Virginity: Christianity’s Main Idol?

Virginity: Christianity’s Main Idol? February 4, 2013

Does the Christian church damage women by idolizing virginity?

Elizabeth Esther recently started the conversation around this question at her blog with this post:

Like other Christians, I talked about the “sacrifice” of abstinence. There were princess-themed books about saving our first kiss. Some of us wore purity rings and made pledges to our Daddies not to have sex until we’re married.

Ultimately, we implied that a woman’s inherent worth and dignity could be measured by whether or not a man has touched her…

We start by making ridiculous promises to our daughters. We tell them that “sexual purity” is a guarantor of a more intimate married sex life. We tell them that if they “lose” their purity, they will never really get it back. Oh, yes. They can be forgiven. But. You know. They’re damaged goods.

Christians say that the world objectifies women through immodest dress and a permissive sexual ethic. However, by idolizing sexual purity and preoccupying ourselves with female modesty and an emphasis on hyper-purity, Christians actually engage in reverse objectivization….

This is harmful and, dare I say, idolatrous.

Sarah Bessey added this devastating post about how the church has failed in how it has spoken about these issues:

Over the years the messages melded together into the common refrain: “Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.”

If true love waits, I heard, then I have been disqualified from true love…

And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me – and, according to this research, 80% of you are like me –  as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity.

We, the majority non-virgins in the myopic purity conversations,  feel like the dirty little secret, the not-as-goods, the easily judged example.  In this clouded swirl of shame, our sexual choices are the barometer of our righteousness and worth. We can’t let any one know, so we keep it quiet, lest any one discover we were not virgins on some mythic wedding night. We don’t want to be the object of disgust or pity or gossip or judgement. And in the silence, our shame – and the lies of the enemy – grow.

And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:

“So, you had sex before you were married.

It’s okay.

Really. It’s okay.

There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.

Rachel Held Evans then asked if the church idolizes virginity, and Alastair Roberts wrote one of the best posts to come out so far, talking about the relationship between shame, sexuality, and scripture:

The discourse surrounding the topic of sexuality in many Christian churches is a discourse of shame. It is a discourse that leaves many people feeling that their bodies are devalued and worthless. The power of shame, set loose in churches, is a defining presence in the lives of many Christians throughout their lives. It is something that imprisons people and makes them feel that they lack true value. The person who feels that they have been devalued by shame is more, not less, likely to engage in shameful practices, as they have lost sense of their true dignity. If we think that we can motivate others, or ourselves, to lives of holiness with the power of shame, we may find ourselves to have been sorely misguided…

And yet, the language of shame in association with sexuality is not unbiblical. Sexual sin is presented as defiling on occasions. Contrary to those who would suggest that we should regard sexual sin as just like all other sins, in order to detach them from their peculiar attachment with shame, Paul presents sexual sin as a unique kind of sin in 1 Corinthians 6:18…

In keeping with the seriousness of sexual sin in the Old Testament, the New Testament treats sexual sin, not as the victimless crime that we tend to treat it as, but as a defiling and perversion of the image of God in mankind – something focused on marriage between man and woman – and a sin against human nature.

It would seem that we have a problem. If shame can be so hard to shake and so devaluing, why would Scripture speak in such a manner? Despite seeming commonalities, the contrast between the way that the Scripture speaks about sexuality and our bodies and the way that these subjects are spoken of in many churches couldn’t be starker.

The way that we speak about the subject of sexual sin, perhaps more than any other moral issue, says an awful lot about the sort of gospel that we believe. It is in sexual sin that we can feel most powerfully defined by our rejection of God’s way. Only the true gospel – a gospel powerful enough to free us of the most persistent stains – enables us to speak with unflinching honesty on such a subject, without being destroyed by the resulting knowledge.

Finally, I should note that Her.meneutics has discussed this issue from time-to-time in the past and you’d do well to read some of their past work.

