Commentary on “My Virginity Mistake.”

In a column Sunday on Salon.com, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez – a fabulous writer, as far as I can tell – called her virginity at marriage a mistake. Wedding night sex was not what the church (nor the purity ring she wore) promised it would be.

Neither was her marriage.

Six months into it, Jessica wrote, “the idea of separating seemed more appealing than feigning headaches for the rest of my life.” She saved sex for marriage, “hoping it would ensure a successful marriage. Instead,” she wrote, “it led to my divorce.”

But did it?

I agree with what Jessica implies: the church camp where people preached premarital abstinence at her probably can be blamed in part for the sour start of what would be a short-term marriage.

But I disagree with what else she implies: That saving sex for marriage is a problem.

Excerpts of Jessica’s essay follow in italics, followed by my commentary:

But that ring! Silver and engraved with entwined hearts – everyone I knew was wearing one and I’d finally been given the opportunity to get my hands on it. And it wasn’t just the ring. This was a movement with T-shirts and hats and the added bonus of superiority over kids in school who couldn’t keep their clothes on, those sinners. 

This points to an important, unfortunate truth. Churches long have promoted premarital abstinence by talking about everything except for sex: the perils of unwed parenthood, the stigma associated with sexually transmitted infections, and how much “better” you are for not having sex than the kids who do. This is fear mongering, a lot of shame-based “why not,” and not a lot of genuine “why.” That is a problem.

The morning of my wedding day, I threw up. Everyone assumed that I was nervous about having sex. I wasn’t.

That everybody assumed Jessica barfed because she was anxious about having sex is indicative of a lie our culture tells us: that “the big moment” is what happens in bed on your wedding night, and not on the altar at your wedding. That is a problem.

When I look back on my wedding day, I remember a passionate kiss at the altar. But after rewatching video footage, I see it was little more than a peck on the corner of my mouth and a long hug. Two years of halting wandering hands as they grazed under blue jeans, and the second we have the permission from God, we hug. These are what red flags look like; my rearview mirror is lined with them.

When a church (or a school or a parent) says “wear this ring” and “sign this pledge” and then stops talking about relationships, girls and boys become women and men who basically only know not to have sex. Otherwise, their concepts of marriage and sex are shaped by their friends or media. That is a problem.

This was not lovemaking. There was no bond, no sanctity – this was not the amazing sex I was promised from the pulpit. This was disappointment three to four times a week.

To all people who preach “amazing sex” from pulpits: Please define amazing. The amazing part is not the sex. The amazing part is what’s implied by the fact that you saved it – your patience, your participation in the destruction of self absorption, your willingness to communicate outside (and eventually in) the bedroom. When you don’t define amazing, the assumption is “pleasurable sex will be intuitive and effortless, beginning with our wedding night” when, for most couples, that is so not true. That is a problem.

These problems plus premarital abstinence do not equal exemption from the consequences of these problems. They equal virgins at marriage who experience the consequences of these problems: not knowing the purpose of marriage or sex, more concern with preparedness for the wedding night than with preparedness for marriage, concepts of relationships and sex shaped by the media, and unrealistic expectations.

It is these consequences (among others, of course) that result in divorce, regardless of whether you’ve saved sex for marriage.

– – – –

Click here to read Jessica’s essay in full.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Anonymous

    Oh my goodness! My husband and I had the exact opposite experience!

    We were both virgins and it made everything so much easier to wait until marriage, not just engagement like some of our friends had. We were able to laugh and smile about our clumsiness and lack of knowledge. Honestly, it took about a week for us to get it right, but it was okay, because we trusted each other completely and it reminded us never to take ourselves too seriously.

    We often talk about how even though it was really frustrating and sometimes felt “stupid” to not sleep together while we were engaged, we are SO grateful for sticking to Church teaching and “holding out.” We agreed that if we had slept together while engaged and it wasn’t “perfect”, we might have broken up over the shame of it, or made us feel trapped and like we had no choice other than to marry each other, instead of it being a free decision. It honestly could have ruined everything, given our personalities. Instead, we came out stronger than ever and more assured that what we had always been taught was truly wise.

