Thoughts about Purity Rings
I had the pleasure recently of spending time with Millie Hodnett, a wonderful woman with whom I have been friends since NSO. Conversation traveled over the changes we’ve gone through since we met four years ago, and eventually it turned to our purity rings that we’ve had since our mid-teen years. I was relieved to find that she was also feeling differently about hers than when she had first put it on years ago.
I remember when I got mine. I had become a Christian at the end of eighth grade, and spent the first couple of years of high school trying to learn the rules and cultural guidelines of being a Christian. The girls who really seemed to have their stuff together all had purity rings, and I was dying for one. What could be better than an attention-drawing ring on my ring finger that would proclaim to the world that I REFUSED to participate in secular culture and have sex with someone who wasn’t my husband? It would be a visible reminder to me of how well I was doing in my conversion process, and it would be a visible, obvious stop sign to males with any sexual motives—even though they weren’t exactly beating down my door to begin with. (There was another perk—an excuse as to why I wasn’t dating! As opposed to the alternative, that they just weren’t interested…) It might even draw a little negative attention to me—Why aren’t you having sex? Don’t you want to have sex? Do you think other people who have sex are bad? What’s wrong with you?—which is the high school equivalent of glorious martyrdom to an excited and preciously naïve teenage Christian like I was. I finally got the one I wanted the summer after sophomore year of high school. It was (and still is) a silver spinner ring with “for my beloved I will wait” engraved on the outside. (If you buy it online, it is listed as “I will wait for my beloved,” but I prefer the prepositional phrase to begin the statement. It sounds fancier, more timeless. And it’s a circle with no punctuation, so it can start wherever I want. Just try and correct me. Anyway.) It has had a permanent fixation on my finger ever since. (Except when, after high school, I took a trip to Europe and the Mediterranean Sea washed it off my finger when I was digging through the pebble beach of Capri. I pouted the entire ferry ride back to Naples and made my mother buy me an exact replacement as soon as I was back in the states. The status of my purity couldn’t wait. Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
I’ll spare you the six or so years of spiritual growth between when I got my purity ring and now, but I will say that I feel differently now. I’ve been thinking about taking it off for various reasons.
Going back to my conversation with Millie, I discovered that she was thinking about taking hers off too. Her thought was that her purity ring had been put in place with the intention of having it replaced someday with a wedding band. And isn’t that at least part of the symbolism of wearing it on your ring finger? To say that you’ll wear it until your husband (or wife) puts a wedding band on your finger? This sort of directs our motives for “purity”—abstaining from sex outside of marriage (which is a far cry from the actual definition of “pure”)—through the lens of when we’ll have sex and with whom we will have sex because, obviously, everyone should first get married and then have sex, if you want a normal and good life. She was uncomfortable with the idea that she was expecting something that she shouldn’t necessarily be expecting. This isn’t to say there isn’t hope, or emotional/spiritual preparation, or joy when marriage happens for others. She just didn’t feel like she should wear something that symbolized her expectation to be married when marriage is not a necessary part of life, and not a goal that everyone should have without a second thought.
First of all, I agreed with her whole-heartedly and was thankful for a friend who had successfully articulated one of the many discomforts I had been feeling recently, and in a way that I had not been able to articulate so clearly. Second, I felt all of my other reasons for not wanting to wear my ring anymore become slightly more validated (even the silly reasons), and I had a desire to share them.
I have many reasons, some silly, and some serious. Here are a few, in no particular order:
-What if I get engaged? Do I take off my purity ring and replace it with an engagement ring? Will people assume I had sex with my fiancé? Should I care if they care? Does it mean that the promise I’m making to my fiancé is overriding the promise I made to God when I put it on? Am I cheating on God if I take His ring off? Do I wear the engagement ring on the other hand? Do I have to get it resized? And that train of thought continues to travel for miles across the fantasyland of marriage expectation…
-I feel like I’ve outgrown this. It was exciting to be different and edgy (ha!), but it’s getting old now, and people keep mistaking me for being married, and it seems like a juvenile, almost embarrassing explanation when I correct them, and it’s just not as fun as it was when I first got it. It’s not that I don’t still mean it, it’s just that it’s not “not cool” to not be having sex and proclaiming it anymore.
-I know I’m not having sex. I know why I’m not having sex.* It’s not that I don’t want to have sex, or that I’m scared of sex, or that I don’t think that people should have sex. I just know that it’s something that I want to do, and want to do only with someone I feel most extraordinarily comfortable and secure with, and for it not to be outside of God’s intentions for sexual intimacy, and for me, that relationship would be a marriage. All of that won’t fit on a silver band, and I don’t think “Purity” or “For my beloved I will wait” summarizes it accurately.
-What if I never get married? I’m not opposed to the idea of marrying someone I want to marry (in fact, I like the idea), but I think I’ll be A-okay if I never get married. Does that mean I have to wear a purity ring forever? To prove that I stayed a virgin? It’s not like I’d forget, and I’m pretty sure no one else cares that much and would monitor my lifelong jewelry. Plus, what if my knuckles swell in my old age? Do I have to buy a new, bigger one? Oh, the endless inconveniences this would bring…
-Describing myself as “pure” is probably one of the most pompous things I can do, as a human. Having read the literature and seen the videos and speeches and presentations about the language of sexual purity, I understand that, by claiming to be
sexually “pure,” we supposedly actually mean that through Jesus, we are forgiven of sins, and we will have made a commitment to try to not sin—specifically, not sin sexually. This, however, does not come across immediately when someone
stamps the word “pure” on his or herself. What comes across seems to be something more along the lines of celebrating or emphasizing an untaintedness or sinlessness that just doesn’t exist if you’re a human. So those of us with purity rings haven’t had sex, or have had sex but have decided not to anymore until it’s within the confines of marriage. That is a far cry from “purity.” There are more accurate words than “pure” to describe our current state and intentions.
