Yesterday I came across yet another piece lamenting how screwed up the views of sex among evangelical men and women who believe in sexual abstinence outside of marriage are. I must have read at least a dozen or more such articles on sites such as the Huffington Post in which Christian writers solemnly warn their prudish and repressed co-religionists of the perils of overvaluing virginity, sharing their cautionary tales of the psychological and spiritual damage suffered by themselves or others who did. Apparently such abstinence and the views associated with it leave people with all sorts of hang-ups, give them ridiculous expectations of the orgasmic excesses of the wedding night, and create an idol of virginity. Oh my!
These virgins spend some of what could be the best years of their lives labouring under dark delusions, subject to one of the cruellest of repressions. They face married lives of bitter disappointment and anti-climax (forgive me…), as the high expectations that they had of marital sex do not materialize as expected. It is important that we don’t ridicule such burdened and benighted persons – poor things! Rather our hearts must go out to them in a loving pity as we gently seek to disabuse them of the mistaken notions that hold them hostage, regarding their unfortunate condition of socially maladjusted leperhood with grace and tenderness.
At this point I must reveal that I am one of these sorry creatures (a mailing address for messages of support and consolation is available on request) and doubly a lost soul in this regard, as I don’t truly feel the lack and misfortune of my condition. Nor am I adequately embarrassed about my state or envious of the sexually ‘liberated’. Reading the descriptions of the psychology and beliefs of evangelical virgins, I am perplexed and bemused, not really recognizing myself in any of them.
Chastity – Quiet and Unashamed
I believe that there are probably some good reasons why I don’t hear voices like mine clearly represented in most discussions of such matters. Not sharing wider society’s sex obsession, we are less likely to devote the same time and effort to speaking out on the subject. For my part, my participation in discussions on sexuality and Christian sexual ethics and the like has been driven by my frustration (not that kind, I promise) at one-sided conversations or poorly argued positions and has generally been a reluctant one. In my experience, conventionally and happily married people and single virgins don’t tend either to start or to participate in conversations about sex to anything like the extent of other groups.
While some might think that it is embarrassment that holds evangelical virgins back from declaring themselves, it seems to me that modesty and discretion – two virtues closely related to chastity – are the more likely suspects. Matters of sex and sexuality are private and should be spoken of in an appropriately discreet and reserved manner, not encouraging prurient attention through overexposure. While certain of our affections may be more publicly visible, I think it perfectly appropriate that our sexuality should not be. Part of what it means to be chaste and modest is to refuse to flaunt our own sexuality or that of our neighbour, to resist the urge to make people’s sexuality or sex appeal (distinct from a person’s beauty or handsome appearance) a focus of public attention, conversation, or judgment (see my discussion of modesty here).
The increasing sexualization of public life and media is a decidedly unhealthy development. Unfortunately, the fact that chaste persons are typically quiet and reserved on the subject, while promiscuous persons are frequently ‘loud and proud’, can lead to the impression that ‘everyone is doing it’ and that those who aren’t are repressed, shame and guilt-ridden individuals, who have an embarrassing condition that they feel uncomfortable about discussing publicly.
Movements towards more vocal and public presentations of sexuality among evangelicals – from pastors who share in great detail the sexual histories that shaped their marriage, to the cringe-inducing ‘sex positive’ celebrations of Christians’ sex lives, to the many vocal ‘purity’ movements – strike me as unhealthy accommodations to society’s obsessive publicization of sexuality. I believe that many of the Church’s problems in the area of virginity and chastity arise from attempts to accommodate its message to the sex idolatry of the age, making unrealistic promises about the sexual fulfilment of marriage, of the centrality and necessity of sex (it is easy to forget that the purpose of chastity is to follow Christ, not to ‘wait for marriage’, for instance), and of the degree to which it defines our existence. When the media that your young people are exposed to day in and day out are fixated with sex, how do you get them to wait for marriage? Many evangelicals in such a position fail to tackle the root problem of the idolatry of sex and merely tweak the cultural myth of sex, so that the focus rests on the steamy sex of the wedding bed. This is largely a novel development in evangelicalism, one arising from its embeddedness in a sex-obsessed culture, not from the distinct resources of the Christian message.
