Virginity and Marriage as Process

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Last month, John Green managed to say everything I’ve wanted to say about purity and virginity, and did it better than I could (there’s a reason he gets paid the big bucks). In answering the question: “Do you believe in saving sex for marriage?” Green responded thusly (emphasis mine):  

“I can’t answer that question unless I answer the question of what constitutes marriage. And none of the definitions I have for marriage really hold up to scrutiny:

 

1. A marriage is a legal contract. But for the vast majority of human history, marriages were not legal contracts, so are we to say that all those people—from the Prophet Muhammad to Mary and Joseph—weren’t really married?

 

2. A marriage is a life-long monogamous romantic relationship. Well, this is patently untrue. 40% of marriages end in divorce; is it immoral for those people to have had sex during their marriages simply because their marriages later ended? If I’m single, meet a girl in Las Vegas, marry her, have sex with her, and divorce her the next day—is that somehow less ethically problematic than two unmarried people in a committed relationship having sex?

 

The question is further complicated by the fact that many people in the United States are legally prohibited from ever marrying. So if you argue that one must always wait for marriage, you end up arguing that gay people in New York can have sex after they get married, but that gay people in Alabama will never be able to have sex, at least until and unless gay marriage becomes legal in Alabama.

 

Which brings me to the biggest issue of all: To answer your question, I must not only define marriage (which turns out to be really hard to define); I must also define sex. What is sex? Is it actions that can result in procreation? Is it any kind of sexual intimacy? If so, is kissing sex? Is hugging sex if it happens to result in arousal?

 

We’ve created this aura around virginity as if one’s virginity is a real and tangible thing—but of course it isn’t. Sex and virginity are socially constructed concepts. Are you a virgin if you engage in oral sex? Are you a virgin if you’ve kissed a girl? Are you a virgin if it was just the tip? Are you a virgin if your hymen breaks from tampon-insertion?

 

In my opinion, our obsessive focus on virginity and sexual purity doesn’t serve anyone. Losing one’s virginity is not an event; it’s a process. Similarly, weddings are events, and signing your marriage license is an event, but marriages are not events. They are processes.

 

So no, I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to have sex before marriage, because I don’t know what sex means, and I don’t know what marriage means. I think people should feel empowered to make their own decisions about their own bodies in thoughtful and open conversations with their romantic partners.

 

And use condoms. The End.”

 

John Green is a Christian who worked as a chaplain in a children’s hospital for years before going into the publishing industry and becoming a bestselling YA lit author. His books frequently deal with themes of relationships and intimacy and how one copes with friendships and seeing people as real people. I’ve written about his works on this space before (a looong time ago), but I highly recommend picking up Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns (An Abundance of Katherines is okay, but not my favorite.) It should also be noted that he is married and a father.

 

Enough John Green love fest. Let’s talk about what he actually says: virginity and marriage are processes as well as socially constructed values.

 

I think “virginity as process” is one of the most helpful definitions ever put forward in the discussion on the topic. Jessica Valenti in The Purity Myth offers a similar argument – that virginity is pretty much impossible to define: if it’s P in V, then what does that mean for the gay community? And if the importance is “don’t lose your virginity,” then are you okay if you just do oral? Or just kissing? Or, as John Green points out, is a really intense hug…sex?

 

Ironically, this can be characterized as the “where’s the line?” question that comes up in virtually every youth group across the country. I know it was discussed in mine. And, directly in line with what I’ve been saying for most of the time when discussing this topic on my blog, the response was always that there’s not a hard and fast rule about it. This response usually extended out of Romans 14 – the idea that there are, indeed, gray areas of things that are sin for some believers and not for others. For some people, kissing would be a sin. For others, no problem at all.

 

Isn’t that…what I’m saying? That trying to fit women into this perfect pure mold where none of them have any sex drive despite individual attitudes toward sex is damaging to women? And that maybe, just maybe, we should let the individual couples in a relationship determine what works best for them?

 

I truly don’t understand why the “the line is determined by you” is different from my assertions that “the couple determines whether or not to wait.”

 

And this is especially important if we look at virginity as a process. If virginity is a one-time event of loss, rather than a gradual giving away of part of oneself, then “the line” becomes extremely important. That’s how we get the justification of “we did everything but that so I’m still a virgin and that’s okay!” That’s how we get Twilight held up as a paragon of abstinence teachings.

 

Oh yes, I went there.

 

I’ve read Twilight. And New Moon. And Eclipse. And Breaking Dawn. I admit, if you don’t want to think and just need fluff, they’re decent reads. But if you do any sort of deep thinking about the series, then you should be rightly horrified.