-I would love it if all of God’s children (every human everywhere) would choose not to have sex if the sex was not with their spouse, but I have not found a way to encourage this without either forcing my opinions on people about such a sensitive topic, or just informing them of my opinion and not convincing anyone to do or not do anything. Wearing a ring that represents my opinion does little more than inform people of my opinion. Forcing opinions about sex on someone with different opinions about sex rarely creates anything except resentment and disagreement. I haven’t yet found an effective way of convincing people to agree with me about this, and if I’m honest, I don’t feel the need to.**
-Not having sex with someone who is not my husband is important to me. A lot of other things are also very important to me, and I don’t wear symbols or emblems representing all of them. I’d be drowning in pieces of flair.
And the list goes on. There may be a few other reasons here and there—I spin it unconsciously when I’m bored and the noise annoys people, it turns a weird orange/red/black color when I wear it while slicing hard-boiled eggs for egg salad, it’s chipping at the other ring that I wear on my pinky—but generally, I have more reasons for not wearing it than for wearing it.
But, I’ve also had some good times with my purity ring. I’ve had some cool conversations about it with strangers when I’ve been cashiering at Target and they look at my hands. A lot of people like the intentions behind it, and I like both that their beliefs are affirmed in someone they encounter out in the real world, and I like for people to know that this is how I feel. It also doesn’t bother me when people find out, and have it affirmed every time they see the same ring on my hand, that I stuck to the goal I set for myself. I don’t know that I want to stop wearing it permanently. It’s bittersweet.
I took it off about a week ago, just as a trial run. It’s been weird. Mostly, it’s weird not having it on my finger. I keep going to spin it or play with it. A few times, though, I have missed it for different reasons. I have run into people who don’t know me well, and so don’t know what is important to me (read: people who don’t just automatically know that I’m not having sex by virtue of being my friend and understanding my habits and values and determined personality) and I don’t know what they think (assuming that they are completely focused on me and thinking about everything to do with me when they are with me, of course). I am paranoid that people like this (friendly acquaintances, strangers, everyone) will not simply know that I am still not having sex, but have taken off my purity ring.
This shouldn’t bother me, if the reasons I listed are true. And I meant them. I don’t think it matters if people know about whether or not I’m having sex. It shouldn’t affect the way we see each other. I should not feel the need to announce that I’m not having sex. But I’m still worried about it. As much as I’d like to think that my sexuality is personal, and something that should concern mainly me, and others only if it affects them (if I am having sex with them), that just isn’t the case. With all of the gender double standards and female slut-shaming that go on, I can’t help but want to be in the group of women that receives less negative attention. And I was planning on putting my ring back on before I went home for Easter. It would be easier that way, you know? I wouldn’t have to explain it all to the people back home who noticed it was gone. (I grew up in a small town. One of those where everyone knows everyone’s business.) I wasn’t worried that they would think I had started having sex (because I don’t care what they think…). It would just be easier as far as explanations were concerned. Right?
Then I left my ring on the shelf in my dorm room by accident. Honestly, few people, if anyone, have noticed. But if they do, I have a feeling I know what they will think. And this will be a good exercise in leaving the less (or just differently)*** shamed portion of my gender and entering the realm of people living their lives and having their values and being secure in the decisions they’ve made. This is a good way to test if I really believe what I say I believe.
I don’t know if I’ll put it back on, but for now, it’s off, and I look forward to seeing what comes of that, even though I will probably still feel the need to explain why I wore it for so long, and why I’m no longer wearing it. If I am asked by someone about why I’m not wearing it, I’m happy to have this conversation with them. I almost look forward to it. For everyone else with whom I do not get to talk about this in person, I guess I’ll publish an article.
*One of the main reasons for not having extramarital sex that I have heard over the years is so that you, and more importantly, your future spouse, will have better, happier sex. I’ll go out on an opinionated limb and just say that if your reasons for not having sex are so that your future spouse can have an untainted sexual partner, you also need reasons for not having sex that pertain to yourself and your own well-being. I hate the thought of young Christians (specifically young Christian girls, who are the majority of purity ring wearers) being misguided by their enthusiasm for Christ and their desire to live the good life, and being taught that their healthy sexuality, and good caution with their emotional intimacy with others, is all solely a gift for their future spouse. We’re more than that.
**I don’t condemn people for having sex outside of marriage. Being a Christian, a member of the community at Greenville College, and someone who represents this school in some capacity, I feel as though I should hesitate to say that. But I don’t, and here’s why. I can’t fault someone for being courageous and wanting to love and be loved in such a vulnerable, personal way. I have to respect people who embrace the potential for joy and heartbreak known as the human experience, and offer themselves to the mercy of emotional discomfort and pain for the sake of deep happiness and living fully.
***It is not as prevalent (or at least as media-recognized) as slut-shaming, but there are still negative comments and feelings towards people who do not have sex. I won’t get into it too much (it is discussed well here), but it’s still worth mentioning again, in a different light, that sexuality too often defines our character in society, and that just shouldn’t be the case.