I’ve been mulling this idea over for a while now, ever since I read Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank when I was preparing for my “What is Virginity?” video (and yes: I plan to get back to the YouTube channel soon. Editing video of yourself while depressed is …. heh). When I emerged from under the mountains of research with the realization that virginity is a myth, I startled wrestling with the theological position it’s inhabited in Christianity for centuries.
While Christianity certainly did not invent the concept, we in Western culture think of virginity in very Christian terms. It has religious, moral, and mystic significance for us. The Holy Mother is enshrined in our tradition as a virgin– and not just of the “young girl” variety. Her sexual purity was encoded as catholic doctrine in the Nicene Creed of 381. We even have fables and legends about unicorns and how only the purest women could capture them.
Today there’s a whole culture in evangelicalism– purity culture— built around the concept. Not only is virginity considered physically real in conservative Christianity, it’s “the most precious gift a woman can give her husband.” We wear rings, we sign contracts and pledge cards, and we dive into the endless wave of books like Lady in Waiting and Why True Love Waits. All the sermons, the books, the podcasts, the blogs, the Sunday school lessons tell us all one very important thing: we must save our virginity for marriage, or unspeakable horrors will descend on us. Divorce. Betrayal. Adultery. Addiction. Disease. Death.
Aside from the fact that virginity doesn’t actually exist and all the different ways that insisting on it harms women, there’s also a theological problem with teaching our young men and women that they need to remain virgins.
As far as I’m aware, most (if not all) Christian traditions, from Protestant to Catholic to Orthodox, have some articulation of sanctification. I’m not sure if we all call it the same thing, so here’s a basic definition that hopefully works across traditions:
Sanctification is God’s work in us.
I’m a universalist, so I think of Martin Luther King Jr. saying “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I believe that God is working through each of us to bring about a more loving planet where “all oppressions shall cease.” If you’re a more traditional Protestant, sanctification begins at the moment you become a Christian and ends when we receive our glorified bodies in heaven.
Virginity doesn’t fit into that anywhere. Teaching about virginity amounts to teaching against sanctification. This is because virginity is a state of existence. One is, or is not, a virgin. End of story. There is no becoming a virgin. There’s no progression from sinfulness to righteousness in virginity. You start out “clean,” and either you make it to marriage or you’re sullied. Lose your virginity, and you’re a ripped-open present, a half-eaten chocolate bar. Virginity is consumable. Disposable. A one-off.
That idea shouldn’t have a place in Christianity. Living as a Christian is a journey toward becoming more Christ-like. We struggle, like Paul, to “die daily.” There will be no moment on earth when we’ve attained moral perfection. We will fail. We will succeed. We will strive. We go to bed and tell ourselves tomorrow by the grace of God I will do better. We do our best to love more, to love generously. We try to be kind, to forgive, to be gracious.
Telling teenagers to “hold on” to their virginity flies in the face of everything else we try to teach them about honoring ourselves and honoring Christ. Nothing else about being a Christian works this way. There is no room in the fruits of the spirit for this notion that one either is or isn’t. We do. We try. We act.
Because virginity– at least, our cultural notion of it– isn’t an action but a state of existence, it shouldn’t hold a moral value for Christians.