Better feminists than I have written entire books on this topic (see The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women), but damn if this Hairpin interview with a lapsed Christian virgin doesn’t illustrate just how messed up “purity” messages can make young women.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate Clara’s insights, and I think she’s very brave for sharing her perspectives. She seems quite wonderful, and Jia’s questions were spot-on. It’s a great interview and this isn’t meant as a critique of it, or even of sexual abstention. If people want to abstain from sex until marriage (or abstain from sex until forever, or whenever) that’s great — your body, your choice. I don’t have a problem with choosing to be abstinent until X date or event (your wedding, college, your 18th birthday, your 40th birthday, whatever); I do have a big problem with the Christian language and theory behind the “purity” rationale for waiting until marriage to have sex.
The biggest is the concept of “purity” itself, and the idea that sex somehow makes you impure if you aren’t married. Sex is not sullying; sex is not “dirty” (or, sex can be really dirty, but only if done correctly, and filthy sex hopefully does not disappear once a wedding band is on your finger). While there are male Christian virgins, in the purity framework, men aren’t dirtied by sex; it’s women who are sullied. It’s men who want sex and women who tempt them into it and are then ruined by it. That is… not great. As Clara astutely points out:
What I find way more sexist is the idea that guys “can’t help” their sexual desire. That somehow, it’s harder for a guy to keep his virginity than for a girl to keep hers. I think that’s totally bullshit. Especially the way that it gets played out sometimes within the church: the idea that guys give up their virginity because they can’t help it when there’s a girl in front of them, and girls give up their virginity only because they’ve been pressured. Girls don’t get to want to have sex, ever, within this framework.
She’s right, it is bullshit. But it’s also kind of bullshit to think that not having sex is more “pure” than having sex, especially when she’s having sex with her boyfriend. I realize that in the Christian tradition we’re all sinners and none of us are perfect etc etc, but how exactly does one having a loving and respectful sexual non-marital relationship with a person who thinks that sexual non-marital relationships are bad, impure and less good than non-sexual non-marital relationships? Clara says:
Despite the fact that we’ve had sex, it’s nice to recognize that I’m finally on the same page with someone in terms of purity — we both want it, we both know it’s not easy. So now, the debate isn’t just an internal one that eventually gets silenced by my own desire to do what I want to do. This is an external debate that the two of us can feasibly act upon. We don’t feel guilty about having sex, but we do try to curb it, to keep from having it. We don’t want to make that the central focus of our relationship.
That sounds… also not great. Not making sex the central focus of your relationship, sure, great. But going around and around in the circle of “We shouldn’t be doing this because it’s impure and bad!” and then doing it, and then trying not to do it again, but then doing it again, and then saying you don’t feel guilty except obviously you kind of do? Not a healthy relationship dynamic.
Also not good from a public health standpoint. Not that every sexual interaction needs to be planned, but ideally, sexual interactions would involve some dialogue — about consent, about desire and about risk reduction. The pattern of “trying not to do it again” after feeling badly about doing it in the first place is a recipe for disaster on all three of those dialogue fronts. If you’re not going to do it again, why discuss birth control? Why discuss condom use? Why discuss what you like and what you want, and what your boundaries and triggers and interests are?
You don’t typically plan for something that you’ve decided you’re going to try not to do. By turning sex into a no-no, even among sexually active couples, the purity movement puts people at risk. It turns sex into a furtive act, and sex without negotiation or discussion is a lot more likely to be sex that is physically riskier than it needs to be, or sex that is at best shame-inducing or unfulfilling, and at worst non-consensual.
There’s also the view of sex as something women “have” that they shouldn’t “give away” too soon — like there’s only so much sex in any one woman, and sex is something she does for a man that necessarily requires losing some of herself, and so she should be really careful who she “gives” it to. Whereas men just get sex. The wonderful interviewer, Jia Tolentino, hits the nail on the head when she asks:
That’s really interesting, the idea of “mystique” as a currency. It reminds me of this Naomi Wolf article where she talks to her friend who’s just converted to Orthodox Judaism, who draws sexual power form the fact that her husband is the only one who gets to see her hair and when that idea is put up in contrast to the Girls Gone Wild shoots that Ariel Levy keeps going to, there’s some real, potent sexual power to the idea of the slow reveal. I get it in the abstract, as a personal choice among many.
But I strongly dislike the way this idea is only applied to women, and I also find it weird to describe female sexuality as finite, like you could give too much away and then end up somehow without enough to sustain your partner in marriage or whatever. What do you think about this? You’ll have sex with your husband so many times for so many years, so how could it really matter what you’d done before?
Yes, all of that.