You can find and print out a digital simulacrum, but to fully understand the historical meaning of a genuine Purity Test you need to have held a dog-eared, much-stapled, much-passed-around version—or else one copied illicitly, toner still warm, in the back room at a friend of a friend’s weekend job. Once kept energetically (if sheepishly) from grown-up eyes and now familiar enough in some quarters to be worthy of parody, the Purity Test is a monument to many things, but most of all to the durability of pre-internet, semi-samizdat nerd culture. Anyone between the ages of, oh, thirty and fifty who ever played Dungeons & Dragons seriously, or who knows what a BBS was, has probably been in the same dorm room, basement, or bedroom with a copy of the test. (Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, finds a “purity test” from the 1930s, but traces this version’s origins to the early 1980s, at MIT.)
“Purity” is the opposite of sex: the test is, mostly, an exploration of sex, its preliminaries, its substitutes, its components, and its sometimes-grody, sometimes-baroque variations, written by and for and about readers for whom it’s almost all new and mostly untried. The test comprises four hundred yes-or-no questions (“Have you ever…”), usually about things one might do in the course of a hookup, or during an all-out orgy, or on an unusual date—though some of them cover things you might do by yourself (for example) with someone else’s clothes. Early questions could generate plots for young-adult fiction: “Have you ever… used tickling as a pick-up, get-to-know-you-better routine? …secretly lusted after someone without that person knowing? …stuffed your bra if you are female, or stuffed your pants if you are male?
…gone steady with multiple people at the same time without all of the people aware of what you were doing? …gone steady …with all of them aware?”
Some questions are jokey and sweet (“…made an X-rated snowman?”), some overtly informational: a three-word query about anal beads takes three additional sentences to explain what they are. Of course, virgins taking the test will reveal themselves as such (question 153), but they are just one point in a continuum: you may have had sexual intercourse, but “have you ever had sexual intercourse more than 10 times with one person? …more than 5 times in a 24 hour period? …more than 10 times in a 24 hour period?”
The test also launches into bravura passages, runs capped by non sequiturs: “Have you ever been seen completely nude under good lighting conditions by someone else? …gone skinny dipping in mixed company? …fondled someone who was asleep? …necked or petted in any moderately sized, road-based vehicle not in excess of thirty-thousand pounds net unladen gross weight? …performed sexual activities in the snow? (Spring thaw acceptable).” Such parts become a kind of comic poem, or else a set of scripts (again) for fiction, though not for fiction that could bear the label “young adult.” Some questions near the end might test the rules as to what can be legally sent through the mail.
Questions about drugs show up, but they’re quick and straightforward, and reveal the test’s real age: nitrous oxide, “opiate in any form,” and “sinsemilia” [sic] four times, but nothing about ecstasy, no club drugs. Really, it’s all about sex, sexual taboos, the difficult time we have starting to talk about sex, the motives we might have for continuing to talk about it once we start. Question 399 asks whether you have “used the Purity Test as a checklist of things you could do,” question 400 whether you have “participated in Purity Testing with an ulterior motive.”
Such motives abound. You could take it with friends at a party, or perhaps with just one friend, if you were trying to turn that friend into a friend with benefits; you could even make it laughingly romantic, or use it to see whether your tastes were compatible (or else to pretend they are): “Have you never?” “Me neither.” “Let’s!” “That’s gross.” “I agree.” You could use it to establish (for friends, for friends with benefits, for your own benefit) some measure of distance between your current identity and your former, younger, purer, geekier self.
You could then use it as part of the larger game of social-status estimation, figuring out where you rank in the group of your peers—it is a kind of game that all great apes, and most other primates, play. The four-
hundred-question purity test thus makes decent evidence for proponents of the school of thought known as evolutionary psychology: the notion (so often misused, or badly applied) that much of our social behavior might be explained by life on the Paleolithic savannahs, so that the instincts and tastes we now have perhaps conferred advantages on our common ancestors.
But people—teens, collegians, young adults—who would never go near a four-hundred-question Unisex Omnisexual Purity Test play rating-and-mating games, too, through gossip, in fern bars, in school lunchrooms, at office parties. Those games, though, do not involve spelling things out; they do not—as the Purity Test does—say explicitly, in so many words, what people have done, or might want to do, when they get each other into bed (or into a “manually powered water-based vehicle,” as question 321 puts it).
The Purity Test belongs to the world of nostalgia. But it also belongs to the great hope of so much nerd culture—a hope not restricted to teens but shared by writers and scientists from Freud to Kinsey to this day: the hope, or wish, that the mysteries and frustrations and happy surprises and frequent disappointments of social life in general, and of lust and sex in particular, can be rendered clearly in words, or, better yet, put into crunchable numbers; that the desires that animate our bodies, examined with patience and with the right methods, can somehow be finally and fully understood.