Born and raised within a typical Adventist community I am well aware of the doctrines and beliefs that are important and give pride to Adventists. Ever since reaching the age of puberty, school teachers at my private SDA school—as well as my youth pastors—emphasized having sex only within the sanctity of marriage. As awkward as these discussions would be, it would never stop my authorities from pushing their opinion onto me. They would link threats with sex as being “an unforgiveable sin” or if I have sex before marriage “the relationship would inevitably end in pain” and I would go to hell for it. It did not stop within our schools and churches, but every single youth group retreat I went to, whether it be camping, Christian concerts, etc. they would always have some time reserved for a “purity” talk. I always remember how the boys were taught to respect girls, and instead of being condemned for sex they’d be condemned for masturbation and lust, but girls were taught to be pure, and leave men wondering. “Don’t give everything away at once,” we were told. The burden of purity was placed upon the girls. I distinctly remember during my senior year in high school the bible teacher decided to show us a series of DVDs of a woman who held seminars about premarital teen sex at high schools. She would threaten the girls with heartbreaks, STDs, bastard children, and no hope for a better life. I knew for a fact that most of the girls in my class were not virgins. Afterward they would confide in me how the DVDs made them feel dirty, unclean, hopeless and angry. In a new book, The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti explores the results of abstinence-only purity education is damaging the youth of today.
Valenti makes it very clear throughout her book that she is not advocating for teens everywhere to have as much premarital sex as they can; rather, she is arguing that teens should better understand their options. Within the book she uncovers how abstinence-only programs, funded by the government with tax-payer money, lie to teens about sexual health. They misinform teens how condoms are highly ineffective and how they do not provide protection against STDs, HIV, and pregnancy. The abstinence-only programs mostly unsuccessful, and because of these fallacies, it leaves young people vulnerable to unintended pregnancy and sexual diseases.
As Adventists we take great pride in our health message. Why not add proper sexual health education to it? Instead of attempting to scare teens into practicing abstinence, they should be taught that if they should choose to have sex, they may encounter mental and physical health consequences. Rather than simply promoting a choice that only a small fraction make, we should be teaching them how to properly protect themselves. As Valenti further investigates abstinence-only programs she uncovers how the purity myth centers female value primarily on their sexuality (and at the same time, their lack of it). Instead of women being valued and respected for their humanity, their purity is examined on how many sexual partners she’s had. Within the Adventist church a lot of “slut shaming” takes place. We tell youth, especially young women that if they have premarital sex they are less valuable—that they are a dirty, used thing that no one would want. Whether through direct or indirect action, the Adventist Church and other Christian institutions try to control and suppress women's sexuality.
However, there’s more to the purity myth than the sexual. Valenti uncovers that sexuality isn’t the only factor within the “purity myth.” The more the woman acts like an innocent girl, stays away from affairs outside the home, and shies away from anything sexual, the more of a valued woman she is. The purity myth that Adventists indulge in is more about power and control than it is about sexual purity. If we look at the modern Adventist church today there is a great controversy over ordaining women into pastoral position. If we believe in the equality of the sexes, than why is it so hard to let a woman pastor a church? The main women we see within the church either are leaders within the children programs, or pastor wives. Even within the pastor wives I see women who are homemakers and whose main duty is to make people feel comfortable, and to be a nurturing, compassionate and tender women to those in the church who are new to the church or in need of spiritual healing. These positions chain women to their gender role of home life, even within the church. It seems like their total humanity is forgotten and they are only seen for how good of a woman they are. Valenti is arguing that women need to be seen as humans with the freedom to safely decide to have premarital sex or not. Women need to be able to make their decisions free from community humiliation, slut shaming, religious institutions, and societal values.
Taking what Jessica Valenti wrote about the purity myth and applying it to Adventism, we see one analogous characteristic—free will. As Adventists we believe in abstinence but we also believe that God gave us the free will to decide if we want to follow him or not. As Christians who want to reflect God’s character, instead of attempting to scare our fellow humans into doing the right thing, we should empower them to make their own choices. We need to help teenagers and young adults choose their own actions about what they need and want to do in their sexual lives. Every Adventist young person should read The Purity Myth to help them understand that their value as a person is not dependent on their sexual life. Although Adventists believe in abstinence, we must educate our youth in a way that protects them while giving them realistic expectations. Adventists need to tear down the purity myth and replace it with a culture of better information. In return as we tear down this institutionalized misogamy we create strong, guilt-free independent leaders of the future for our Adventist church and also create a more accepting atmosphere within our church.
—Jesemynn Cacka grew up in Wenatchee, Washington and studies at Pacific Union College.