Quick, let’s play word-association. What comes to mind when I say this word?
Most likely you saw a woman of some sort, didn’t you? Did you see an old woman or a young one? A pretty woman or an ugly one? A fat woman or a thin one? A well-dressed woman or a frump? A smiling woman or a frowning one? What race is she? What religion is she? Is she straight or gay or bi? Cisgender or transgender? Go on, paint a picture for yourself.
I strongly suspect most people playing this game are seeing the following: a young, pretty, straight, cisgender, thin white Christian woman with a pretty face, a great smile, and wearing a dress that emphasizes her figure but doesn’t cut too low at the bust or hit too high across the legs. She is a desirable woman in every sense of the word–desirable by men, of course. This image was brought to us by Christian culture, which infects many people so deeply that even those of us who’ve escaped that religion can find ourselves falling prey to this sort of thinking.
Christian culture thinks about virginity in a very particular way, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Some time ago we talked about how the fundagelical Christian vision of marriage is only applicable to a very narrow range of people: to middle-to-upper-class folks who can afford to have lots of kids, homeschool them, and have the wife stay home to tend those kids and keep house. Well, in much the same way its vision of purity applies only to a narrow range of people. And that teaching is coming back to bite a lot of women–and men–on the ass at this point.
A virgin, in that ideology, is a beautiful young woman. She is highly sexualized and approachable, but doesn’t actually have sex or do anything sexual. She’s accessible but not accessed. She wears clothes that dance that super-narrow line between modest and immodest–just enough to show that she’s got all the right measurements, but not enough to outrage the Christian morality police. She does her hair and makeup but doesn’t spend more time at it than the arbitrary, ever-shifting number of minutes society thinks is appropriate. She inspires lust, certainly, but it’s the right kind of lust, whatever that might be. She is safely sanitized and contained, her dangerous sexuality reined in with rules and control; she is owned, and doesn’t object to being owned or to being held in trust for her next owner. She is like a flower waiting to be plucked, waiting for her One True Pairing (OTP) to show up to swoop her into his arms and propose to her, at which point she’ll get married and switch her virginity for properly-corralled sex in a flawless, seamless transition (nobody wants to admit that this transition is by no means a guarantee). After marriage, she is the proverbial lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets. In exchange for behaving herself according to all of these rules and breaking herself trying to fit into this mold, she is promised a happy, long marriage with a perfect Christian man who will love, adore, and value her for her entire life.
Being a desirable young virgin is the necessary first step in the life script that Christianity has declared suitable for a woman’s life; if she misses that step, then she risks never having the rest of it happen to her. In that narrative someone finishes one task and gets handed another, over and over, till her very life is done. One task gets finished–“being a virgin”–at which time the next is handed to her–“get married”–after which she gets the next–“have beautiful children”–and so on and so forth. Christianity suffers not only from hierarchical thinking but also very linear thinking; something can’t happen out of its proper order. Almost every single modern Christian stars in a movie running in their own heads, and that movie has a certain storyline that must be followed without deviation.
And oh, the Christian marketing machine is in full swing trying to sell that narrative to parents and young people all through Christianity. Young men are taught to see their female peers as someone else’s wife; young women are taught to define their entire identities around their virginity and to feel responsible even in their early childhoods for men’s lustful reactions to them. Parents are taught to treat their daughters like possessions and to falsely inflate the importance of sexuality. They even very creepily celebrate that virginity, focusing on it to an extent that is genuinely disturbing and I dare even say reminiscent of pedophilia with how it focuses on the bodies and sexuality of little girls. Purity balls, modesty movements, courtship culture and “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” covenant marriage, “true love waits” so-called purity rings and T-shirts (it reads “VIRGINITY ROCKS” on the front, and on the back “I’m loving my husband and I haven’t even met him;” the blurb selling it advises purchasers to wear it with humility and appreciation for being pure rather than “as far into the muck as our neighbors and our friends”–just amazingly sanctimonious and self-righteous, isn’t it?), it all perpetuates an image of virginity and carefully-controlled and curated sexuality that fits the storyline Christians want to impose on young people.
That marketing machine sells a false empowerment that ignores consent, healthy boundaries, and respect for others’ choices, but given how little real empowerment exists in Christianity, the young people affected don’t know any better that they’re being tricked and swindled into buying into a patently false and harmful ideology. Some won’t find out until something dreadful happens in their lives to make them question the life script.