For 40 hours every week, I work as a writer and social media consultant with an online marketing firm. I help create content that prospective customers will see, be helped by, and that will, we hope, cause them to consider working with our company. Much of our success with clients, of course, depends on whether or not we give them what they need to make a profit. In a business relationship, the relationship is based on give-and-take. I have something you need, so you enter into a relationship with me. And if we cannot help them, we don’t have a relationship. This is how relationships work in the business world. In that context,it makes a lot of sense, but it becomes problematic when we begin treating everything as a business relationship. In an increasingly careerist culture, this sort of transactional thinking can slip implicitly into our thinking on other issues.

The problem with the way the church has often spoken of virginity in recent years is that we describe it as a product feature that enhances a product’s value. This is the gist of the many ways we talk about virginity and its importance: the tape that lost its stickiness, the awful pieces of the heart torn away image, the rose that lost its petals, etc.

What all those images say is that as a woman you are a product to be consumed by your future husband and your main calling card is your virginity. And if you lose that, you’re as good to him as a piece of tape that isn’t sticky or a rose with no petals. It’s an appalling, wretched, and comprehensively unbiblical way to talk about the subject and the preachers who do so are every bit as deserving of hell as all the practicers of the sexual sins they spend so much time condemning.

But here’s the rub: Generation Y and Millennial Christians are recognizing this rhetoric for the steaming pile of legalistic shame-mongering that it is and they’re running away from it. But what are we running to? If the answer is “a cheap grace that shakes it’s head at sexual sin without actually addressing it,” then what we’re really running to is an equally destructive alternative to the legalism of previous generations.

There’s a second issue to be considered though: The church isn’t alone in commoditizing sex and romance. It’s just that mainstream culture commodifies breasts, butts, penises, facial features, and the like rather than virginity. In other words, where fundamentalistic church culture thinks it is most distinctive from popular cultural norms it is actually most similar. In both the mainstream popular culture and conservative Christian culture, economic language has been adopted to discuss issues relating to dating, sexuality, the body, and marriage. And in both cases it is destructive because this economic language appeals primarily to fear and shame, telling us that if we fail to live up to the standard that we’ll become a “damaged” or “worthless” product that nobody would want.

The issue, it seems to me, turns on this question of commodification. Christians often talk in the same way that Cosmo does when it comes to desirability, the body, and romance. It’s just Cosmo cares about boobs and Christians care about virginity. But in both cases, the desired trait is reduced to a product feature that increases the price of the good in question, which is, we should remember, a human being. So what is to be done? Christians must remember that the community into which we are called, the church, is not an economic entity. The worth of a member and their standing in the group is not an economic category. We are brought into the group by grace and we remain in it by grace. It sounds a truism to say it so simply, yet if we actually understand and practice the power of those words, then we will be onto something special.

Additionally, by emphasizing the grace-based, non-utilitarian, non-economic nature of our membership, we can also rediscover Christian ethics as something that allows our family and the individuals that comprise it to thrive. Christian sexual ethics are not given by a killjoy God who lives in terror that we might be having too much fun. Christian sexual ethics are communal and an invitation to God’s best intentions for sex in, which was, after all, his idea. Seen this way, virginity matters not because it increases or decreases a person’s value on the dating market, but because it is part of a sexual ethic that embraces the life, grace, and love of our creator.

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  • Lola

    I am a 20-something virgin, yes based on faith spoken by a guest speaker back when I was in high school. It was during choir class that he was speaking about something to do with his wife (I will admit I was not paying attention) and suddenly he said, “That’s the thing, I have experienced and my wife has experienced something that no one else in the entire world has ever or will ever experience; each other.” That resonated with me far more than any scripture because I do believe that God was speaking to me then and there.

    As for those feeling shameful or devalued for having sex-I currently feel that way simply because I haven’t had to use that much will power to withstand sexual advances. I don’t think it matters whether or not if you have had sex in order to feel this way. In Christian love we should embrace all people in joy and love because we are human, we are all human, regardless of where we come from, who we have been with and surrounded by, and where we are going, we are human created in God’s image.

