Before I get started, I want to explain why I’m writing this. Frankly (and there’s going to be a lot of frankness to follow), I’m tired of being bombarded with misrepresentations of Christianity on the web. Often, articles that are written on the subject of Christianity and particularly on Christianity and sex, are written by someone who has an ax to grind, and/or someone whose experience with the religion is marginal, either marginal in terms of limited experience or marginal in terms of those sects of Christianity that are on the fringes of the religion. The extremist versions of any group are the ones who get the most press, even though they are not representative of the vast majority. Sometimes I can shrug and tell myself, ‘there are always people out there who are ready to stuff everyone they meet into a box, and you’re not going to change their minds with a blog post, because the internet is filled with trolls who lack critical thinking skills.’ Other times, though, I feel compelled to write.
There’s an article making the rounds on the internet entitled, “I Waited Until My Wedding Night to Lose My Virginity and I Wish I Hadn’t.” I stumbled upon it when a few of my friends liked it on Facebook. The title intrigued me because I wondered, ‘what would make someone feel that way?’ I have a lot of friends who waited until marriage to have sex, and they all seem to be more than fine. We might not be at a “Sex in the City” level of disclosure, but we’re not mum on the subject, either.
Upon reading the article, I discovered that the author was involved with the peculiar subculture within some branches of Christianity that promotes purity pledges. She took one when she was ten, and, as she confesses, wore her virginity “like a badge of honor” in the ensuing years. The author writes that she was taught that virginity was expected of girls, but not boys, “according to the Bible” and that if she remained pure, her marriage “would be blessed by God” and if she didn’t, it would “fall apart and end in divorce.” I would like to think that her church didn’t actually teach that, that she misinterpreted what she heard, and that’s entirely possible. But I know there are some churches out there teaching pretty shady stuff.
Regardless of whether her church explicitly taught these ideas or whether this was just the impression she got from how sexuality was dealt with at her church, the church bears responsibility for its teaching (explicit and implicit), and she bears responsibility for her reaction to it, as an adult. She turned virginity into an idol, allowing others to put her on a pedestal. She was, as she said, held up as a role model for all the other girls in her community, and she spoke often of her commitment to purity. So after losing her virginity on her honeymoon she discovered that it “had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn’t know who I was without it.”
Then I read one of the saddest sentences I have come across: “I couldn’t figure out how to be both religious and sexual at the same time.”
Her solution was to give up religion, but billions of people somehow manage to be both sexual and religious. I have some suggestions for the author:
Don’t trust the theology you were spoon fed when you were ten. You are an adult living in a country with freedom of religion, press, and expression. You have available to you plenty of resources in both hard and digital copy in which to explore Biblical commentary and how various Christians view sexuality. If you really want to be able to be religious and sexual at the same time, you should read the Bible, analyze the insights of qualified others, and do some critical thinking. I understand the initial temptation to dismiss religion altogether when you discover that a group of religious people have taught false doctrine that negatively impacted you. But when you say, “I’m now thoroughly convinced that the entire concept of virginity is used to control female sexuality,” it is clear you have created a false dichotomy in your mind wherein there is only the view expounded by the church you grew up in and the view expounded by secular feminists, nothing else.
I’m going to give you a third view (and there are more than three). Maybe it will help, or at least be interesting, to read this Christian feminist’s view of sex. I grew up in a church that would probably be described as “evangelical.” We didn’t have purity pledges, because they weren’t a thing back then. (And my parents would have found the whole culture that surrounds them to be creepy.) But we were taught not to have sex outside of marriage. Both guys and girls. It’s not biblically defensible to have different expectations of sexual purity based on gender. (I got that double standard more from secular media. See: slut shaming or pretty much any Hollywood movie with a “good girl/bad boy” plot.) According to my upbringing, guys were expected to keep it in their pants, too.
When I was in first grade, my grandma took my cousin and me to see Big. Everyone reading this is probably thinking, “aw, Big, what a nice, fun movie that was.” But my mom was upset that her six year old was exposed to the scene where Tom Hanks gets to second base with Elizabeth Perkins, and I was taken aside and told that that sort of activity was for “husbands and wives.” That was a perfectly acceptable thing to say to a six year old, because as a six year old, I knew that I would not be a wife until I was an adult, and therefore no one should be feeling me up anytime soon. Do I think having a 10 year old take a purity pledge is a good idea? No. But I can understand why some parents, misguided as they are, promote those things. Parents and other caring adults create certain environments and make rules for children for their protection, because children do not have the discernment or developed prefrontal cortexes to make informed decisions for themselves.
However, as you transition into adulthood, you are expected to make your own decisions. Imagine my dismay when I read the author’s confession that while with her fiancé, she “wondered where the line was because I was terrified to cross it. Was he allowed to touch my breasts?” If you’re an adult, YOU draw the line! If you’re incapable of deciding whether or not it’s acceptable for your fiancé to grope the girls, you shouldn’t be engaged, because you’re not an adult. The author apparently never asked anyone for advice on any of this stuff, because there are lots of people who are happy to suggest where that “line” is. There’s no one right answer, and ultimately “the line” is legalism; you should be focusing on how your relationship with whoever fits in with your relationship with God.
And that’s where the big problem lies in the author’s story. She makes no mention of God in her article other than as an abstract concept her church brings up. It’s all about her church, her family, her social circle. The crux of her problem was not religion, per se, but her desire to maintain her image by pleasing everyone else. She cared what her church thought, not what God thought. She ends her article with “it’s your body; it belongs to you, not your church. Your sexuality is nobody’s business but yours.” True, your body isn’t your church’s. But it’s not really yours, either. It’s God’s. And while it’s no human’s business where you draw your line, etc., it is God’s business.