    • Anonymous

      Ahh! Me again! I just read her entire piece, and have a different perspective.

      The condoms on the dashboard sound like a way bigger red flag than a hug. Sterilized marriages end in divorce, not chaste marriages. It is unfortunate that she did not experience pleasure, but perhaps it was in part because she was completely missing the primary end of the marital act: to bring forth children.

      We had to learn NFP and chart for a few months as part of our diocean requirements, and discovered that our wedding night also happened to be the most fertile day of my cycle. We did not feel the need to abstain for the sake of avoiding pregnancy, so our first night together was entirely open to God’s plan. We did not end up conceiving that cycle, but knowing that it was a possibility was awesome.

    • Condoms on the dashboard are a common way to “prank” the groom’s car.

      I think you have the right answer, but the wrong explanation. I doubt they ever used the condoms because most young evangelical brides go on the Pill before the wedding. Contraception is likely a contributing factor, but I see the problems as being more a biochemical reaction to the artificial hormones than that she was missing out on procreation.

      Sadly, this story is all too common. The couple can barely keep their hands off each other before marriage. Then she goes on the Pill before the wedding. The Pill causes her libido to collapse. Then she freaks out about her marriage, which only makes the problem worse.

      The signs are obvious that the Pill played a role in her problems:

      “Two years of halting wandering hands as they grazed under blue jeans, and the second we have the permission from God, we hug.”

      “Rose petals were scattered on the bed surrounded by a dozen lit candles. I had never been more romanced and less interested in having sex.”

      This woman had the same problem in her first marriage.

      http://intimacyinmarriage.com/2011/11/09/birth-control-sheila-gregoire-and-a-conversation-you-dont-want-to-miss/

      Oh, and our wedding night was the most fertile of the cycle, too. We chose to wait. (We were not virgins, though.) We had a fun honeymoon trying to think up things that would keep us busy and wear us out. When we were finally did come together, it was an incredibly amazing and intimate experience. It was worth waiting a few extra days.

  • The evangelical concept of “abstinence” is very different from the Catholic concept of “chastity”. Both involve no sex until marriage, but that’s about all they have in common.

    While Catholic programs focus on building good friendships and solid relationships in preparation for a possible marriage vocation, evangelical abstinence programs are all about Not Having Sex before marriage, then going wild once you are married. Young people are taught to avoid each other and to avoid friendships with the other sex, lest they fall into sin.

    That’s a recipe for a disappointing sex life, a “starter marriage” and a quick divorce.

  • Whether one waits or not, if they miss the true purpose of sex, it’s not gonna be all it should be. Waiting all of her life for that moment of supreme physical pleasure? Of course it was a letdown! The Beautiful part of “gettin down” is in the intimacy. Poor girl.

    In response to the message that only if you wait, rainbows and bliss-sicles will burst forth, I have only this, by Lord Krishna:
    “Neither action nor renunciation of action is anything.”

  • Ben

    The bottom-line can be posed as question: Am I living for God or living for “self”? If living for “self”, it does not matter if you are a virgin on your wedding day or not, you will have serious problems. If living for “God”, you will be given the Grace you need to prevail. The extent to which you live for God will be the extent to which you will be open to the Grace God wants to give.

  • Anonymous

    Her problem wasn’t saving sex for marriage. The problem is she wasn’t waiting for the right reasons and lacked a solid foundation on the true beauty and purpose of sex in marriage. Fulton J. Sheen said “purity is reverence paid to the mystery of sex.” Evangelicals have missed the mark by just telling people “just don’t do it” without explaining the beautiful mystery.

    • Re: Evangelicals have missed the mark by just telling people “just don’t do it” without explaining the beautiful mystery, AGREED.

