Notes on Virginity: Idolizing My Inexperience

Elizabeth Esther has been writing some excellent pieces about the purity culture and virginity recently, and others have joined in. Obviously, I’ve written about this sort of thing a lot myself, but there was one thing in particular Elizabeth Esther’s post got me thinking about, and that’s just how much I was taught to prize my virginity, and not just my physical virginity but my relational and emotional virginity as well.

By the time I was halfway through college, I hadn’t so much as held hands with a guy and I hadn’t been in a single relationship. I had also worked hard to protect my emotional virginity, meaning that instead of having crushes on guys I tried to channel all of my emotional energies onto the blank image of my future husband. My physical and relational virginity were completely intact, and my emotional virginity was almost as intact. And I was extremely proud of this.

In fact, I honestly saw my virginity — physical, relational, and emotional — as one of the most important things about me. But it was more than that. I saw my virginity as one of the most valuable things about me, even as one of the most attractive things about me, to both God and to a future husband My virginity was a sign that I was holy and set apart, a sign that I was godly and devout, a sign that I was pure and undefiled. I envisioned myself offering my virginity as a priceless gift to my husband, who would be eternally grateful And of course, martial bliss would follow.

But now, from my current vantage point, it all looks different. What I prized so much was actually immaturity. What I thought made me so special was actually inexperience. What I held onto so tightly was actually ignorance.

And here’s where I start having all sorts of unpleasant thoughts. What is so important about keeping women emotionally immature, relationally inexperienced, and sexually ignorant? Could it be that the less maturity a woman has, the less likely she is to upset the apple cart and the easier she is to manipulate? I read somewhere that one reason fundamentalist Mormon sects marry off their daughters underage is that that way they end up saddled with several children before they get to a point where they’re mature enough to truly introspect and question. In the Victorian era physicians argued that women should avoid book learning so as to avoid damaging their fertility. In many parts of the world today, keeping young women inexperienced and ignorant continues to serve as a form of control.

I entered my marriage with precious little in the way of physical, relational, or emotional experience, and let me tell you, that lack of experience, which often manifested itself in the form of immaturity, did not help me. It’s taken me years to make up for what I didn’t learn as a teen and young adult about things like relationships and emotions. The odd thing, looking back, is that I was taught to see immaturity, inexperience, and ignorance as not a bug but a feature, not a con but a pro. And I bought it, I bought it hook line and sinker.

When I think about it now, it appears to me that the opposite of “virginity” is “experience,” and in most areas of our life, we consider experience to be a positive thing. Experience is how you learn, how you grow, how you gain skills and abilities. And yet, all those years ago, I honestly thought my lack of experience was the greatest gift I had to give my future husband. Thinking now about the value I was taught to place on my physical, relational, and emotional inexperience, at the expense of my interests, skills, abilities, and quirks is just so incredibly sad. My value became locked to all the things I hadn’t done—all the things I wasn’t—rather than to the things that made me me.

The Modesty Rules---Not So Simple, Really
Bob Jones University Rejects Key Recommendations of the GRACE Report
Be Pretty, but Not Too Pretty
Nine-Year-Old Sluts and Masturbating Dinner Guests
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Nathan

    This fits nicely with something I read just in the last week or so from I had known about it, but never darkened its virtual doors before last week. It’s now one of my favorite sites when I’m in a bad mood and need a laugh. For instance, looking at the entry for ‘Biblical Scientific Proof’ there is this under the heading ‘Menstruation’:

    The Biblical laws concerning menstruation, including the setting apart of the menstruating woman and the prohibition on intimacy during menstruation, address health concerns that were not known to secular science until the 20th century. Also, modern science has only very recently discovered that following such rules dramatically reduces the rate of illegitimacy.

    Pretty amazing stuff, eh? Except that the link for the ‘health concerns’ are from a 1910 study. And when you look at the study they cite for ‘reduces the rate of illegitimacy’ it actually is less a proof for their article than they suppose. The gist of the article is this: a West African tribe sends menstruating women to a special hut during their period. How does this help reduce illegitimacy? Because the woman’s relatives can keep an extra-special eye on her since they know she can bear children, controlling her access to men with whom she might have sex. So the reality is the hut, just like the Jews’ law concerning a menstruating woman’s impurity, is just another way for a society to control that woman’s ‘purity’.