 

There are a lot of things wrong with Bella and Edward and the love triangle with Jacob, and I couldn’t possibly begin to detail them all here (there are some pretty handy guides out there already, as well, as to why Bella and Edward have an extremely abusive relationship). But, despite the problematic relationship, the books are still being touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread for the purity movement for one reason only: abstinence. Bella and Edward waited until after marriage to do the deed. Whenever problems about the series are brought up, it’s almost always outweighed by “But it’s sending teenagers the message that it’s okay to wait!”

 

Or is it?

 

Let’s put things together with my comments yesterday about heartbreak – on many levels, the purity movement is about keeping your heart whole and together for your future husband. And line up virginity not as a loss but rather a process of giving something away to a person. Let’s examine Bella and Edward’s relationship through this lens: they were virgins only in the most technical sense – in that they had never had penetrative, P in V sex. But if virginity is a process, they they’ve all but completed it, and not in a healthy way, either.

 

Twilight teaches abstinence only in the most technical sense – that you’re good and pure as long as you haven’t actually, y’know, put it in.

 

And while the vast majority of purity teachings talk about emotional and spiritual impacts of “losing” one’s virginity, they’re frequently presented the wrong way around. It is because of the loss of virginity that you have all this emotional attachment and bonding that “should only happen in a marriage relationship,” rather than the loss of virginity coming as the culmination of a journey of emotional and spiritual bonding.

 

The tale goes: lose your physical virginity in an uncommitted (read: not marriage) relationship, and you create emotional and spiritual bonds that are hard to break and cause a lot of pain and heartache.

 

This ties the emotional and spiritual to the physical and has the cause and effect backward.

 

But, it is possible to emotionally lose your virginity to a person without ever taking your clothes off. It is possible to be unholy in the way you conduct your relationship without ever doing something physical.

 

The purity movement, however, tends to concentrate much more so on getting the physical in line. That’s how we get abstinence only education. That’s how we get an abusive couple upheld as a great example. We talk about getting emotionally involved in relationships, but as I pointed out yesterday, and as CS Lewis has famously said:

 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

 

The purity myth is that casket. It is the putting your heart away for no one except your future husband, which refuses the possibility of growth and, sure, protects it from harm, but also protects it from the experience it needs to be something capable of loving so fully and so greatly in the way that it takes a marriage to work.

 

We must get rid of this idea that “virginity loss” is a one-time deal and once it’s gone it’s gone and now you’re screwed. Instead, once we view virginity as the process of giving away a part of yourself emotionally and spiritually, we’ll be much more prepared to approach sexuality and relationships in a healthy and adult manner. We’ll be much more prepared to understand ourselves, which is vital for a good relationship. We’ll be much better off in every relationship if we realize that the heart is not finite, that it is meant to be vulnerable and broken occasionally, and that through breaking, we may learn our true resilience.

 

Again, I am not saying that we should swing to the other extreme and become "sluts," having sex wantonly in one night stands. And I’m not saying that teenagers who are “totally in love” should be having sex (though, I will not deny that those feelings are real for those teens in that situation). What I am saying is that we need to equip church members with the tools to discern a healthy relationship from one that is merely “pure.” We need to prepare our Christian brothers and sisters for the concept that, if they get their heart broken, if a break up happens and they had “made the mistake” of going “too far,” they are not irreparably broken or even broken at all. We need to recognize that everyone – with the exceptions of those who identify as asexual – has a sex drive, and the goal is not to repress it to the point of nonexistence, but to encourage it in the right ways and within a healthy relationship where emotional, spiritual, and physical can all come together – in a committed, loving relationship, one which may or may not include a marriage license.

 

What with the rates of divorce and the ways in which marriage is treated in society, “waiting for the wedding day” is a useless concept to the vast majority of society and, when put forth as a spiritual standard, frequently becomes an untenable burden, especially on women.

 

So, my point: “losing” your virginity is a process of giving yourself to another person emotionally, spiritually, and, yes, physically. But what this means and how this process is completed are different things for different people. The purity myth tries to pin a one size fits all scenario under the guise of holiness and righteousness, but in doing so, ends up encouraging hardened hearts, people who cannot connect in the most basic of ways (see yesterday’s post, again), and a lot of messed up views about the purpose of relationships in one’s life. Instead of developing a healthy sexuality based on process and development, we end up going from 0-60, from virgin to slut, with no in between, which is, unfortunately, where the majority of us sit.

 

Once again, I am not saying that waiting is a bad idea. I am not admonishing those who do choose to wait. But I am asking that it be recognized for what it is: a choice for that couple and for their life. I am also not encouraging people to go have sex – if you’re reading it that way, you’re reading it wrong. I am saying that the way we look at virginity and purity is wrong and hurtful and there has to be a better way.