I recently came upon a blog post by an evangelical in Belgium reacting to the recent outpouring in the Christian blogosphere on the problems with evangelical purity culture. This blogger reacted with confusion, calling what he was reading about “a purity culture I don’t know.” I think he correctly credits his confusion to the cultural differences between the two nations, even within evangelicalism. Anyway, this one statement of his stuck out at me:
What I’ve never heard in all of this was stuff like the following, all of which I would’ve disagreed with then as much as I would do now:
—Non-virgins will by definition have a bad marriage.
It sounds crazy when put that simply, doesn’t it? But it is actually what I was taught. So I thought I’d help clear up this blogger’s confusion on the topic by explaining why I was taught that non-virgins could not have good marriages.
First, I was taught that if a husband and wife had sex with other people before marrying, they had, in effect, already cheated on each other. And if you know your spouse has cheated on you in the past, how can you know that they won’t cheat on you in the future? It’s a trust issue. If your spouse didn’t love you enough (this is part of why the culture I come from encourages things like writing love letters to your future spouse) to be able to keep himself from cheating on you, so how can you trust them?
Second, I was taught that if you and your spouse had had sex with each other before you got married, you also wouldn’t be able to trust each other. Why? Because you would forever know that your spouse didn’t respect and love you enough to wait until marriage to have sex with you, and also that your spouse wasn’t able to keep from committing sexual sin. If your spouse had so little respect for you, and had no qualms about committing sexual sin, well, how could you trust him or her? You couldn’t. There would forever be suspicion and moments of looking over your shoulder, wondering.
It is true that trust is a crucial foundation for any marriage—indeed, any relationship. It is true that broken trust can tear a relationship apart. And for this reason, I think it actually is true that having premarital sex, whether with each other or with someone else, can be damaging to the marriages of many conservative evangelicals. I’ve seen it happen myself, actually. The suspicion and distrust born out of the past existence of premarital sex can and does get in the way of conservative evangelical couples’ building of true and genuine intimacy.
But there’s just one problem here. The existence of premarital sex is only a breach of trust if people believe that it is sexual sin and represents a failure to truly love and respect one’s future spouse. In contrast, if one doesn’t see sex as something that is supposed to be saved for marriage, and doesn’t expect one’s spouse to be a virgin, there is no broken trust. When one doesn’t see sex before marriage as a form of cheating on one’s future spouse, the existence of premarital sex does not cause suspicion or resentment. (I’ve written about this before.)
It’s sort of like the social construction of gender, actually. A girl who grows up hearing that girls are bad at math will likely end up being bad at math. It’s not that girls are actually bad at math—it’s just that she thinks they are, and that matters. It’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. Even so, premarital sex doesn’t actually ruin future relationships—unless one thinks it will. And many conservative evangelicals very much think it will.