From Abstinence to Purity
The Changing Tropes of Chastity
There is nothing like a pregnant teenage daughter of an anti-comprehensive sex education politician to thrust sexual abstinence into the national spotlight. Within days of the 2008 selection of the relatively unknown Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be the running mate of John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, the campaign announced that the governor's seventeen-year-old unwed daughter, Bristol, was pregnant.
Two months after giving birth to her son, Tripp, Bristol Palin decided to claim some of the spotlight to tell her own story. In one of the more awkward television interviews in recent memory, the Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren tossed softball questions to the then eighteen-year-old Palin, who answered with a disarming teenage frankness. There is plenty here to cheer about for advocates of choice and those who oppose abstinence education as the sole means of sex education. In response to a question about whether Bristol's antiabortion mother forced her to keep the baby, she replied, "It was my choice to have the baby. It doesn't matter what my mom's views are on it, it was my decision, and I wish people would have realized that, too." In an echo of the feminist battle cry of "my body, my choice" for a new generation, Bristol asserted burgeoning adolescent agency to insist that the decision to keep the baby was her own. Yet with heartbreaking candor she emphasized repeatedly during the interview that she wished motherhood would have happened ten years later. Like any new mother, Bristol marveled at her son's smiles and coos. She also acknowledged that motherhood was turning out to be different than she thought it would be: "Well, it's not just the baby that's hard. It's just, like, I'm not living for myself anymore."
Bristol Palin echoed her mother's prolife stance, affirming that teens should wait to get pregnant (and presumably wait to have sex) "because it's so much easier if you're married and if you have a house and a career and-it's just so much easier." But what set the blogosphere abuzz was Bristol's apparently contradictory acknowledgment that abstinence is unrealistic for teenagers: "I think abstinence is, like-like, the-I don't know how to put it-like, the main-everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it's not realistic at all," she told Van Susteren, awkwardly pushing back her hair as she struggled for words. As Bristol went on to say, abstinence is unrealistic because having sex is more accepted among teenagers. So of course abstinence seems unrealistic if everyone around you is having sex outside marriage. Everybody's doing it, or at least that's what everybody thinks.
In her adolescent vernacular Bristol Palin restated an essential argument of the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns: that today's culture of sex portrays abstinence as an unrealistic option for teenagers. This claim is supported by scientific studies, which are significantly influencing the use of federal funds for abstinence education in public schools. But evangelicals have a loftier aim in the abstinence campaigns than scientifically proven effectiveness. As Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written, "The real issue for Christian teenagers and their parents is not to debate whether sexual abstinence before marriage is realistic or not. The larger and more important issue is that sexual abstinence until marriage is the biblical expectation and command. Once this is realized, the responsibility of all concerned is to ensure that expectations and structures are in place so that abstinence is realistic."
The contemporary American evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns began in the early 1990s as a reaction to what was perceived as a hypersexualized culture in which abstinence is viewed as unrealistic and teenagers are assumed to have no choice but to have sex. Against this societal depiction of teenagers as hormone-driven automatons, the evangelical abstinence campaigns portray teenagers as choice-making agents with the power to control their own bodies. American evangelicals construct sexual abstinence as a choice. Key words such as choice, choose, decision, and decide fill abstinence books and events. The focus of the message is that teenagers do not have to succumb to hormonal urges, peer pressure, or the dictates of a sex-saturated culture; they can choose not to have sex. Abstinence events are structured to make a case in support of abstinence, then to conclude by giving participating teenagers an opportunity to choose abstinence until marriage and to declare their choice publicly by signing and submitting a pledge card (True Love Waits); standing and accepting a pearl necklace (Pure Freedom); or receiving a Bible and donning a ring, signing a covenant, and standing and reading the covenant aloud (Silver Ring Thing).
The contemporary evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns began in response to what evangelical leaders regarded as a "condom culture" in which teens were expected to be sexually active. The abstinence campaigns seek to expand sexual behavior choices by offering abstinence as a viable alternative to promiscuity. Far from being merely one option among many, abstinence is portrayed as the correct choice for teens. Abstinence is recast as a positive call to a life of purity. In addition, the movement defines virginity in a manner that enhances the agency of teens: it claims that virginity is a gift that teens have the agency to lose, find, take, and give. Obedience to God is downplayed as the health benefits of abstinence are emphasized.