While clear teaching on the subject of sex and sexuality is helpful, this teaching should seek to preserve the discretion that is appropriate to Christian sexuality. It is quite possible to have a non-repressed sexuality without feeling that it has to be a matter of public discourse or saturate public consciousness.
So, in short, I am an evangelical virgin, without need for shame in that fact in the appropriate private realms of my sexuality’s expression. However, I have no intention of being either loud or proud about it.
Given how many voices there are out there pronouncing authoritatively on the character of the beliefs and experience of people like me, I thought that it might be worth providing a voice from the inside. The following are some thoughts on my perspective of sex as an evangelical male who wishes to abstain from sexual intercourse outside of marriage, explaining some of the basic rationale of my position.
The Idolatry of Sex
Sex really isn’t the most important thing in life. When we treat it as the primary and overriding dimension of or reality in our lives, it becomes an idol and, like all forms of idolatry, the idolatry of sex tends to dehumanize its devotees, limiting their realization of the richness of humanity and sexuality.
We are all at risk of succumbing to our society’s obsession with sex, becoming either fixated on its continual expression or repression. Perhaps the greatest thing that we need here is perspective – a vision of the world in which sex plays a far less central role. Through Christian formation we learn to displace sex from its idolatrous pedestal and to regard it as something secondary, subject to the rule of Christ. Freedom from the thraldom of sex and liberation in the form of the de-sexualization of much of life is one of the blessings of Christ’s reign. Rather than being an end in itself, a sex delivered from its vaunted ultimacy can be knit into all of the other ends of life, without eclipsing them and becoming a cruel deity to which we sacrifice other goods.
Sex isn’t the central dimension of human identity, and by treating it as such we risk diminishing ourselves. Those who don’t have (and especially persons who don’t desire) sex can be made to feel like non-persons in a society that fetishizes it. However, while the virgin, celibate, or chaste person may typically be regarded in terms of absence and lack, it is surprising how much room one’s identity has to flourish when you don’t have a huge idol squeezing everything else out, when one’s lust for life isn’t entirely invested in a lust for sex. For instance, removing this idol challenges the simplistic equation of sex and intimacy and frees us to recover the rich potential of friendship.
Dethroning the idol also provides you with a form of sex that has to carry considerably less baggage. Sex isn’t the source of personal fulfilment. Sex isn’t the only or perhaps even primary means of personal intimacy. Sexuality is peripheral to one’s core identity. Sexual satisfaction isn’t the goal of your existence. Sex isn’t the way that you must prove your gender. One’s sexual appeal or prowess or lack thereof isn’t the measure of your personal worth. Once one has absorbed these lessons, one is free to be a lot less hung up about sex.
Sex is at its very best when it is integrated in with all of the other good ends in life, when it draws its strength from and injects life into a host of other intimacies. Sex is at its best when it is an expression of lifelong exclusive commitment, an enjoyment of profound companionship, a deeply personalizing and loving gift of pledged bodies out of which act new life can be produced, an act in which the integral unity of body and soul can be experienced, both in our relation to our own bodies and the body of our spouse, an act that is part of an enduring relationship bound up with and witnessed to by a wider community, and an act carried out under the blessing of God given in the covenant of marriage.
Although sex is integral to marriage, by itself the desire for licit sex is a poor reason to marry, as marriage involves so much more than sex: sex is merely one form of its countless intimacies. These many non-sexual intimacies provide much of the basis for true sexual intimacy. Any attempt to tease apart these threads of intimacies to hang the life of marriage purely upon sex will leave one with a strand that is easily snapped.
The idolatry of sex detaches it from the rich fabric of life, treating it as an end in itself, and as something for which we must sacrifice many other good things. Putting sex back in its place, as one important form of intimacy among numerous other forms of intimacy that we take delight in, can deliver it from the sort of unrealistic expectations that create frustration and dissatisfaction and can allow for the sort of distance that provides a fertile context for playfulness and joy.
