virginity

"Necessarily Misogynist"

Jill Filipovic of Feministe responds to the afore-linked interview:

I do think that belief in the importance of virginity before marriage and the concept of sexual purity feed into a necessarily misogynist worldview, wherever those views come from. I don’t think you can separate those views out from misogyny, and from a view that says sexuality is potentially sullying if not performed in the service of something other than mutual pleasure — reproduction, God, the family, the state.

This irks me. If “Maya” was maintaining her celibacy for any reason other than religious belief, we would hear nothing but support from other feminists. Insert God into the picture, though, and suddenly she’s being oppressed.

Filipovic has several other good thoughts in response to the interview, so her post is worth reading, but I’m not going to lie: my first impulse on reading her opening paragraph—not followed, because I am an adult—was to yell profanity at my computer.

Interview With a [Non-Lapsed Christian] Virgin

The Hairpin’s follow-up to their Interview with a Lapsed Christian Virgin, only this time she hasn’t lapsed. A thoughtful, respectul interview with a rather sad—but uplifting—conclusion.

"Billboard About Your Sex Life"

A bride-to-be on a budget chooses the color of her gown:

I thought a quick search of “white vs. ivory wedding dresses” would give me a good idea of which color would look better on me, but instead it led me into a universe where brides had to be reassured that choosing an ivory wedding dress was not equivalent to wearing a big scarlet A on their big day

I know I speak for my bridal-designer wife when I say it’s time for wedding dresses to branch out beyond white, ivory, and pink as color options. And don’t bring me this “white = virginity” nonsense. Wedding dresses are white because of Queen Victoria.

♀ Virginity and the New Testament

Transient

Last week I wrote a response to The Hairpin’s “Interview With a Lapsed Christian Virgin” in which I said:

The Church may wrongly over-emphasize sexuality, particularly for youth and the unmarried; we may sometimes engaging in slut-shaming and reinforce a culture of repression; we may fail to recognize (as do many outside the church) that virginity is a counter-productive social construct never addressed by the sexual teachings of the New Testament; but our failures do not change the truth expressed in our scriptures: that God created us sexual beings with the ability to use our sexuality for intimacy, mutual pleasure and edification, and the expression of deeper spiritual mysteries. (Emphasis added)

Later, I had a long conversation with my mother about the bolded portion of that paragraph and my own beliefs regarding sexual ethics for unmarried Christians. That conversation reinforced two ideas I was already considering: 1) I should explain “virginity as a social construct”, because many people are unfamiliar with this idea, and 2) since the previous post was primarily about how the Church is getting it wrong, I should present a positive image of how we could approach human sexuality more constructively and biblically.

In this post, then, I will address why I think Christians should jettison the concept of virginity and focus instead on sexual purity as a continuum of just behavior.

I have already written about the Old Testament law’s assumption that a woman’s virginity was primarily a valuable commodity to be traded for money.[1] The persistent remnants of this idea contribute to the prevalence of a common modern misconception: that the intactness of a vagina is totally binary. For more medical information about the hymen than you ever thought you’d need, I encourage you to read this post about the vaginal corona at Scarleteen. The short version: there is no medical definition of virginity or foolproof way to tell whether a woman has ever had vaginal intercourse.

Loss of virginity, then, at least by the most common definition of penis-in-vagina sex, is an event, not a medical condition. (I don’t think anyone uses even bad science to contend that men change biologically after their first experience of vaginal intercourse.) As such, it is only meaningful to the extent that we imbue it with meaning. In our culture (and, to a slightly lesser extent, in the Church) we have established it as a demarcation of sexual experience; we consider people who have not had vaginal intercourse innocent, naive, and sexually pure.[2] If this doesn’t sound problematic to you, take the following short quiz in your head:

Which would you consider more sexually pure:

  1. A girl who had vaginal intercourse with her high school boyfriend one time, or
  2. A boy who engaged in repeated mutual masturbation and oral sex with five different girls before he graduated?

I told you it was short.

Now, you might be thinking that this just means we need to draw the sexual purity line earlier—like, say, at Second Base. But that’s beside the point. It’s not just that vaginal intercourse is a poor place to draw the line, but that drawing a line anywhere is a sociological phenomenon not necessarily possessing any spiritual significance. Once we’ve dismissed the now-misogynistic sexual dictates of the Old Testament law (and I think we should), we must contend with the fact that neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers provides us with a rubric for judging all forms of sexual activity as objectively good or bad, spiritual or unspiritual, for two reasons:

  1. The Gospel is about Jesus himself and liberation from sin and death, not about slavish adherence to a moral code.
  2. God knew that right sexual ethics would vary somewhat from person to person and flex to a certain extent with cultural changes, and he wanted to give us universally-applicable principles to guide our behavior rather than lists of rules that would bind us into meaningless legalism.[3]

