Purity. The word evokes a myriad of images and thoughts. For some, the word reminds them of cleanliness, bathing, abstaining from certain foods or actions. Ritualistically, purity often relates to how food is prepared, how one prepares herself for prayer or worship, and even how family members care for the dead. Purity can relate to ingredients, to items of clothing, to animals, to retaining the essence of something that is fragile or impermanent. But for many of us who have grown up in Evangelical circles, purity solely relates to sex.
The recent article "I Waited Until My Wedding Night To Lose My Virginity And I Wish I Hadn't" has been one of the most recent and buzzworthy articles to address this topic, and has sparked a firestorm in its wake. The author, Samantha Pugsley, recounts how as a ten year-old she made a vow to remain sexually pure until her wedding night. But when Pugsley did marry and did have sex, she was utterly and tragically disappointed. Long story short, Pugsley ended up in counseling, deciding that she could not be both sexually healthy and religious at the same time, so she gave up religion. Deciding that the Christian set of sexual ethics with which she had grown up was outdated and destructive, she gave up her faith as well apparently and even decided – though this is not mentioned in the article – that she is bisexual.
So what is wrong with this essay? Why has it outraged so many Christians and caused so much discussion about the treatment of virginity and female sexuality? And why I am discussing it when there are numerous other topics that deserve my undivided attention at the moment? Frankly, because Mrs. Pugsley's essay encapsulates a problem that we as Christians have created and we have to fix.
It is no secret today that Christians have a bad reputation when it comes to teaching or talking about sex, especially in the last few decades. The "True Love Waits" movement has been a prolific and almost ubiquitous concentration across Evangelicalism in America; so much so, that it has crossed over into American Roman Catholicism and other Protestant denominations. Focused on teens and older school-age children, the movement has stringently tried to create a buffer for Christians against the seemingly sex-obsessed "secular" culture by advocating purity pledges, purity rings, purity balls, courting (a fad that one finds among Fundamentalists and "mainstream" Christians) and even alternative media in order to encourage teenagers – and mostly girls – to resist the sexual temptations of the current age and retain their virginity at all costs. This is the culture Pugsley describes when she explains that she made the purity pledge at age 10, an age at which she admittedly had no real conception of sex and no interest in boys. The pledge according to her states that, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship. As well as abstaining from sexual thoughts, sexual touching, pornography, and actions that are known to lead to sexual arousal." This was the pledge she took when she was 10.
So what's the problem? The problem is not that Pugsley remained a virgin, that she waited until she was married, that her church taught the importance of marriage and encouraged its members to wait. This is not the problem with any of the purity movement or any churches that emphasize the importance of abstinence and celibacy. The problem is how all of these churches have treated sex.
Pugsley's descriptions of what her church taught her about sex and virginity are emblematic of two primary problems within contemporary Christian churches' treatment of human sexuality: 1) the association of sexuality with one's personal identity; and 2) the conceptions of sex, human sexuality, and marriage as a whole. In the modern world, we have seen an increasingly pervasive view that alongside race, ethnicity, economic class, and religion, one's sexuality contributes to one's identity. In secular culture we see this in the current conception of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender or transsexual identification. It is popular or common for some young people to say now that "I am gay," or "I am bi," or "I am trans," as a way of describing not just their sexual actions or preferences but their entire being. Even if one has never had sex or had the type of sex they prefer, the "identity" associated with these preferences is what is important and "sacred" in our culture.
However, for Pugsley and conservative Evangelical Christians, the treatment of sexuality as identity has been transferred to the opposite side of the spectrum: purity. Pugsley describes how "for more than a decade, I wore my virginity like a badge of honor. My church encouraged me to do so, saying my testimony would inspire other young girls to follow suit… It became my entire identity by the time I hit my teen years." Pugsley's virginity was so integral to her sense of identity that when she finally had sex, the loss of that "identity" was part of the reason she broke down. After finally having sex with her husband, Pugsley says she was hurt because her "virginity was gone… They all [friends and family] knew I was soiled and tarnished. I wasn't special anymore. My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn't know who I was without it." In the Evangelical world, virginity is often elevated to a level of utmost holiness. The measure of a young Christian woman's worth pertains to her virginity, to her purity, to the fact that she has been an ideal Christian woman who is unsoiled and untarnished. Just as many non-Christians (and some Christians) measure part of their identity by determining whether one is gay, bi, lesbian, straight, or trans, many Evangelical Christians have fallen for the same trap by measuring one's identity according to whether one is sexually pure or impure.