What is Good Sex?
Good sex isn’t measured in orgasms, but by the degree to which it provides an expansive context for the sharing and communication of various gifts and benefits. It is found in the degree to which it opens up into a shared history, in the degree to which it communicates a trustworthy mutual commitment, in the degree to which it provides a spring of life for the married couple and their children, in the degree to which it gives a context for the exploration of gender and the deep embodiedness of our personhood, in the degree to which it opens up the lives of both parties to grow, and in the degree to which it unites two people as one. Sexuality doesn’t exist purely as an end in itself, but is a means by which we can honour and serve God and others, and show a high regard for our own selves, as ensouled bodies.
Intensity of feeling is not the measure of what is good or meaningful. Some of the most meaningful of the actions that we perform are routine actions, things such as praying before meals, kissing or hugging someone before they leave, eating and drinking in the Lord’s Supper, things that may have become little more than ritual and habit but which have, through their frequent and quiet repetition, left a substantial and settled sediment, unobtrusively giving form to all that we do or think. Likewise, for all of the pleasure and even potential for novelty and creativity that they offer, much of the deep value of sexual relations between a husband and a wife may lie in the fact that they are routine. Sex need not be exciting to be profoundly meaningful.
As our existential nerve endings become deadened, though the constant celebration of the novel and the extreme, we become less sensitive to the depth and richness of life, to the beautiful subtleties of the everyday. Everything needs to be loud and brash, clamouring or abrasive, provocative or explosive. Marriage can be a place where the understatement, tenderness, delicacy, poetry, and gentleness of sex can be recovered, in a society that is often so desensitized to sex that it must be ever more shocking, taboo, explicit, or aggressive for it to be felt anymore.
Chastity By Grace
Virginity isn’t the real point: holiness is. Chastity isn’t a binary state that, once lost, cannot be regained. Chastity is a spiritual discipline, an orientation of our sexual natures to the service of God and each other, a steady kneading of our sexual appetites into our Christian vocation. Chastity is a matter of practicing sex as a matter of personal agency, rather than an animal appetite that drives us that cannot be channelled. Chastity isn’t just a virtue for virgins, unmarried persons, or celibates: every Christian is called to practice chastity, married or unmarried. We all have to bring our sexual behaviour under the rule of Christ.
Sexual self-control is essential for a healthy marriage, just as it is for faithful celibacy. One honours one’s future spouse with one’s body by the way that one controls it now. You also prepare yourself for the discipline of faithfulness and sexual self-control that will empower your marriage. You also honour your own body and honour Christ in submitting your sexuality to him. Ceasing to be an autonomous force and end, one’s sexuality becomes a servant of Christ, a part of the cosmic drama of his setting of the world to rights, thereby finding meaning, purpose, and value greater than its own satisfaction.
The Scriptures give particular value and significance to virginity. However, virginity is less a matter of what you don’t do, and more a matter of what you do. Virginity and chastity are not the bare avoidance of a sin, but positive virtues, not a matter of lack, but a matter of fullness.
While losing one’s virginity outside marriage is not without some serious consequences, a Christian view of sexuality is one of forgiveness and redemption. Losing your virginity does not leave you as a worthless failure in God’s sight: God has a habit of turning whores into spotless brides. Likewise, retaining one’s virginity isn’t the main goal. We are not playing a game of ‘how low can the dimmer switch go without turning the light off?’ but seeking to conform our sexual behaviour to Christ.
Both the guilt, shame, and condemnation-driven fixation on past sexual sins or abuse or the legalistic attempt to preserve one’s virginity on a technicality fall far short of the Christian ideal and lead to bondage. Chastity is about free forgiveness, repentance, and faith, about rescue from past failures, and becoming something greater by God’s gracious transforming work in our lives. It is about being moulded into a liberated form of sexual behaviour and identity consistent with the ends of our existence, and rescued from all forms that fall short or hold us captive.