In fact, the New Testament never even specifically forbids sexual activity to unmarried people. Jesus and others frequently condemn “sexual immorality”, a vague translation of a multi-faceted Greek word difficult to confidently adapt to our own time and culture, and Paul makes several oblique references throughout his writing that bear that interpretation (among others) reasonably well. Taken together, though, the New Testament’s teachings on sexuality do not add up to much but condemnation of adultery and a general sense that God frowns on sexual libertinism.[4] The closest we get to a prohibition on pre-marital sex is Paul’s prescription that a church elder should be “the husband of one wife”, suggesting that God somehow values the practice of being sexually intimate with only one person.[5]

On the other hand, the teachings of the New Testament clearly value selflessness and just behavior toward others, especially others within the church. While these principles have nothing specifically to do with sexual ethics, they can help build a framework for evaluating all behavior, including sexual behavior. So, we can with reasonable certainty say two things about a Christian approach to sexuality:

  1. We should avoid sexual libertinism.
  2. Love and consideration for others should inform our behavior.

These are not concrete rules but guidelines, and, far from giving us license to behave irresponsibly, as some might fear, these guidelines should elevate our approach to sexual relationships. Rather than focusing on virginity, which, however you define it, is binary and irreversible, leading to a guilt- and fear-based approach to sexual teaching, we should make practical and selfless love the benchmark of sexual purity in relationships.

More on this in my next post, in which I will attempt both to put some skin on these vague opinions about sexual purity and to build a more concrete model for teaching on sexual ethics within the church.


  1. As a reminder and point of clarification, in case you don’t want to read that whole post, the OT Laws regarding sexuality were actually, for their time, compassionate toward women, protecting them from being used by men then cast aside to a life of poverty and shame. One of these days I’ll have a whole post on God’s habit of elevating his people’s concepts of human rights and social justice by increments rather than all at once.  ↩

  2. I recognize that the Church and the culture at large frequently differ as to whether this is a positive or negative image, but reconciling those opinions is outside the scope of this post and may be impossible given our current understanding of the Bible.  ↩

  3. While this reason is not stated explicitly anywhere in the Bible, I think it is a logical extension of the first reason, which is.  ↩

  4. I’m deliberately leaving any discussion of non-heterosexuality for a different day.  ↩

  5. Some other translations, including the New Living Translation, which I normally reference, say only that an elder “must be faithful to his wife”, but this is interpretive where the translation above is literal.  ↩

♀ Purity Culture

Transient

Last week The Hairpin published “Interview With a Lapsed Christian Virgin”, an ambiguously-titled but thoughtful and fair-minded discussion with “Clara”, a twenty-something Christian woman who engages in frequent sex with her boyfriend but still values and strives for the ideal of “purity”.[1] Probably only our ongoing collective outrage against Todd Akin prevented the feminist blogosphere from just exploding on the spot.

In fact, the piece did not get much attention, except from this site and from “Jill” at Feministe, who laments:

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate Clara’s insights, and I think she’s very brave for sharing her perspectives… It’s a great interview and this isn’t meant as a critique of it, or even of sexual abstention. If people want to abstain from sex until marriage (or abstain from sex until forever, or whenever) that’s great—your body, your choice. I don’t have a problem with choosing to be abstinent until X date or event (your wedding, college, your 18th birthday, your 40th birthday, whatever); I do have a big problem with the Christian language and theory behind the “purity” rationale for waiting until marriage to have sex.

The biggest is the concept of “purity” itself, and the idea that sex somehow makes you impure if you aren’t married. Sex is not sullying; sex is not “dirty”….

Certainly, the use of the word “purity” does a disservice to both believing and non-believing audiences, and Jill understandably draws the conclusion that Christians view sex as dirty. Compounding the confusion, many conservative churches and movements do treat sex as shameful and taboo in their attitudes and practices, even when their actual words acknowledge its beauty and sanctity. Words are important, so trying to redefine “purity” as “chastity” (a much more robust, meaningful word) may turn out to be a losing battle; the Church would do well to simply change our messaging. But I didn’t come here to talk about PR.

The tone of Clara’s remarks on her sexual experiences and their intersection with her beliefs and spiritual aspirations struck me as healthy, honest, and very Christian. Apart from repeated use of “purity” and “pure”—which words probably represent the convention of her upbringing—nowhere in the interview does she suggest that she thinks sex is dirty or even that the church of her youth taught her so. She acknowledges the black-and-white, guilt-based thinking of many evangelical sub-cultures that believe sex outside of marriage to be sinful, but even with regard to this unhealthy attitude she faults the expression, not the doctrine:

I do think that this one of those issues where the church tries very hard to get inside a girl’s head. They spend so much time telling you to wait until marriage and no time helping you to deal with the fact that you probably didn’t.

