Used Up; Spread Around – Virginity and the Church

doll_leadIn the past week, the question “Does Christianity idolize virginity?” has come across my radar in a few ways. First, it was Sarah Bessey‘s raw post “I am Damaged Goods“, followed by Rachel Held Evens’ straight forward question “Do Christians Idolize Virginity“. Then a couple of friends each had some excellent additions to the conversation: Arleen Spenceley chimes in with a Catholic response to “Do Christians Idolize Virginity” and Alastair Roberts points us towards redemption with “Virginity and the Gospel“(an absolute must read for this topic).

The overarching agreement from each of these writers is this: a person’s value and worth are not dependent (in whole or in part) on their sexual experiences and history. A person is valuable because they are human, and this is the very reason Jesus redeems our histories and gives us all an unbound future. As much as I agree with this (and I do with every fiber of my being), there is something else that must be addressed. Inherent in our church vocabulary about virginity and sexual ethics is a crass, unholy sexism.

To put it bluntly, Christians need to stop slut-shaming.

I am a white, middle-class, Christian male. I am writing from a place of privilege. See, I have never been shamed for my sexual behavior. I have never been told that I am used up, that I have given away my treasure (value), that I am tainted before God due to my sexual history.

Why not?

It’s not as if I have been the poster child for the “True Love Waits” campaigns. Here’s the honest truth: I have never been in a relationship that wasn’t overly physical. This isn’t just something that happened “that one time”.  My entire dating career was marked by regrets, boundary pushing, broken hearts, and an earned reputation.  While there is a multitude of reasons for this, at the end of the day it was me engaging in acts that were deemed by the church to be impure and improper for outside of marriage.

Yet, I was not shamed.

Yes, I was chastised. Yes, I was looked down upon, but I wasn’t shamed the way the girls in relationships with me were. It may not have been the church as a whole that pointed fingers and  clucked tongues, but it doesn’t take an entire church congregation to cause wounds. At the end of my time dating in church, the picture that was painted was this: I had spread myself around, failing to be strong. However, each of the girls had now been used up, tainted, no longer possessing prime desirability because they had been used.

I admit I am speaking in retrospect. It could be that this isn’t how things actually were. I pray they weren’t/aren’t. However, I am also speaking as someone who has grown up in the hallowed halls of church culture. I was raised since the cradle to sit in those pews, to go to bible studies, to aspire to the pulpit. I signed the purity card before it was fashionable to get a ring. As a life timer in the church, I was imbued with this picture of virginity. I might not have remained pure and strong, but I wasn’t the one who was used up. I had spread myself around, given something of myself to the girls I fooled around with, but they were the ones who had lost their purity.

I was led to believe (by the church culture) that women were the temptress. Given over to their sin, every woman would want to commit affairs with me, eager to snag me and control me as their man trophy. I needed to look out for a woman who was given to God, one who was pure, one who was unsullied by the Jezebel spirit that sought to lead all men astray. The women had better keep her breasts locked up tight and covered with a tarp, lest she tempt me and I fall to her temptress ways. Basically, I was told that as a man I am the mercy of women’s sexuality. Too much skin, and I would transform into a sex hulk who couldn’t listen to the voice of God. But I wasn’t used up.

If a girl lost her pure standing in the church, it was over. She was the harlot, the whore. She was the example that you told the younger kids about. “You don’t want to end up giving away your virtue like she did do you? Put on this purity ring and this sweatshirt. It’s the only way the lust of men won’t be awakened.” I saw many girls leave the church because they were nothing more than an example of what not to do.

Sarah

This double standard is built into the usual ways we talk about sex in church. Sex has been elevated to a spiritual thing as if the act of coitus is somehow bound up with a mystic experience of ecstatic union with another soul as you and your mate are joined with the divine. At least that’s how I was made to feel about it. Sex was never spoken of as a physical action; it was always a spiritual thing. Virginity was something sacred, something holy, and giving your virginity to someone was the epic event of your life. Finally, you would know wholeness and be joined with your soul mate forever.

If a man loses his virginity  it is a moment of weakness. If a woman loses her virginity, she loses the spiritual gift she had to give her soul-mate.

This  a shitty way to treat the complexity of human sexuality. Too long, we in the church have been immature in our talk about sex and human sexuality. We have over-spiritualized the physical act of sex and orgasm and vilified sexuality as leading to nothing but lust, kinky porn, rape, and abortions. In the process, we have also told women that their actions are not the same as the actions of the boys. Women are told to be responsible for the purity of the man: don’t tempt, don’t provoke, don’t be overly feminine lest you awaken his manhood and he needs to go rub one out or have sex with you right then and there. Obviously, men are nothing more than beasts… and women are forced to not only live in fear of corrupting  the soul of a man but if/when physical lines are crossed, the woman is the one whose reputation suffers. She is the one used up, no good, something to now be discarded.

