Parenting Teens In Spite of Purity Culture

Photo by Bence Halmosi on Unsplash

By Stephanie Clinton

My teen years fell in the early 90’s. Winona Ryder, grunge rock, Beverly Hills 90210, Saved By The Bell, Achy Breaky Heart, The Simpsons, South Park, Beauty and the Beast, Pop Up Video, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal were part of the cultural current that carried me through high school and college. I remember exactly where I was as we watched with bated breath as the police chased OJ’s white Bronco through LA. I can picture the living room I was sitting in while tears streamed down my face in the early morning hours as I watched Princess Diana’s funeral. 

Pop culture from our teens helps define our likes and dislikes, who we hang out with, and can set a course for the type of media we consume as our tastes grow and change.

Another cultural phenomenon that played a significant role in my life and that was at the height of its powers in the 1990s was the True Love Waits movement. Also known as “Purity Culture.” 

As a teenager, I attended multiple seminars at my church about why I should wait to have sex until marriage. I read all the books that were put into my hands. My parents gave me a promise ring and I even stood up in church with the other teens from youth group and promised before God and our congregation that I would wait until marriage for sex. My body and my sexuality, (along with all the other boys and girls whose hormones were slamming up against our self-control), was everyone’s business at our church.

The message was crystal clear: drugs and alcohol were bad, but losing your virginity was something you could never take back.

I was a good girl by True Love Waits standards. Until I wasn’t. 

Fast forward nearly 30 years and I have a loving husband of 20 years, a teenager, and a pre-teen of my own. It has taken me decades to unpack the emotional and spiritual damage and manipulation inflicted upon me by the Purity Culture of the 90s.

I’m a grown-ass woman and am still reminding myself that my worth is not hidden inside my vagina and that female sexuality and pleasure are not taboo.  

Despite being a survivor of True Love Waits, I still struggle with knowing how to responsibly parent a teenager through his dating years without inflicting emotional harm. 

When our oldest was in 3rd grade, he asked how babies are made. My husband and I knew right away that it was time for “the talk”. We were honest and age appropriate. Our main objective was for him to know the facts from us; not some crazy stories from kids on the playground. We tried to emphasize that he should come to us with questions and never to be ashamed. We told him that if he heard some things from other kids that sounded strange or weird, he could always come to us and we would be open and honest with him.

Now he is a teenager and dating. We have armed him with information and often talk about respect. Respecting women, the girls at school, the girl he dates, and himself. And yet I find myself wanting to warn him about the dangers that lay in wait for him in the backseat of a car. I want to make him promise he won’t “take things too far”. I want to protect him from the potential harm that can come with having sex while you’re still in high school. In other words, I have a difficult time separating what I was taught from what I know is helpful for him. 

But I know that parenting from a place of personal trauma is not healthy. 

As a victim and survivor of Purity Culture, I find it difficult to separate my own experience with what is actually healthy parental advice for my teen.

The healthy side of me says that guilt, fear, and shame are not the way to educate children and teenagers about sex. But the scarred side of me says to protect him from the consequences of sex by just not letting it happen. 

So how do you protect a teenager from the potential consequences of sex (sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, a broken heart) without guilt and shame?

I wish I had the magic answer, but honestly, we are still figuring it out with each new development that he goes through. What I can say is that I’m thankful to have a community of faith to help us navigate these waters. 

The Youth Minister at our church knows the importance of teaching kids about safe sex and responsibility in a shame-free way. Health Ed class at school is not enough in her opinion, so she offers Sex Ed class during youth group every couple of years. It’s a place where the kids are free to ask questions without the embarrassment of mom or dad having to answer. No question is taboo and sexuality in all of its facets is discussed. Respect for self and others is discussed as well as respect and acceptance for those who love differently than the typical boy-girl dating situation.

LGBTQ+ teens are humanized and made a friend instead of an outcast. But she also teaches the importance of responsibility and the consequences of actions taken in the heat of the moment. She brings in a physician to talk about safe sex, the different options available to boys and girls, and what those options protect them from. She empowers girls to take control of their bodies, to know their rights, and not just leave things up to chance when it comes to sexual activity. 

Knowing that other loving adults have had the awkward conversations gives my husband and me the confidence to start our own conversations with our kids. Knowing that the groundwork has been set, we can periodically bring up topics and (attempt) to have a mature and open conversation about relationships and sex.

Knowing that my kids are receiving healthy messages and knowledge about sexuality from our place of worship helps heal the resentment I still hold toward my teenage church. Seeing a Youth Minister affirm the gay kids in our church lets me know that church can be a safe and inclusive space, that guilt and fear do not have to be a part of the faith experience.

For me and my husband, what it comes down to is that kids will make their own decisions when it comes to sex. We can arm them with information and encourage them to be responsible, but we can’t force or guilt them to behave a certain way. They are their own, and no matter what decisions they make, we will love them.

*Love this essay? Buy me a coffee. It’s like a tip jar for our writers.*

Stephanie Clinton has been pouring out her heart through blogging for 10 years and
unmolding Jello molds on YouTube for 4 years. More blog posts about faith and
family and retro recipes than you can shake a stick at can be found at
www.hugskissesandsnot.com and www.youtube.com/recipearchaeology.

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