Once upon a teenager, on a faraway internet—years before Facebook chain letters and BuzzFeed’s revamp of the age-old personality quiz—a silly questionnaire swept the nation. A kind of standardized version of “Never Have I Ever,” the quiz made its way from college dorms to high-school LiveJournal entries to middle-school bus trips, measuring sexual and criminal deviance on a 100-point scale. It went viral in the peculiar ways of the late 1990s and early 2000s, after the advent of the internet but before the explosion of social media. It was called the Purity Test.
Some of the questions were straightforward: “Have you ever masturbated?” “Have you ever had sex with more than one person in the same day?” Some were inscrutable: “Have you ever played dress-up … in that way?” Some suggested truly disturbing criminal or sexual behavior: “Have you ever intentionally caused a car accident?” “Have you ever walked in on your parents having sex? Did you join in?” Some could not possibly be construed as a reflection of one’s relative purity or impurity at all: “Do you like the smell of gasoline?” “Do you regularly not make it to the bathroom?” If you’d French-kissed someone, you’d get docked one purity point; if you’d committed bestiality, you’d lose one, too. Ditto if you’d laughed at a racist joke, pooped your pants within the past five years, or eaten veal.
To an adult, the questions seem so arbitrary and disconnected that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking her numeric score as a serious measure of naïveté, bad behavior, or sexual perversion. But for many teens who encountered it during their coming of age, the Purity Test served as a makeshift, self-guided sex education—a nonjudgmental jumping-off point for further online exploration.
“I think I was in the ninth grade, super awkward, incredibly pure,” says Andi Villasenor, 31, a Maryland firefighter, of coming across the test while aimlessly browsing the web. She was struck by question 34, which defined the term cunnilingus, “oral sex on a woman.” The concept was foreign and fascinating to Villasenor. It “was a pivotal moment in my life,” she says. “Learning about cunnilingus was one of those small but significant pieces in discovering my queer identity. Just like watching Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider.”
Other questions on the test seem designed to impel further research. “Have you ever rimmed? (If you don’t know, don’t ask),” one advises. Yeah, right. Every adolescent unacquainted with the art of oral-anal sex went straight to Urban Dictionary or an adults-only AOL chatroom to figure that one out. “Have you ever eaten sushi off a naked body?” Wait, that’s a thing? “Have you ever engaged in sadomasochism because you liked it?” Sado–what now? Some questions—like No. 92, “Have you ever licked someone’s eyeball or had yours licked?”—appeared to be written by someone without the faintest conception of conventional foreplay, though they didn’t stop youths from gamely trying out the acts described. Question 76 is so weirdly specific that it seemed like it had to be an inside joke: “Have you ever cheated at cards while gambling with a group of friends who thought they could trust you, but now they can’t, you crappy bastard?”
Arriving online in the late 1990s, the era of “put your hands on me, Jack” and Britney Spears’ marabou-topped pigtails, the Purity Test was housed on the website the Spark, a matchmaking service and SparkNotes sister site that eventually became Pimpin’ Cupid and then OkCupid.
The Spark’s co-founder Chris Coyne wrote the test with his roommate, Eli Bolotin, in just a few hours during his senior year at Harvard University. The two were inspired by a similar test: the first online Purity Test, created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early ’80s. (This one is often credited as the first-ever Purity Test, though the concept had echoed through campus newspapers and Ann Landers columns for generations.) “Someone had put the MIT test, or at least one like it, into a webpage, and I took the test online,” Coyne told me. “In 1995, it spread in my first-year dorm like crazy. It was an interesting way to get to know your new classmates.” Coyne and his peers used their online scores as IRL conversation-starters; for Coyne, an aspiring developer, the original Purity Test proved that college students dug comparing sexual rap sheets online as much as they did in conversation.
“We take this for granted now, but the interactivity of an online test impressed me. I liked the automated scoring, that it could handle millions of submissions without any performance problems,” Coyne says. And where did he land on the purity spectrum? “I was somewhere in the middle and happy with that.”
Coyne and Bolotin intended their test for college students, but it resonated in high schools and middle schools, too. Coyne believes his quiz hit at the perfect moment in time: “It was the right combination of sexual, goofy, and interactive at a time when people were coming to the internet in hordes.” Without social media infrastructure to help it along and without share-count or page-view markers to prove it, this online quiz went viral in a very analog way: through printouts, rites of passage, and word of mouth. “This purity test was secretly accessed, printed, and disseminated throughout my middle school,” writes playwright Chiara Atik. “This purity test was clandestinely filled out under the bleachers, passed along in binders, talked about, discussed, analyzed at length.”
Tanya Paperny, a 31-year-old D.C.-based writer and editor, first took the quiz online as a high-schooler in Southern California; she remembers hearing about it from friends at social events. “Someone would have a sleepover and be like, ‘OMG have you heard of homestarrunner.net?’ or ‘Let’s take the gay test on thespark.com,’ ” she says. Miriam Zoila Pérez, 33, a D.C. writer who uses the pronoun they, took the Purity Test on a printed-out sheet of paper in 2002 as part of a first-year college bonding activity planned by their Swarthmore College dorm’s resident adviser. They remember it as an “underground sensation.” “I had no idea where it came from or why we were using it or whose idea it was,” they say.
When Pérez visited Swarthmore for their 10th reunion, they found that the members of their old Ultimate Frisbee team still used Purity Test scores as the Sorting Hat for the annual Good vs. Evil game, wherein the “pure” played against the “impure.” Compared to their large public high school, Pérez says, “Swarthmore was very nerdy, very intellectual, and most of my peers freshman year were pretty sheltered.” Mortified by the prospect of landing on the evil team and seeming like a deviant, they fudged their score to make it onto Team Pure.