What happens, though, when the virgin in question isn’t lucky enough to be conventionally desirable? What if she’s a boy? What if she’s not interested in boys? What if she–fetch the smelling salts!–gets old before she is found and claimed by her OTP?
Well, then that virgin has a problem. When I was a teenager, I noticed already that every time my church talked about virginity (and this applies to the Southern Baptists and Pentecostals alike; they both did it), they were talking about a very, very specific type of person. They weren’t talking about boys or for that matter men. They weren’t talking about middle-aged people of any gender. They weren’t talking about people whose sexual attention was something society deemed undesirable or superfluous. They definitely weren’t talking about anybody who fell outside the cis/het norms.
A middle-aged woman in my church who wasn’t married yet–and was therefore assumed to be a virgin–was something of an embarrassment. Divorcees and widows we kind of understood, but a never-married woman was a serious anomaly. She was a flaw in the divine plan we thought our god had for everybody, which was “get married young, have lots of kids, die of old age in our OTP’s arms.” She was a disturbance in the Force, a fly in the ointment, a visible and glaring injury to the body of Christ. What was wrong with her? Why hadn’t her husband found her yet? Surely it was “God’s” plan that she wait this long, though we could not fathom what it might be. Why, even Sarah had had Isaac in her advanced age, so who knew what would happen? Surely she was being compelled to wait this long to start the next phase of her life in order to advance the Kingdom in some dramatic way.
In The Blue Castle, Valancy laments as her 29th birthday looms that she has never been kissed. But worse than that, she realizes, is that nobody has ever actually wanted to kiss her. Her expiration date has arrived and she never once had a chance to misbehave, whether she would have wanted to misbehave or not. That’s what bothers her the most. It’s not that she made it to 29 as a virgin; it’s that she never really had a choice to be anything else but a virgin. Her virginity wasn’t valuable enough for someone to want to take it.
[Her family and hometown] had long since relegated Valancy to hopeless old maidenhood. But Valancy herself had never quite relinquished a certain pitiful, shamed, little hope that Romance would come her way yet–never, until this wet, horrible morning, when she wakened to the fact that she was twenty-nine and unsought by any man. Ay, there lay the sting. Valancy did not mind so much being an old maid. After all, she thought, being an old maid couldn’t possibly be as dreadful as being married to an Uncle Wellington or an Uncle Benjamin, or even an Uncle Herbert. What hurt her was that she had never had a chance to be anything but an old maid. No man had ever desired her.
Valancy had figured out the truth nobody wants to say in Christianity: if nobody wants to take something, then it has no value. Undesired virginity has no value. Virginity is a bargaining chip, a thing to exchange for goods and services, but its owner finds out very quickly that virginity in and of itself has a value that is highly dependent on the degree to which its owner fits into the correct narrative of idealized womanhood. Now, obviously I totally do not agree that virginity is a bargaining chip or that people should feel compelled to exchange their sexuality for goods and services; that’s just what I observe in Christian culture and it needs to change. This sense of virginity being a thing that’s owned and exchanged and handed over from one owner to another owner–something whose loss irrevocably devalues its onetime possessor–can’t really exist in a culture that prizes consent and personal liberty, which is why I think Christians cling as hard as they do to their idolization of it.
A lot of Christian men and women, crippled by shame and self-doubt, find themselves in that exact same boat with Valancy. As horrible evangelical relationship advice and Christian-inspired sexual shame wreaks its damage on American culture, growing numbers of older virgin men and women are seeking help to figure out what’s going on in their lives. Dating sites and advice columnists alike try to reassure their worried older virgins that they’re really okay after all and stop worrying so much.
But those links are from the secular world. Christians have a more complicated problem because single people aren’t supposed to be having sex with anybody but a spouse anyway. Non-marital sex is considered one of the worst sins someone can possibly commit, and avoiding that sin is a big part of Christian youth education. Men are taught that they’re rampaging monsters who will ruin any woman they touch, and women are taught that if they have sex before marriage that they are destroying their value, sullying their purity, and wrecking their future marriages before they’ve even begun.
So holding out until marriage is the rule. If that marriage takes place, then the virgin is expected to skip lightly from considering sex a ghastly horrible sullying, dirtying thing to a great and fulfilling act of love with her (yes, her) spouse. Alas, it doesn’t always work out so wonderfully.
And if that marriage doesn’t materialize at all–if that perfect square-jawed Christian husband never swoops in from nowhere to gather up his blushing virgin bride–then our virgin has a big problem.