So then girls end up fabricating all these justifications and not really coming to terms with what they do with their bodies, or fixating on marriage as like, “If I can only get there, I’ll be safe at home plate.” When I broke up with my high school boyfriend, the church was definitely in my ear, telling me that I should have married him because we did what we did.

No doubt this ideology has its roots in the Old Testament law, which mandated marriage for any young man and virgin who were found to have engaged in intercourse.[2] Founded as it was on the concepts of women as property and virginity as a valuable commodity, we must surely regard this teaching as superseded by New Testament sexual and relational ethics. Clara clearly agrees, as she describes her relationship to her Christian boyfriend not with certainty that marriage will result from their sexual union but in terms of mutual struggle to remain “pure”:

Despite the fact that we’ve had sex, it’s nice to recognize that I’m finally on the same page with someone in terms of purity — we both want it, we both know it’s not easy. So now, the debate isn’t just an internal one that eventually gets silenced by my own desire to do what I want to do. This is an external debate that the two of us can feasibly act upon. We don’t feel guilty about having sex, but we do try to curb it, to keep from having it. We don’t want to make that the central focus of our relationship.

But this struggle toward chastity also draws Jill’s criticism:

Not making sex the central focus of your relationship, sure, great. But going around and around in the circle of “We shouldn’t be doing this because it’s impure and bad!” and then doing it, and then trying not to do it again, but then doing it again, and then saying you don’t feel guilty except obviously you kind of do? Not a healthy relationship dynamic.

This echoes an oft-repeated criticism, not just of Christian views on sexuality, but of Christianity itself: that ours is a guilt-based religion that keeps people living in a vicious circle of transgression, shame, repentence, and re-offense. Again, this is an understandable misconception based on the reality of much unbiblical teaching from churches and individual Christians who care more about decrying sin than about the Gospel’s message of liberation from guilt. Far from advocating slavish adherence to draconian rules in fear of judgment, though, the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament writers focus on joyful pursuit of an ideal: Jesus himself.

And this embodies the fundamental disconnect between secular feminism and modern Christian sexual ethics. Where feminists see unhealthy, shame-based, and counter-productive sexual abstinence, Christians see an ideal—counter-cultural and difficult to achieve, but worthy and significant for both practical and spiritual reasons. The Church may wrongly over-emphasize sexuality, particularly for youth and the unmarried; we may sometimes engaging in slut-shaming and reinforce a culture of repression; we may fail to recognize (as do many outside the church) that virginity is a counter-productive social construct never addressed by the sexual teachings of the New Testament; but our failures do not change the truth expressed in our scriptures: that God created us sexual beings with the ability to use our sexuality for intimacy, mutual pleasure and edification, and the expression of deeper spiritual mysteries.

If we make these wonderful, true concepts the focus of our discussions on sexual ethics, rightly de-emphasizing the shame that accompanies failure to attain our ideals but emphasizing consideration and justice in romantic and sexual relationships, we will surely not escape all criticism. Christian doctrine will always be offensive. But let us offend for the right reasons.

So maybe I did come here to talk about PR.


  1. “Lapsed”, then, here applies to the word “virgin”, not the word “Christian”. I recommend The Hairpin’s interview and Jill’s response at Feministe for their discussion of this and other worthwhile issues relating to Christian teachings on sexuality, which are too many to discuss in this post.  ↩

  2. Deuteronomy 22:28–29  ↩

Paradoxical Effect

Part 3 of Stephen W. Simpson’s excellent series “The Naked Truth About Saving Sex for Marriage” addresses impotence for men and difficulty orgasming for women. You can read read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Interview With a Lapsed Christian Virgin

”The idea of saving sex for marriage is like a hill that every Christian person tries, at one point, to climb. Most stop trying as soon as they fall off for the first time. But I keep fighting the inertia that tells me, ‘You’ve already done it, you might as well keep doing it.’ It’s not a numbers thing, I don’t care about that. It’s more like, if I believe in this idea—which I do—then I need to keep trying to hold myself to it.”

I could scarcely support this type of thinking more. Abstinence until marriage is the Christian ideal—but so are lots of other things. We don’t shame people who fail at hospitality and tell them they’re damaged goods to any future guests they may have, so we shouldn’t do it to people who screw up by having sex before they’re married.

Virginity is a social construct, and it’s one I don’t think God cares about at all. What God cares about is purity. Read this interview for some unique, vulnerable thoughts on that subject from someone who admits to frequently missing the mark.

"You will be exhausted and probably dehydrated."

Stephen W. Simpson posts the second in his four-part series The Naked Truth About Saving Sex For Marriage over at The Good Men Project. The first post was more setup than content, but here he really digs in with some cold, hard facts for young couples to consider.