I think I first became aware of what being a ‘virgin’ or what ‘virginity’ was via novels by Wilbur Smith, Maeve Binchy, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jilly Cooper etc. These were all stories for adults and/or teens that, when it came to sex, talked about anatomy, sexual intercourse and the impact on young women’s bodies, status and reputation. Where something was broken, where a body bled and when and where this happened was important. Who it happened with, for and why were all important elements of the story. I knew more about the social attitudes, expectations and consequences around virginity long before I encountered any theology around purity and virginity. Growing up I had a sense that in a consensual culture I hoped never to be in a forced or assaulted situation, but I definitely placed sex and virginity issues and experiences far into adulthood and as I became more aware of Christian culture understood that this would most likely be near to the time I would get married – I had a sense that it all happened in relation to a man and wasn’t expecting or seeking that out for a while.
The thing is that I’ve realised that sex is so much more complex and diverse, that virginity is moot and talking about purity and holiness in relation to specific and/or isolated body parts is unhelpful. I’ve been able to comb through all these expectations to discover some of the sexuality I was growing into all my life but ignored because it was all focussed on this virginity/with a man narrative and have identified some of the gaps in my knowledge because of what culture said about sex and most frustratingly what Christian culture then went on to say and teach me about sex and sexuality as I got older.
I know in the whole of my beautiful being and as I’m held in the gaze of my creator that I am sexual.
I have always been sexual and this way of expressing and relating to myself, others and the world is far larger than any relationship and/or sexual encounter I have had with any one person. I’ve learnt that sexuality is about desire and our erotic engagement with the world – and I am deeply committed to taking these words back from the narrow definitions that both the world and the church have assigned to them.
Virginity was something I had a very clear sense of mechanically or physiologically. In actual fact the mechanics and the physiology of ‘breaking the hymen’ are moot when it comes to most first sexual experiences for women – and this culture and dare I say myth that has been created to surround women I believe is a horrible hangover from the days when women were property, possessions and their ‘virginity’ served a man’s pride (i.e no one else has had her). It makes for very uncomfortable reading and listening to still hear the language of sin and shame in Christian culture being spoken and written disproportionately about women in this respect.
Another physiological emphasis on virginity is the idea of male penetration and ejaculation, which focuses the sexual encounter entirely on and about that. A simple critique here of both the exclusion of the female sexual experience and the fear based education/teaching around this that feared unplanned/socially unacceptable pregnancy. Nobody ever talked about female desire and arousal in the Christian circles I was in, informally or formally. When I started to experience it I had no idea what was going on physcially or what to do with it. Not only did I feel ill prepared, but also like this experience was totally unequal and/or unimportant. I was given messages by leaders that my job was to not arouse men, that I had all the power there and I had a responsibility to help men who were uncontrollable.
When I began to feel uncontrollable…well, not much is ever really said about that…
You will recall the ‘how far do you go?’ questions? that similarly I have now considered ‘moot’ in many ways – I think it’s really important to value and talk about the whole person and to talk about the whole of sex and sexuality and if I am really, really honest I couldn’t pin down the point in my life where I had had sex and where I hadn’t. Sure I could tell you all my firsts; first attraction, first arousal, first glance, first eye contact, first touching, first kiss, first nudity etc etc – to me it all felt like sex and nothing was less or more. Sure some things were more intimate but other stuff just felt like an extension of the way I’d experienced people and the world my whole life. I’m an advocate for respect and responsibility and so the question of ‘how far do you go?’ is always important in and outside of relationships but I’m talking specifically about the lists of do’s and don’ts that I find to be very disconnected and shut conversation down about the experiences of sex.
I think it’s important to consider intent when it comes to the culture created around virginity both in and outside of Christian culture. I’m pretty committed to a feminist critique because I believe a lot of what has been constructed around virginity, sex and sexuality has been designed to control people, and women in particular, for many different reasons.
However, if I were to be kinder and/or more optimistic a more contemporary rhetoric surrounding sex and sexuality in the church is reaction to the disembodiment, cheapness, disrespect and dis-ease that exists in society about sex and sexuality and that’s not a bad thing in itself.
What the church has failed to identify is that there is a strong correlation between what is ‘out there’ and the way that the church has not talked about sex and sexuality well.
The church often responds to physical dis-embodiment with intellectual or spiritual dis-embodiment rather than drawing everything together. I remember listening to what I thought were fantastic principles about not seeking ‘communion without commitment’ or ‘intimacy without intention’ but at the time I had absolutely no idea what that meant or looked liked – I’d been given words which didn’t match what my body was capable of.
No-one in this entire conversation so far is advocating some kind of mad, rampant, acting on impulse sexual frenzy for the church – but I think I am proposing and hoping for a sexual revolution. How do we respect our bodies and each others bodies in a way that relates to our experiences, our image bearing and our desire to point to God. Purity and holiness are beautiful words and ideas that somehow now carry heavy and negative connotations – they’ve been commodified, used to judge, marginalise and grade, implement and regulate our bodies and our expressions of sexuality. They’ve drawn lines between those in relationships and those who aren’t and created systems of inclusion and exclusion. Where the intent around purity and holiness is to create a rhetoric and example that encourages people of faith to use their bodies respectfully, counter-culturally and to be distinct and radical, the dangerous teaching and idea about whole, full, incarnate sexuality has scared the church into creating oppressive boxes.