But it is all part of the same trap. The association of identity with sexuality is a modern conception, incredibly young in comparison to the history of human thought and life, and one that Michel Foucault revealed as a farce last century. In his series, The History of Sexuality, Foucault illustrated how the 19th century obsession with perverse sexual activities and behavior led to "an incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals." (42-43) In other words, in the 19th century, we began to no longer just think that a man had sex with other men, but that he was a homosexual. Those who had contrary sexual desires or participated in "deviant" sexual acts were different, a difference that contributed to a different identity. I argue that this line of thinking extended into the 20th century when the onslaught of Sexual Liberation threatened American Christianity and worried Christians that their children would embrace "free love." In order to protect their children and communities, Christians had to form a separate identity, one in which sexuality was tantamount. Purity became that identity benchmark.
As misguided as this movement has become, the purity movement is not at its core theologically unsound within orthodox Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and most mainstream Protestant denominations still stress the importance of sexual morality, which primarily means abstaining from sexual intercourse until one is married and not committing adultery. For the liturgical traditions, marriage is a holy sacrament that is intended to illustrate the ultimate and self-sacrificing love of God for His people, in which sex is the ultimate physical representation and experience of that transforming love. Though many have overused this sentiment, sex truly is a gift, and as such with gifts, requires responsibility. St. Paul encouraged struggling early Christians not only to marry and enjoy sex (in order to avoid sexual temptations outside of marriage), but also encouraged them to see sex as a sacrifice of the body. He taught that:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)
Though some Christians throughout all denominations have struggled with this realization, sex has never been the problem. How we treat sex is the problem. This is the second issue with Pugsley's article.
This ill treatment of sex begins with the pledge that Pugsley made when she was ten. After promising to save sex for a "biblical marriage," Pugsley promised to abstain from "sexual thoughts, sexual touching, pornography, and actions that are known to lead to sexual arousal." As noble as it is to abstain from sex until one is married, this pledge asks for extremes that forget we are humans. Abstaining from sexual arousal at all times is physically impossible, and frankly, unhealthy. While the pervasiveness of hardcore pornography has created serious issues for many men (and women) in today's world – and should be addressed! – the normal and healthy curiosity towards and desire for sex is not wrong. Yes, the temptation to allow sexual fantasies to take over one's life is always close by, but this does not mean we should teach children that they cannot have fantasies period. Not only do human beings need sexual release from time to time, especially if they are abstaining from sex, but they should also become comfortable with exploring their bodies and learning what feels good. Not only because it makes waiting a little bit easier, but because it helps prepare the person for when they have a spouse.
Pugsley's abstinence from any type of sexual exploration not only hurt her, but also her husband. She describes how their first attempt at sex as "fumbling with a condom and a bottle of lube for the first time [in a dark room]," after which Pugsley ended up in the bathroom crying. For the entire honeymoon. Even though she was married, "sex felt dirty and wrong and sinful." This shame went on for two years until Pugsley admitted her feelings to her husband who was heartbroken and ashamed himself, and the two stopped having sex. Pugsley had not grown up with any semblance of a healthy attitude towards sex, just a huge fat "no" that wounded her and her marriage because it prevented her from enjoying and celebrating a normal and wonderful aspect of human life. Unfortunately, this attitude has continued.
Pugsley ends her article by declaring that she is no longer religious. Today, Pugsley does not "go to church anymore, nor [is she] religious." Through therapy, Pugsley decided that she "couldn't figure out how to be both religious and sexual at the same time. I chose sex." As difficult as it may seem to a woman who was raised in a theologically incorrect and unhealthy church community, this is the worst conclusion Pugsley could come to. Christianity does not say "no" to sex. Some Christians have and extremes have flitted in and out of Christianity historically since the beginning of the Church, but this is not God's intention. Sex is not antithetical to religion. In fact, sex may be one of the most holy expressions of religion. It is true that Christianity sets up boundaries for sexuality, and in today's world, we modern "enlightened" Westerners do not like boundaries. We want what we want when we want, and pick or choose denominations or religions in order to accommodate these desires. But that is the result of narcissism and pride, not sex. Sex is not the problem. As well, as Christians we must have grace and mercy. Yes, saving sex for marriage is the ideal, just as eating healthy, tithing, honoring our parents, spending time in prayer, remaining truthful, not stealing, and choosing peace over violence is the ideal. But we miss the mark, and we allow our mistakes to humble us and lead us to God, not punish ourselves. We strive for holiness, and thank God, sex within marriage is holy. We must just always remember that sex is never the problem. We as human beings without the grace and love of God are the problem.