The rhetoric of abstinence goes beyond trying to convince teenagers not to have sex. It also shapes the identity of the evangelical community as a whole. The evangelical abstinence campaigns function both to control the liminality of teenagers and underscore the symbolic boundaries between evangelicals and secular society. The sociologist Christian Smith argues that American evangelicals are thriving because they see themselves as embattled. They define themselves oppositionally: to be an evangelical (part of the in-group) is not to be part of secular society (the out-group). Yet evangelicals are not modern-day monastics, separate from the rest of society. Smith says that evangelicals thrive on "distinction, engagement, tension, [and] conflict" with secular society. This engagement has shaped the rhetoric of evangelicals. The abstinence campaigns themselves display a form of liminality or border crossing. The campaigns seek to reinforce symbolic boundaries, but they also seek legitimacy and persuasive power through the reclamation of rhetorical forms used by secular society.
Context of No Choice
According to the cofounders of True Love Waits, the largest and oldest of the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns, the prevailing cultural attitude in the early 1990s was that true love couldn't wait. Richard Ross and Jimmy Hester insisted that it could. "The overarching message of adults to teenagers was, 'We do not believe you can control your sexuality,'" recalls Ross, a professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "The surgeon general of the United States looked square in the cameras in 1993 and said the American teenager is incapable of controlling his or her sexuality."
The mass distribution of condoms in public schools in the early 1990s signaled to evangelical leaders that society assumed that teenagers had no choice but to be sexually active. "We know you are going to have sex anyway," the government-funded programs seemed to say, "so when you do, at least use a condom." Hester, director of student ministry publishing for LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, saw this as a culture of promiscuity. He recalls, "The perception of students was, at least what we were hearing, the perception of students was that everybody is sexually active, that adults expect us to be that way, and so they're providing us these options to keep us safe in that.... Whether that was true or not, that was what they were hearing. And so the expectation was there."
Some evangelical sexual abstinence leaders single out groups like Planned Parenthood for their harshest critique, charging that the organization assumes that "nobody really does abstinence." Instead, abstinence leaders say that Planned Parenthood promotes recreational sex through its condom distribution, based on a faulty assumption that teens lack agency to control their sexuality. Kristi Hayes, director of government relations for the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a government-funded umbrella organization serving more than thirty-six hundred abstinence affiliates, says, "A lot of things that people will try to get you to believe is every teenager is having sex, so we've got to give them condoms. Every teenager. And that's not true."
Planned Parenthood, however, is not alone in being blamed for promoting unbridled sexual activity. Evangelical sexual abstinence leaders frequently castigate mass media-and MTV in particular-for assuming teenagers have no choice but to be sexually active. A history of the True Love Waits campaign describes the sex-saturated culture: "In the early 1990s, teenagers were being bombarded with sexual messages from advertisers, television producers, movie makers, fashion designers, and media channels of very form. This led to a common belief among teenagers that everyone was having sex-especially their peers." Joe McGarry, a program director for Silver Ring Thing, says he tries to "find a way to communicate that maybe life isn't like a Nelly video." Paraphrasing the popular MTV recording artist, McGarry says, "I've been around a lot and I've been in very many hot places. Just because 'it's getting hot in here,' it doesn't necessarily mean we're all 'taking off all our clothes.'" Denny Pattyn, the founder of Silver Ring Thing, tells his teenage audience that adults have created the sex-obsessed culture that teens now are forced to live in: "Forgive us, we adults, who have done this to you.... I challenge you to be the generation of change."
The evangelical abstinence message is positioned as an expansion of choice (adding the option not to have sex) as well as the affirmation of teen agency to make the right choice in the context of a culture that asserts the absence of teen choice. The symbolic boundary is clear: sexualized "MTV culture" is the out-group. Avoiding sex is characteristic of the in-group. The argument for abstinence is a refashioning of the protofeminist argument of "my body, my choice."
Part of what makes abstinence sexy is the campaigns' construction of its audience as autonomous, choice-making individuals who have the ability to control their bodies and wait for sex. Here, agency is symbolically constructed through rhetoric. This is a necessary step in the process of persuasion: teenagers must be rhetorically constructed as agents with the power to choose before they can be persuaded to choose abstinence. Agency is offered as reclamation of power: evangelicals adopt the persona of victim, claiming that society is telling teens that bodies are uncontrollable and that sex is inevitable, a position from which agency must be reclaimed and restored. The role of the victim is a powerful stance in persuasion. Making oneself weak in order to (re)claim agency offers a narrative of overcoming and triumph that is absent from a normative understanding of agency. If the possession of agency is the status quo, then self-identification as an agent contains little transformative power. The claim of agency from a self-proclaimed stance of victim (the ultimate nonagent or absence of agency) rhetorically constructs a type of rebirth that is more powerful than mere agency. Portraying the rest of society as hypersexualized and evangelicals as marginalized creates rhetorical space for evangelicals to reclaim power and to motivate a generation of young people to make the right choices with their bodies.
