Book Review: Talking Back to Purity Culture by Rachel Welcher

Book Review: Talking Back to Purity Culture by Rachel Welcher

Before I get into this review, I do want to give a disclaimer. If you’re familiar with the book at all, this would come as no surprise to you, but I will likely be talking a lot about sex during this review, so if you have children that sometimes look over your shoulder while you read, I highly recommend setting this review aside to read during nap time. In addition to sex, there would be brief references to sexual assault. The language won’t be explicit, so if you are a sexual assault survivor, it shouldn’t be triggering for you, but if it could, I’d like to encourage you to skip this review. 

Background on Rachel Joy Welcher:

Rachel Joy Welcher has a Masters in Literature from University of St. Andrews in Scotland and she is a columnist for Fathom Magazine, as well as a poet. She and her husband, Evan live in Glenwood, Iowa with their baby Hilde (who was not born at the time of writing this book).

Book Overview:

If you grew up in the late 90s and 2000s like me, you probably read books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris or For Young Women Only by Shaunti Feldhan and Lisa Rice or honestly any of the books by Hayley DiMarco (I was legit obsessed). Younger Gen X and Millennial Christians took part in this massive cultural phenomenon fighting against the sexual promiscuity of our parents’ generation, but many would argue that it wasn’t just ineffective, it was also harmful. Enter in Talking Back to Purity Culture (TBPC) by Rachel Joy Welcher.

In TBPC, Rachel revisits the teachings in books and conferences, holds them against scripture, and examines their impact, while pointing to a healthier Christian view on sexuality. For the purposes of this book, I would define purity culture as “a movement in the 1990s and early 2000s characterized by teens making pledges to abstain from sex until marriage, a high view of virginity as purity, a view that women were morally responsible for helping men resist lust, and an overemphasis on parental involved dating or courtship.” Now, I know you may be thinking, “wait a minute, isn’t abstinence good?” To which I say, absolutely! But in this book, Rachel’s focus isn’t thinking about abstinence, but rather how we think and teach about abstinence. On page 21, she makes it a point to say:

If I ever have children, I will teach them what the Bible says about sex, that it was created by God to be an act of unifying self-giving within the marriage covenant between one man and one woman. I will teach them that, in marriage, sex is a God honoring good, but that extramarrital sex is a sin against a holy and loving Father. But I will not tell them that virginity makes them pure. … Virginity means only that an individual has never decided to or been forced to have sexual intercourse with another person. It is not a badge of holiness, a sign of sexual purity, or a ticket to heaven. The term “technical virginity” exists because of how inventive we are when it comes to finding sexual activities outside of sexual intercourse.

Rachel also makes it a point to show how shallow purity culture views purity because it limits purity to virginity, thus making it a temporal concern. On page 27, she expounds:

Purity culture’s obsession with virginity obscures the fact that our call to sexual purity is lifelong. Adolescents are encouraged that if they just hold out for a little while, they will soon get married and be able to unleash all of their sexual energy on another person. Not only does this dehumanize image bearers of God by painting them as nothing more than sexual outlets, it depicts the pursuit of purity as a season in life rather than a lifelong calling.

This low view of purity also neglects the ways we sin in non physical ways, our hearts can be drawn to lust and pornography even though we never physically do anything with anyone but our spouses. Unfortunately, these things also set us up for unrealistic expectations from life, as well, either by assuming that everyone will get married young (it’s well document in many studies that millennials are getting married later in life than any other generation before) and from those marriages, people who have never had sex before will somehow magically know how to have a great sex life. Yet, those of us in here who are not virgins can definitely attest to the fact that the first times are often painful and uncomfortable while you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing.

Even beyond that, the real damage from this view of purity comes from a theological pitfall that Rachel outlines on page 29:

Too often our elevation of virginity neglects the true source of our purity. The idea that we need to offer nonvirgins some sort of symbolic “second virginity” reinforces our misunderstanding of where purity comes from. We have been made new, washed clean “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19). Virginity does not provide our purity. Jesus does.

From there, Rachel looks at how purity culture has specifically harmed women. This is something that has often been addressed on the Theology Gals podcast, but there’s many who believe that women are less sexual than men or have a lower drive and not only is that often not true, but that view also ends up neglecting the fact that women have body parts that serve no function besides sexual pleasure. Scripture can also attest to the fact that women are sexual beings in numerous places, including (but not limited to) Song of Songs. This view also ends up being intellectually inconsistent because women are often seen as sexual temptresses. How can someone be a temptress, yet not sexual?

Purity culture can also play into insecurities women face surrounding their bodies. There’s often shame for being too fat, too thin, having too big breasts, having very small breasts, body hair, whether or not you want to wear makeup. Women are simultaneously given the message that they need to “paint the barn,” but also not wear too much makeup, at the risk of looking like a whore and thus tempting men to sin. But women are more than their sexuality. They are image bearers of the living God.

Unfortunately, women are not the only ones negatively affected by purity culture. While women are taught this view that men are obsessed with sex and may even want it more than they want emotional intimacy, men are taught that they are animals and degraded as those with no self control. Because men are seen as lacking in self control, it further reinforces the view that women are a threat to men and creates a semi antagonistic view between the sexes. I’ll never forget a friend of mine pointing out that Mother’s Day sermons are often encouraging women that they’re valuable, while Father’s Day sermons are often “men do better” and him telling me how deflating it was to hear that all the time.