Sex is Fallen and Tragic
Sex and our sexual appetites and identities are shaped by the Fall, shot through with sin and tragedy. We struggle both to master and to interpret our desires. Sex, designed to unite man and woman, can be a site of their alienation and mutual exploitation. Our false god, Eros, fails us, while placing heavy burdens upon us.
Our failure to acknowledge the tragic and the fallen character of human life and our expectation of a sexual fullness of life without death often directly leads to our disappointment, disillusion, and despair. Sex is not our saviour and all of our sexualities are broken. A realization of this helps us to fix our attention primarily on God’s promise of eschatological healing and perfection of our fractured world.
Being an unmarried virgin is not a brokenness that marriage will save me from, for marriage is no less broken. My personal eschatology will not take the form of ‘he got married and lived happily ever after.’ The god of marriage and family, no less than the idol of sex, is one that will disappoint us. Marriage and family are a fertile source of evil and wickedness, of tragedy and brokenness. Only Christ can save us.
A recognition of sex, marriage, and family as places of tragedy, death, and brokenness open them up as places of fellowship with Christ in his sufferings. Through this fellowship we will find that these – just as celibate singleness – can become the very sites where the new life of resurrection can also be enjoyed.
Chastity and virginity aren’t about ‘waiting for marriage’. They are about the living of life in union with Christ now. They are about pursuing the vocations that God has given us in the present, and supporting our married and unmarried neighbours in the fulfilment of theirs. The fullness that chastity and virginity seek are provided by the presence of Christ, not the achievement of marriage.
Play Not Sport
Sex is play, not sport. While there is nothing wrong with becoming good at something, there is a difference between approaching an activity as a game that can be enjoyed and approaching it as a sport that we really must excel at. People who approach an activity as a sport are often most at risk of losing the innocent ‘love of the game’. The point is not to become incredibly good ‘at sex’, but to rediscover a childlike playfulness with another person, dropping the defences and masks that we establish against the world and each other (one of those defences being the skills that we try to develop to mask our weakness), and entering into an enjoyment of ourselves and each other in the shared practice of God’s good gift, with a fearlessness and lightness of spirit.
The society around us takes sex far too seriously and in the process has lost sight of much of its true enjoyment. Sex has become a thing in itself, detached from those who have it. ‘Sex’ can become like a third party in a relationship. It places demands on us – ‘you must enjoy!’ – and in our focus upon these demands and the pursuit of some erotic ideal, we can lose sight of each other, our increasing goal being the attainment of society’s ideal of ‘great sex’.
With this view of sex, people easily become hung up on becoming sexual athletes, in a manner that cuts them off from others and renders them fearful of others’ judgment, against which they must develop skill as a protection.
The Power of Sex
Sex is about far more than making babies. It is a gift to be enjoyed, a place of play and delight, a sign of the Creator’s own joyfulness in his creation. Sex cannot, however, be separated from procreation, and we should seek to practice it in a context and in a way that affords the same open and gracious welcome, love, hospitality, and joyful excess to those who might be conceived by the act as God has shown to us in giving us a gift in which so much pleasure and joy may be found.
Sex can deeply affect our relationship to others, to ourselves and our bodies, and can bring new life into the world. It can be a place of life’s deepest pleasures, or a source of its bitterest conflicts. It can be a source of new life, but leads others to self-destruction. What it cannot be is ‘safe’. Such a powerful force must be enjoyed for what it is, but in a context where its power is respected and carefully channelled. Marriage is designed for such a respectful enjoyment of the power of sex.
Sex involves a movement outside of ourselves, a movement towards another in their unique subjectivity, into the mysterious realm of the other gender. In sex are dispossessed of control. We put ourselves in another person’s hands. We participate in a form of union that has a created potential to produce new life, engaging with an interpersonal and biological reality that is greater than our individual intentionality.
Sex is a blessed wellspring of life, for the married couple, and for those born of their union. God desires the waters of this spring to remain deep, pure, and satisfying, sources of life and health to all who partake in them.
