Sex & Relationships

'Born-Again Virginity' in the Age of Girls Gone Wild

Born-again virginity has been repeatedly debunked. Why, then, do so many continue to embrace the chastity pledge?
Oh Ashley... it's been three weeks, am I a virgin again? heart graphicRamona

Born-again virgins, usually young people with a sexual past pledging to start fresh and commit to abstinence, take endless abuse on MySpace. Here, in Web pages filled with youthful accounts of hook-ups, parties and daily minutiae, writers muse over what constitutes born-again virginity, tongue planted firmly in cheek. Is it a year without sex, or as Ramona (above) might suggest, something more short term?

"I used to have a roommate who was a 'born-again virgin'," one Myspace user asserts in a typical posting, " -- what a crock of shit that was." Popular depictions of born-again virgins do little to add credibility. For example, Luanne from the animated sitcom "King of the Hill" vowed in a church ceremony never again to have premarital sex. A later episode depicted her pregnant, however.

Further reinforcing doubts are provocative musical treatments like singer Noa Tylo's 2001 album, "Born Again Virgin," which one reviewer called "a dark and broody dance-music exploration of sexual intensity." Hardly monastic!

Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Cindy Alexander's song "Born Again Virgin" begins, "Hey it's nice to meet you/I'm a born-again virgin" and later proposes, none too coyly, that "maybe we could touch." (Blame it on Madonna's 1984 hit, "Like a Virgin.")

Rooted in Evangelical dogma, born-again virginity has become easy to mock. But, for a large number of teens, abstinence supporters -- and, surprisingly, a cadre of mature single women - born-again virginity is no laughing matter. What, then, is the appeal of born-again virginity, and does it work?

AKA 'secondary virginity'

Born-again virginity originated from chastity campaigns organized by Evangelical Christians in the early 1990s. Currently groups such as Silver Ring Thing (www. silverringthing. com) and Worth the Wait (www. iamworththewait. org) promote teen abstinence on a massive scale, encouraging young people to take virginity pledges and seal the deal with wallet pledge cards and purity rings.

Does pledging work? In the short term, yes. But not in the long term, which is where born-again virginity comes into play. Abstinence pledges are successful with young and mid-adolescents, often delaying sex by 18 months, according to a 2001 study by sociologists Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner. Still, a follow-up study by the same authors showed that 88 percent of pledge-takers eventually had premarital sex.

"Secondary" or "renewed" virginity, then, may be a key retention strategy of the abstinence movement because it allows fallen pledge-takers back into the fold.

Virginity pledgers who break their vows are welcomed home with the proviso that they stop having sex and re-commit to abstinence: "If you have already had sex," it says on the Worth the Wait Web site, "don't throw in the towel just yet. You CAN start over and take a vow of renewed abstinence." Silver Ring Thing offers a similar message: "We recognize the fact that many students who attend the SRT are or have been sexually active, and they need to know if it is possible to begin again. The answer is YES, YOU CAN START OVER and, in fact, for this reason many students attend our program."

In this way, pledge groups touting secondary virginity operate in much the same way as Alcoholics Anonymous, which positions itself as a support system for all problem drinkers -- whether they are on, or off, the wagon.

Seriously, born-again virginity

There is a strong argument to be made on behalf of women -- Christian or not -- taking control of their bodies and making choices that are right for them.

This is essentially the approach that author Wendy Keller took in her 1999 book The Cult of the Born-Again Virgin. Keller had been working as a successful literary agent and stumbled onto born-again virginity in a social circle where you might least expect it: among 30- and 40-something high-powered career women. Rather than emulating Sex and the City's Samantha Jones, who uses her sexual prowess to dominate men and feel powerful, the women depicted in Keller's book had decided that taking themselves off the dating treadmill would empower them, and it did.

"I was at a cocktail party in Philly with a client at a friend's house," Keller recalls. "A woman was there who was dynamic and vivacious and successful and pretty. I asked if she was dating anybody and she said, 'No, I'm a born-again virgin and believe in being celibate until I find the right guy.'" Keller's first thought was to avoid the woman but when she heard the term again at a brunch in New York City and then later in Malibu, she knew she was on to something. She began researching born-again virginity and developed a self-help book advocating it.

Her book encourages women to stop using the pursuit of men as an excuse to avoid confronting their own problems. After it was published, Keller recalls, "There was a nuclear explosion." She appeared on hundreds of radio shows and garnered an overwhelming response: "I had everything from teenagers calling me on the radio crying because they'd had sex with nine boys and needed to make better choices to husbands saying, 'My wife has decided to become a born-again virgin.'"

Keller found herself under attack from different camps: Playboy and Maxim chided her for her supposed prudishness because she advised sexual restraint. Meanwhile, Christian broadcasters were incensed that she would not advocate premarital abstinence.

"I got a lot of heat from the Christian community because I would not say it's a good idea to be celibate until married. It [premarital abstinence] was a bad choice for me. There were people who had made that choice and paid a high price for it," Keller says. "The way I see it, the born-again virginity movement is temporary celibacy, and it's about not waiting for a man to fix every aspect of your life. The point is to get your life working."

Sex, lies and born-again virginity

Recent research raises troubling conclusions about the way teens practice secondary virginity. Janet Rosenbaum, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, last June published findings in the American Journal of Public Health that adolescents are prone to recanting virginity and secondary virginity pledges. She found that those who take pledges are likely to recant their sexual histories.

By documenting the extent to which young people lie about their sexual experiences, her findings raise concern over whether teens might take their virginity renewal literally, believing that if they stop having sex they can conceal their past from a spouse or doctor and, in so doing, spread or ignore STDs.

Perhaps this concern highlights a need to reinvent born-again virginity so that it does a better job meeting the needs of the people who choose it. First, teens need to know that born-again virginity doesn't mean they can pretend they never had sex and leave diseases undetected and untreated. Second, born-again virginity should be a feminist-inspired route to autonomy of mind and body: a recourse for adolescent girls seduced by exploitative and ultimately fraudulent media depictions of youth sexuality. In this era of porn on-demand and girls-gone-wild, it's easy for girls to believe that early promiscuity will make them powerful, when it is more likely to lead to unplanned pregnancy and STDs, if not shattered self-esteem.

Third, every young woman deserves candid conversations -- not about purity for the sake of her future husband -- but about desire, responsibility, self-respect and self-determination. For herself.

Amy DePaul is a writer and college instructor who lives in Irvine, Calif. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post and many other newspapers.