One of the things that I appreciated the most about TBPC is that Rachel also took the time to address often overlooked groups of people in the conversations surrounding purity. As noted on page 67, “in purity culture, there are 3 promises for those who practice abstinence: marriage, sex, and children,” but what happens if you don’t get any of those things? For those who are long term singles, infertile, or those who struggle with same sex attraction and want to live a godly lifestyle, those things may not be part of their future. To the single person, infertile couple, and SSA person, Rachel approaches these topics each with grace and compassion rooted in scripture. One of my favorite parts was her reminder that Jesus lived his whole life without having sex, so we are able to have a full life without those things, even though we may long for them. She also points out on page 73:

We create opportunities to be disappointed with God when we put our hope in things he never promised. Jesus did not die so that Christians could live out their own Nicholas Sparks novel. He died to set us free from slavery to sin, to make us new, and draw us into the kingdom of God forever. It is not earthly marriage, but the marriage supper of the Lamb that we are promised. It is adoption as sons and daughters that we receive, not because we stayed sexually pure or dressed modestly, but because Jesus spilled blood for our sins. Whatever our relationship status on earth, Christians can stand firm in their identity as children of the living God and as the church, his body, and his bride.

Rachel next addresses how unrealistic expectations towards sex can be harmful in marriage, detailing a few stories from people who had very painful initial experiences that I will spare you. Though, I will share that she had very insightful points made about the idolatry of sex in both American culture and the American church. She also pointed to the fact that purity culture has often absorbed the prosperity gospel in its reasonings surrounding sex. If you do xyz thing and have enough faith, God will give you what you want, which as we all know, does not happen in any meaningful way.

By far, the hardest part to read was the chapter on sexual abuse (chapter 7). When virginity is idolized and that is taken away from you, it can feel like you are less valuable to a future spouse, regardless of whether or not that is true. I found it comforting on page 110 when Rachel wrote:

Being sinned against sexually is devastating and life-altering. And the shame of what has been done to our bodies attempts to block our view of the cross. But our worth remains intact. No matter what has been done to us, or what we have done to others, we are never less than image bearers of the holy God. Any message that downplays this truth is worth challenging. The belief that all people are created in the image of God – the imago dei – is a theology worth fighting for. 

In writing about rape culture (the idea that if someone was raped, they should have defended themselves better or should have dressed and behaved less provocatively), Rachel fights the ways scripture is misused to blame victims of sexual assault for their assault. She also gives a look at how we can see sexual assault in scripture and know that God cares for those who have been victims of assault.

While Rachel spent a considerable amount of time in the book critiquing purity culture, she did also give some space to critique the overcorrections from purity culture, specifically ones that became very permissive towards sexual behavior. Rachel is also very clear about sin, saying on page 135:

There is forgiveness at the cross for every sin. And we can grow from our mistakes, learn from our failures, and even look back with thankfulness at the times when God showed mercy to us, despite our disobedience. But when we start calling “holy” what God calls sinful, we have ceased to honor him. We have misunderstood what holiness means.

At the end of the book, Rachel shifts to look at how to speak to your children about purity. She recognizes that “the Christian pursuit of purity is biblical, but it must flow out of a recognition that it is Jesus that makes us pure” (page 137). She also points out that “if we want to sin, we will find a way” and “this doesn’t mean that the rules are wrong” or that there shouldn’t be rules (page 165). I also appreciated her encouragement to stop trying to make abstinence sexy on page 179:

Purity culture’s main problem is not that it is too conservative, but that it is too worldly. Sex is not about self and abstinence is anything but sexy. Dressing it up as such is not only confusing, it’s discouraging. When our children realize that pursuing purity is incredibly difficult, they will wonder why we didn’t prepare them. Sometimes we think God needs to dangle carrots in front of people in order to make his message palatable, when he called us to preach a gospel of foolishness to those who are perishing, a message so offensive to our pride that we must either reject the Son or fall at his feet.

Rachel finishes by ultimately pointing to the importance of having conversations about sexual purity instead of just reading books about it. She also encourages us to not talk about purity apart from the gospel and scripture.

Conclusions & Rating:

TBPC was such a breath of fresh air. It was very gospel centered and clear. Rachel brings data with a lot of the assertions she makes. I love the encouragement to experience this book in community. She goes beyond the typical appeals to abstinence to really look at purity in Christ.

One thing that sets TBPC apart from other books examining purity culture is that Rachel didn’t set out to redefine scripture’s views on sexuality. I think this is part of the reason that most of the more negative reviews of this book have called it a repackaging of purity culture. Rachel’s dedication to scripture transcends culture and that makes her voice very valuable in the conversation. So this one gets 5 stars out of 5 from me!

Oh, Rachel was also featured on the TG podcast to talk about this book and I’ll link that for you here!
Podcast: https://bit.ly/3tYNm9I

Book: https://amzn.to/3qVYNNo

Review is also posted on GoodReads here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3736513274

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse–and Freeing Yourself from Its Power by Wade Mullen 

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