Even in the midst of a sexual revolution, of a generation drawn to open relationships, hookup culture, and "polyamory," virginity still enthralls.
Yet another beautiful young woman is auctioning hers off. The cable show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding juxtaposes a cultural expectation to maintain virginity until marriage with a flashy celebration on the day-of. Feminist defenses of virginity crop up on edgy websites. A burgeoning academic field is devoted to "virginity studies." Even the "first kiss" video that recently went viral is but a variation on the "first time" theme.
In the midst of this, younger evangelicals question the church's message to encourage Christians to maintain "purity" until marriage. They have a point: some of our efforts cross the line between encouraging chastity and venerating virginity. But as the examples above show, making an idol out of virginity is a problem that's much bigger than evangelicalism.
A recent article at The Other Journal that details virginity's history in the church moves toward correcting a myopic vision that can't see past the pews of personal experience to the broader historical and cultural contexts. Yet, the exaltation of virginity for virginity's sake began, and continues, well outside the church.
Rather than merely an evangelical hang-up, our adoration of virginity is a universal impulse with a long tradition. Throughout human history, virgins have been worshipped in paintings, sculptures, poetry, prose, and song. Today's church needs to do a better job at distinguishing between biblical and cultural views of virginity to develop a robust theology of the body, human sexuality, and chastity.
Chastity, sexual abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness within it, has been a distinctive of the Christian church since its beginnings, brought into sharp relief by an array of sexual practices found in the surrounding pagan cultures. Unlike the balanced view of sexuality offered by the church—as a gift that promotes human flourishing when expressed within the limits of its Creator's design—ancient sexual practices embraced the extremes: homosexual pederasty, for example, on one end and sacred virginity on the other.
We see virginity being treated as sacrosanct in the 7th century B.C. and continuing for about 1,000 years with Rome's Vestal Virgins. These physically perfect girls, taken from aristocratic families between the ages of 6 and 10, were charged with keeping Rome's sacred fire burning (both literally and figuratively). Delivered directly from the authority of their fathers to that of the government, vestals were considered espoused to the state. Held responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the entire city, they were required to remain virgins for 30 years of service. A vestal who lost her virginity might be punished by having molten lead poured down her throat or by being entombed alive and left to die. On the other hand, their virginity was a source of power and influence denied to other women.
The early church was, inevitably, influenced by the surrounding cultures. The Cult of the Virgin Mary grew, scholars say, out of early Christians' borrowings from the goddesses and virgins of pagan religions. Medieval traditions of courtly love—the unrealized and therefore "pure" love shared between a courtier and a lady—promoted the secular notion that unconsummated love had the power to ennoble and transform the would-be lovers. This idea soon combined with the pagan-influenced Cult of the Virgin Mary to elevate unsatisfied longing and perpetual virginity as ends in themselves. When Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, she took on the identity of the Virgin Queen, made her kingdom her husband (like a Vestal Virgin), and by redirecting her Catholic subjects' veneration of Mary toward herself, ably reigned over a nation previously divided between the two churches.
Fascination with virginity is by no means limited to medieval Catholics, courtiers, and queens—and virginity was no less fashionable in the modern era. In the Victorian age, women were caught in a double bind: in her idealized role as wife and mother, the Victorian woman couldn't, of course, be a perpetual virgin and fulfill those roles, so she was exalted instead as the "Angel in the House." In the meantime, a thriving prostitution industry arose, perpetuating a dichotomous view of women as either angels or whores and nothing in between.
In the next century, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his lover, the feminist Simone de Beauvoir (who waxed rhapsodic on virgins in The Second Sex), made deflowering young virgins a central part of their lifelong, sadistic, sexual competition. Even one of pop music's greatest icons is named for the Virgin Mary—Madonna—and her 1984 hit, "Like a Virgin," presents virginity as so desirable that even its very semblance is highly praised.
Christians, of course, are commanded to live chaste lives before and during marriage. But when we decontextualize the purpose and meaning of virginity or attempt to promote it through guilt or gimmicks, the church reflects ancient myths and modern fetishes more than biblical principles.
While there's no formula for how Christians can encourage chastity without accommodating cultural practices that are at odds with biblical principles, a few guidelines come to mind.
First, chastity is best cultivated within the context of vibrant relationship and genuine community. Yet, the rituals and pledges popular with some Christians reflect ancient pagan rites more than a biblical faith centered on personal relationship. An understanding of chastity based in relationship rather than pageantry will eschew approaches to chastity that blur proper relational boundaries. We should thus be wary of methods that rely on emotional incest by making a parent the stand-in for a future spouse and that cast the parent-child relationship as a kind of romance.
Additionally, Christians should extol obedience—in all its forms—not virginity. Chastity is, after all, an act of obedience, not a sacred guarantee of later bliss or blessings, as believed in ancient Rome. While disobedience brings consequences, obedience is its own reward. The church's failure to make that distinction clear has, incidentally, caused many a victim of rape and exploitation to bear undue burdens of shame. A holistic and biblical approach to virginity and chastity must always emphasize redemption not ruin.
Finally, unlike the pagan cultures, Christianity must reject a double standard that places greater power or responsibility on women's virginity than on men's. To do otherwise is to risk partaking more in the cult of the virgin than in the full picture of scripture.
The value placed on virginity across human cultures, including the church, reflects the universal human desire for that innocence that was lost in the fall. But rather than fixate on the virgin state as the pagan cultures did, the church is called to weave the whole of human sexuality into the grand story of creation, fall, and redemption.