Becoming One Flesh
The purpose of sex is the forging of interpersonal bonds. For this reason alone, pursuing sex for the end of the maximization of one’s personal and private ‘sex life’ misses the point, as does the individualistic goal of becoming ‘good in bed’. Sex is a place of dying to oneself in order to become brought to new life in union with another. Consequently, sex is a place of weakness and deep vulnerability. This weakness and vulnerability is not pleasant, but is profoundly rewarding in the long term.
One of the great gifts of marriage is a context where sex can be enjoyed as a practice of deep and profound unity. Sex in marriage is not an audition, nor a place where you are typically being marked harshly on your performance. It is a place where the fear of the other who might hurt or reject us is minimized and we can let our guards down. It is a place that is created so that you can be deeply vulnerable to another person, coming to them without needing the emotional prophylactics of the hook-up culture, or the protection of sexual skilfulness, a safe place where you can venture beyond yourself, put your life in another’s hands, with all of your defences lowered.
There is no deep connection without deep vulnerability, and the restriction of sex to marriage is designed in part to form a place where this can occur. Honeymoon sex will likely be a disappointment in terms of physical performance and sensation, but what you give to your partner is not your sexual skill (which will come with time) but your profound vulnerability to them, your courage to be a weak beginner in their presence. What you receive may not be an incredible orgasm but rather the potential of a genuine and profound connection to another person.
So often the belief that sex and intimacy are the same thing has drawn lonely people into the hollow quest of promiscuity. They seek intimacy, but cannot afford or risk vulnerability. Looking for the right things in the wrong places, not only do they fail to appreciate the wealth of intimacy that can be found in friendship and other forms of companionship, but miss the true intimacy that can be found in sex itself, when enjoyed in a context where vulnerability to each other is encouraged and enabled. This alienating fear of vulnerability is one of the great tragedies of our age.
It is not in the supposed mind-blowingness of the sex but in the strength of a connection forged out of deep and exclusive shared vulnerability that the reward of premarital abstinence is found. It is in sex where doubt, fear, guilt, judgment, and the felt need for defences are minimized, and we can truly be completely naked to another human being. Vulnerability and the risk of intense shame are the preconditions of deep and genuine intimacy. Non-marital, pre-marital, and extra-marital sex situate sex in a context apart from a sure commitment, where guards cannot easily be fully dropped, where we cannot relinquish control and skilful mastery, where we dare not be truly naked to each other, and where the rich rewards of mutual vulnerability cannot be known in their fullness.
It would be a genuine blessing to know that you all that you and your spouse have learned practically about sex was something that you learned together, sex being a secret that you share with them alone. Sex is not a thing that you pursue and serve as a thing in itself, but something that exists exclusively between you and your spouse.
A Sexuality of Gift and Gratitude
The conviction at the heart of our culture’s experience and practice of sex is that we are detached individuals with sexual rights. Sex is the prerogative of consenting and autonomous sexual agents, entitled to do whatever they want with their own bodies, provided that the other party is OK with it. Marriage is society’s rubberstamping of the choice of the consenting individuals, a validation to which they have a claim.
The Christian view of sex and marriage arises from a very different understanding of humanity. Within the Christian understanding of humanity, we are not mere autonomous individual agents, but are those who are brought into being through the gracious action of others, and who are co-creators of each other’s being. We are gifted gift-givers, persons whose very being is a divine gift, those who extend the hospitality and generosity of God to others, and who are continually drawn into the goodness that God has shown to our neighbours.
Rather than seeing our sexuality as a matter of our self-fulfilment and self-realization as detached and entitled sexual agents, our sexuality is an aspect of our fulfilment of our being as gifted, giving, and receiving personal expressions of divine generosity. It is on account of this anthropology that sex belongs in and not outside of the marriage bed.
