“Do Christians idolize virginity?”

In a post today on Rachel Held Evans’s fabulous blog (1), she posed the following questions:

“Does the Christian culture idolize virginity?”

and

“How should our narratives surrounding sex, virginity, and purity change, particularly as they concern women?”

I feel compelled to respond.

Whether the Christian culture idolizes virginity depends entirely on your definition of “the Christian culture.” I am reminded of the book The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti (2), which I read in 2012. In it, Valenti decries what she interchangeably refers to as “the purity myth” and “the virginity movement,” for maintaining the myths that men are uncontrollably interested in sex and women aren’t interested all, for shaming women who have sex outside of wedlock, and for fostering hierarchical relationships (in which men have authority and women submit to them).

Like Valenti, I neither believe that men can’t control themselves nor that women don’t have sex drives.

I am opposed to shaming people who have nonmarital sex.

I am so opposed to hierarchical relationships that I had to stop reading blogs by the people who are for ’em, for the sake of my health (I’m lookin’ at you, Tim Challies.).

But I’m also a 27-year-old virgin.

Who sometimes speaks to youth groups about saving sex.

Who won’t date guys who can’t handle no sex until marriage.

I don’t save sex because I will be “impure” if I don’t. I save sex because I believe saving sex aligns with love like Jesus defines it.

And because “in not knowing what I’m doing [on my wedding night], I can express confidence in my spouse’s commitment to me. In not knowing what to expect, I can infuse my vows with authenticity.”

And because the pursuit of premarital sexual compatibility is at the expense of something more valuable. Because “maybe it’s to a relationship’s disadvantage to pick a partner with whom you’re effortlessly sexually compatible over a partner who is willing to work through conflict. Maybe we do each other a disservice when we search for consistently gratifying sex but avoid opportunities to become people who can communicate when it isn’t. Maybe how willing we are to practice and communicate, and to be uncomfortable and vulnerable in sex [i.e., on the wedding night, if you haven’t slept yet with the guy or the girl you just married] predicts how willing we’ll be to do those things in other parts of a relationship.”

Valenti reserves the right to define “the purity myth” and the “virginity movement” however she wants. But in the book, she did it with disregard for shades of gray. The truth is this isn’t always either/or. It can be both/and. I both am a proponent of chastity (and therefore of abstinence until marriage) and agree that most of what Valenti decries in the book should be decried (I decry it myself!).

All of that is to say this:

If you define “the Christian culture” the way Valenti defines “the purity myth,” then the Christian culture puts virgins on a pedestal. It says “Girls have to cover up so boys don’t objectify them,” which implies it’s the woman’s fault if she stumbles, and it’s the woman’s fault if he stumbles. It perpetuates the maintenance of gender roles at the expense of authenticity. It always says you’re “good” until you’ve had sex, and never says you are still good afterward.

But is that Christian culture the same one that walks the narrow road?

I have a hunch it isn’t.

Which brings us to RHE’s second question: How should our narratives change (presumably in order that they won’t perpetuate Valenti’s purity myth), particularly as they concern women?

We must include men. The “Christian culture” – as implicitly defined by the bloggers RHE quoted in today’s post – takes the onus for upholding purity and puts it on women. Women have to cover up so men don’t sin. Women have to be virgins for their fathers first, and then for their husbands. The result is stuff like the kind but frustrating emails I get in which fans of my work write they wish more women lived like I do, that if all women were chaste the world would be a better place.

As if men have no influence on the state of the world.

We must talk more about sex. People who host purity balls, or call sexually experienced single people “damaged goods,” routinely say “don’t have sex until you’re married” but provide few reasons other than “God says so.” They say “don’t have sex until you’re married” and never talk about sex. But is sex what sex is in our culture because kids got too much accurate information about it?

And we must be explicit. The world doesn’t get to define chastity. I get to define chastity. (Technically, the Catholic Church gets to define it, and I get to borrow its definition. But you catch my drift.) And I have to define it explicitly. The chastity Valenti describes is not the chastity I practice. If I keep my mouth shut about the difference, then I say “I practice chastity” and a lot of people hear “I promote rigid gender roles.” The result, when we aren’t explicit, is a world (plus a segment of the church) that thinks “Christian culture” is a culture that damages women.

If that is “Christian culture,” I frankly want no part.

– – – –

1. Click here to read the post on RHE’s blog.

2. Click here to read what I wrote last year about The Purity Myth.

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

  • Anonymous

    It takes one, only one, encounter to catch any one of the 22 epidemic-level sexually transmitted diseases today. Some of those are virus-form diseases for which there is no cure. Some diseases cannot be prevented by condoms.

    There is a reason that “God said so”.

    – Sacha

  • Contact the girls-only purity ball sponsors and tell them guys are also capable of controlling themselves. I’ve blistered my fingers on the keyboard sending emails. To be honest, it looks like virginity has turned into a corporate enterprise. Most of the once popular abstinence movements, like TLW, have shriveled from campaigns and support rallies to marketable products only – like purity rings. If that’s what the Christian culture has become, I too want no part of it.

  • Anonymous

    I’m surprised we aren’t still hanging bloody sheets out of windows the way we treat virginity these days. Just the fact that a “hymenorrhaphy” exists is disgusting. It is believed that the way a woman dresses says she is “asking for it”

    -Anonymous Fervent Atheist

  • Thank you for such a sensible response! I only just found your blog recently but I’m enjoying it a lot. You’re right, there has to be a middle road between an oppressive culture of “purity” and an equally oppressive culture of promiscuity.

    • Thank you! Glad you’re enjoying the blog and grateful for the feedback. 🙂

  • Mike

    If everyone lived their lifes according to the Ten Commandments the world would be a better place. Shouldn’t we as Christians want to live as we were commanded? In case some have forgotten one of the Ten Commandments is thou shalt not committ adultery.

  • Terry W.

    Hey Arleen, thanks for your words. I appreciate what you have to say, especially about the need for men to be part of the conversation. I was really stunned and saddened when I read Sarah Bessey’s blog about what happened to her. For her minister (or anyone or anyone for that matter) to compare a girl (or woman) to a glass of spit is so incredibly demeaning and really sucks theologically. I would be interested to hear how he handles Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultry. There was no condemnation, only grace and encourage to live a new life. I suspect that she didn’t feel as though she was damaged goods when she finished that encounter with Jesus.

  • Hi Arleen,

    I’m getting more context about you and your work. I really enjoyed this article and have long felt male Christian leaders need to teach men how to be men and stop trying to control what women wear/behavior. Telling a woman how to dress so I as a man won’t “sin” is like someone telling me to wear an astronaut suit to cover my skin complexion because be being Black is offending them.

    • Thanks, Jermaine, and PREACH! I thought you’d like this one. 🙂