Oliver Bendorf, 30, a poet and librarian who grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, remembers sharing Purity Test scores with his friends during recess in sixth grade. “The whole climate of Catholic school was ripe for our fixation on that test: Confession was a schoolwide activity,” Bendorf says. “If, like me, you weren’t Catholic, you’d have to sit it out, waiting on the bleachers while all of your classmates confess their impurities to one of four priests in each corner of the gymnasium.”
Bendorf learned a lot from the Purity Test, and not all of it was sexual. “I had to look up what jaywalking was almost every time I took the quiz,” he says. He was confused and excited by the mysterious acronym introduced in question 41, “Do you own or have you owned any MP3s?” Assuming it must be some kind of depraved sexual instrument, Bendorf convinced a classmate to ask their teachers what an MP3 was during a sex-ed session in the library. “No one in charge knew what it was.”
It was never clear whether the makers of the test cheered purity or condoned impurity: The quiz was an impartial number-cruncher that weighted each question evenly and spat out a purity score percentage with no editorializing. But invariably, in the hands of adolescents, it became a scale of judgment and nexus of shame. After all, it mapped each user’s results on a bell curve so she could see how she measured up to everyone else who’d taken it online. The Purity Test “played off the insecurities of teenagers who felt pressure to catch up, to fit in,” Paperny says. “At least in my friend group, it was a symbol of a somewhat toxic form of peer pressure around sexual experiences. … People would post their scores online—in their AOL or AIM status messages or away messages, on LiveJournal.” Excited to undercut her purity rating, Paperny would retake the test every time she had one of the listed experiences, print out the results, and paste her new score in her diary. “The idea of purity was like a cultural currency among us,” Bendorf says, “but did any of us really know whether we wanted to be the purest or the least pure?”
The Purity Test’s outsize impact on millennial conceptions of sexuality is even funnier when you notice its many, many subjective oversights. There was no mention of manual stimulation, sex with toys, or what “full-blown sexual intercourse” might mean for partners with matching genitals. When asked to tabulate her number of lifetime sex partners, a user could only choose numeric ranges that go up to 10; anything above that was “more than I can remember.” Reasons a user might be turned away from a blood drive—having lived in England in the ’80s, gotten a tattoo, or engaged in male-on-male sex—were all consolidated under the accusatory category of a “dirty past.” More than one question exhibited squeamishness with anal play: In addition to the rimming question, there was “Have you ever had the kind of sex where you put something in the ‘out’ hole?” The Purity Test didn’t appreciate that every hole on the human body is technically an “out hole,” so neither did the impressionable young’uns who took it.
To try to formulate any unified definition of purity based on the Purity Test is to be wholly misled about the nature of morality, maturity, and sexual experience. In the test’s worldview, wokeness—never laughing at racist jokes, for instance—is conflated with purity, as if racism and French-kissing share some common motivating root. Placing racist behavior in the same category as criminal acts made a strong statement about the severity of such bigotry. But this kind of genuinely harmful behavior was evaluated on the same scale as harmless sex stuff, which both trivialized the bad things and imbued the sex things with undue ethical significance. Today, most readers would see such indiscriminate lumping-together as slut-shaming—a very un-woke move. Since the Purity Test was written, the average young person’s understanding of sexual virtue has changed so much that assessing consensual sex acts alongside objectively antisocial deeds would barely compute. “Slut-shaming,” as a term that helped crystallize the concept in the public understanding, didn’t exist until around 2009, long after the Purity Test’s popularity had peaked and tanked.
Considering the Purity Test’s haywire moral compass, what kind of legacy did it leave? As a tool that offered a numeric score by which one teenager could directly compare her sexual experiences to another, it amplified the overwhelming adolescent desire to land within some fictional realm of normalcy. As a viral phenomenon, it’s a reminder that even before Snapchat and Facebook accounts emerged outside the parental panopticon, material intended for adult audiences—or at least college-age ones—has always made its way into curious younger hands. “I tried to retake the Purity Test today, and I’m still scandalized by many of the questions,” Bendorf says. “Or rather, scandalized that I encountered those questions at age 11.”
So am I. What the heck was I doing, at 13 years old, asking Jeeves about golden showers and huffing nitrous? How did the Purity Test not provoke in me a rampage of pirating software, stealing stop signs, and fondling breasts? Turns out, learning about sexual and criminal things does not make kids do those things. There have always been gaps between curiosity, desire, and action in the world of the middle schooler, and the Purity Test fit snugly in the spaces between.
OkCupid recently dropped the original Purity Test from its pages, depriving anyone without an old physical printout of the chance to measure their wholesomeness against the time-honored rubric. To fill that now-empty niche, Slate has developed a new 100-question version of the test, updated for life in 2018. Crowdsourced from my fellow Slate staffers and the judgier voices in my brain, the questions, like those in the original document, comprise an arbitrary mix of exploits that range from the felonious to the just plain douchey, with a sizable set of value-neutral sex acts thrown in for good measure. The Spark Purity Test was gloriously of-its-moment, with questions about MP3s and illegal downloads; likewise, our test strives to be a time capsule for the impurities today’s technologies enable. We drew inspiration from the tone of the original (test-takers will have to decide for themselves to which way “in that way” refers) and gauge purity by its same dubious conventions, whereby wokeness, kindness, general inexperience, and relative virginity are all “pure.” Take the test, share your results, and compare scores with your friends. Your schoolyard reputation depends on it.