Undamaged goods: Why purity culture is twisted, dangerous and offensive

At purity balls in the US fathers will often make a promise to protect their daughter's purity.Reuters

A bride's unusual gift to her dad on her wedding day has caused waves over the last few days. Twenty-something Brelyn Freeman, now Bowman, presented her pastor father with a certificate confirming her virginity. As if it could get even weirder, it was signed by her doctor – who had apparently literally checked to see if her hymen was intact.

Of course, the Bowmans have received both praise and criticism for their decision. They say they wanted to show it's possible to save sex until marriage, and inspire others to do the same. "If one person has made a decision to wait until marriage or decide to stop & wait we have done our job!" Brelyn wrote on Instagram. "Let's make Jesus famous!" Plenty of well-wishers have thanked the couple for their honesty, and staying true to the pledge they made as teenagers.

Others, inevitably, have questioned why a public declaration needed to be made, and have accused the couple of double standards; Brelyn's husband – Gospel singer Tim Bowman Jr – did not present a certificate, though he did remain a virgin until he married.

My overwhelming feeling is that this wasn't something that needed to be made public knowledge – least of all via an ornately framed piece of paper. I think my first question would be where the certificate is going to hang in the Freeman home. The bathroom, next to the inevitable dodgy school photos, or on the wall by the staircase? Lots of options, none of them great. I'm struggling to think of anything I'd be as distressed to find on display in my dad's office.

Flippancy aside, most Christians would say they do want to save sex for marriage. In Ephesians 5 Paul writes, "among you there is not to be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity". The Bible is clear in its call for Christians to aim for purity of body, mind and heart. But in our hyper-sexualised culture, it's not easy or the norm. It takes commitment, and there's no doubt the newly-wed Bowmans are passionate about inspiring others to mirror their devotion to God.

That's great. It's not the idea of saving yourself for marriage that I'm squeamish about, or even advocating that others do the same. But I do have a problem with the culture that surrounds it, and the way in which we treat those who fall short of the standards we've set.

Purity culture has become central to many fundamental and evangelical Christian movements, placing so much emphasis on virginity that sex outside marriage has become the 'cardinal sin'. I'm not comfortable with someone's worth being tied to their virginity, or the implication that those who have had sex are somehow 'damaged goods'.

There's also a danger of young people being taught that their sexuality is sinful, and the potentially damaging rhetoric highlighted by phenomena like father-daughter purity balls, which play into the idea that a dad somehow has authority over his daughter's sexuality.

Then there are the absurdly offensive phrases touted by overeager abstinence proponents, like "Why would he buy the cow if you've already given him the milk for free?" We are not cattle, and sex is not a dairy product. This is an outrageously flawed narrative which doesn't leave any room for grace.

Sex has to be something that the Church refuses to shy away from. The Bowmans can't be accused of that. But their approach does follow the classic error of Christians making a song and a dance about what we're against, rather than about what we're for.

Ask the average person on the street what they think Christians believe about sex and they'll probably tell you we hate it, or it's the biggest sin to commit outside marriage. It's time we learnt to handle the issue with more sensitivity, learning what it means to be set apart in our culture without damaging those we deem to have fallen short.