    • christianpundit

      Lola, congrats to you (and I mean that), but I’m a Christian woman in my early 40s and still a virgin, and you will find as you age that most Christian resources and churches will not support you in your celibacy.

      Most churches and conservative Christian groups are very eager to support teens to Christian 20-somethings in remaining celibate, but once you get to around age 25 or 30 and have still not married, most preachers and Christian authors and other Christians assume you have already had sex outside of marriage, or that you will eventually.

      A lot of Christians claim to support “virginity until marriage,” but they are not sincere about that. They only mean to say they support “virginity until marriage” for specifically for Christians between the ages of about 15 to 25 / 30. If you are over 25/30 years old, you get no support, encouragement, or attention to remain celibate.

      • Pofarmer

        Why does it matter that you are in your 40’s and still a virgin? Most folks simply could care less.

  • I have to admit that I went backwards and forwards as I read this article. It really took me getting to the end before I really calmed down. For the most part, it was hard not to feel like this piece was slamming those who choose virginity.

    Let me say that I am 100% opposed to legalism. Keeping the law does not make one righteous or better than another. And I can see where you are coming from when you equate the “marketing” of virginity with legalism, especially when being a virgin is thought of as an automatic pre-qualifier for sainthood. However, I really believe that virginity has a higher value than most people realize; it just gets spent long before they can ever fully realize its worth.

    When it comes to preaching about sexuality and virginity, it is important for a preacher, like myself, to approach the subject with love, grace, and compassion. As a matter of fact, grace is needed far more often than it is given. However, it is also important that we not avoid the realities of the consequences, both physical and spiritual, that come with loose sexual behavior. No, we should never say that one person is more valuable than another because of what they have done. But it should be made clear that the consequences of sexual immorality can be much more devastating than the modern culture and media would have us to believe.

    I think the take-away point to all of this should be: being a virgin doesn’t make you a better Christian, but a Christian should cherish his/her virginity.

    • twowings

      I completely agree with Jake and the others who have written- too many American Christians idolize sexual “purity” in a way that objectifies women, denies the operation of grace, and gives implicit blessing to non-sexual sins. But at the same time, I agree with the points you make here. We have a responsibility to be witnesses to the destructiveness of a permissive sexual culture, and to promote a healthier alternative rooted in the unchangeable truths of human nature and the will of God.

      In the struggle to warn against sexual sin while avoiding the errors that Jake mentions above, I think that the Catholic concept of “double punishment” for sin may be an intellectually useful concept. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      “To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death… This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.”

      The physical and spiritual consequences of unethical sexual behavior might perhaps be conceptualized as the temporal punishment due for sexual sin, “following from the very nature of sin.” Sexual sin creates disordered patterns of thinking, unhealthy emotional associations with sexual intimacy, and (especially in men) distorted attitudes about the dignity of the opposite sex. These are all temporal punishments for sexual sin, “scar tissue” in our psyche created by disordered attachment to and use of our sexual faculties, and they may remain even after the unmerited Grace of God has freed us from the eternal punishment for sin.

      In this way, we may reconcile your concerns with Jake’s. By emphasizing that grace frees us from eternal punishment and restores us to friendship with God (no matter what the sin!), we preempt the kind of uncharitable attitude that would classify a repentant non-virgin as an inferior kind of Christian. At the same time, we can emphasize that sexual sin does come with serious temporal effects that can distort relationships, attitudes, and choices.

    • christianpundit

      Anthony, I agree with what you wrote. I’m a Christian woman in my early 40s and still a virgin. I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but if you read my other posts on this page, I’ve pointed out that the church is too lax when it comes to sexual sin.

      The church also does not support celibacy in Christians past the age of 25 or 30. Once you reach age 26 or 30 and have still not married, most preachers and Christian material (such as magazine articles, blogs, etc) will not even acknowledge you exist.

      Most preachers and Christian lay persons assume all unmarried Christians over the age of 25 are engaging in fornication regularly, or have done so at least once. (I realize a lot of Christians may be committing fornication, but not all of us are.)

