In 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.
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.
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)