Right and Wrong Choices
There may be an expansion of choice in the rhetoric of the abstinence campaigns, but there is clearly one right or correct choice, and that is to choose sexual abstinence until marriage. Sexual activity and sexual abstinence both may be available options for American teenagers, but the evangelical abstinence campaigns are clear that choosing to wait is the best option. Instead of merely stating the prohibition and expecting teens to obey, evangelical leaders appeal to the adolescents' budding sense of self-determination while at the same time presenting compelling arguments for what the leaders feel is the best choice. By focusing on the power to choose instead of merely the one best choice of abstinence, evangelical leaders affirm teens' developing sense of agency, changing a negative proposition of "Stop" or "Do not" into "I will" or "I choose."
Mary Douglas contends, following Emile Durkheim, that "holiness and impurity are at opposite poles." Dirt, or impurity, is "matter out of place." For the abstinence campaigns, sexuality manifested in the body of a teenager-in that liminal state between childhood and adulthood-is matter out of place and must be managed. Yet, as the previous examples suggest, social control takes place as a liberal call to choose. The invitation to choose to wait to have sex reinforces symbolic boundaries between evangelicals and the rest of society, but the invitation itself crosses that symbolic boundary to reappropriate the rhetoric of choice.
Consequences is a key word repeated in books, at events, and among campaign leaders. All three highlight the negative consequences of making the wrong choice, nonmarital sex. Pure Freedom makes a distinction between "poor choices" and "wise, head-defined choices." Poor choices such as sexual activity have negative consequences, including emotional stress, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Kristi Hayes of Abstinence Clearinghouse says that she hopes to see students she works with make "right choices": "I've worked with students before who were not able to save themselves, made wrong choices, and they're living with that consequence. I've also seen those who have decided to wait and have incredible marriages and don't have to carry some of those consequences." The abstinence message points out negative consequences of making the wrong decision, but overall the campaigns focus more on the positive consequences of making the right decision, for abstinence. By placing a higher value on one choice, choice rhetoric appears to be a false construction. Although the campaigns may present one correct choice, the power of choice rhetoric is displayed in the construction of the teenage audience as choice-making individuals.
Of course, the loophole in the construction of this argument is that the audience may claim its agency and make the "wrong choice," for sexual activity. Here the burden of proof lies in the evangelical leaders' ability to present the one right choice of abstinence as the best and most appealing choice for teenagers to make. One way that the evangelical abstinence campaigns do this is to turn an essentially negative prohibition into a positive choice by focusing on a call to purity.
From Prohibition to Admonition: Purity as the Positive Choice
A key rhetorical construction of the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns is a shift from a negative focus of "just say no" to sex before marriage to a positive focus of "just say yes" to sex within marriage. Although "to abstain from" is essentially negative-a call to prohibition-evangelicals place more emphasis on the positive aspects of waiting for sex within marriage. The evangelical sexual abstinence message rhetorically transforms a negative message of "abstain from" to a positive message of "wait for." Trumpeting the positive benefits of sexual intercourse does not attract much disagreement from a teenage audience, but that may be precisely the point: the positive transformation of abstinence begins with the presumption held by the campaigns' primary audience (teenagers) that sex is good, establishing the positive ethos of the rhetors, instead of perpetuating a negative stereotype of dour-faced, puritanical disciplinarians who insist that sex is bad.
The origin of the contemporary evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns is located in a desire to shift from a negative to a positive focus. The True Love Waits cofounders frequently use the word positive in describing the campaign. In his description of how True Love Waits was formed out of an interdepartmental committee at LifeWay to create Christian sex education materials, Ross says, "Increasingly, we were feeling there ought to be some kind of positive message, some kind of positive challenge to young people related to their sexual expression." Hester recounts that there seemed to be a number of negative public campaigns in the early 1990s, like the "Just Say No" campaign (which began in the 1980s) to combat drug abuse. It was in that context that Hester says the LifeWay committee was brainstorming names for its abstinence campaign: "We were just trying to think of different names and different thoughts, trying to find something that was positive, not negative in nature.... There were a lot of negative themes going around to students, and we thought there needed to be something positive." "True Love Waits" answered the question of why teenagers should wait to have sex, instead of just telling them not to have sex. Hester says that teenagers have told him that they like the name because of its positive focus.
Pure Freedom also was formed out of a motivation for a positive focus. Dannah Gresh, founder of Pure Freedom, says that when she and her husband began their abstinence ministry in 1996, they had an intense disdain for the word abstinence: "We said there's got to be another word. Abstinence is like 'Protestant.' It's like such a negative word. Like yes, we are the protesters; yes, we are the abstainers. It's such an awful word. Really, it is."