God makes rules for a reason. The rules for sex are about safety, both physical and emotional. The physical ones are obvious. The emotional aspect is harder for some people to admit. Often, people who advise abstinence until marriage argue that you give a piece of your heart to each person you sleep with, that an emotional attachment occurs, and that making those attachments to several people who subsequently exit your life can be damaging. Lots of people say that you can just have casual sex with no emotional consequences, but science disagrees.*
Sex releases a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin increases feelings of trust and emotional bonding. It’s called the “love drug,” and often people use the feelings they have while high on oxytocin to guide their evaluation of a relationship. It causes us to feel closer to a person than we otherwise would. When we view the sex rule in this light, we see it’s not about “controlling” people, but about God’s care for us. It is similar to other rules that, upon inspection, are about our protection. The rule against intoxication, for example, makes a lot of sense when we see the damage alcohol can do in terms of alcoholism, drunk driving, increased risk for certain diseases, etc. It’s not that getting drunk will send you straight to hell because God’s just itching to boot you to eternal fire in the afterlife. It’s that it is wiser and safer to stay sober in this life.
As a Christian woman, my identity is not wrapped up in what I have or haven’t done sexually, or which persons I please or don’t please, but in who I am in relationship with God. The idea of the author not knowing how to be sexual and religious at the same time was so alarming to me because my sexuality is inextricably linked to my religious being. I know that I will have no hang-ups about sex with my husband, because I view the sexual aspect of my core being as a part of God’s design. He knit me together in my mother’s womb, and I entered this world with horniness written in my DNA. But I don’t blab to everyone about how I choose to act or not act in regard to my sexuality. Why did it never occur to the author, or the many others who get into this purity pledge business, that proclaiming to the world that you’re staying a virgin until marriage is akin to bragging about any other aspect of holy living? Do we go around telling everyone, “I’ve never [been drunk, told a lie, gossiped, cheated on my taxes, etc.]”? No? Why is that? Maybe it’s because we all sin, and we understand that bragging about not committing a particular sin is 1) a sin and 2) not helpful in terms of building relationships with people.
There’s actually been a lot written on this subject by Christians who are fed up with the ways some churches use double standards and an attitude of judgment when talking about sex. If the author had taken the initiative to do a simple internet search, she would have found a variety of Christian voices that could have helped her, but I guess it was easier to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
So if a woman were really serious about wanting to know how to be religious and sexual, what should she do? Rather than focus on what extremist fringes of Christianity espouse, check out what God says.
In Genesis, it is Satan, not God, who introduces shame over the naked body. God saw Adam and Eve, both created in His image, as good. Some people mistakenly think sex is a result of the Fall; however, Eve’s punishment is not child-bearing, but an increase in pain during the process. That means we were always intended to have sex, and I firmly believe Adam and Eve had a lot of it before the Fall. To be perfectly frank, each month when I’m tempted to be mad at God for my female body because my uterus seems to be harboring a serious grudge against me, I remind myself that He also made women capable of having multiple orgasms. If you believe that God created us and that He saw His creation as good, it follows logically that God designed the clitoris, which has about 8,000 sensory nerve endings (as opposed to only 4,000 for the penis). It serves no other purpose than pleasure. To borrow from Ben Franklin, the clitoris is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.
Read the Song of Songs (aka the Song of Solomon). Some people feel more comfortable claiming it’s an allegory for God’s love for us. Yes, it can be read that way because God loves us unconditionally and Christ metaphorically refers to the church as His bride, but the Song of Songs is also legitimately theologically read as straight up sexy time. One commentary answers the question of why there’s a poem about romance and sex in the Bible with “We might just as well ask why not. After all, God created sex. Romance was his idea. The distortion that sin has given this subject should not make us forget that sexual intimacy is his gift to us—to be enjoyed when used as he intended.”
Now, I want to address the author’s assertion that she was taught that if you have sex before marriage, your marriage is doomed and you’ll fry in hell. Theologically, sex before marriage is no different from any other sin. The orthodox view of sin is that everyone is guilty of it, but can be absolved of it through Jesus. Once someone becomes a Christian, they’re still going to sin, because they’re human. The Christian life is one of steady progress toward becoming more Christ-like, but is inevitably marked with frequent f--- ups. If you drew it as a diagram, it would not be a straight line ascending to heaven, but rather an overall upward slope jagged with peaks and valleys.
I recently preached a sermon on Rahab. She was a prostitute, so, lots of taboo sex going on there. However, she converted and joined the Israelites, stopped hooking, and married a guy named Salmon. Their marriage definitely wasn’t doomed and they begat the ancestors of King David and Jesus. Rahab is lauded in various New Testament passages as an example of both faith and works, so she’s not only not burning in hell, she’s held up as a role model. Her sexual sin isn’t brushed off as if it’s nothing, but she’s forgiven and redeemed, and she’s accepted into the Israelite community and canon of Bible heroes, because her identity is based on who she is as a person, not her sexual status.
Maybe it’s because Rahab is so fresh on my mind that I was so annoyed by this article. "I Waited" perpetuates the myth that religion harms women and that religion and feminism are mutually exclusive (an idea I have addressed in my Heritage post, but will address again at length in a forthcoming post). Insultingly, the author seems to suggest, and many of her fans in the comment section explicitly said, that women who aspire to remain virgins until marriage are “brainwashed” and being “controlled” by others. On the contrary, most of these women have carefully considered their options before making their choice. To suggest otherwise is to deny they have autonomy simply because they reached a different conclusion than you did.
*Good ol' science. Science and religion actually go together rather well, despite what the internet says. When science and religion marry, they have adorable offspring like Blaise Pascal and me.