Same Stuff, Different Day
I wanted to agree with Carolyn Curtis James' Huffington Post piece entitled, "Why Virginity Is Not the Gospel." I really did. As a feminist Christian blogger who spends a lot of time talking about the problematic nature of the purity movement, I by all accounts should support this article. But James' framing of the issue is so gendered, so confusing, and so ultimately NOT the argument that needs to be made that I simply cannot get behind it. She ends up in a somewhat good place, but the route she takes to get there is so filled with problems that it erases all good things she may have said.
James' discussion begins with Olympian Lolo Jones' proclamation that she's a 29 year old virgin, and how she wants to save that gift for her husband because she is a Christian. James laments that Jones has so much more to give her husband, and if you cut out the middle few paragraphs of her piece, it would have worked simply as a lament about how a woman's self-worth is boiled down to an untouched vagina. Those are the points I do agree with - your self-worth and what you bring to the table in a marriage relationship have nothing to do with whether or not another person has managed to get their hands on your bits.
But that's where my agreement with James ends, because she wrote this:
A message of purity and abstinence, as important as this is for young women (young men too) comes too late for huge numbers of young American girls, including those in church pews. It is utterly devastating to the one-in-four girls who is sexually abused before she reaches her 18th birthday. We live in a world where by the age of 18 an estimated 70 percent of girls have had sex at least once and not always by choice, where globally countless women and girls are in the grips of sex traffickers, where an appalling 48 women are raped every hour in the Congo, where within our own borders sexual freedom has opened the door for young women to be as sexually promiscuous as men, and where some girls with the very best of intentions succumb to temptation. I grieve all of this, but do not for a second imagine that any of this means a woman has less to offer a husband or that in any sense it diminishes her worth.
Let me draw your attention to that first sentence again. The message of purity is important, she says, but should not be the center of the Gospel because it's already too late for many women.
This is a terrible argument, not because it's true, but because it neglects both the damage that rape does to a woman's self-worth, and how a purity message compounds that damage by leaps and bounds. There is a distinct lack of concern that we live in a patriarchal culture in which men and women are raped at extraordinary rates and that rape is used as a weapon in war. She barely acknowledges that the purity movement may actually compound their pain, or actually helped in her rape by failing to teach her about what healthy sexuality looks like.
Her parenthetical about young men is the only note we get in the entire article that this teaching might possibly apply to men, which, given her framing, I have to think was added in by an editor as an afterthought to avoid claims of sexism (too late!).
And we learn why she doesn't attack the purity message itself and still wants to prize it as important when we get to the end of her list: "...here within our own borders sexual freedom has opened the door for young women to be as sexually promiscuous as men, and where some girls with the very best of intentions succumb to temptation." Ah, it's already too late for the abstinence message because women are already choosing to have sex - indeed, choosing to have as much sex as men (which is a confusing statement in of itself, because who are these men having sex with if not the women, assuming James' heteronormative framing is right?).
And she grieves women consensually deciding to have sex (notice, though, that this is framed as "falling to temptation") just as much as she grieves women and children being raped in the Congo.
This is James' way of sounding like she affirms progressive sexual ethics concerning women's sexuality while still holding on to archaic, women-as-property based social mores. The virginity may not be the Gospel for James, but it is certainly a part of it. Women are worth more than their virginity, she says, but she'll still grieve your loss of purity if you choose to do it outside the confines of marriage.
This is an exemplification of the lack of distinction between rape and consensual sex that happens all the time in evangelical conservative culture. Consenting to sex out of one's own free will is just as bad as being raped. By placing consensual virginity loss in the same list as horrific crimes of a sexual nature, she is still removing female agency from the picture.
Again, notice the framing - women succumb to temptation because of what "the world" is teaching them - they couldn't possibly be choosing it of their own free will. In her mind, it's not possible for a woman to be enthusiastically consenting to sex outside of marriage. There must be some sort of outside force working upon her.
But, sentences before, when she could have argued rightly about this outside force (ie, rapists) and pointed out the link between a patriarchal culture bent on controlling female sexuality/purity and the practice of rape (esp. as a weapon of war!), everything is passive - no outside actors are identified. In her mind, it's essentially all the same.
And that's why I cannot, ultimately, get behind this piece. It still misses the major framework of the purity movement, which is that it is about controlling the sexuality of young women as though they are still property. It refuses to be critical of that which begs for criticism. To put it bluntly, it's trying to polish a turd. And crappy theology is crappy theology, no matter how nice the package.