Sex is a mutual exchange of bodies and persons. It forms a genuine ‘one flesh’ union between two persons, a union that can be the loving source of their children’s being, their existence springing from the gift of their parents’ bodies, pledged to each other as they were given into each other’s hands and the service and blessing of God by their community. In such a ‘one flesh’ union, there is no place for autonomous sexual agents: ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ dissolves into ‘ours’.
While the autonomous sexual agent is concerned with ensuring that he is getting what he is entitled to out of the relationship and that he doesn’t forfeit control by putting himself too much in the hands of others, the person in the economy of grace is concerned with being rendered as gift to others, and with receiving them as gift, rather than as right.
Marriage is all about gift. It is about pledging ourselves and our bodies to another person for life, and receiving their freely given pledge in return. It is about giving ourselves as a couple to God and a community in committed service and participation in an intergenerational project. It is about giving up our detached individuality and independence to belong to another. It is about giving up our concerns, our entitlements, our centrality in our own narratives, for the sake of coming generations, and the kingdom of our Saviour. It is about practicing our lives together in a way that grants those who are conceived in our union a place and an identity in the world. It is about being given our spouse as a joyful gift from their family, and graciously being given kinship with them as a beloved son or daughter, brother or sister-in-law. It is about being given a place within a witnessing community that faithfully gives itself to our support. It is about being granted to bear the legacy, example, and love of parents and grandparents to pass on to future generations in our time and being privileged to render to them a heritage and a memorial in return.
Most of all, marriage is about being given a vocation and a blessing from God. It is about being granted to take our place in the great line of the generations, from Adam and Eve, to Abraham and Sarah, to Mary and Joseph, bearing our unique testimony to his goodness and gospel in our time, receiving from those who preceded us what we will one day pass on to others.
Sex is the mutual donation of bodies that fits in the heart of this picture. By never abstracting sex from marriage, we declare the gifts that brought us into, sustain us within, are expressed by us through, and will be passed on by means of our existence. We declare that we are more than detached and autonomous right-bearing individuals: we are dynamic expressions of loving gift in a dance of grace that transcends persons and generations. By entering into this, we gloriously transcend our individuality.
Pre-marital sex is the premature opening of the gift with our name on it. It defrauds both ourselves and others of the chance to enter into the fullness of the gift of marriage. It claims as right what could have been an outflowing of joyous and life-giving generosity. It denies the continual debt of love that we owe to our neighbour and to our Maker, and would treat the hospitality of a community as our entitlement. It deprives us all of the communion of gift that is formed as we realize our being as constantly springing out of the abundant charity of God. It diminishes us from the eucharistic – thanks-giving – beings that God created us to be, as the great Giver and those lesser givers through whom his generosity is known are effaced, and all gifts are rendered as rights.
As an unmarried virgin, I am no less able to realize my sexuality as gift. In my practice of chastity I continually give my sexuality as a gift to God and to my community, from and in whom I have my own being. I can honour others as I steward my body and my personhood as gifts that I receive from them, and to whom I owe a debt of joyful gratitude. In this practice of chastity I can enjoy a union of gift and belonging with others of which those who pursue a right to autonomous sexual enjoyment deprive themselves.
Far from finding Christian views of chastity and virginity repressive and crushing, I have found them to be deeply fulfilling and worthwhile. They give purpose and meaning to my sexuality. They clarify its ends and the best ways to pursue them. They free me from the tyranny of the idol of Sex. They enable me to understand and cope with difficulty and tragedy in sexuality. They expand and deepen my understanding of intimacy.
I believe that an understanding of the purposes of chastity and virginity have much to give married persons too, as the purpose of sexuality in marriage is inseparable from the purpose of sexuality in unmarried states.
I would love to hear the thoughts of my readers on this subject, both married and single. Please leave a comment below!
If people want some more first-person perspectives on what male evangelical virgins are like, I recommend this series as a good one to read.
EDIT (10/8/2012 – 23:30GMT): I have just added the section entitled ‘A Sexuality of Gift and Gratitude’, which wasn’t included in the original post.
UPDATE (30/1/2013): I have posted a follow-up post on the subject of virginity and the gospel here.