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Justin Bieber, Hailey Baldwin, and the Return of Celebrity Purity Culture

The couple recently announced that they waited until marriage to have sex. Their disclosure is part of a long history of celebrities endorsing abstinence.

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Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin waited until they got married to have sex. We know this incredibly personal information because the couple, who are covering the current issue of Vogue, spoke candidly about it with writer Rob Haskell. Bieber said that when he and Baldwin resumed their relationship, he had been celibate for more than a year, something that he chose for himself after overcoming what he described as “a legitimate problem with sex.” For Bieber, the celibacy decision was something he did to bring him closer to God.

“He [God] doesn’t ask us not to have sex for him because he wants rules and stuff,” Bieber told Vogue. “He’s like, I’m trying to protect you from hurt and pain. I think sex can cause a lot of pain. Sometimes people have sex because they don’t feel good enough. Because they lack self-worth. Women do that, and guys do that. I wanted to rededicate myself to God in that way because I really felt it was better for the condition of my soul.”

Bieber has been vocal about his faith before; he’s part of a renewed trend of prominently Christian celebs, who attend churches like Hillsong, Zoe, and Churchome—organizations with hip, young pastors and an active social media presence. These celebrities include athletes like Kevin Durant, Russell Wilson, and Tyson Chandler (the latter of whom provided his very large bathtub for Bieber’s late-night baptism), along with Hollywood types like Chris Pratt and his fiancé Katherine Schwarzenegger, Bieber, and Baldwin. In a piece last week for Vox, Laura Turner described this trend as the “cool celebrity Christians” who are making the evangelical faith attractive to young people in a brand-new way.

Waiting until marriage—and sharing that fact with the public—has had a celebrity resurgence as well. Ciara and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Wilson spoke publicly about their premarriage abstinence. In 2015, Wilson said, “She was on tour, she was traveling, and I was looking at her in the mirror … and she was sitting there and God spoke to me and said, ‘I need you to lead her.’ And so I told her right then and there, what would you do if we took all that extra stuff off the table, and did it Jesus’ way?” Model Ashley Graham revealed on the Goop podcast last year that she committed herself to waiting until marriage after realizing that she’d been “giving it up too soon,” and that she and her husband, Justin Ervin, didn’t have sex until after they were married.

When and why a couple decides to have sex is an entirely personal decision, and whether or not a celebrity couple consummates their relationship isn’t really anyone’s business but their own. Even still, media, tabloids, and the public are often obsessed with knowing intimate details usually reserved for partners, close friends, and, perhaps, marriage counselors. This general fascination—who is sleeping with whom, and who didn’t sleep with whom—is as old as celebrity gossip, and arguably as history itself. (What is the saga of Henry VIII, really, but a man who dismantled entire religions so that he could sleep with other people?) In the 1940s and 1950s, gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and her rival, Louella Parsons, used Hollywood sex lives—and women’s, in particular—as leverage over the stars and studios. Spencer Tracy famously kicked Hopper in the butt after she published an item about him and his longtime lover, Katharine Hepburn. Hopper especially liked to shame black, gay, or Democratic celebrities; her house was named—by Hopper herself— “The House That Fear Built.”

But while social sexual mores have evolved, public expectations often have not. In more recent eras, studios and publicists have dedicated an immense amount of energy to covering up scandalous affairs or preserving images of innocence or purity when it served a star’s image. Today, the concept of “purity” serves a similar purpose, establishing the star who promotes it as one with strong morals and values. The media has mostly played along: When Christian NFL quarterback turned minor league baseball player Tim Tebow announced his engagement, much of the coverage mentioned that he would finally get to have sex.