  • I can only share from my own experience here. I was a virgin on my wedding night, but my wife was not. I was far more nervous about the honeymoon night than the wedding ceremony. I was consumed with not measuring up, because I didn’t know what to put where and I assumed she had expectations. For her part, she was almost as nervous as me, but for different reasons. She was worried that she wasn’t supposed to enjoy sex in marriage the way she had before, and was wrecked by guilt over NOT offering ‘her full self’ to me that night. Both of us bought the lie that married sex is AWESOME just because we are married.

    We both had some learning to do, mechanically and emotionally. About a year into our marriage, we were over our baggage, and actually started to enjoy ourselves much more. Now fifteen years into our marriage, the intimacy we are able to express is so wonderful, so moving, so much better than advertised. But this is the result of living our lives for each other. Not a magical wedding ring that legalizes Christian sex.

  • Well, sex, like anything else, is something you get better at. Sounds to me like she was watching Hollywood movies or reading romance novels in stead of realizing the WORST sex you ever have should be your wedding night!!!! How sad if that’s your best.

    • Truth! Reminds me of a line from the sex essay I wrote last summer (the virgin link at the right side of the navigation bar at the top of my site), in which I quoted somebody who isn’t a proponent of saving sex for marriage saying sex is like dancing and I responded, “which nobody’s good at initially and anyone can learn? Precisely.”

  • Honestly, I felt sad for that woman when I read her story…your commentary was thought provoking, Arleen:)

  • Excellent analysis Arleen! I think there’s a little bit of the blame game going on for a failed marriage. If anyone’s to blame, it’s Hollywood and the media. Where did she get these notions and expectations of what “great sex” was supposed to be? She didn’t get that from the pulpit. I doubt the pastor was explaining it in detail. I think it’s movies, TV, and Cosmopolitan that most influenced and shaped her ideas of what sex was supposed to be once she got married. She needed to be reading TOB and understanding self-gift.

  • Was looking around to find a good Christian response to this article and yours is about the only one I’ve found. Thanks for writing it.

  • The worst part is that she’s blaming it on her virginity rather than on her decision to settle for an idiot guy. Even women know when they’re being used in marriage. How different is her response (“ugh, the three to four times a week sex was awful”) versus a friend of mine who recently got married and said, “How beautiful that I am constantly learning to love and serve my wife in such an intimate way.”

    In a Catholic marriage, we know that sex is beautiful, but it’s not going to fix your problems. Sounds like she and her husband made an idol out of sex, rather than letting it be an icon of God’s union/communion with us in Heaven. When someone thinks that sex or another human being is going to satisfy every desire of their heart, it’s a sure thing they’re heading for disappointment.

    This is why witnesses to healthy and holy relationships and marriages are so needed in our culture! (and that’s why i keep telling girls to stop settling for guys who use them rather than authentically loving them) 🙂

  • Excellent Arleen. Another argument for guys to save sex until marriage, not just the lady in waiting. “Three minutes later when he finished he appeared pleased with himself and I was glad that it was out of the way. I smiled and asked if we could get something to eat.” What a way to describe the consummation of a marriage. I wonder if she could have been worrying about who he was comparing her with? Did she trust him? She admitted from the beginning that her understanding of saving sex got no farther than a purity ring and T-shirts. They both should probably have gotten premarital counseling. Then she might have learned about his drinking problem and family background. And she could have learned about purity from the standing of heart, soul, mind, and body.

  • SVB

    I read her entire article, and it seems to me that what probably led to her divorce was no honest communication in the relationship and that she got married too young.

  • Jessica’s reference to Jesus the Panamenian is racist. It seems lack of judgment is her status quo.

  • I think this is one of the misconceptions about sex. People think they need to have sex before marriage because you need to make sure you’re “compatible” sexually. Then on the other hand people think if they do the “right thing” and don’t have sex before marriage they think it’s going to be “perfect” and not awkward at all…which isn’t accurate either. If you are going to “do the right thing” and wait for sex until marriage you need to understand the church teachings and why you are doing so.