there it is. Love is strange. And so is the impact of purity culture. Stay away.