Bieber and Baldwin are only the latest to join the tradition of celebrity purity culture—a specific framework, preached most often by evangelicals, that focuses on sex within the confines of a heterosexual marriage, and that frames anyone (but women in particular) who engages in sex outside of those parameters as tainted or damaged goods. Purity culture is taught in certain churches, but also in schools as part of abstinence-only education curricula. It became a tabloid fixture in the early aughts, when then-teen-pop-stars Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears spoke publicly about why they were “saving themselves for marriage.” At that time, the press was seemingly obsessed with the virginity status of young female pop stars—Spears was asked about her virginity ad nauseam. The clips are almost jarring to watch now, as the question seems so inappropriate and intrusive. Simpson was the most outspoken about the subject; she wore a purity ring that her father, Joe Simpson, gave her when she was 12. Simpson’s openness about her beliefs provided an opening for others to share theirs: In 2008, singer Jordin Sparks advocated for her purity ring at the MTV Video Music Awards, saying, “Not everybody … wants to be a slut!” When the Jonas Brothers burst onto the scene, the trio famously wore purity rings, as did other Disney Channel stars like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.

What we’re seeing now is not quite the same as the purity obsession of the 2000s. The celebrities most vocally advocating against premarital sex are no longer teenage stars who might not, in the words of Nick Jonas, have “a full understanding of what we were stepping into.” These are adults, many of whom have had sex with previous partners, discussing a newfound or renewed faith that has made them realize that sex is a sacred act.

In the case of Bieber and Baldwin, they are doing so with the association of the aforementioned churches. The evangelical influence of the early 2000s corresponded with George W. Bush’s presidency; the prominence of youth-oriented churches, and the celebrity morality that comes with them, could be seen as a product of a similar conservative thread in the current climate. (The current administration may not be directly connected to evangelism, but several of their platforms align.) Hillsong Church pastor and friend of Bieber Carl Lentz once told the New York Daily News that he doesn’t use the word “religion” because “it’s hard to get people excited about religion.” (Bieber repeats the same in his Vogue interview.) “This tonal shift within evangelicalism away from the dour restrictions associated with religion and toward the freedom and dynamism of a relationship [with God] has been ushered in by this new breed of Instagram-friendly, celebrity-surrounded pastors,” Turner writes for Vox. But this freedom is not always applied equally. Ellen Page recently called out Pratt for being a member of an “infamously anti-LGBTQ” church; Pratt disputed that accusation, but the founder of the church has said gay people are welcome even though Hillsong is against the “gay lifestyle.”

Purity culture is based on restriction, and also restrictiveness: in who is practically able to participate, and who is cast out when they cannot. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that abstinence-only education (now known as “sexual risk avoidance”) does not keep young people from having sex, nor does it prepare them for safe and healthy sex in their future. Young people, meanwhile, have always looked up to the people on their screens, and the way celebrities talk about sex and relationships affects the way teens and young adults view these topics in their own lives. If our culture, thanks to social media, is more open to personal sharing, then sexual transparency—or gospel, depending on your viewpoint—is a natural conclusion. It’s not enough to practice purity; you must also promote it, and who is in a better position to do that than celebrities? But Bieber told Vogue that he believes God blessed him with Baldwin as a result of his celibacy. “There are perks,” he said. “You get rewarded for good behavior.” If abstinence is “good behavior,” then sexual activity is necessarily “bad behavior,” a framework that creates a culture of shame around sex and sexuality. When healthy conversations and exploration around sexuality are discouraged, young people—and young girls, in particular—are at higher risk for unwanted pregnancies, STIs, and sexual assault.

The early-2000s wave of celebrity purity did not end as planned: Simpson, who famously lost her virginity on her wedding night to Nick Lachey, divorced him three years later. As Hazel Cills outlined last year for Jezebel, most other young celebrities took their rings off long before their nuptials. Spears was slut-shamed when she admitted to having sex before marriage (MTV ran the headline “Britney Talks Sex; Turns Out She Wasn’t That Innocent”). None of the Disney stars kept their own purity commitments. Gomez, when asked about the removal of her ring, admitted that purity rings “aren’t for everyone,” and Nick Jonas acknowledged “it was a strange thing” for a boy band to wear them.

That Bieber and Baldwin chose to revive the movement on the cover of Vogue is possibly a reflection of their own, highly specific experiences; Bieber especially has lived his entire adult life in the public eye, and knows no other sounding board. But it was also a callback to an earlier, and mostly disavowed, era of celebrity morality. Bieber and Baldwin really wanted the world to know that they waited until marriage to have sex, but what if it was never our business to begin with?