Indeed, middle-aged and older unmarried Christian women complain that they feel ignored and irrelevant in their churches. It’s not really surprising that they would feel that way. Christian churches are filled with people, and those people live in a youth-glorifying society that is increasingly open-minded about sexuality. There’s no god making church people any different from anybody else. Of course they largely don’t want to think about non-young, non-beautiful women. And oh, they really do not want those women to be virgins or childless/childfree. Those women don’t fit the correct ideal at all. They are a reminder of just how hollow and false that ideal is and how hard most women must strive to come anywhere close to achieving it.
And they are savaged by people around them for not achieving it. While researching this topic, I found a post by a prominent misogynist blogger–a complete shitbag who ironically described himself as “fairly nice” while describing older never-married women as “vaginal fossils” and “hoebags” who “need to go away” and not offend the delicate sensitivities of princes like himself who think they are entitled to only look at pretty, young women in clubs and don’t even want to be reminded that any other type of women exist (note to any Nice Guys™ out there: you don’t get to call yourself “nice” if you talk about people like that). Of course, even younger women must conform to such misogynists’ expectations of sexual purity or else they’re not worth even talking to. But one need not go all the way to MRA-ville to find examples of older women being told to disappear, to vanish–that their sexuality is unneeded by society anymore, that this thing they’ve jealously guarded for so long is no longer valuable at all, that its worth–whatever that worth was–has evaporated into the clear blue sky without a single sign of its ever having existed.
Christians get told that they’re doing something wrong if they’re not married by some arbitrary age. Unmarried women are treated like social lepers who are out to seduce all the honorably-married men; these women are ostracized, ignored, turned away, even shunned socially. An unmarried man might get some of this as well (and of course they are blamed for the general lack of enthusiasm for marriage Christians think is happening in society, since men are seen as the initiators and leaders in relationships), but at least an unmarried man can still head into ministry in a lot of these churches. One of the most celebrated preachers in my entire denomination was a never-married man who I am absolutely positive now was gayer than a squirrel parade down Main Street (oh we were all so very impressed at the time with how “godly” he was, at how he never seemed sexually attracted to the legions of eager women who flocked around him at all times–no, really, we thought it was just that he was this totally godly man). An unmarried woman has no place in a home, no place in a church, and no place in active ministry. She just doesn’t belong anywhere in a marriage-mad church society. It must be hard not to wonder what on Earth she did wrong.
A bit late, churches are starting to wake up to the fact that they see unmarried people–especially women, and this applies as well to widows and divorcees–as “half a cookie”. One church calls the increasing numbers of single people “a time bomb for the church”, which must make single people feel just incredibly valued and loved. Isn’t it nice to be thought of as a time bomb? While leaders are wringing their hands over this “time bomb,” I saw one hilarious blog post from a Christian woman who even blamed churches for creating “fallen women” who were more likely to vote Democrat and become feminists and morph into “Jezebel spirits” out of a sheer desire to belong somewhere. Isn’t it sweet to imply that middle-aged unmarried women are stupid and gullible enough to get twisted around politically and socially if churches won’t lower themselves to be nicer to them? So I see Christians as at least recognizing the issue in a vague sort of way, even if their response to it is characteristically tone-deaf and laughably inept.
Christianity in general isn’t a really good deal for women, but I see a great deal of dysfunction and abusiveness in how it creates these narratives for both men and women and punishes anybody who doesn’t fall into line with those narratives. Even now, their response is not to question their entire dynamic or their entire conceptualization of that narrative. The narrative is obviously perfect. Their response as a group seems to be to find some way to patch unmarried people into their garment, some way to find some place for them, some way to be nicer to them so they don’t run off and sin or become Democrats. The narrative itself remains untouched and pure, just like the women Christians like to see.
But here as well as in a lot of other areas of Christian abuse and overreach, simple demographics is going to be the final determiner of this issue. Young people are leaving Christianity in droves. A lot of people just aren’t getting married. A sizeable percentage of women are never having kids (some by choice, some not). The life script that worked somewhat-okay in previous decades is looking increasingly quaint and outdated. Even Christians who pay lip service to that script can’t live up to it most of the time.
The solution’s going to look a lot like the de-fetishizing of virginity and the dismantling of the purity myth that inspires that fetishizing. Thus, we can count on Christians to ignore that option until the very last second.
The rest of us are already charging ahead on that front, so hopefully they’ll tag along on this next wave of human progress before they get left behind in the dirt.