I recently came upon post on the blog Forever in Hell (which I highly recommend, though watch out for language or snark there if that kind of thing bothers you). This post made me think about what I was taught about virginity, that it’s not just a physical thing but also an emotional thing. Here is an excerpt from the post, with my analysis and thoughts to follow:
You may not be aware of this, but there are many, many people in America, and other portions of the “Western world” who practice courtship. I kid you not. Girls are not allowed to be around boys, ever. In some families, a girl touching a male relative is forbidden, and touching unrelated males is completely out. The girls are never allowed to choose who will court them, which effectively means they are not allowed to choose whom to marry. Permission is granted by the father of the girl, not the girl. Some of these “girls” are of legal age. Like 25.
Why? These fundys have taken purity way beyond the hymen. They believe- I am not making this up- that love is a finite resource, and the more people you love, the less love you have.
I think that with the mainstream popularity of abstinence only education, the fundys, in order to be speshul little snowflakes, had to figure out some way to go beyond mere physical virginity and so settled on love virginity. She’s right. She’s completely and absolutely right. I was taught as a child that sexual virginity was important, and that my virginity was the most precious gift I could ever give to my husband (which is bullshit), but it went way, way beyond that. It wasn’t just sex, kissing was also a no-no, and I’m not just talking about making out, I’m talking about any form of kissing, even a quick peck. Even hand holding was suspect. But it went beyond this, too. Not only was I to keep my body pure and unsullied, I was also to keep my heart and emotions pure and unsullied.
As a girl, I was told not to “give away pieces of my heart.” That meant that I was to make sure not to fall in love, because if I fell in love with someone I would give him a piece of my heart, a piece of heart that I would now no longer be able to give to my future husband. I would essentially be emotionally cheating on my future husband. In order to keep myself pure, I had to guard my heart and my emotions carefully.
Practically, what this meant was that ever time I had a crush on a guy I knew I felt incredibly guilty. I believed that I was giving away a piece of my heart, and I would never get it back. I was so afraid to love, too afraid to even want to start a relationship. I must, must, must keep myself pure! I thought to myself time and again. Turn your eyes away! Turn your thoughts away! Guard your mind! More chores, more homework, more searching for wild herbs and learning how to can – anything to stay away from boys and any thought of guy-girl relationships! I must keep my heart pure! And it’s not like I came upon these ideas accidentally. Probably the most promoted book on relationships in the circles I grew up in was Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I surely can’t be the only girl who had nightmares after reading that book. You’ll see what I mean from this excerpt:
It was finally here. Anna’s wedding day, the day she had dreamed about and planned for months. The small, picturesque church was crowded with friends and family.
Sunlight poured through the stained-glass windows, and the gentle music of a string quartet filled the air. Anna walked down the aisle toward David. Joy surged within her. This was the moment for which she had waited so long. He gently took her hand, and theyturned toward the altar.
But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through theirvows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David’s other hand. Another girl approached and stood next to the first, followedby another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated hisvows to Anna.
Anna felt her lip begin to quiver as tears welled up in her eyes. “Is this some kind of joke?” she whispered to David.
“I’m…I’m sorry, Anna,” he said, staring at the floor.
“Who are these girls, David? What is going on?” she gasped.
“They’re girls from my past,” he answered sadly. “Anna, they don’t mean anything to me now…but I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.”
“I thought your heart was mine,” she said.
“It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.” A tear rolled down Anna’s cheek. Then she woke up.
Anna told me about her dream in a letter. “When I awoke I felt so betrayed,” she wrote. “But then I was struck with these sickening thoughts: How many men could line up next to me on my wedding day? How many times have I given my heart away in short-term relationships? Will I have anything left to give my husband?”
This scene isn’t talking about sex or physical contact. It’s talking about “emotional entanglements.” This isn’t about physical virginity, it’s about love virginity. Emotional virginity. What I gleaned from Joshua Harris was that I should only ever have a relationship with one person, else I would be giving away pieces of my heart and would end up with marital discontent and problems. I should marry the first man I loved, the first man I had a relationship with, for only then would my heart be intact and pure. But of course, this meant that I should guard my heart and not fall in love until I was sure I had found the man I would marry, and man who had wooed my father just as he wooed me. Some families, though definitely not mine, take these ideas to their natural conclusion and advocate arranged marriages.
When I realized, in my early twenties, that love is not finite, I felt lied to and betrayed. How had I never realized this? Love isn’t something you cut up and give away and then have nothing left of; love is something you can keep on giving, infinitely. I can’t believe I tortured myself for all those years, working my hardest to hold onto my love virginity, when the entire idea was a lie. Love is something we should encourage, not something we should fear.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I married the first man I had a relationship with, and I regret that. I waited all those years to kiss or have sex, and I regret that too. But more than that, I feel sorry for the girls who are still being told these lies, urged to maintain their physical and emotional purity while they wait for a knight-comes-riding courtship and a magical wedding followed by mind blowing honeymoon sex and a lifetime of wedded bliss. They have no idea that they’re being lied to and sold a fantasy that does not exist.
Note: Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye remains wildly popular in conservative evangelical circles today. World Magazine, a conservative Christian news magazine, published an article a few months ago called Christian Boy Meets Christian Girl, in which a reporter explored the effect of Harris’ book. The article revealed that evangelical college students are afraid to start relationships, extremely afraid of “giving away pieces of their hearts.” As a result, boys don’t ask girls out; when a boy does ask a girl out, it’s the essentially seen as the equivalent of asking her to marry him. Similarly, when a girl starts dating someone, she’s expected to have a ring on her finger ASAP, and if more than a few months go by without a proposal this is seen as a problem. The result is, apparently, that evangelical youth are afraid to form relationships at all, and indeed, many simply aren’t. The author of the article ties this phenomenon – which is new – to the influence of Harris’ wildly popular 1997 I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and especially his teaching on what I call “love virginity” or “emotional virginity.” Read the article here.
Note: For an excellent analysis of some of the problems with Josh Harris’s courtship teachings by a fellow daughter of Christian Patriarchy who grew up with these teachings just as I did, see this article.