    • Rae

      Another interesting thing about that is that if a woman has a textbook 28-day menstrual cycle: That’s days 1-7 of being “unclean” because of menstruation, days 7-14 of being “unclean” because of still being within that first week after menstruation, and day 15 is when she’s “clean” again. So this means that this woman would be ovulating at the same time that her and her husband are allowed to have sex again, after having taken two weeks off. That looks like it’s a rule that’s less about hygiene and more about fertility.

      • Kodie

        I sort of wonder if she’s unclean because of the blood or unclean because she’s not pregnant.

      • Anat

        Well, a man is ritually unclean if he has any semen on him, whether from having sex or from nocturnal emission. So to me it looks like ‘bodily fluids from ‘down there’ – yuck!’

  • Anat

    Even mainstream culture still uses the expression ‘losing one’s virginity’ as if virginity were some kind of asset. I wish this expression gets replaced with something more positive.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I have refused to use that expression for years for that very reason. It’s inherently sex-negative. I say “having sex for the first time.” How hard is that?

      • Katherine

        “Losing your virginity” also implies a certain heteronormitivity, as well as a hierarchy of sex-acts. It only really works in a world where girls only have sex with boys, boys only have sex with girls, trans* people don’t exist, and penis-in-vagina is the only sex that *counts*. But that doesn’t happen to be the world we live in…

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Yep, that too. It’s a completely irredeemable term.

    • Rae

      They escape me at the moment, but I know in high school at least, people did actually have various slang terms about losing one’s virginity that framed it in terms of gaining something.

      However, in true double-standard fashion, these terms only were used to refer to a man having his first sexual experience, never a woman.

  • Katherine

    I want to share this anecdote:
    When I was a high school pagan, I had a lot of deeply religious, deeply Christian, friends and acquaintances. There were lots of reason for it, the fact that I didn’t drink or do drugs and was primarily interested in “wholesome” activities like marching band and painting, and the very nature of the suburb my parents had moved to when I was in elementary school. As a pre-teen, I had assumed about myself that I would be a virgin on my wedding night (in part because I knew that my parents hadn’t been) but as I got older and started to challenge all of my views, I swung pretty far in the opposite direction. At sixteen, I was adamant that waiting to have sex until marriage was not only unnecessary, it was a terrible idea. I thought this for a lot of the reasons you mentioned above, I had the idea that having more experience could make for stronger relationships (potentially) and most radially (or so I thought at the time) I didn’t see having sex for the first time as a LOSS of anything, the same way that I didn’t see riding a bike for the first time as LOSING my bike-innocence.
    And I would regularly debate this with my Christian friends.
    So one day I was talking to this girl, and she was absolutely horrified to find out that I didn’t see my virginity as something to guard. She mentioned a promise to her father, and I countered that I found the idea that her father had anything to do with what she did with her junk, well, ICKY, and she could kind of see my point. I asked if she expected her future husband to also guard his virginity, and she said that it was preferable but not required. Then I went on my perfunctory rant about how everyone is bad at sex the first time and if you really wanted your wedding night to be “special” it might be a good idea to know what you are doing, and anyways doesn’t the fact that it’s your WEDDING NIGHT make it special enough without having to make it all about the sex? And then she said this, in regards to her future husband:
    “But what else do I have to give him?”
    And after I picked my jaw up off the floor, all I could say was “The rest of your life isn’t enough?”

    I think about that exchange every time I read something about virginity and purity culture. I can see her innocent blue eyes reciting the lines that I now know were fed to her since childhood (but which she obviously earnestly believed) and I wonder whatever became of her.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      “What else do I have to give him?” Ugh! Just goes to show you how much girls are taught to completely devalue themselves. That’s right, ladies, all you have to offer a man is the opportunity to feel like a macho tough guy marking his territory. Disgusting.

    • Nebuladancer

      Wow, I think I had that conversation when I was in high school, me being in the position of the blue-eyes-girl. Years later, I think back and I agree, it was all about not messing up the canvas that the MAN gets to paint on. If a girl as experience, she might also have preferences. And the man might not like her preferences, and may seriously resent the guy who helped her gain them.

    • Ahab

      “But what else do I have to give him?”