      I do not want Christians to be too unloving or harsh to those who commit sexual sin, but it sends a very damaging, dangerous message to repeatedly keep telling Christians they can be easily forgiven for sexual sin by a gracious, loving God.

      I realize the intent behind that assurance may be loving, but it sends a very discouraging message to older celibate Christians such as myself:

      Why should I bother remaining a virgin- until- marriage into my 40s, if having sex outside of marriage is portrayed as being perfectly fine, acceptable, not offensive to God, as something I have no power over, it’s inevitable I will cave into sexual desires, etc?

      I’m not being given any incentive to remain celibate by the climate of today’s American Christian culture, as well as the whole “God easily forgives sexual sins, so don’t wait until marriage to have sex, if you slip and fool around before marriage, it’s not biggie” rhetoric.

  • Murray Barrett

    As someone who did wait, I am glad I did. My wife and I have 4 grown children, and God has blessed us with health, prosperity, and sense of mission! I’m no Pharisee, only a sinner saved by grace that avoided the premarital sex pitfall. It’s great if you can, but remember we are all sinners if you haven’t. God bless and keep the faith!

  • Lisa Hopes

    I am not a philosophical or biblical expert so I won’t attempt to enter into debate through those doors. However, as an RN of 26 years, I think I can from a medical or physiological standpoint. In my opinion, this is a bit easier to believe since it doesn’t require a significant element of faith.
    Statistically, as promiscuity increases, so does the incidence of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), as well as pregnancy outside of marriage. The CDC, claims one in four sexually active teens will be infected with a STD by age 21. STDs are among the most common infectious diseases. The U.S. STD rates are the highest in the industrialized world. There are now more than identified 20 STDs. Of those 20 STD’s, let’s just look at one, Genital Herpes.
    Infection rates from Genital Herpes alone vary from 21-48% of the U.S., depending on the demographic. Women are almost twice as likely as men to be infected. The CDC estimates that more than 80 percent of people with genital herpes do not know they are infected. There is no cure for genital herpes, which can cause recurrent and painful genital sores and also increases the likelihood of acquiring and transmitting the AIDS virus.
    To sum up, promiscuity gives you a 21-48% chance of having incurable genital warts. Add in cancer, infertility, or death and the numbers go up. Add in the remaining 19 STDs and they go up significantly higher. You statistically will pass the same on to all your “friends” that you choose to have sex with. Now add in the 15-25% chance of getting pregnant (depending on where you are in your cycle), and the odds of having to deal with another difficult consequence goes up even more.
    With pregnancy, you will be forced to choose between raising a baby, giving it up for adoption, or abortion. The realities of abortion are: if you “catch” it within a few weeks, you can take a pill to kill the baby. Bear in mind that his heart is beating three weeks after conception. If you wait much longer, your doctor will cut the baby to pieces, while he sucks it out of you. And no abortion is without long term emotional and/or physical side effects which include infertility from scarring.
    As an OB RN, I have held in my hands, numerous dying babies in all stages of life, including those aborted alive but too small to survive. While working in the NICU in the 80’s, it was my job to put the bigger, live aborted babies under a heat lamp so they would die sooner. It was an act of mercy because their death was prolonged if the body temperature dropped below normal. One 19 week baby boy lived 13 hours in my care before he died, and his mother never even knew. We did this because the law required us to document his time of death on a death certificate.
    Not too long ago, STD’s were extremely rare, because the most common mode of transmission, promiscuous sex, was also rare. It seems that the young culture today is either unaware, keeping secrets from their sex partners, or is beginning to adopt the mindset that everyone will eventually have STDs and/or pregnancy outside marriage. I’m afraid the day will come when society accepts this as the new “norm”.
    I find it sad when people use the Christian belief system to attempt to reason themselves to a peaceful resolve; or they attempt to justify promiscuous sex, or other things that God defines biblically as wrong. They ignore the medical or scientific facts, which seem easier to believe. Perhaps this is because this door will yield an answer they do not want to hear. Or perhaps they are yearning for approval from a deeper source. A source they reluctantly believe is their ultimate authority.
    God’s laws, if you choose to believe them, extend beyond religion, logic, philosophy, and science. They encompass all things. The magnitude of this is far greater than the human mind can ever comprehend. So as you chose to formulate your belief system in life, it would be wise to consider all these things, and more. The funny thing is that sometimes, our decisions only require common sense. From the medical perspective, promiscuous sex is far too risky. I challenge each of you to use common sense, as well as your own convictions, when making the more difficult and courageous choices in life. And if you don’t have any common sense or convictions yet, it’s about time you started getting them.

