Women’s virginity is one the most significant idols of the evangelical church.
Back in 2005 in the height of purity conferences sitting in the pews of a local church, I remember young and hip pastoral types talking about how having sex before you were married made you like a piece of chewed up gum, something that no one would want and that was no longer good. Soon, the ambient spiritual background music and the “alter call” began; however, instead of giving your life to Jesus, we were invited to go with our fathers to pledge our virginity to Jesus. Now let me be clear, when I say “we,” I mean the women in the community. Men were invited to pledge their virginity and get a “True Love Waits” ring too, but by self-selection. Women however, were invited to come up with their fathers and pledge their virginity to Jesus.
This transaction troubled me (at the time I was a highly devout and conservative evangelical) even then because it was just that, a transaction. Fathers (with no ill intent) had become the owners and protectors of their daughters virginity and were offering it to God. This is essentially an extension of the traditional practice of walking a woman down the aisle for marriage. In the historical context of arranged marriages, a father was in effect selling his daughter in exchange for property, money, and status. In essence, men in the context of patriarchal cultures have been selling their daughters virginity for thousands of years.
Virginity as Commodity
Virginity was a cultural commodity, used to bind families, generate wealth, and ensure the continuation of bloodlines. Men defended the virginity of their daughters and community members as one would modernly defend their property and there were strong consequences (namely death) to those who violated the solemnity of virginity. This early social construction of virginity intended to use sexual encounters as a means of property transfer and had little to do with whether one had actually had sex or had their hymen torn. Moreso, it had to do with guaranteeing the purity of bloodline and full ownership of a woman by a patriarch.
Ownership of women’s bodies both ideologically and practically allowed for the easy defense of virginity particularly in the context of Christianity. However, with the assertion of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s that women are people with agency over their own bodies and in(God forbid….except that God doesn’t…) the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, our shift from patriarchal/ kyriarchal values created a problem for the Church: Men were no longer the arbiters of women’s bodies, sexuality, and virginity in a culturally regulated way.
The social means of defining virginity also began to shift as heteronormative understandings of PIV intercourse no longer sufficed to answer whether one still had their virginity. Similarly, an increased awareness of sexual assault began to beg questions of whether one was still a virgin if they were raped. However, in the midst of changing cultural understandings of virginity, the church doubled down on patriarchal structures and perpetuated theology defining women’s highest value in the context of marriage and childbirth.
Church Patriarchy and Virginity
As women in greater society gained increasing autonomy, the church felt itself losing a sense of moral high ground. For evangelical institutions predominantly led by men this risks a massive loss of power. Men, particularly leaders in churches, perceived the rise in feminism as subverting the gospel by enticing women, whom they previously had significant power over, to reject their perception of God’s intention in Genesis 3 to be helpers and subservient members of the Christian experience. The progressive empowerment of women by cultural shifts changed the ways that women asked for and took ownership in evangelical spaces. The church had theologized patriarchy and blamed the culture for breaking it down without recognizing that it was cultural norms that shaped and perpetuated patriarchal theology and the protection of virginity.
Let’s be clear: God never ordained the patriarchal ownership of women’s bodies and virginity by their fathers or church leaders- the culture and religious institutions of 1200BCE did. God does not ascribe women’s value or worthiness to their virginity- Church culture and reactive theology do.
Whenever Christianity in the United States feels like it is losing its power hold on perceived moral high ground, it responds in extreme ways (i.e. Evangelicals voting for Trump).
The Birth of Purity Culture
The Evangelical response to increased women’s agency: Purity Culture.
Purity culture sought (and seeks) to defend the sexual “purity” of Christians by establishing boundaries and values to keep people from having sex before marriage- it is in essence the theology and tools intended to defend virginity. The primary tools of purity culture are abstinence only education, purity rings and pledges, courtship instead of dating, and enforcement of women’s modesty. This is a new iteration of the social construction of virginity, through new tools and processes, we define continue to define and reform virginity to socially meaningful (whether positive or negative) ends.
With the loss of power over women on a culture level, evangelicals theologized purity culture and shifted the onus from virginity being about bloodline and culture to virginity being about one’s inherent value. Purity culture insists that one’s value is ultimately determined by one’s sexual activity. This is disproportionately true for women.
Purity cultural has created an idol of virginity, elevating its value over all other things for women, while largely letting men off the hook.
Lets think about the gendered language of virginity:
She gives it up…
She saves it for…
He takes it…
And let’s not talk about the violent language associated with men and sex (taps it, hits it, smashes it, etc.), we will save that for another day.
The Reconstruction of Virginity
Our language frames virginity as a product that is transferred from one to another, but when it comes down to it, that language is different, but the result is historically the same, woman’s virginity is the commodity that most defines her values in relationship to men. Men are not stigmatized for the loss of their virginity, nor is their status in the church regularly jeopardized by it. It does not define them and they lose no power based on it. Purity culture has reconstructed virginity in such a way that church patriarchy is upheld in the continued and repackaged commodification of women’s sexuality. In using virginity as a test of value, we perpetuate the notion that women in the church are not valuable because they are active agents leading in the Kingdom, but because they are sexual objects meant to be saved for and used by men.
Purity culture, meaning to keep people from sin, has merely reconstructed virginity to recreate male power over the female body. In abstinence only education we communicate that sex is problematic in and of itself and that it will be magically fixed or ok in marriage. Our purity rings and pledges create a shame based experience of sexuality that creates shame cycles when we don’t live up to them, courtship assumes an entitlement to “the one” that God may or may not someday “give” to you, and modesty culture controls women’s experiences of their own bodies in such a way that when combined with the other components of purity culture place the onus for men’s sexual purity on women’s actions or choice in how to present themselves.
This modern social construction of virginity is no longer about monetary value or continuing a bloodline, but about social control in the name of piety. The adverse effects of purity culture centered around our need to police and judge how people use their bodies have not resulted in Christians having less sex, just in having fewer resources on how to be safe, ask the right questions, and deal with the ramifications as they arise.
Virginity is not the secret of to healthy or good relationships. Evangelicals worship at the altar of purity and put resources, time, and theologizing into protecting it without teaching is people how to be Christians of sexual integrity and Christlikeness.
I am not saying that first sexual encounters are not sacred. I am not saying that the way we engage with sexual purity doesn’t matter. I am not saying that Jesus doesn’t have standards for our sexual lives. I am simply concerned that when all is said and done that we have overlooked Jesus, the one who crossed barriers of stigma, isolation, and sexual history in order to bring people into the kingdom. Our worship or virginity has left that Jesus behind in favor of a God who instead of protecting a woman from having stones thrown at her, takes the first one and throws it himself.
We may continue to reconstruct virginity, but as we do we reconstruct Jesus and his way.