      Um, intelligence, trust, kindness, honesty, curiosity, responsibility, humor, and a million other things that make each person worthwhile? I can’t imagine what a low opinion this young lady had of herself if she thought that her virginity was the only valuable thing she could offer her future husband. It sounds like purity culture damaged her self-worth instead of strengthening it.

      Can you imagine the opposite? Can you imagine a young man thinking that his virginity was the only valuable thing he could give his bride? Evangelical purity culture is sexist at its core.

      Yikes. Just … yikes.

    • Basketcase

      I LOVE your response.
      YES – the rest of your life IS enough!

  • Anonymouse

    Fundy Christianity is every bit as misogynistic as fundy Judiasm, Fundy Mormonism, and Fundy Islam. The way it works is to keep the womenfolk subservient and weighed down with the responsibilities of the world.

    • AztecQueen2000

      It’s too true. In fact, where I live, kids are married to each other at 18 or 19. By the time they can legally buy alcohol, they usually have a couple of kids. And, with no education (Hasidic schools generally avoid secular education–boys get almost none and can barely read English or perform basic arithmetic), they’re stuck.

    • Steve

      You can’t spell fundamentalism without mental

    • Monika

      And atheism and free thinking are wonderlands of equality. You don’t find any misogyny in those communities that is for certain!

      Not that I disagree with you about the evils of fundamentalist religion. But at least they can find support for hating women in their holy book. What is the rationalist logic? I often wonder.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        The misogyny present in the atheist and freethinker communities involves no more rationalism than religious misogyny does–just rationalization of beliefs that serve the powerful.

        Also, btw, Libby and many of the commenters on this blog are hardly blind to the atheist and other secular or progressive communities’ misogyny problems.

  • victoria

    Not to go all fangirl on you, but I’m always impressed at how self-reflective you are, Libby Anne. It’s a rare trait — and probably a large part of how you’ve been able to break away from your upbringing.

  • Charlesbartley

    I get so mad at myself and at Christianity some times. How could I have bought into so much manipulation and ignorance for so long. Purity stuff, views on homosexuality, evolution. All my views were carefully shaped to keep me from challenging ‘that which shall not be challenged.’ I really want to go off on a rant sometimes like when I see a Mars Hill Church or read about purity culture.

  • wanderer

    I don’t know if this is the intention, but it sort of sounds like “experience” in and of itself is better than no experience.
    I don’t necessarily agree. I do think it’s harmful to purposely thwart epxerience in relationships, because of a worldview that women should be ignorant. But I don’t think that the complete opposite is true. For example, experience for the sake of experience would insinuate that a 14 year old getting involved with a much older man is better than not, because then she has “experience”. I think it’s ideal to encourage healthy choices in relationships, not just having experience period.

    • Libby Anne

      I think we usually see “experience” as better than “no experience.” For instance, if you hire a plumber, you want one with experience. If you ask a friend to bring a pie to a party, it’ll be better if she has experience making pies. Gaining experience is how we grow, how we learn, how we develop our abilities. And note that in this piece I make it clear that I’m not just talking about sex, but also about emotions and navigating relationships.

      As to your point about a 14 year old and an older man, you’re absolutely right. I don’t think seeing experience as a good thing means seeing every way of gaining experience as just as good as any other. For instance, when Sally is sixteen and I would see having her take drivers ed or drive the car when we go places together as healthier and safer ways for her to gain experience than just getting behind the wheel with a bunch of other sixteen-year-olds and taking the car for a spin. Similarly, I would think an internship or training program would be a better way for a plumber to gain experience than going around taking apart everyone’s sinks or bathtubs and tinkering with them. I’ve talked before about the importance of encouraging healthy experience and healthy choices in relationships, and at one point I laid out how I plan to do that with Sally. I’m trying to find that post now.

    • Libby Anne

      Here is the post I was thinking about. The important part is toward the end.

  • Jayn

    “Could it be that the less maturity a woman has, the less likely she is to upset the apple cart and the easier she is to manipulate?”

    I’ve probably said this before, but I still think the primary reason is lack of comparison. If people don’t think things can be any better than they are, they won’t try to change things. Consciously or not, this is the basis of a lot of their lifestyle–separate yourself from civilisation as much as you can so that you (and more importantly your children) don’t know what other options are out there.