  • christianpundit

    Oh gosh no, Christians don’t idolize virginity. It’s the exact opposite situation in the mainstream expressions of the Christian faith in the United States (I am not referring to the fringe groups such as “Quiverfull.” I do think some of these very extreme nominal Christian groups do idolize virginity, and they also idolize family, marriage, and having babies).

    I am in my early 40s, a Christian female, never married, and still a virgin. As such, I get no support, encouragement, or recognition from American Christian culture. And I am not alone. I have met other, older Christians who are also virgins, and they have noticed how older celibates get no support from the Christian community.

    Many American conservative churches, organizations, and denominations do strongly encourage Christians from roughly the ages of 12 / 15 to about the age of 25 to remain virgins until marriage, but most Christians assume that people over the age of 25 will be having sex outside of marriage.

    Most Christians assume that it is IMPOSSIBLE for anyone, even for Christians, to control one’s sexual urges.

    It is assumed or expected by most Christians as well as by secular society, that once you get to your mid 20s and beyond that you are having sex, or have had sex at least once outside of marriage.

    The truth is, a person can control his or her sexual urges and remain a virgin past the age of 35. It is not inevitable that a Christian will give in and have sex outside of marriage.

    If you are a Christian virgin at age 30, 40, or beyond, you will usually be ignored in most churches, in sermons by pastors, and in books and blogs by and for Christians.

    When older, celibate Christian singles are made note of by Christian authors or pastors (and it is rare when we are mentioned), we are treated like losers, failures, weirdos, or freaks.

    I don’t often see too many Christians taking sexual sin seriously anymore.

    If anything these days, I hear pastors and other Christians easily brushing off sexual sin and making comments such as, “It’s okay if you’ve committed fornication; God will forgive you, so don’t worry about it,” or, “you can abstain now and consider yourself a secondary virgin!,” etc. Well, if God is so easily placated when people sexually sin, why should I, a 40ish Christian woman, bother to remain celibate?

    According to these messages I hear from most churches, Christian blogs, and preachers these days, it is fine and dandy if I have sex outside of marriage, because everyone else is doing it, I can’t be expected to resist my desires, and God is thrilled to forgive fornication.

    Then you have another problem in that some Christians on the internet, usually more liberal ones, want to argue that the Bible does not condemn fornication – even though the Bible is pretty clear that it does in fact do so. They like to pretend that the Bible is too vague in language on the subject to arrive at a clear conclusion.

    I totally agree with the lady above who wrote, “I find it sad when people use the Christian belief system to attempt to reason themselves to a peaceful resolve; or they attempt to justify promiscuous sex, or other things that God defines biblically as wrong. “

  • Joy N

    Thank you so much for this article.

  • Pofarmer

    “Seen this
    way, virginity matters not because it increases or decreases a person’s
    value on the dating market, but because it is part of a sexual ethic
    that embraces the life, grace, and love of our creator.?”

    I’m sorry, but that makes no sense. The person you are going to sleep with/marry, has no idea if you have slept with anyone else or not. I’m not talking about one night stands, but commited relationships. I had a partner other than my wife, and she had a couple partners other than me. And you know what? Nobody cares. We don’t care. It’s not that the other partners didn’t matter, they did, and I still have a few good memories of that, but, We are married with 3 kids and it’s good. The Sex is good, the marriage is good. The main problem right now is her crazy church, and all the things they try to shame into adults AFTER the fact.