In Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, author Sara Moslener examines the evangelical purity movement in the United States and traces the trajectory of its history back to Cold War fundamentalism and nationalist anxieties in the 1940s and 1950s. The author focuses on two of the most influential purity organizations: Silver Ring Thing and True Love Waits and argues that they function both out of a religion of fear and a religion of accommodation. Moslener’s analysis of evangelical purity culture is thoughtful, well-articulated and captures the complexity of this powerful subculture. As an ex-evangelical, I found myself able to transfer her analysis of Silver Ring Thing onto my experiences in the church with a new understanding of where and how the toxicity of purity culture arises.
Silver Ring Thing (SRT) is a purity organization that hosts live shows for church youth groups that focus on a narrative of saving sex until heterosexual marriage using parody, drama and media. Moslener explains, “Since the mid-1990s, Silver Ring Thing has been traveling the country, as well as making numerous trips abroad, to present a live performance described as a ‘2-2.5 hour stage performance [that] incorporates high-energy music, special effects, fast-paced video, personal testimonies, and comedy all delivered in a concert-style approach with which teenagers can respond and relate’” (130). In Virgin Nation, Moslener analyzes in detail several different parts of the show. In short, she exposes the nationalist and apocalyptic anxieties behind SRT’s fast-paced shows.
Throughout the book, Moslener argues that purity culture, while rooted in a new paradigm spirituality that focuses on individualism and self-discovery, is also rooted in fears about national security. This understanding is especially insightful when placed in the context of the theology of spiritual warfare and how purity advocates link personal and national salvation to sexual purity. Part of cultivating a social environment and moral economy where the sexual purity of adolescents is tied to national security includes centralizing purity as a main tenet of Christianity and dichotomizing truth. Moslener explains, “By portraying this conflict, [Silver Ring Thing] has established a counterdiscourse that will frame the entire evening, one in which the organization posits itself as the sole arbiter of truth over and against all other value systems” (136).
Of course, Cold War anxieties are not solely responsible for modern evangelical purity culture. Moslener argues that the intersection of Victorian gender roles, first wave feminism, the political alliance between the Republican party and evangelicalism, and the formation of youth culture and adolescence, in addition to nationalism and reactions to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, have factored into purity culture. The complexity present in Moslener’s analysis allows readers to consider the ways that purity culture maintains its power and the ways it affects other facets of society.
Moslener’s analysis is not extended beyond Silver Ring Thing and True Love Waits, or the ways that such a dichotomy operates for and against different bodies. As I read Virgin Nation, I valued this academic approach, as that is the audience it is intended for, but I also think the emotional truths of those affected by this subculture are equally as valuable. For that reason, I want to extend this review beyond simply a review and offer some of the ways I now understand my experiences in the church because of her analysis.
Before reading Virgin Nation, I didn’t see a link between nationalism and sexual purity in U.S. evangelicalism. As I have processed and unlearned what I learned about myself and my body from purity culture, I had not considered what I had internalized about national security and civilizational decline. Moslener argues that evangelicalism, as a result of the Cold War, has been and is currently concerned about the decline of the United States as one of history’s great civilizations. Evangelical pundits and purity advocates such as Billy Graham have argued that “moral decay” has led to the fall of civilizations. Evangelicals have almost always linked that decay to sexuality. What this creates in evangelical spaces is the notion that the sexual purity of adolescents determines the fate of the nation. As a young, closeted (including to myself) lesbian, this created an anxiety that I only found relief for when I abandoned this theology altogether.
