Turning on a dime: false equivalence in purity culture.

This particular day, I don’t recall who the speaker was. I don’t remember what he looked like, and I don’t even recall entirely the message he preached.

I only remember a single illustration he used.

I went to a reasonably conservative Christian school from the age of 6 through the first marking period of my junior year, when I opted to home school through their program because I believed my classmates to be worldly and a bad influence on me. (I share that mostly to illustrate that I was not always as I am now, as most people do not remain who or how they were in years past as they continue to learn and grow throughout their lives.)


At this school during my early high school days, we usually had Bible class first period (at least at the time). Friday mornings, however, Bible class was replaced by chapel. We had many guest speakers for chapel, usually local pastors or youth pastors, sometimes traveling evangelical or music teams from Christian colleges trying to recruit new students. Chapel was usually held in the gym, with the speaker pacing the basketball court while the students sat listening in the bleachers.

He called on our school’s star soccer player to stand at the boundary line of the court. He placed a dime on the free throw line and instructed the soccer player to walk at a normal pace towards the dime and stop right when he reached it. This was done, of course, with great ease. Then he sent the soccer player back to the boundary line and instructed him to all-out sprint towards the dime, still attempting to come to a complete stop. Obviously, the soccer player couldn’t do that — he rocketed far beyond the dime.

The take-away was that in sexual situations, you may think you will be able to stop before sex (the dime). And if you take things slowly, maybe you can. But if you rush things, you will never be able to stop on the dime.

I remember being blown away, thinking how wonderful an illustration that was. Tucking it away in my memory (clearly), to help me make sure that I would never, ever run full-tilt towards the sexy no-nos.

Now, a decade or so later, I realize that this is really problematic in lots of ways.

What exactly does the dime represent? Does it represent the line that we’re supposed to set for ourselves way before sex ever becomes an option? (I think I’m remembering I Kissed Dating Goodbye here.) Or is it, as I seem to remember, representing Sex With a Capital S? If the former, all you have to do is set your line back super far so if you run towards it you still don’t “sin” by having Sex. Even then, though, we’ve arrived at one of the problems of the latter: what is Sex exactly? I realize some will claim that I’m arguing semantics, but I’d like to argue that Words Mean Things, so in fact semantics are important. However, Dianna and Grace have addressed this particular problem already, so I will simply defer to their pieces on the subject and move on for the sake of this post.

Let’s assume that we all agree that Sex means penetration of some kind, and that dime represents Sex As Penetration. What does it mean to walk versus run towards the dime? Walking seems to indicate that there is slow progress being made towards a specific destination, progress that can be easily halted or reversed at any time. Running, then, would mean quick decisive progress towards a specific destination from which there can be no halting or turning back.

That means the illustration is saying if someone is running full-tilt towards Sex As Penetration, they will not be able to stop themselves from Sex As Penetration.

And that…that, my friends, is a big problem. In fact, it is a very dangerous lie.

It is a goddamn lie that a person cannot stop themselves from having sex if they have been engaging in hot and heavy sexual contact.

It’s a lie that says, “I couldn’t help myself — you got me too excited.” Or, “Look at what she was wearing! She was asking for it — I’m wired to respond to sexual stimuli. It’s her fault for stimulating me visually.”

It’s a lie that excuses lack of self control in the bedroom while completely and utterly failing to mention consent.

It is a lie that rapists use to put the blame on their victims.

And it is a lie that traps people in the mindset of, “I’ve said yes so far. I can’t say no anymore — we’re already on this course.”

Was the illustration shared that day with good intentions? Arguably, yes. While I disagree with the premise that all non-married sex is wrong, I believed that it was wrong for so long that I understand his intentions in sharing the illustration and teaching us to walk and not run towards sexual encounters. (My understanding was that by walking, by the time you reached the dime you’d be married and it was okay to step on it.) I understand that he was trying to spare us what he believed to be certain heartbreak.

That’s one of the problems of purity culture. It seeks to shelter, to save, to protect. But in doing so, unwittingly or not, it becomes benevolently sexist, perpetuating the very evil it claims to protect its adherents from, using gentler words and subtler manipulation towards the same end.

I highly recommend reading Sarah Moon‘s ongoing series, You Are Not Your Own for more in-depth analysis of purity culture and the harm it causes. Also see Dianna Anderson‘s entire blog, along with Libby Anne’s Love Joy Feminism blog and Hännah’s Immodesty Rail series. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, like me on Facebook where I share lots of articles about faith, feminism, and social awareness or follow me on Twitter where I frequently share thoughts before they become blog posts.

5 thoughts on “Turning on a dime: false equivalence in purity culture.

    • I personally think of sex as a much more widely defined thing, though still hard to pinpoint (innuendo unintentional I swear). And while much of purity culture, I’m sure, would agree that “fooling around” is sexual, I always got the impression from people to those who hadn’t experienced penis-in-orafice sex, “well, at least you didn’t ACTUALLY have sex.” For the purposes of the argument here, I thought penetration of any kind was a specific enough definition without being too explicit or nondescript. But it definitely goes back to the point of: “what is sex anyway?”

  1. I’ve been meaning for awhile now to write a post about conservative Christianity and analogies. Because so many analogies and metaphors are used to reinforce a point when the analogy means absolutely nothing. Sex is nothing like a dime. Purity is nothing like a rose or a piece of gum or a glass of water. And I feel like analogies are used as a way to deflect attention from the fact that an blunt conversation about sex would make it difficult to reinforce these same messages of purity and abstinence.

    I was just having this conversation with Caylee today about how fundie standards of sex are especially fucked up for survivors because there’s an expectation of zero to 100 on your wedding night. That’s fucking terrifying for a survivor fucked up about sex, who needs lots of safety and trust and lots and lots of time for exploration and learning that they only have to go as far as they feel comfortable with and no one has a right to demand any more. But in fundyland, the day you get married is the day your body belongs to your spouse and you don’t get that choice. So to use that analogy, they ask you to stand as far away from the dime so not to be tempted, but the day you get married, run as fast as you can and stomp all over it. That’s so, so fucking far from healthy.

    • Ohhh, the analogies. There was a video that a friend had me watch that I fell in love with as a fundy. One of the main analogies (told like a stand-up joke) in the video was that girls wearing low-cut tops was like someone waving Krispy Kremes in the faces of a girl who was dieting to fit into a prom dress. So many things wrong with that I can’t even. But at the time, I thought it was brilliant, to the point that I memorized the key points of the routine and did it as a sort of party trick. I’m not sure, but there may be video of me doing this somewhere in the world. God, I hope not.

      And absolutely about the fucked-up-ness of expecting survivors to go from zero to 100 in one day. What I loved (and love still) about being with Michael is that I felt truly emotionally and PHYSICALLY safe with him. The sexual experiences we had before we got married were deeply healing to me. You know, until the guilt of “SEX IS BAD SEX IS EVIL REPENT REPENT REPENT” got to me and I confessed and people started telling me how he couldn’t be God’s will for me because we were doing such horrible things, and all I could think was, “But…I love him, and he loves me, and I feel safe – REALLY safe! – for the first time in my entire life.” Ugh. It was such a mess. SUCH a mess.

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