When I was in junior high at an evangelical school in the Midwest, one of my favorite teachers—smart, beautiful, and funny—said something about marriage I have never forgotten. She had “saved herself” for her wedding night, she told the class. But she had kissed other men before her husband, and, she admitted, “I wish I had saved everything for him.”
This made perfect sense to me at the time. It was the mid-1990s, the era of the True Love Waits abstinence campaign, of “purity rings,” and books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which advocated “courting” over traditional dating. The teenagers I knew were as sex-obsessed as any, but we were obsessed with not having it. Handily, this allowed us plenty of opportunities to think and talk about sex.
This is just one of the paradoxes of the “purity culture” depicted in the affecting new documentary Give Me Sex Jesus. (The film is staunchly pro-abstinence when it comes to commas.) Filmmakers Matt Barber and Brittany Machado interview leaders in the movement, critics of it, academics, and—most effectively—normal people who were hurt by it and others who still willingly follow its tenets.
The documentary—which will be available to stream for free on Vimeo starting Thursday—captures one aspect of no-sex-before-marriage message that is often poorly understood by its critics: It is obsessed with sex after marriage. “You are worshiping God when you’re having an orgasm,” one pastor says in an interview. “I’m going to give women literally an organ that the only reason it was given was for sexual pleasure,” he imagines God saying. “That’s how good he is. He’s a really good god.” Although the movement understandably earned a reputation for church-lady priggishness, in reality it is fair to call it sex-positive—as long as that sex takes place between a married man and woman. This is how Mark Driscoll, a pastor depicted in archival video in the documentary, could warn that masturbation is only acceptable if you can somehow do it without lusting, and also write a book in which he endorses anal sex.
Some of the most effective scenes in Give Me Sex Jesus are the interviews with people who believe in “saving themselves” for marriage, both single adults who are still virgins and married people who stand by their decision to wait. It’s easy to mock the very notion of “purity,” especially from a perch in urban secular America. So it’s helpful to hear from people like Bonnie and Patrick, an attractive young married couple, both of whom explain straightforwardly why they waited. Interviews with evangelical pastors and leaders, including one of the architects of the True Love Waits campaign, Richard Ross, are similarly compelling.
That said, the filmmakers clearly sympathize more with critics of the movement, and they are right to do so. Overall, they depict an ideology that is singularly focused on avoiding regret: If you can grit your teeth and make it to the finish line of your wedding day with virginity intact, you will enter into it not just pure of body, but more importantly, pure of mind and soul. For proponents of purity, there’s no middle ground between pre-marital abstinence and wanton, ruinous promiscuity.
This has consequences that are both heartbreaking and absurd. The grandson of the founder of the influential evangelical ministry Campus Crusade for Christ tells the camera that his childhood prayer was “Don’t let me die before I stop being gay, because if I die before I stop being gay I’m going to go to Hell.” And the film’s title recalls a similar prayer recalled by several straight interviewees: “Don’t let me die before I have sex.” I offered up this invocation myself as a teenager. And there’s the good news: At least for me, God answers prayers.