Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Virginity: Overrated?

I read two articles via Facebook this morning:

The first one makes the point that virginity has become so prized that those who no longer possess it are sometimes viewed as irreparably damaged Christians. Their special present to their spouse has already been unwrapped, and it's now soiled with bodily fluids. The shame that one feels at such a scenario may have been wiped clean by Christ's own bodily fluid (blood), but something has been lost that's never coming back. You may be convinced that there is no condemnation in Christ, but there certainly is regret.

The author blames this perspective on the idolisation of the purity ideal.

[Spoiler alert] I recently watched Chasing Amy, which deals with a similar topic though on a whole other level. A man falls in love with a woman, but the woman is gay. She is gay not so much by nature as by choice (if you'll allow me that distinction). She eventually falls for him and they end up in a strange and strangely sweet relationship. But here's the problem: she has a past! Of course the man knew this, but only to a limited extent. When he discovers the full extent of his new girlfriend's sexual history, however, he is disgusted. He thought he was the first man she had ever been with, but my word was that not the case. And so he makes her feel shame. It doesn't matter that she is madly in love with him and committed to him and that the past is in the past. She has become damaged goods in his eyes.

Given the woman's extraordinary sexual escapades it is tempting to forgive the man for reacting the way he did. Yet in the end it is quite obvious who is in the wrong. I mention this film because it portrays how Christians are sometimes made to feel with regard to sexual purity: on the one hand, disgust or resentment over a standard that was breached in the past, on the other hand, unacceptable, damaged, inferior. To the extent that this article criticises this tendency it is to be lauded.

Yet there are problems with it. First, the author separates holiness from the body, as if holiness has nothing to do with what we do with our genitals. This leads to a further distinction between "sexual purity" and "spiritual purity" which is at best problematic. I understand the desire to move away from the sex-obsessed discourse of evangelicalism. The Christian church has always had the sexual life of humans in view, yet it is arguable that the ascetical teaching of the Church has historically been more concerned with what you do with your money or your food than with what you do with your sexual organs.

Nevertheless, virginity was a topic addressed by many Christian theologians, and was widely considered a virtue to be prized. The apostle Paul, for example, encourages people to remain virgins so as to better serve the Lord. And my new friend Maximus the Confessor thought that virginity as a "single" was the highest form of self-control. The lowest form was marriage with lots of sex. The next lowest was marriage with a little bit of sex. After that, marriage with sex only for the sake of procreation. And just below virginity, marriage with sex only for the sake of procreation, and then after one or two children are born no sex at all. In other words, the less sex the better.

This segues nicely into the second article, which is written by an asexual man who is married to a woman and who does not have sex with her. It's a sort of reverse Mayor Quimby: "This is my wife, but I am not sleeping with her." He is a virgin not so much by choice as by nature (if you'll allow me that distinction. If you will, then I wonder if virginity by nature would be considered ethical by Christian theologians such as Maximus, or is it the choice of virginity that makes it a moral act?).

What is most peculiar about this situation is how in line it is with early Christian teaching on sexual ethics and how out of line it is even with sex-obsessed evangelicals.

Which leaves me wondering: is the issue a matter of "conservative" vs "liberal" attitudes to sex, or something deeper - something which includes our rather laissez-faire practices with regard to money and food?

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