From Abstinence to Purity
A primary way that the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns maintain a positive construction of an essentially negative proposition is in the rhetorical shift from abstinence to purity. Although the positive construction of abstinence focuses on waiting for great sex within marriage, the behavior of waiting is passive. The rhetorical shift from abstinence to purity provides a positive and active behavior for youth to pursue.
A focus on purity allows the campaigns to issue a positive active call to pursue purity, instead of dwelling on a list of specific don'ts that qualify as abstinence: "Abstinence is about not having sex. Purity and sexual integrity is about waiting to have it right," writes Dannah Gresh's husband, Bob, in his book for teenage boys, Who Moved the Goalpost?. This quotation appears next to a photo of a smiling teenage boy with the caption, "Fun sex is blessed by God," connecting the focus on purity with a positive view of sex. Apart from the context of purity, the "blessing of God" on "fun sex" could appear to be an invitation for nonmarital sex. Instead, the call to purity challenges youth to wait to have sex "right." Purity also extends to behaviors beyond just sex. According to the Silver Ring Thing Sexual Abstinence Study Bible, "Purity is a way of life. It has to do with the way you dress, the way you act, what you think, and what you say. Purity is not about what you can not do but rather about treasuring who you are." Instead of emphasizing prohibitions in dress, thought, action, and speech, purity emphasizes the positive freedom to "treasure who you are."
Some campaign leaders talk about purity as an inward process or motivation that influences behavioral choices. Jimmy Hester relates purity to a state of mind: "Purity then speaks to your thoughts, which could lead to the behavior, or your attitudes in other things." Suzy Weibel, a Pure Freedom retreat facilitator, describes purity in terms of identity, in contrast to the behavioral focus of abstinence. For her, purity is about being rather than doing: "I think abstinence is a definition of a conscious choice that a person makes, and I think purity needs to become more of a person's identity, who the person is. So abstinence is probably behavior related, whereas purity is identity related."
If purity encompasses a wider range of abstinent behaviors than merely sexual abstinence, one could abstain from nonmarital sex and not be living a pure life, as Pure Freedom's Dannah Gresh, points out: "Well, you can abstain from sex and not be pure, I think. Purity is more all encompassing. It's about your thought life. It's about your emotional life. It's about everything, whereas abstinence is obviously a lot more about the technicality of sex." In the context of purity, sexual abstinence becomes a moral decision, part of a broader call to a morally pure lifestyle.
The emphasis of the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns on purity is a relatively recent rhetorical construction in the campaigns' views on abstinence. The evolution of the wording of the True Love Waits pledge offers an example of the abstinence-to-purity transformation. The original True Love Waits pledge says, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually pure until the day I enter a covenant marriage relationship." The wording of the pledge reflects the campaign's original focus on abstinence until marriage but unintentionally denigrates traditional marriage by suggesting that the commitment to purity lasts only until marriage begins. One True Love Waits staff member challenged the use of "sexually pure," questioning why sex within a monogamous, faithful marriage relationship would not also be considered pure. The pledge was soon reworded: "To be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."
The most significant rewording of the pledge, according to campaign staff, occurred in 2003 in response to the increasing popularity of the word purity in sexual abstinence circles: the word kept "popping up," according to cofounder Jimmy Hester. He also says that the rewording was an attempt to define abstinence, but the change actually allowed the campaign to avoid specific do's and don'ts of what it means to be abstinent. As of 2003, the True Love Waits pledge read, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until I enter a biblical marriage relationship." Hester points to the sexual scandal involving President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, an intern, as inadvertently raising the purity issue. "Our former president helped with that in some ways because [of] the whole oral sex issue," Hester recalls. " 'Is this sex? Is this not sex? What do we mean by abstinence?' We get that question a lot. 'How far do you go before you say you're abstinent? Is it sexual intercourse? Is that where you draw the line?' And so I think the purity issue came up."
This shift from abstinence to purity has the practical result of eliminating the need for evangelical abstinence campaigns to explicitly define what constitutes sex. Instead of being forced to make lists of acceptable and unacceptable sexual activity, the campaigns can focus on purity, thus subsuming sexual activity under the general category of lifestyle choices that are pleasing to God. Purity, then, involves more than mere sexual abstinence: it involves what movies one watches, what clothes one wears, and the people with whom one associates. The passive stance of waiting for true love becomes an active choice. Purity becomes a general call to enact the spiritual decision of a Christian to follow Christ as a physical decision of Christlike lifestyle behavior, not unlike the sentiment proposed by the popular Christian catchphrase, "What would Jesus do?"
