John Chrysostom in his Major Treatises on Virginity argued that the first human beings were “adorned by virginity,” as they lived in a perfect and non-sexual state before the fall of humankind. Once the first sin occurred, this adornment ended, and all humans were cursed with disobedience and sinful desire, making all sexual intercourse bad.
Today, Christian teachings generally assert that pre-marital sex is wrong but that after marriage a couple can have sex. In fact, most evangelical Christians are encouraged to get married and have children, and sermons discussing the topic of sex often feature pastors who brag about having great sex with their “smoking hot” wives. It may even be considered strange if a Christian does not get married and have children.
There are certainly passages within the Bible and other early Christian texts that can be interpreted to promote virginity as a factor of salvation. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles even suggest that lifelong celibacy was important to some (mainly elite) believers in the early church, promoting abstinence from sex throughout married life.
This is different from our modern view of virginity, in which we think of it as a temporary practice until we are married. Often, Christians view pre-marital abstinence as a challenge that is rewarded by marital sex, so thinking of being a virgin forever may seem impossible for some folks.
“Often, Christians view pre-marital abstinence as a challenge that is rewarded by marital sex.”
But this is not a great way to view our bodily desires or our future spouses. Sex is not a reward for years of self-denial; it is a loving, and some would say a spiritual, experience between two people who have consented to share their most intimate physical bonds with one another.
Yet Christians have formulated a view of sex that is rigid, strict and often fearful. Talking about sex, and even learning about sex, is taboo unless you are condemning the act. We praise abstinence but leave no room for conversations about consent or boundaries, or even what sex really is.
This puts a lot of unnecessary spiritual pressure on our hearts and our bodies.
Our fear of sex even gets in the way of our access to comprehensive sex education, where teenagers learn about puberty, consent, contraceptives, how to have “safe” sex, what to do if you get pregnant and whom to tell if you experience sexual violence.
Because of our fear, we often teach about abstinence in authoritative ways, aiming to scare believers away from the practice of sex altogether. We project our own fears of sex — fears that it is sinful, fears that we will get pregnant, fears that we will get STDs — onto our congregations.
“We fear that knowing more about sex will empower teens to go do it.”
Some Christians also believe in abstinence-only sex education programs, wherein teens only learn that they should not have sex and where scary sexual outcomes like HIV/AIDS are used as a fear strategy. These programs typically do not spend much of their resources teaching students how to have safe and consensual sex, though. This also is because of our fear — we fear that knowing more about sex will empower teens to go do it.
However, this is not typically true. A study by the University of Washington has shown that adolescent girls who receive comprehensive sex education (that is, education about how sex works, how to have safe sex, how to identify sexual violence, and what consent really means) are less likely to get pregnant as a teen.
Other studies followed suit, showing that teens engage in slightly more sexual behavior when they receive abstinence-only sex education than teens who receive comprehensive sex education.
By creating a view of sex in the church that is authoritative, we as Christians inadvertently create an environment in which sex fosters a power dynamic.
Christians are taught that others have authority over what they do with their body, such as their pastor or future spouse, which undermines their understanding of what consent really is. We cannot decide to have sex because if we do, someone else will be angry at us. We have disobeyed our pastor’s teachings or we are ruining the gift of virginity meant for our future spouse.
“Even if virginity is the choice we want to make, these authoritative boundaries can complicate our decision.”
We believe we must choose what to do with our body based on what others think, or how others will benefit from its use. This takes away our autonomy, as we no longer have a say in what we feel comfortable doing. Even if virginity is the choice we want to make, these authoritative boundaries can complicate our decision.
This power dynamic can facilitate and promote cultures of sexual violence because victims may not believe they have the power to defend their bodies against their perpetrators. It can also lead to marital and domestic abuse since some church teachings assert that women are responsible for “ministering” to their husbands sexually.
After all, if we believe our bodies are theologically subject to the authority of those around us, how can we learn to defend ourselves from (or even properly identify) sexual violence?
Our bodies do not deserve to feel the pressure of needing to please someone else.
Although we cannot go back to Chrysostom’s paradise at the beginning of creation, being adorned by virginity is something we can choose in our own spiritual lives. Virginity can be liberating for believers, but only when it is a personal and autonomous choice.
Choosing how one understands and practices sexual ethics offers believers a way to honor their own relationship with God that addresses individual struggles and experiences. Practicing virginity does not have to mean that we fear sex.
Mallory Challis is a senior at Wingate University and serves this semester as BNG’s Clemons Fellow.
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