I’ve spent a lot of time in the last month thinking about virginity. It all started with a post I read at Rachel Held Evan’s blog entitled Do Christians Idolize Virginity. Rachel’s post was the first I read on the subject, but within a couple of weeks virginity (or its absence) had swept through the Christian blogosphere. It may have originated with women’s blogs like Rachel’s, Elizabeth Esther’s and Sarah Bessey’s, but before the topic died down it had been tackled by Christianity Today and the progressive Christian site Patrol.
So what is there to say about virginity? Christians save themselves for marriage because the Bible tells us to, right? Statistics say otherwise. Whatever our religious convictions, a study published in Relevant magazine in 2011 showed that 80% of Christians between the ages of 18-29 admit to having sex before marriage. 80%. Let that sink in for a moment before we go back to discussing the “virginity cult” in the evangelical church. The statistic makes it all the more striking that the first shot across the bow in this protest came from Elizabeth Esther who was, she writes, a virgin when she married at age 20. She’d been raised in a fundamentalist church and bought wholesale into the culture surrounding sexual purity:
Like other Christians, I talked about the “sacrifice” of abstinence. There were princess-themed books on saving our fist kiss. Some of us wore purity rings and made pledges to our Daddies not to have sex until we’re married.
But it seemed to work for her: she remained a virgin until her wedding day. What’s the problem? Esther writes that she’s concluded that “ultimately, we implied that a woman’s inherent worth and dignity could be measured by whether or not a man has touched her.”
Christians say that the world objectifies women through immodest dress and a permissive sexual ethic. However, by idolizing sexual purity and preoccupying ourselves with female modesty and an emphasis on hyper-purity, Christians actually engage in reverse objectivization.
If this is true, it naturally follows that the women who is not a virgin on her wedding day is “damaged goods”, and that’s where Sarah Bessey’s blog post comes in.
I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.
And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again….He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”
And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!
“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”
That story is heartbreaking, horrifying, and familiar. I’ve heard the “cup” illustration used before, and in my days as a high school and college student I heard less offensive versions of the same message over and over. I remember sitting in a chapel service in college listening to a speaker adamantly declaring that he wouldn’t want his sons marrying any young woman who hadn’t saved herself for her husband. I looked around at all of young women in the room, quietly listening. And I knew that many of us were unfit for his sons, by the standards the speaker had just set. Where was the hope for those who had already “failed”?
A few thoughts came to the surface as I read Sarah’s post, and Elizabeth’s and Rachel’s. The emphasis on virginity – and the shaming of those who fall short – has always been directed more at young women than young men. It’s girls who are encouraged to pledge their virginity before their fathers at purity balls, girls who are considered the source of temptation for boys. Last year I listened to an explanation of the “modesty guidelines” for a homeschool event, with my teeth increasingly on edge: “You have beautiful daughters,” the leader said. “And for some of our teenagers boys it is a struggle just to be around your beautiful daughters. Please don’t make it any harder on our boys by allowing your girls to dress immodestly.” Does that strike you the way it strikes me, as if by her very existence an attractive girl is a problem, a snare, an impediment to the otherwise righteous young man?
Another thought: in our zeal to keep our young people pure, we’ve told them a lie. We’ve persuaded them that the key to a happy union is to be “undefiled” when you marry. But is this true? If “true love waits“, is true love really measured only by what we didn’t do before marriage? I’d be happy to have my children marry virgins, but there is far more to a person’s character than their sexual history.
Most striking to me, though, is that 80% figure. The church has hurled a lot of energy into purity culture. We’ve campaigned and sold merchandise and shamed – and none of it worked. If success can be measured in raw data, the virginity cult certainly seems to be failing to make converts.
The overreaction from the right has come in trying to desexualize our children entirely. Courtship culture forbids dating, frowns on crushes, and exalts couples who don’t even share a kiss until their wedding ceremonies. The success of such an approach often depends on infantalizing young women, turning them into girls who only have eyes for Daddy until Daddy is ready to hand them off to the young man of his choosing. Free agency and acknowledgment of sexual desire must be denied as long as possible.
On the other hand, there is a backlash against honoring premarital chastity at all. I wondered, as I read the first posts on the virginity cult, if this would inevitably result. The other shoe dropped in an essay by David Sessions at Patrol. Sessions writes:
The only way this stuff is going to change is when people who call themselves evangelical believers and write for an evangelical audience, stop playing this game of pretend edginess, and say it plainly: I’m not married, I’ve had sex, I’m not sorry, and I’m still just as much of a Christian as you are.
I’m not sure that we should turn this into a “who’s more Christian” contest. Here’s the thing: I believe sex is powerful, wonderful, important, and I want to be able to give my children some guidance. Without shaming them, or attaching weird trappings and pinky swears to stay pure, without pretending that they aren’t sexual beings, but also without pretending that their sexual behavior is disconnected from their spiritual wholeness – we need to be able to talk about Christian sexual ethics. I agree with Rachel, Sarah & Elizabeth that we need to stop making virginity into an idol, but that’s only the beginning of what needs to change, not the end.
If it seems in this post that I’m saying a lot without concluding much, you’re right. There is an increasing gap between what the church says about sex and the reality in the pews – not only in stats on premarital sex, but on cohabitation, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage. All of us in church leadership have a responsibility to acknowledge the gap, and then to listen again to the scriptures and the Spirit, seeking a way forward. That’s a task that won’t be accomplished in a blog post.
Having said that, I don’t think this will be my last post on this subject. I was conditioned in my youth not to talk about sex, not to ask questions beyond, “How far is too far?” (Answer: “If you have to ask, it’s too far.”). To even discuss sex was embarrassing and I admit that I’ve carried that discomfort into my adulthood. I’d like to get past that, because when the shame games and the slogans are left behind, the real conversations about sex can finally start.