In its books and events, Pure Freedom emphasizes that "purity is a process." At one of Pure Freedom's mother-daughter events in the Chicago area in 2004, Dannah Gresh pointed to a vertical black line projected on a screen in front of attendees. She said that this line represents a misguided definition of purity: anything to the left of the line, even if it is close to the line, is purity, and anything that crosses the line is impurity. She said that many girls come close to the line by dressing provocatively, acting "boy crazy," and engaging in physical exploration but technically are still virgins. "We think that virginity is purity," she told the attendees. "But virginity doesn't equal purity." Another slide was projected on the screen-a spiral line and a small ugly cartoon face with horns-which Gresh told the attendees is God's definition of purity. Citing Bible verses, she said that individuals are not born pure, but they can become pure through the gift of Christ's salvation. Expect that temptations and lust (the horned figure) will come, but as one chooses to obey God, one continues on the spiral path and becomes pure. This portrayal of purity allows for a rhetorical reconstruction of virginity while avoiding a legalistic list of do's and don'ts regarding sexually abstinent behavior.
Virginity Lost, Found, Taken, and Given
A primary example of this portrayal of teenagers as choice-making individuals is found in the rhetorical construction of "second virginity," also called renewed virginity, or revirginization. True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, and Pure Freedom all contain a message of second virginity. Although physical virginity ceases to exist after a person engages in sexual intercourse, the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns construct virginity as essentially rhetorical, using language to reconstruct symbolically a physical state of being.
Second virginity is portrayed as a positive outcome of the spiritual act of repentance and forgiveness of sexual sin. It allows sexually active teens to choose virginity again. As Josh McDowell writes in his book, Why True Love Waits, "No one can regain his or her physical virginity. That's lost forever. But I really believe that one's spiritual and emotional virginity can be regained." The second virginity message acknowledges that some audience members already may have chosen a sexually active lifestyle, but the choice for sexual abstinence is always an option. The significance of this message is that it does not exclude anyone from the potential audience: the choice for abstinence is always an option, regardless of previous choices.
The theological basis for second virginity relies on God's forgiving nature. As the popular contemporary Christian recording artist and True Love Waits spokesperson Rebecca St. James sings in her song "Wait for Me," "Now I know you may have made mistakes / But there's forgiveness, and a second chance. So wait for me." The current version of the True Love Waits pledge declares sexual abstinence "from this day until I enter a biblical marriage relationship," and this phrasing allows sexually active pledgers to be free from their past and start over, living sexually abstinent lives. Silver Ring Thing events offer an evangelical altar call for the forgiveness of sins before the purity ring ceremony: "I don't know why you came, but only God can make sure you leave here with your sins forgiven. You need to let God wipe that slate clean. Then you put on the ring," Denny Pattyn, Silver Ring Thing founder, told a 2004 crowd in the Boston area, with Bible in hand.
The concept of second virginity allows evangelical leaders to share the abstinence message with the largest possible teen audience, both sexually active and abstinent teens. But the concept also could function as a "get out of jail free" card for teens who are looking for a way to make an abstinence pledge after they first have enjoyed a sexually active life. Silver Ring Thing's McGarry recalls hearing of such conversion stories when he was a teenager: "They got to have their cake and eat it, too. They lived this life of fun, but then they got to have God at the end." McGarry says he followed that example, and although he was raised in a Christian family, he began engaging in sexual activity at age sixteen.
Rebecca St. James denies that forgiveness and second virginity encourage carefree sexual behavior. During a break from her performance at a True Love Waits rally in Dallas in 2004, St. James told me, "That's why, whenever I talk about this, I talk about the consequences, you know, STDs [sexually transmitted diseases], AIDS, pregnancy outside of marriage, emotional consequences, and I kind of lay out there.... So I don't think anybody would walk away from hearing me talk about it and going, 'Oh, well, I'm just going to have sex because I can get forgiven.' I think they know there are consequences of your actions." McGarry too says he now tries to warn teenage boys of the consequences of nonmarital sex: "I'll very intentionally say, 'Listen, if I could go back and do everything over, I would do everything differently. You don't want the issues I have with my marriage.'" But he also acknowledges the appeal of second virginity to teenagers who feel invincible and are unconcerned with threats of emotional consequences.
