A protest against the evangelical cult of virginity seems to be picking up steam in certain circles of mildly rebellious internet writing this week. It’s been going on for a while, and goes something like: evangelicals have been obsessed with modesty and virginity for too long, and it has distorted the self-image of their adolescents, particularly the female ones. It has promoted the pernicious idea that women are “responsible” for the lust they stir in men, and that they are “damaged goods” if they fail to save themselves for marriage (which is increasingly a very long time to wait).
These observations are not wrong; the problem is that they’re obvious. This stuff has been debated in various circles for years, and a large numbers of Christian and ex-Christian young people have adjusted their views about it to better reflect reality. No less a bastion of status-quo-ism than Relevant published a fairly damning case against the abstinence doctrine though, characteristically, the writer twisted it into a defense of holding on to all of the ideology the preceding pages undermined. Whether or not the much-touted 80 percent figure is correct, it is undeniable to almost anyone acquainted with 20-something evangelicals that most of them have premarital sex, and at least some of them aren’t sorry about it.
Like previous shifts, it’s just taken the public conversation in evangelical circles to catch up to what is actually going on. Christian publications like Relevant and Prodigal operate under (small-O) orthodoxies they will not challenge no matter how overwhelming the evidence. This leads to a lot of material that makes huge pretense to being provocative, but is fact mostly a faux-edgy affirmation of the establishment conservative-evangelical status quo. We’re getting, for example, a lot of confrontational-sounding talk about virginity, but very little actual confrontation with the virginity cult.
Before I give a couple of examples, let me say that I in no way mean to belittle the stands these writers are taking, to the extent it was emotionally or socially difficult to write what they wrote. (I’m also talking about a much larger pool of writers.) The modesty and virginity orthodoxies may still be more oppressive than I realize from the outside, in which case small steps carry a greater weight. If you are still part of one of these communities, measure what I say against what you know.
The first post this week was by Sarah Bessey, headlined “I Am Damaged Goods.” Unlike a great deal of the writing in this genre, Bessey actually confesses something: that she had premarital sex, and that she fought through a lot of condemnation and purity propaganda to come to the realization that a person’s “worth isn’t determined by their virginity.” Again, I’m absolutely not discounting the power of the shame Bessey was subjected to by the cult of virginity, or her courage in pushing back against it. But a tension remains unaddressed: if it’s not that big of a deal that you had premarital sex, it’s not that big a deal if anybody does. It’s difficult to end the virginity cult without getting rid of the whole “doctrine” that premarital sex is sin, and that remains an shibboleth no one can challenge in public.
The next article this week was by Emily Maynard, who I know a little bit and like a lot, entitled “The Day I Turned In My V-Card.” She describes “crossing a barrier” and realizing she’s “not a virgin anymore.” There’s nothing in the piece to suggest this was a physical event; rather, it sounds like an intellectual exercise: “Instead of an all or nothing approach, instead of reducing the scope of human sexuality to one specific act and stamping that act with a no until marriage makes it a magical yes, I’m building a holistic sexual ethic.” I suspect this is supposed to be somewhat shocking, that she’s refusing to call herself a virgin! Again, I completely agree that this is all a step in the right direction, but it’s pretty small one. Everybody’s saying virginity isn’t the gospel these days. But would they say that premarital sex isn’t a sin? Would they actually have sex, enjoy it, and say so? I kind of doubt it. And so virginity will continue to be idolized, because the basis for idolizing it has not been challenged in the least.
I’m all for religious believers having a well-considered theological sexual ethic, and am happy to hear the crazy, often abusive virginity cult being questioned. But for all the talk about it and apparent desire to appear edgy, there sure isn’t much bold questioning going on. The reality is, you can play at making the word “virgin” unimportant, and you can tell guilt-ridden teenagers that God still loves them just the same even though they did what teenagers do. These efforts aren’t unimportant, but they are also not as controversial as they’re being made to seem, and they don’t represent anything like a real challenge to the orthodoxies and speech codes of places like Prodigal and Relevant and many conservative evangelical churches.
The only way this stuff is going to change is when people who call themselves evangelical believers and write for an evangelical audience, stop playing this game of pretend edginess, and say it plainly: I’m not married, I’ve had sex, I’m not sorry, and I’m still just as much of a Christian as you are. And then get to work on a rigorous theological argument that exposes the inadequacy of the one they’re attacking. If you’re really an evangelical, and really a truth-teller, it will take more than a few confessions on hip websites to make a serious dent.
There are plenty of people who could write that article and that theological book. I’ve met them, and I’m sure lots of writers from Relevant, Prodigal, et. al, have met them, too, and may in fact harbor these views themselves. But it always goes back to the conflict inherent people who aren’t fundamentalists but want to have “careers” of various kinds in the evangelical world. It’s difficult to be a truth-teller there—someone who actually challenges the shibboleths in the way some of these people seem to want to be taken as doing—and keep your platform very long.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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