    • Rosie

      I think Debi Pearl’s teachings bear this out. She does her best to make sure her readers know there aren’t any better options out there. (And I’m starting to think that Debi’s job is to make plain all the nastiness that’s normally hidden behind fundigelical attitudes, of which most actual fundies would say, inaccurately but with perfect sincerity, “I don’t think that“.)

    • AMP

      So, when I was in my high school abstinence only sex ed, they sold the “Not knowing what sex with someone else was like” as a really positive thing that was totally amazing to share between you and your husband. “You won’t be tempted to compare him to anyone else, and can just focus on building a strong relationship together” etc. I found it a little bit strange then, now it is absurd. Also, who ever came up with some of the activities we did was seriously warped.

  • Jam

    Me, I’m super proud of my virginity, and don’t plan on having sex anytime soon. But here are some fundamental differences between my experience and yours:

    - I’ve dated, seriously (as in, longer than three months at a time), five men, have had a few long-distance romances beyond that (and, side note, recently finally admitted to myself that I’m actually super-bi-leaning-lesbian and am keeping an eye out for female relationships to get into from here on out), and
    - I masturbate when I need to.

    I choose to remain a virgin because I don’t want all the drama and risk that goes with sexual relationships until I’m sure I’ve found someone who I’ll be with for a good, long while, and not just three months, six months, two years, before it’s over. Also I find the idea of casual sex, for *me* (I’m not judging those who like it), repulsive and unarousing. It’s nice not to have to worry about taking birth control, getting tested for STDs, and all that etc. The parts of romantic relationships that I enjoy the most are the non-sexual parts, and I personally require months and months of bonding before I find a partner sexually desirable even. Although this might be because I’ve only dated guys so far? idk about that one yet.

    Part of feminism is being able to *choose*, and not be shamed for it–and choosing virginity isn’t better or worse than choosing sex.

    So, informed-choice virginity is, to me, actually *empowering*. I own my body and I’m the only one who gets to decide what happens to it, and this is what I’ve decided, and I’ll break up with boys who don’t respect that choice (although a majority of the boys I’ve dated were virgins too so we kinda just did the romance thing; my Christian upbringing didn’t emphasize emotional purity so much so it didn’t occur to us to keep our *hearts* “pure,” we were mostly just trying to figure out where to draw the “line” for physical intimacy; most of us drew it at “making out”)

    random rambling thoughts I guess. I love your blog by the way!


    • Libby Anne

      You’re absolutely right about the importance of choice—there is absolutely no reason a person should have sex, or be pressured to have sex, if they don’t want to. The point I was trying to make here is that the idea that inexperience should be valued in and of itself is ridiculous. And I think you totally get that, and I don’t think that contradicts anything you said here. I’m all for people being able to make informed, guilt-free choices. :-)

      • Jam

        That makes sense! Even though I’ve never had sex I don’t consider myself *completely* “inexperienced”–I’ve done romance, I’ve done relationships, and I’ve done orgasms, haha. Just not together at the same time.

        I guess my point was more like, there’s different *kinds* of virginity, but yeah I agree with you, virginity based off of ignorance and fear is not a good kind.

      • Libby Anne

        Good point regarding the fact that you can be a virgin and not be completely without sexual experience! Obviously, promoters of the purity culture are against any of that, not just actual sexual contact. I mean my goodness, I didn’t even know what all parts I had down there until I was in college and decided I should learn more about my anatomy! And yeah, I think what makes it really especially toxic is throwing in the emotional and relational inexperience.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I think it’s great that you know yourself well enough to make the choices that are healthiest for you at this point in your life. But, I must ask, why frame this as being proud of your “virginity?” It doesn’t seem to me like you’re proud of being pure and untouched and unsullied (which is what the term “virginity” implies, which is one reason why I hate it and don’t generally use it) it seems to me that you’re proud of your confidence in asserting what you do and don’t want and need out of relationships and of sticking by the boundaries that you’ve decided make most sense for you now. That’s plenty to be proud of, but a sexually active person who makes and lives by her own decisions with the same confidence could feel the same kind of pride. It’s not about not having sex, per se, it’s about self-possession. Right? Why bring “virginity” into it.