In private interviews and public testimonials, sexual debut is frequently referred to as the occasion when one "lost" one's virginity. This is an interesting rhetorical construction of limited agency, considering that in almost all cases the sexual debut is between consenting individuals. It is as if one unintentionally misplaced one's virginity, even though one knowingly consented to giving it up. The concept of being spiritually lost is familiar in the evangelical context, with New Testament parables of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a prodigal son all suggesting the redemptive act of Jesus as saving the lost through his crucifixion and resurrection. Being spiritually lost allows the possibility of being spiritually found in and by Jesus. In a similar way, the popular rhetorical construction of losing one's virginity supports the evangelical concept of second virginity in that it relies on the power of God's forgiveness to "find" it again.
The exception to this rhetorical construction of sexual debut as lost virginity is in situations of rape or sexual abuse. In these cases the sexual activity is described as one's virginity being "taken away." Virginity that is taken away is not lost. Thus a victim of sexual abuse does not need to renew his or her virginity since it was never lost. True Love Waits makes the distinction between consensual sex and nonconsensual abuse in When True Love Doesn't Wait: "If you consented to the sexual acts, then you can receive a second virginity.... Virginity has to be given away, not taken. If you were forced to have sex, you did not lose your virginity." The distinction places blame for the abuse on the abuser: "This concept is invaluable for several reasons. It places responsibility where it belongs, assists with your recovery, and may keep any other teenagers from being mistreated as you were. Virginity is more of a mind-set and an attitude of purity than it is a physical feature," one book counsels. Claiming virginity as more attitudinal than physical creates space for the rhetorical construction of a second virginity where what was lost becomes found. In the case of sexual abuse, virginity was never lost.
Central to the distinction between consensual nonmarital sex/lost virginity/found second virginity and nonconsensual sex/maintained virginity/found recovery is the rhetorical construction of virginity as a gift. The gift of physical virginity can be taken in sexual abuse, but it is meant to be given to one's spouse on one's wedding night. Virginity as a gift strengthens one's agency and ability to choose when and to whom to give it. Virginity that is lost does not suggest an active choice to give it away. By describing virginity as a gift, the evangelical abstinence message that sex is meant only for marriage empowers virgin teens to choose when and to whom to give their gift. In this way, consensual marital sex consists of a mutual giving and receiving of gifts of virginity.
Although second virginity is portrayed as an acceptable option, the gift of first-time virginity is portrayed as possessing higher value. Choosing to be sexually abstinent as a teenager endows the gift of virginity with increased value, which is portrayed as a significant gift to one's future spouse. An important part of the evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns is the use of various material symbols to represent the spiritual gift of virginity, which, when given to a future spouse, becomes both a material and a representational gift. The purity ring is perhaps the most popular symbol. The purity ring symbolizes the gift of virginity and the commitment to preserve the gift until one's wedding day, as I discuss in chapter 2. The use of the purity ring demonstrates the agency of teens to control their sexuality and give it away in marriage, as well as the positive focus on the evangelical abstinence movement to emphasize the benefits of the good marriage over the negative consequences of nonmarital sex.
Abstinence as a Healthy Choice
The rhetorical shift from abstinence to purity among evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns is perhaps not surprising, given biblical admonitions to live a pure and sin-free life. Here the rhetoric of purity is an example of audience-centered persuasion, using religiously inflected rhetoric to appeal to a primarily religious audience. What is perhaps more unexpected is that evangelical leaders position the abstinence campaign as a health campaign, not a spiritual revival. Whereas the abstinence events assume the form of youth revival meetings or Bible studies or church retreats, complete with altar calls, their content uses religious language to promote healthy lifestyle habits. Here spirituality is in service to public policy, as abstinence educators emphasize the practical health implications of choosing abstinence, namely, a reduction in teenage pregnancies (and the subsequent need for abortions) and the transmission of STDs, both of which have societal impact in welfare and public health policy. Abstinence is promoted as the "100 percent effective" way to stop unwanted pregnancies and STDs, regardless of whether one believes in Jesus Christ or not. Although evangelical leaders believe that abstinence is God's design for human sexual behavior, they say they promote it because it works.
It's a savvy argumentation structure that begins with a moral and religious commitment and ends with a pragmatic and secular outcome. The commitment to sexual abstinence may be made to God, but the benefit of abstinence is received by the individual and society at large. Evangelical leaders demonstrate astute attention to tailoring their message for particular audiences, including an understanding that "God-talk" is not particularly persuasive in the public sphere. Instead, they focus on the effectiveness of abstinence at solving social ills such as unwanted pregnancy (and corresponding problems of welfare dependency and abortion) and the transmission of STDs. Abstinence becomes the ultimate solution for abortion, dismissing the current stasis of debate about when life begins by offering fail-safe prevention for unwanted pregnancy. To their public audience, evangelical leaders downplay the commandments of God and emphasize the pragmatic fact that abstinence works.
