Blessed are the virgins?

Mormons often congratulate themselves for having a relatively healthy theological view of sexuality, at least within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. One problem, however, is that this positive theology of (certain kinds of) sex comes at the expense of a positive evaluation of sexual chastity. Let me explain.

It seems to me that in the history of Christianity, one may either value marriage or virginity, but it is hard to do both. In this pair, one is always superior to the other. Paul argued that viriginity and the single life were better than the married life for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Some of the traditions of Jesus’ sayings seem to support the idea that being married is actually second best to virginity. Some later traditions in the NT seek to counter this ascetic tendency, but the voice that marriage is a lesser choice to virginity is certainly strong.

This ascetic tradition takes hold in early Christianity. The precise status of the virginal life, the commitment to long term sexual abstinence as a spiritual practice, was of course debated. Some argued that it was the only acceptable life, and that marriage itself was simply an excuse to sin. Others argued that marriage was okay if you couldn’t handle it, but that virginity was better than marriage. Later compromises suggested that both marriage and virginity were equally good options for different people. Not all were called to be married and not all were called to be virginal. Perhaps we need something along these lines for our own tradition.

The problem with LDS discussions about sexual abstinence is that it is figured always as secondary to marriage. What it lacks is any positive value attached to virginity whatsoever. Sex is the uncontested good in this theology, which can only imagine virginity as the absence of this good. Sexual abstinence is either seen as a period of waiting, sometimes indefinite waiting, for the “better” option of marriage. Even in the afterlife, sexual abstinece is portrayed as a punishment, reserving marriage (and sexual activity) only for the most righteous. Such a portrayal of virginity understands it only as what it is not, what it lacks, namely sexuality, rather than seeing it as a good and virtue in its own right. It has the effect of heightening the status of sexual activity as really the only thing of any value, while sexual abstinence is either just a waiting period or a punishment. One open question is whether it is the uncontested good of sex itself that encourages those who lack it to obtain it outside of marriage.

Ironically, this view of sexual abstinence is thoroughly modern, the reversal of classical ideals where virginity is the greater good. Both Mormonism and the modern sexual revolution take ultimately the same negative view of sexual inactivity. Mormonism and the sexual revolution are not antagonistic, but two halves of the same coin. They share the view that sex is a good and that those who do not have it have failed to achieve their highest potential. Sexual activity is a critical aspect of identity for both Mormonism and modernity.

Sexual abstinence is increasingly a part of Mormon life, in ways that were not previously imagined in earlier cultural moments. Not only is the young single adult segment marrying later and later, but the rise of divorce in LDS communities, not to mention the recent turn to celibacy as the standard for gay Saints, all combine to make large portions of members fall into the category of the long-term sexually abstinent. The theology of seeing sexual abstinence as inferior to marriage, combined with the wide-spread practice of excluding single members from leadership callings reinforces socially and culturally the theological message.

Are there resources in Mormonism that can see long-term sexual abstinence in more positive terms? This is an open question. One idea might be to embrace virginity as its own kind of erotic activity. The erotics of denial are in many ways more intense and consuming than the actual satisfaction of those desires. We can certainly draw on broader Christian traditions that do value virginity as a good in and of itself. And, I’m out of ideas.

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  • And here I just thought abstinence was part of marriage.

  • Ghandhi will take you serious, Chris. So would some of the spirituals in ancient Corinth.

    “Are there resources in Mormonism that can see long-term sexual abstinence in more positive terms?”

    And so how do modern LDS treat I Corinthians 7? Our church family in Ammon, Idaho has been hunkered down in the chapter for the past month in our Sunday morning Corinthians study.

  • The problem with LDS discussions about sexual abstinence is that it is figured always as secondary to marriage.

    Why “problem”? It seems to me that you’re biasing the discussion a bit by embedding such a claim like that.

  • TT

    IIRC, the LDS reading that one most commonly sees with respect to 1 Cor 7 is that it applies to missionaries, that one remains single for the sake of the Kingdom of God temporarily in order to fulfill that responsibility.
    But, as I suggested in the OP, Paul simply argues that to be married is good, but to be not married is better, so I just presents the same problem where one option is considered superior to the other.

    David B,
    I’m not sure I follow what the bias is. I try to lay out an argument for why I think it is a problem. Why do you not think it is?

  • Zack

    Mormons often congratulate themselves for having a relatively healthy theological view of sexuality, at least within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage.
    Sex is the uncontested good in this theology, which can only imagine virginity as the absence of this good.

    This is a fascinating post, but I think that you are making a flawed assumption. If Mormons are self-congratulatory about a healthy view of sexuality, I haven’t heard such comments (and certainly not in any official contexts). While you are spot-on in pointing out that Mormons do not appropriately respect permanent abstinence, I find your dichotomy between the theological elevation of marriage within Mormonism and abstinence slightly flawed.

    Within Mormonism, whether because the old men who shape the agenda are prudes or for some other reason, marriage is not in any way about sexual expression. I have literally heard “husband” and “wife” referred to as callings more often than I have heard anyone in the Church talk about the importance of sexuality within a marital relationship.

