Sexual Purity is Like Good Candy, Still in its Wrapper

Here’s one problem with purity: Stupid youth group activities that promote sexual abstinence, but make young people feel shamed and damaged and unloved.

Those who know me well know I love me some candy. And not any of that fancy, high-cost chocolate one might think a middle-age hormonal woman would stereotypically love. No, I’m more inclined to like the sugar-laden cheap kind made with red-dye-whatever every mom’s magazine warns you against, the kind you can hold in your mouth for a good long while, letting the sugary goodness drip red dye into your stomach, and then your veins.

At one time, my tastes for candy included Jolly Ranchers, until the only flavors they seemed to be making were the ones that squinched me. Also, they tended to get stuck to my teeth, gluing my mouth shut, which turned out to be a problem when I was trying to teach class. (And yes, I sometimes eat candy while teaching. Gotta keep my strength up.)

Anyway. Turns out, it’s a good thing I don’t really like Jolly Ranchers any more, because I discovered that Jolly Ranchers = sexual purity. As long as they’re in the wrapper, that is. Once a Jolly Rancher has been unwrapped, it symbolizes skankiness.jollyrancher

Surely you know this already.

This according to a lesson on sexual purity I uncovered on the web, led there by a student who wrote about the Jolly Rancher/purity activity she experienced in her youth group. I haven’t figured out exactly who originated the lesson, but I stumbled across a PDF holding all manner of activities Christians can employ to warn their kids about sex outside of marriage, each using material you can find around your house: yarn and construction paper, plastic cups, mouse traps, balloons. (Just imagine the possibilities!)

So here’s how it works with a group of young people in need of some purity education. According to the PDF, you begin by defining sex, then say “I like to think of sex this way” as you hold up a bag of Jolly Ranchers. Which would take some acting, on my part at least, because—until I read this particular handout—I’d never really thought about sex and Jolly Rancher candy. Now, I might not be acting if I said that “I like to think of sex this way” while holding a bag of Sweet Tarts or Circus Peanuts, but Jolly Ranchers? No way.

Then, you are to pass out the Jolly Ranchers, giving each teen one and letting them tear into the sweet, sexy goodness. But to one person, you quietly whisper that she should not unwrap the candy (and hope that person isn’t a sugar addict).

As the kids suck on their candy, you are to write on a white board this: sex = Giving myself to someone else. And then, talk about how sex is about giving, not getting, and that giving your candy away during marriage is awesome, but outside of marriage? Not so cool. So spit out that candy! At this point, teens are supposed to put the Jolly Rancher back in its wrapper, making it look as good as it did before they started sucking on it. Can they do it? Hopefully not!

See where this is going? Teens who have sex before marriage are a little used up, a little less perfect, a little broken. (They might also have teeth marks in them.) No one wants a Jolly Rancher that’s already been sucked on, and that has been put back into its wrapper. Even Jesus probably wouldn’t eat a Jolly Rancher like that.

But of course, the kid who didn’t eat his Jolly Rancher while everyone else was greedily tasting theirs? That kid’s a hero, because he abstained. (At this point, the leader is to write Abstinence = Saving myself for marriage.) His Jolly Rancher is still perfectly intact, and will taste really, really sweet. It’s not all used up like those people who already had a little taste.

My student who had written about this youth group activity explained what it felt like to be equated with a Jolly Rancher who’d already been a little dirty and broken. Can you imagine sitting with your peers, hearing that your lack of purity—whatever that means—makes you less desirable, less loved, used up?

Yet this is the message evangelical purity culture sends to its young people. So while the Jolly Rancher exercise may seem like a stupid exercise by overenthusiastic youth group leaders, there is a deeper and more pervasive message in the purity balls, rings, blogs, and bears that reside at the center of purity culture: that those who have sex before marriage are little more worthy than a used up piece of candy, and that such people will never really be redeemed to their former selves.

Want to read more about purity culture? See this excellent blog post here, by Elizabeth Esther. And here, by Abigail Rine.

Kendra and I will be speaking at George Fox University’s “Shalom” next Tuesday, April 16, at 9 p.m. on “The Problem of Purity” and at Jubilatte in Tigard the next night at 6:30 p.m.

So tell us: What kind of silly activities did you do during church camps, youth groups, and evangelical conferences to learn that sex before marriage was bad news?

What can we do to create a more positive sexual ethic for young people?