This bifurcated argument reveals the evangelical abstinence campaigns' double position of appealing to the church and secular society. Evangelical abstinence educators use the rhetoric of health instead of the rhetoric of religion in order to convince the public audience that abstinence education is effective. In doing so, evangelicals open the possibility of a back-door channel for evangelization: if abstinence works and abstinence is part of God's plan for humanity, then God and his plan must work.
According to the evangelical leaders, abstinence works because it promotes a healthy lifestyle that benefits children, families, and society. In response to a question about the most effective argument for abstinence, Kristi Hayes of Abstinence Clearinghouse offered a health-focused response: "It's the one-hundred-percent way to keep your kids healthy. Why in the world wouldn't we want our kids to be a hundred percent healthy? Why wouldn't we give them that choice?" The choice, as she describes it, is to be healthy or not. Hayes defines nonmarital sex as unhealthy because it can lead to unwanted pregnancy, STDs, and emotional distress. Teen health is her focus: "I think the main issue is the students' health. That is what we're focused on.... I think it's about keeping teens healthy," she says.
Concerned Women for America's Wendy Wright describes the healthy lifestyle that comes from sexual abstinence as benefiting more than just the individual: "So when you've got a healthy lifestyle, then you're on a better track to having a healthier marriage, healthier family life, healthier career, because you're not obsessed with all these personal problems. So it leads to better individual lives and then also better family lives, and family being the foundation of society, it helps all society.... And so if you can promote self-control and discipline and a mind-set that is focused on healthy living through abstinence, that can have an effect in other areas of your life." According to Wright, abstinence is a foundational building block of a healthy society, not just a key element in adolescent health.
Although all the abstinence events included in this study contained a type of altar call or an evangelical plea for individuals to accept Jesus Christ as their savior, interview respondents insist that religious conversion is not the main focus of the abstinence events. Hester of True Love Waits insists that encouraging conversion is "not the purpose of it. That's almost been a serendipity thing.... We've had students in rallies and other places who, in our case, have come to know Jesus Christ because of the message, but that wasn't necessarily the intent of the message." He goes on to describe the intent of the message as encouraging young people to make a pledge to remain sexually abstinent until marriage: "But they realize, 'Okay, if I'm going to make that commitment, it says something about my spirit and my faith, and I need to make this commitment also.'"
Religious conversion may not be the explicit focus of the abstinence campaigns, but crafting a broad message that appeals to Christians and non-Christians alike is central to the campaigns' public aims. Silver Ring Thing's emphasis on the forms of popular secular culture is a strategy to boost Silver Ring Thing's ethos with its teenage audience. "We have to earn the right to be heard," says founder Denny Pattyn. "I'm focusing on the guy in the backseat who didn't want to come tonight." Pattyn boasts that the first half of the Silver Ring Thing show is intentionally focused on humor, "not pity laughs, but really funny," in order to engage the attention of the proverbial guy in the back row. Pattyn emphasizes the lack of Christian jargon as a positive example of the broad appeal of Silver Ring Thing's message.
Some interview respondents portray religious faith as a supplement to the abstinence commitment, providing abstinence pledgers with a transcendent reason for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In this sense, religious conversion is a secondary, not primary, aim of the abstinence events. Silver Ring Thing's Joe McGarry says that his organization's focus is on abstinence commitments, not religious commitments. "When we talk about success of shows, we talk about rings on fingers and then faith commitments, ... so obviously it's not a primary metric of success. And yet if you don't want to hear about God at all, hey, more power to you.... We are most concerned about your future and the future of our next generation." McGarry goes on to refute those who may say that Silver Ring Thing uses abstinence merely as a tool for religious conversion: "So that's one of the things some folks say, 'Yeah, but isn't it really just ... What's the word? ... Just telling people ... trying to convert people and you're just wrapping it up in sexual education?' I say, 'Well, no. It's about health.' We believe that faith is the best way to do that, and so for those who haven't made a faith commitment, we offer that opportunity." McGarry asserts that a faith commitment assists in maintaining an abstinence commitment, but he denies that abstinence is merely a front for a covert conversion agenda. Abstinence Clearinghouse's Hayes also denies that one has to be a Christian to make an abstinence pledge. "No one says you have to be a Christian to be abstinent or you have to do this," Hayes says. "It is the message of how do we help our teens stay healthy and make the right choices, and this is how we do it, whether you're faith based or not." Health is the primary focus of the abstinence message, but religious commitment can help when temptation is strong by providing a transcendent authority that one aspires to please.
