This is the first installment in a five-part series on sexual ethics. Part 1 looks at the ramifications of the evangelical purity culture. Part 2 will consider “sex as marriage” as a starting point for a biblical sexual ethic. Part 3 and part 4 will explore some of the limitations of this starting point, while part 5 will offer an alternative approach.
When I was 16 or thereabouts, I signed a True Love Waits card at my church.
A short time later, when a syndicated columnist poked fun at the nascent abstinence movement, I penned a response for my local newspaper. (It was my first ever published piece of anything.)
Strictly speaking, I kept my pledge. I was a virgin when I married. I’ve only ever had sex with one woman, and make no mistake: I’m very happy about that.
Several weeks ago, Sarah Bessey wrote a brave piece on what it’s like to be one of those labeled “damaged goods” by the evangelical purity culture. Others like her have written similarly brave articles. And predictably, some have reacted with all kinds of manufactured outrage, like this.
Never mind that these brave writers (whose articles, no doubt, were a profoundly liberating read for those with a complicated sexual past — i.e. the VAST MAJORITY of evangelicals) endorsed neither “individualism gone wild” nor “commitment-free” sex, as their critics insinuated.
Never mind that many of these authors embody the very notion of marriage-as-covenant about as well as anyone can.
Ironically, one of the main critics even seemed to accept the basic premise of Sarah’s “Damaged Goods” piece, writing:
Some religious folks resort to a “steaming pile of legalistic shame-mongering.” When a religious community sees the human body along utilitarian lines while sacred texts forbid sexual misconduct, they resort to deontological ethics—unwavering adherence to rules. In certain circles, there is an underlying assumption that God punishes the sin of fornication by ruining the future marriage, when that may not in fact be the case.
The main difference, from what I can tell, between this and what Sarah wrote is that this particular critic likes to use words like “deontological.” (It’s an old trick, appropriating sophisticated philosophical jargon to make your argument sound more impressive than it really is.)
Yet much of the criticism only perpetuates the very problem that prompted Sarah and others to write in the first place: namely, idolizing virginity creates a massive culture of shame, especially for women in the church.
So in response to this culture of shame, let’s do a bit of truth-telling.
The fact is, most evangelicals don’t make it to their wedding night as virgins. According to one study, some 80% of True Love Waits signees end up breaking their pledge. (And for what it’s worth, those Christians who don’t make it to their wedding night are more likely to have unprotected sex, more likely to get pregnant, and more likely to end up having abortions.)
Whether by design or by accident, emphasizing Abstinence Above All Else creates more problems than it solves. In addition, it sends Christian teenagers a profoundly unbiblical message . . .
Your virginity is the best gift you can give to your future spouse.
(Really? More important than your heart? More important than a lifetime of companionship, fidelity, and solidarity?)
Once you lose your purity, you can never get it back.
(So all that “new creation” talk in the Bible was just wishful thinking?)
Yes, virginity — namely, a woman’s virginity — was a big deal in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. But the reason had little to do with the virtue of chastity or the promise of some fairy-tale wedding night. In the ancient Near East, virginity reinforced a woman’s status as someone else’s property.
A woman’s virginity (and, by extension, her body) belonged to her father until he arranged a suitable marriage for her. Marriage, then, constituted a transfer of ownership: from father to husband. (Ever wonder where the “who gives this woman?” part of the wedding ceremony came from?)
A woman’s virginity was a litmus test by which her husband (and therefore owner) would evaluate his newly acquired possession. According to Deuteronomy, if she was found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, then he had the right to have her stoned to death.
Keep in mind all this might have taken place when a girl was maybe 13 years old.
Not the best starting point for a healthy sexual ethic, is it?
Another common starting point: biblical warnings against “fornication.” But contrary to popular opinion (and one very big assumption behind much of the faux outrage of late), fornication doesn’t mean just any kind of pre- or extramarital sex. Words — and how they’re used — matter. Fornication means something rather more precise. It means sex with a prostitute. In a temple.
Which is really, REALLY important. Because when a Christian teenager who maybe got a little too carried away with her boyfriend one night hears her youth pastor tell all her friends something like, “Do not associate with fornicators” (1 Corinthians 5:9), she thinks it means her. And it doesn’t.
Those who fail the expectations of the evangelical purity culture do indeed get labeled “damaged goods.” Just ask Sarah. Just ask the 80% of evangelicals who don’t make it to their wedding night as virgins.
We use these labels as a modern-day scarlet letter, shaming those who don’t clear the very high bar of chastity imposed on them during the most hormonally intense period of their lives. Virginity becomes the standard by which we separate the upright from the outcast.
Which is kind of ironic, because it means we’ve fallen into the same trap as the overly permissive, over-sexualized culture we’re so rightly concerned about.
It’s probably beyond dispute that teenagers face enormous pressure to become sexually active before they ought to. As a result, many who choose abstinence end up being ostracized by their more promiscuous friends. At the risk of oversimplification, young people get divided into two camps: the sexually active (who are therefore socially acceptable), and the sexually abstinent (who are therefore social pariahs). At least that’s how it felt sometimes when I was growing up.
But an all-or-nothing emphasis on abstinence has the same effect in reverse, separating youth into equally damaging categories: the good Christian kids who hang onto their virginity (though many do by the thinnest of margins), and the “damaged goods” whom God might reluctantly forgive but who are nonetheless screwed (no pun intended) because they’ve forever stolen something from their future spouses and most likely squandered whatever shot they had at a healthy marriage.
This message is toxic. And it has no place in a biblical picture of redemption.
Until we stop putting virginity on a pedestal and teaching our sons and daughters to bow down to it, we will continue to get this wrong. Disastrously wrong.
None of this is to say we should toss chastity out the window. It can have tremendous value as a spiritual discipline. Just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.
Over on his blog, Preston Yancey is making the case for a more holistic ethic that still reserves sex for marriage — not based on a single proof text or on patriarchal notions of virginity, but based on the idea that “consensual sex… is itself the act of marriage.”
Preston’s approach isn’t perfect (not that he claims it is). In the next few posts, I’ll challenge some aspects of it. But I think Preston offers a way better starting point for a meaningful, life-giving sexual ethic… one that both honors the Bible and leaves room for grace. Give it a read.