When did we come to this? When did the people of God (the people who are learning to live and love like Jesus) when did we fall so far into fear of being human that we will step on our women, shame them for actions that we give men a slap on the wrist. There isn’t a quick answer to wrap all this up. Sexuality and identity are complex things because we are complex creatures. We need to take this seriously, though. Damage has been done to several generations. Is this going to be the church, the faith, we pass on? I refuse to pass this on to my son. He is allowed to grow up in the complexity of his identity and sexuality. He is not allowed to slut-shame women. If and when he gets physical with a girl, he will know more responsibility than I was ever taught, and he will know that she is his equal.

Now that faith has come we are no longer under a slave looking after us; for all of you are the children of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus, since every one of you that has been baptized has been clothed in Christ. There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female—for you are all one in Christ Jesus… If anyone is in Christ: NEW CREATION!!

(Galatians 3.25-28; 2 Corinthians 5.17)

  • This is one of those topics that makes me appreciate the simplicity of my nonreligious life. To me, sex has always just been a thing humans do. It is intimate and sensual, sometimes, and raw and aloof, sometimes. It can have deep importance within a relationship, or it can be as casual as ordering a pizza, and it can be conducted in hundreds of different ways, within a vast spectrum of complex human relationships, but in the end, the only important thing is that it be done in a way that requires and respects consent.

    • THIS. Particularly the bit about “requires and respects consent.”

  • I’ve been thinking about how to write about this subject myself. There are so many layers that it’s hard to dig through them all. First, I should say that my husband and I received vastly different messages as youths. I got the “save it for marriage” lecture, with absolutely no other guidance. Through my peers, I learned that girls who had sex were slutty, regardless of the circumstances. The boys got “don’t touch yourself and porn is bad.” My husband says that he got the “keep yourself pure” lecture, but that boys and girls were treated the same (though I find that really hard to believe). At our Christian college, couples who “slipped up” were properly ashamed and contrite afterward. But here’s the worst part there–all the young men I knew said they would never date/marry a non-virgin, especially if they were virgins. Not one of the girls felt the same way. (I actually had felt that I would prefer an experienced partner; it didn’t work out that way.)

    I don’t think the problem is waiting or not waiting, it’s the emphasis placed on what people’s sexy bits are doing with each other that is the problem. It’s an emphasis on the moment of losing virginity as being a) penetrative sex specifically and b) occupies some particular place in the space-time continuum. Also, I think there is a weird preoccupation with “claiming” or “taking” someone’s virginity. In my thinking, if both people are consenting and desiring, then there is no “taking” of anything. There is a mutually enjoyable (hopefully) experience. If consent is absent, then it’s rape.

  • excellent essay, aaron! i’ve wondered off and on over my lifetime similar ideas and why men seem to be lifted up for their sexual prowess or experience, even congratulated and touted, whereas women are shunned and shamed.

    growing up, i got the “wait until you’re married” message, and honestly it wasn’t that hard (ha!) for me to do so. not because i wasn’t afraid of going to hell or anything. more like disappoint my parents. (got me some firstborn tendencies being firstborn son and all.) but more than anything, the potential for disease and babies kept me from poking around certain places. not saying i was a prude, though. there are plenty of ways to have fun sexually.

    what i always find fascinating by the sex = bad talking point in christianity is that people seem to forget that without sex none of us would be here. plus, sexy = fun. it comes (ha!) from god, and he found everything he created good. so, sex = good. of course, we being broken creatures, we can take what god has given us and twist it in negative ways.

    sex is good and sex is natural and beautiful, blah, blah, blah. but, like gabriel said in his comment: sex is also just something we do. is it mystical and spiritual and a connection to god? sure. but why treat it as some artifact that is both precious and to be feared?

    quite frankly, sex is fun. and, honestly, sometimes i wish i had had more experience as i was growing up. but, whatever. i’m married now and get to have lots of fun with my wife.

    sorry, i seem to have rambled a bit with this comment. it’s one of those topics i have a lot of thoughts on, as you can no doubt tell.

  • “This a shitty way to treat the complexity of human sexuality” Thank you and amen! Aaron, this deserves a far better response than I’m capable of composing right now, but man, you’ve thrown down a lot to think about.

  • Brandon

    I hate this post, but not what it says or how it says it but because it needs saying so badly.

    • Brandon, I understand completely. I hate that I had to write this post. I hate that I’ll have to write this post again.