Some evangelical leaders describe a strategic decision to use a health-focused portrayal of the evangelical abstinence movement when speaking to a nonevangelical or secular audience. Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America says, "When I talk to a secular group, I usually frame it in terms of women's well-being. What is best for women. What is best for children." When Hester is interviewed on secular radio stations, he recounts how the interviewer often tries to get him to talk about Christian hot-button topics such as abortion or homosexuality in order to expose him for being more concerned about issues of faith than the social issue itself: "They want to pin you as a flaming evangelical Christian person. And so the way to defuse that real quick is to say, 'Okay, let's don't talk about anything related to faith. Let's just talk about the commonsense reality of sexual abstinence.' Well, then, when you start talking about health issues and social issues and those kind of things, it changes the whole tenor of the conversation, and they realize they can't do that.... They can't just pin it on as a faith issue because it's bigger than that. It really is bigger than that." Hester's response reveals a strategic choice to discuss abstinence rationally in terms of health with a secular audience that is accustomed to treating "flaming evangelical Christians" as an irrational sideshow. Focusing on the rational effectiveness of abstinence allows Hester to portray abstinence as a social issue, not a religious issue, with implications for Christians and non-Christians alike. The health focus serves to broaden the potential audience for the abstinence message while improving the image of evangelicals as rational, socially conscious individuals.
Concerned Women for America's Wright approaches abstinence from a women's health standpoint and talks about the effectiveness of abstinence as abortion prevention. Wright says that she avoids overtly religious arguments when talking to members of Congress because "it's the old thing of speak to your audience. So you use language that the person you're trying to persuade will understand and relate to." In an extended example of a related morality-based health issue, Wright recounts how in her testimony at a Food and Drug Administration hearing on a type of "morning-after" pill, she presented her case against the drug based not on a religious conviction regarding the sanctity of life but as a threat to women's health. She pointed out the inadequacies of medical studies to evaluate the hormone's impact on female adolescents, as well as the health complications that could arise if women were allowed to purchase this high dose of hormones over the counter, when low doses in the form of birth control pills still require a doctor's prescription. Wright says that when she presented similar arguments during a radio program with Sam Donaldson, callers to the program agreed with her that the drug should not be available over the counter. She says that this is in contrast to the support the drug receives when someone argues that it will reduce the number of abortions. By changing the stasis of the argument from abortion to women's health, Wright was able to make a more persuasive case.
Wright goes on to discuss how abstinence is a health preventative for both abortion and AIDS. She sees abortion as a treatment for unwanted pregnancy and argues that abstinence renders abortion unnecessary. The significance of her argument is that she portrays abstinence as a healthy lifestyle behavior that prevents unwanted effects like pregnancy and AIDS. "And so [abortion rights supporters] often treat it as these kids are going to [have sex] anyway: 'It's better that she have the abortion than be burdened with a baby,'" Wright says. "And we can point out that, no, we shouldn't be encouraging that behavior in the first place, and that would alleviate them from having to face that terrible decision."
Regarding AIDS, Wright argues that it is unpopular to offer behavioral change as a preventative measure against the disease: "And so the message is, 'Don't tell us to change our lifestyle or to change our behavior, but be there to clean up our mess afterwards. We want you to pay for our drugs. We want society, others to take care of us, but we don't want to be responsible for our behavior.'" The only preventative measure that is discussed, according to Wright, is the use of condoms, which she deems less effective than abstinence. Instead of viewing the condom as a medical device to prevent disease, she suggests that the condom is a tool for promiscuity. Abstinence, in contrast, is the best prevention because it is the most effective.
The physical body is a symbol of the social body. Attempts to control the physical body suggest "the desire to control or protect specific institutions and groups within that society." The evangelical sexual abstinence campaigns aim at social control through the control of teenage sexuality, underscoring the symbolic boundary between evangelicals and the rest of secular (and, they would claim, sexualized) society. Whereas the evangelical sexual abstinence rhetoric attempts to manage the liminality of teenagers, it also performs a type of liminality, appropriating feminist arguments of choice, focusing on positive calls to purity, rhetorically constructing virginity, and promoting health benefits for the individual, all for ostensibly religious ends.
A critical view of this focus on practical benefits suggests that the rhetorical border-crossing reframes evangelical rhetoric as focused on the individual, reducing its transcendence. A more positive view suggests that this what's-in-it-for-me rhetoric can strengthen religiosity by broadening appeal and demonstrating effectiveness through rational measures. In essence, God is effective when his biblical admonitions are supported by medical research, are backed by federal funding, and result in tangible benefits for the individual. God is hip when he is accompanied by attractive celebrities, loud music, and laser light shows, as I explain in the next chapter.