    When we discuss sexuality, it is always about vice. I believe that openly embracing sexuality as an important part of the human experience would do worlds of good for everyone in the Church. Since, as you suggest, the erotics of denial are often more profound than the comfort of release, I think that acknowledging the importance of sexual identity would do great things for the esteem which our Church allows its abstinent members.

    If we discuss sex and sexuality only as vice, it is wholly expected that the unmarried repress sexual feelings and expressions. But the Church were to talk about the importance of sexual bonding within committed marriage relationships, not only would it alleviate the stress that MANY members feel about sex within marriage, it could help all members to realize that the abstinent are sacrificing a significant part of their own identity in order to live by God’s commandments. If that doesn’t enhance Mormons’ respect for abstinent members, I don’t know what could.

  • The bias is that you frame it at the outset by stating that there is a problem based in an incompatibility, and then work from there. You never question that assumption, however, and it’s a big one—and that has the effect of tending to shift any discussion into the nature of the problem, and whether what you present as the Mormon position is the right way of dealing with the assumed incompatibility.

    However, i’m not actually convinced that what you’ve presented as incompatible positions really are incompatible. That’s a difficult thing to raise for discussion when the setup for discussion simply assumed it and quickly moved on to other matters, though.

  • What I find missing is the seriousness of the sins of fornication and adultry. Thus abstinence is at least the avoiding of serious sin.

  • TT

    You seem to be suggesting that Mormons don’t actually have a positive view of sexuality. I think that there is something to your critique, but I also think that you underestimate the positive view of sexuality in much of LDS theology. How, or whether, that has played out in the practical lives of many members is somewhat different from the way that LDSs have evaluated the role of sex in marriages in the post-birth control age, not to mention the rather unique view that sex persists in the afterlife.
    I recognize that many members experience sexual frustration largely as a result of the relatively strict sexual codes of teenage and young adult years. My inquiry here is to whether the message of those codes isn’t actually one that encourages making sexuality central to one’s self worth and identity in a way that a) encourages the pursuit of sex and b) devalues the sexual abstinence that we are asking of many members by seeing it as inferior to married life.

    I would say that the heart of my post is about questioning the dichotomy which you say I am assuming. I too would like to see the valuation of sexual abstinence and married life as not conflicting, and this post is an attempt to look for ways in which that is possible. By all means, if you don’t see them as incompatible, make some arguments about how you can reconcile them.

  • TT

    Eric, I think you raise a point that I certainly hope I am not missing. Perhaps if I can explain how I see the Pauline view and the LDS view, I can clear it up.

    In the Pauline view, one is presented with three options, a good one (marriage), a better one (virginity), and a worse one (sin). In the face of temptation, where following the best one is too difficult, one should choose the good one over the worse one.

    In the LDS view, the good and the better are simply reversed, so that marriage is the best and virginity is good, while the worse one stays the same.

    The problem that I see with both approaches is that marriage and virginity are either good or better, but never equally valued options. Yes, both are better than the worse alternative, which is sin, but in relation to each other, one is better, and by implication, those who follow the better path are better as well.

  • The LDS view and the typical evangelical view is a problem; the Pauline view is not. 🙂

  • Zack

    I didn’t mean to underestimate the positive connotations of sexuality within LDS theology. You are right to point out that those themes are real and powerful. But I feel that the dissonance between those theologies and sanctioned discourse within the LDS Church is significant enough that those doctrines have little hope of encouraging the membership to respect abstinent members’ sacrifices.

    There are definitely members of the Church (especially, as you mentioned, in the birth-control era of Mormon marriages) who have positive views of sex and sexuality in addition to healthy sex lives. But I get the sense that those with healthy ideas about sex, sexuality, and sexual identity — even when LDS theology informs those ideas — have arrived at them in spite of discourse in the LDS Church.

    I do not get the sense that LDS teachings about the Law of Chastity and the importance of marriage encourage sex. I think, in sum, the LDS Church condemns and disallows sex outside marriage and allows it within marriage. Allowing married people to have sex is hardly a sex-positive position.

    I think that you are raising some fascinating points. Current LDS discourse and practices tend not to appropriately value abstinence even as it asks more and more of its membership to practice abstinence. I see no reason why an abstinent divorcee or homosexual shouldn’t be every bit as qualified to serve as a bishop as he would be if he were married. A Church that truly valued the sacrifices of its abstinent members would probably agree that marriage shouldn’t be a requirement for any calling.

    But if the Church were to speak about sexuality in ways more in line with its theology, I believe that it would benefit members sexually, emotionally and spiritually. It would likewise help members to appreciate the difficulty as well as the emotional toll of abstinence.

  • mmiles

    “One idea might be to embrace virginity as its own kind of erotic activity. The erotics of denial are in many ways more intense and consuming than the actual satisfaction of those desires.”

    Oh, but I think young women in the Church are taught exactly that–they are erotic and desirable for their virginity. I’d say this causes more problems going into marriage than not, the idea that saying yes will ultimately somehow make them less desirable in the long run.