One of the ways Silver Ring Thing creates this anxiety is through apocalyptic imagery and equating sex outside of heterosexual marriage to grand-scale violence. Moslener describes one aspect of SRT’s live show that accomplishes this, “As part of a video presentation created and presented by an international sexual purity organization, ‘Mixed-Message Mum’ demonstrates the folly of safe-sex teachings that endorse condom use…But, the message goes beyond the personalized threat of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy and is recast into a collective or nationalized threat” (166). Moslener states that the final images of this video are accompanied by the lyrics, “‘The world says use a condom / If we told you you’d be fine, we’d be lying to your face / It’s like playing with a nuclear bomb / You could wipe out the whole human race’” (166). My church didn’t employ such a direct metaphor about national security as SRT does in this video, but as I read this, I was immediately reminded of one experience at a purity retreat I attended in high school. For most of this particular retreat, the girls and boys were separated. Our female leaders had us sit in a circle while the lights were dimmed and someone gently strummed an acoustic guitar. We were each given a tea cup. The leaders described the innocence, purity and beauty of a tea cup they held up at the front of the room. They said that this represented who we were as virgins and that we would continue to stay this way if we “saved ourselves for marriage.” Then, they shattered the tea cup on the ground and said it represented women who didn’t save themselves until marriage. This sort of violent, horrific imagery is easy to internalize, especially when it is placed in the larger context of “spiritual warfare.”
As Moslener articulated, evangelicalism posits itself as the “sole arbiter of truth.” Violence is central to that worldview. This is easily seen in the language of spiritual warfare. Moslener articulates, “This recasting allows the group to chart the plot of a new and more significant narrative, one in which the conflict between sexual purity and sexual promiscuity is mapped onto a cosmic battle between the godly and the worldly.” At the purity retreats I attended during my adolescence, I was told that Satan is “battling” for our minds, hearts and bodies. Some of this theology was evidenced in the idea of casting demons from people, but it was also found in the ways that evangelicals antagonize those who don’t fit into their worldview.
One of the ways this plays out is the demonizing of “promiscuous” women and lgbtq people. The danger of this demonization lies in the ways that sexual violence is considered to be in the same moral realm as consensual sex and lgbtq sexualities. Moslener explains how Silver Ring Thing does this, “Even though Silver Ring Thing did not attempt to incorporate issues of sexual violence into its programming, that trauma is included in SRT’s list of memories that require healing, thus equating this trauma with that of a consensual sexual experience” (151). This toxic mapping of morality into these terms diverts attention away from violent abusers and shifts it to lgbtq people and promiscuous women. As a lesbian survivor of sexual and emotional abuse, this is troubling in ways that are still difficult to name. The question of sexual morality and purity in evangelical churches is never about consent, mutuality, boundaries and respect, but rather when and with whom adolescents have sex. This almost guarantees silence from victims of sexual abuse because they are concerned with their own sexual morality rather than that of their abuser.
As a result of first wave feminism, which prioritized middle and upper-class straight white women, a shift occurred in the Protestant church’s understanding of sexual morality. First wave feminism emphasized women’s moral superiority over men. As a result, women were considered to be the gatekeepers of male sexuality and lust. Moslener argues that purity advocates such as James Dobson and George Gilder believed that, “Women, then, are responsible for men’s behavior and the party primarily accountable for a nation’s civilizational advancement” (105). This ideology, while rooted in feminism, only serves a small portion of women who can adhere to sexual purity. By its very nature, this excludes lgbtq women, and in many contexts can be racialized to exclude women of color and working-class women. There are many manifestations of this belief in modern evangelical churches, namely in the push for modesty for women. My church’s emphasis on modesty was always directed at women on the premise that we are responsible for “not tempting our brothers into lust.” In its most egregious form, it acts as an agent of victim blaming, wherein men are incapable of controlling their violent sexual nature in the presence of a woman who is not modest. In the ways that my church practiced this ideology, there was almost always a double standard. Men were never asked to be modest for the sake of women; in fact, they were allowed to walk around shirtless when we played sports in youth group. I can recall a situation once where one of the girls asked the boys to put their shirts back on because it made her uncomfortable, to which one of the boys retorted, “Get over it.”
When I came to terms with my sexuality, I found that the only way to unlearn the toxicity of this theology was to abandon it. As I learned to listen to my body, I found nothing redeemable about evangelical purity culture. Now, I see it as part of a larger schema in which lgbtq people and “immoral” women are used as a scapegoat for anxieties about power and national security. Moslener’s analysis is an important text in understanding evangelicalism and purity culture in the U.S. today. She carefully considers all the factors that have made organizations like Silver Ring Thing what they are and the language and imagery they use to advance their ideologies.