      • Jam

        I guess a more appropriate word could be “abstinence.” As in, I’m super proud of my abstinence. But I am at least a little happy about the “never! (yet)” part. It’s hard to explain? Like, it’s something that for me personally has a lot of meaning right now. While it’s not an ideal I intend on judging the rest of the world by, it’s a nice space to be in, whether I’m here temporarily or for my whole life. (Not everyone gets to meet that “special someone.”) idk.

  • perfectnumber628

    Well-said. I was actually working on a post a few days ago (haven’t published it yet) about how “Purity is the idea that God and my hypothetical future husband care a lot about the list of things I have NEVER done with a boy. The longer that list is, the better.” As if the reason that we shouldn’t just rush into having sex is because having NOT done more things is BETTER. No.

    Personally, I think there are good reasons to not have sex before marriage- because sex is about a connection between people, and you shouldn’t do it until you’re emotionally ready and committed to each other. (Other people are going to disagree about whether that happens at marriage or some other point before, which is fine.)

    Purity in itself is not valuable. Virginity itself is not valuable. Purity for the sake of purity is meaningless.

  • Sam Grover

    Yes! I hate that ideology. If someone is going
    to prize a micro millimeter thin piece of membrane
    over any intelligence, kindness, humor or any other
    wonderful trait I may have, then that is someone
    I don’t want to know. I tell my kids (17 y/o b/g twins) it is a natural
    process. I do have to say that I tell them they should
    absolutely care for/love the other, but that the act
    is not something to avoid.

  • Rosie

    I’ve been thinking the past few days about how the mythology of the Fall affects the way Christians look at life and the world in general. The way the story is generally told by Christians, innocence and ignorance are explicitly valued over experience and knowledge. “Perfection” is valued over what is. And it’s easy to see this influence in the way conservative Christians especially approach all of life, not just sexual relationships. Scientific knowledge (being about what is rather than what should be) is not valued. Experience in the world, with other cultures, understanding varying viewpoints is less valuable than doing the “right” thing (for a pretty narrow definition of “right”). It’s important to ban abortion and gay marriage in order to keep people (particularly their own children) ignorant of these things so they can more easily achieve a spiritual “perfection”.

    What is particularly interesting to me now is that in every other tradition I’ve come across this kind of story (“the one forbidden thing” motif, or a Bluebeardian tale), the heroes are the ones who do the forbidden thing, gain the knowledge, overthrow the tyrannical deity or ruler who made them swear to remain innocent and ignorant. Christians are telling the story backwards. (My ideas on this come largely from the writings of Joseph Campbell, Kim Chernin, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes.)

    • Amyc

      “The way the story is generally told by Christians, innocence and ignorance are explicitly valued over experience and knowledge. “Perfection” is valued over what is.”

      That’s a good point. I’ve been wrestling with this concept of perfection lately with a few Christian friends. The problem I have with their particular theology is that it doesn’t matter how much good a person does, if they’re not perfect then they deserve to go to hell. They claim that every sin, no matter how small, is equal to every other sin. So, a child stealing a candy bar is just as bad as a leader who commits genocide–they both deserve hell. It’s weird, to me this makes their god seem like a tyrannical maniac who is a terrible judge of character for not accepting anything less than perfection. To them, their god is loving for his willingness to offer grace to *anybody* who asks for it.

  • Jack Ryan

    I read this excellent post, and just now chanced into this article at Slate. It’s weird how these things happen sometimes. Apparently, there is a study that was just released that purports to show that losing your virginity the “wrong way” could mess you up sexually for the rest of your life:

    Just…really frustrating.

  • Mel

    I married my husband at 30. I was a virgin. I’m glad I waited, but only because it was MY choice. My virginity wasn’t a prize I gave to my husband. I grew up in a liberal Catholic home. My folks taught us that sex was really awesome, that we should explore our bodies and treat our partners with respect. We should mindful that we understood that sex brings many feelings. And we should wait for sex until marriage. Before I was financially independent, I refrained from sex simply to honor my parents since they were still supporting me. I looked at it the same way as I did making dinner when I lived at home: common courtesy. Once I started teaching and living on my own, I could make my own decisions. I chose to refrain from sex because I wanted to assess my partners with my brain, heart and body – because physical affection feels so good that occasionally my ovaries wanted the final say. :-)