  • I’m late to this party, but what a great post. As someone who was “Not until I’m married. Not until I’m engaged. Not until a year. Not until 6 months.” I get this. I am lucky, this wasn’t something we really delved into in my church. The United Methodist Church doesn’t have purity balls or give out rings or anything. The thing that I find interesting is the lack of faith and trust that is imbued in the men of the church, as though you are all so weak, you will never be able to resist your baser desires. I think women have all the responsibility, but men get all the blame in a lot of religions. Women have to cover themselves up because men can’t control themselves. If I was a dude, this would piss me off.

    • Rachel, thanks.

      As a dude, it does piss me off. I promise I’m not just balls and shaft when I see an attractive woman. It’s dumb to expect women to have the responsibility to keep things sexually pure, but then expect men to be the “spiritual head of household”. There is no helpmate, not partnering with, no community. It’s pretty much just guys vs the evil girls, and everyone looses. Not how a family should be.

  • Starleisha Gingrich

    I’m also late to the party, but love this! I’m wondering what your thoughts are towards young women who have the purity ring, but feel shamed about remaining a virgin until marriage? And obviously feel the need to ask others’ opinions because they don’t know how to deal with being a sexual being and a Christian?

    • I have been thinking lots about your comment. I want to address it in it’s own post, if that’s ok.

      I do want to say that if your sexuality, virginity, etc… is causing shame, there is something wrong. Our worth does not come from our experience (or lack there of) in sexual behavior. Our church communities need to believe that we are sexual creatures, even before we “do the deed”. Defining our self worth according to some sexual status is not gospel. It’s not how Jesus dealt with people, and it’s not how we should deal with each other, or our selves.

      • I’d love to read your more extensive thoughts in another post! I’m putting the pieces together, so every little bit counts! And I agree that experience does not equal worth. That needs to be discussed more in both secular and Christian circles.

  • Aaron, this is a touchy subject for me as well. When my wife and I got married, she already had a son. I never viewed him as a step-son, and loved him as my own. The only people I ever got shit for about this were at church.

    I would get looks of disapproval when people did the math. “They’ve been married two years, and their son is 4. Oh, I thought they were more godly then that.” Then things got even worse when I was asked if he was ‘mine.’

    Mine? I raised him from 18th months until now, as a seventeen year old. Yes, he’s MINE. I love him with every fiber of my being, regardless of whose sperm created him. Not to mention the shame my wife had whenever this came up. She would be viewed as somehow less.

    I am so glad we have been married long enough now where this doesn’t matter. And we found a community of believers who frankly don’t care who did what to whom when. Let’s just figure out instead how to live out the Christian life in a meaningful way, together.

    Maybe I should have just written my own blog, since I just wrote one here 🙂

  • I was recently asked by my therapist if I felt shame for my past actions. My answer was no. But, after thinking about it, I have to amend that answer. No, now. But that was not always the case. About a year and a half ago, I actually left a church because of the shame I was made to feel. I was approached by the pastors after 2 men (months apart) had “confessed” to the pastor without giving me the decency of heads up. After the second time, the pastors came to me. I realized that they had yet to really sit down and talk to the man, and it just happened that he was out of town at this particular time. I did not appreciate how it was handled. They said that they held the man more responsible as he was the “leader” and “caretaker” but their actions were showing that they held me responsible, after all, I was the common denominator.

    It was shortly after that that I started attending the Genesis Project. I made many mistakes there too including sleeping with a man in that church. The difference was, I felt free to go to the pastor for counsel. He did not judge me. He did not shame me. He counseled me. And when I made the mistake again, he told me I was not starting back at the beginning. Finally, I had a sexual encountered that damaged both parties terribly, and I finally sought professional counseling (on the advice of my pastor). I have been abstinent for 4 months now. I say that the same way and alcoholic or drug addict might say they were clean for 4 months because that is how I feel. But with my pastor or my therapist, I have never been made to feel shame. Not this time.

    I am able to say “No” I don’t feel shame because finally I attend a place where the pastor and the people know what it is to make reoccurring mistakes. Oh there are those who may let a judgmental look pass their pious faces, but for the most part I am with people who are like me: not perfect but striving to be better.

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  • Jennifer

    I totally relate to this. I have had sex with 3 people in my life, but in my eyes it was as bad as having had sex with hundreds. I felt like Davids daughter Tamar. Desolate. I did nothing but cry for 3 days after my first time. I wasn’t raped. I had a choice. But I had been taught all of what you said above. I even seriously considered marriage to that boy when I knew it would be a horrible decision. It took me years and years and years to heal from that devastation of false guilt and “unforgivable” sin. To realize that God did forgive me. He still had a wonderful husband for me. He even had amazing children in my future. I believed the lie that I was worth nothing without my virginity.

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