The Ethics of Virginity

The Ethics of Virginity: The Bible, Purity Culture, and Feminist Critics

Is purity culture correct when it assumes that premarital sex is immoral due to a loss of virginity, which is thought to be something that should be “saved” for marriage? In this paper I will examine some claims Christians make—from a purity culture perspective—regarding virginity and its intricate link to premarital sex. Next, I will submit purity culture’s claims to a feminist critique. I will then reflect upon the definition of virginity. Finally, I will attempt to synthesize a view of human sexual relationships in which human beings are not reduced to “virgin” or “non-virgin,” where a holistic human being, particularly females, are not reduced to what happened between their legs (or, as in the case of females, specifically their hymens). My synthesis will be predominantly engaging with Helmut Thielicke’s The Ethics of Sex.

In her book Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex, Letha Scanzoni summarizes early Christianity’s stance on the subject of virginity. “Virginity was praised with fanatical zeal.”[1] After spending several pages discussing how early Christians essentially abhorred the profane thought of sex, Scanzoni’s comment is fair. Sex, being viewed a degree removed from sin, was relegated to the dustbin of a secular age—for asceticism and self-control were the fruits of the spirit which ascetic monks and hermits cultivated. From Origen’s act of self-castration (a repudiation of sex and the male sex symbol) to Augustine’s claim that if Adam and Eve had not sinned, the “embarrassing” sex act would have resembled something more holy like plant pollination, this ideology infiltrated mainstream Christian thinking.[2] Since asceticism preached a renunciation of sex—something that was propagated as early as the second-century pseudepigraphal Acts of Paul and Thecla—the inevitable culmination of such thinking was virginity as a virtue. But was such a zeal for virginity to be found in the Bible? According to Scanzoni, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Scanzoni, in her piling of one biblical citation over the other, mentions the oft-cited “virginity text,” Deuteronomy 22: 28-29. “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives” (NRSV). Scanzoni, commenting on this text, writes, “[S]exual relations between two persons who were unmarried (and unbetrothed) required that they must marry one another.”[3] For Scanzoni, virginity is to be maintained up until marriage for the simple fact that premarital sex was forbidden in the Bible. Of course, she marshals all kinds of other evidence—citing Ephesians 5:3-5, Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, etc.—however, reasons for maintaining virginity are not given. The entire argument hinges on an acceptance of divine command theory: the Bible is the word of God, and humans ought to act according to its precepts. A primary principle undergirding her argument is the principle of obedience to God, which is self-evident in her willingness to cite biblical commands even while dismissing reasons one might have for not following them (e.g., they are obsolete, irrelevant, un-loving, anti-homosexual, etc.).[4] She admits, “[T]his book is not addressed to those who do not desire to place their lives in Christ’s hands. Such individuals cannot be expected to understand and embrace the philosophy of sex outlined here.”[5] This is strange for a book that claims, in other sections, to provide “reasons” for “the modern generation’s search for meaning and reasons behind moral-ethical decisions…”[6] Scanzoni appears to contradict herself. On the one hand, she is trying to convince a generation that is obsessed with “reason” that premarital sex is immoral and virginity up until marriage is the moral thing to do, while simultaneously on the other hand recognizing that her book will not convince those who do not accept the Bible as the Word of God. If you do not subscribe to divine command theory, then you cannot buy her arguments. To be fair, Scanzoni is at least honest about “reasons” other Christians present when trying to dissuade young adults and Christian youth from engaging in sexual intercourse prior to marriage. For example, some resort to scare tactics. “[F]ear of contracting venereal disease does not seem to work very effectively as a deterrent to premarital sex.”[7] Moreover, she recognizes that science and medicine is well on its way towards providing treatment options for venereal diseases; hence eliminating the fear that they had once inspired. Another commonly stated deterrent to premarital sex is the risk for pregnancy. “Christians who cite the risk of pregnancy as the chief reason for abstinence before marriage may find their moral standards threatened by such developments [i.e., development of birth control].” In other words, the chief reasons for refraining from premarital sex—such as contracting disease or the risk of pregnancy—are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the post-modern age. And Scanzoni is honest enough to recognize and mention that fact.

So where does that leave us? Why should young people maintain virginity? Scanzoni says, in tout court, “For the Bible tells me so.” Scanzoni writes regarding a sexual ethic, “[T]he Bible does provide clear guidelines and commandments in this important area.”[8] Is that true? Jennifer Knust, a biblical scholar who specializes in sexuality, says that such a statement is not true. For example, when discussing the sexual poem Song of Solomon, Scanzoni unjustifiably describes it as an “exaltation of married love.”[9] For Scanzoni, the Bible is a text singing one message: no sex before marriage; and if there is sex, it’s married sex. Even when there’s no reason to suppose the text is describing married love, Scanzoni imposes her views on the text, committing the sin of eisegesis. Knust, citing the Song of Solomon, suggests the complete opposite: the poem is relating in positive terms premarital sex. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him” (5:4).[10] She goes on to ask the rhetorical question, “Can the Bible be used to support premarital sex, even for girls? The answer, I have now discovered, is yes.”[11] The point here is that the biblical text does not necessarily sing one message, a message sung by Scanzoni. As Knust points out, the Bible has no single, sexual ethic. For example, the issue of prostitution in the Bible is not explicitly condemned in the case of Judah and Tamar. “According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine.”[12] Polygamy is the norm in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 21:10 relates that if a man takes another wife, “he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife” (NRSV). One final, disturbing example: Exodus 21:7 encourages a “master,” after having purchased a woman as a slave, to marry the woman himself or to his son. Apparently, one could essentially own a contractual sex-slave[13]—and that was okay, according to the Bible. In short, sexual encounters that we moderns would probably dismiss as “immoral” are found as the norm in certain “biblical” books. The Bible, therefore, contra Scanzoni, does not produce a sexual ethic; instead, it provides us with a wide-range of various—and often times contradictory—sexual ethics. This sets before us a strange problem: if one even, theoretically speaking, accepts divine command theory, and accepts the Bible as the Word of God, is one able to come to Scanzoni’s “clear guidelines and commandments”? As Knust insists, marshaling biblical evidence, this is simply not the case. What, then, are we to make of the laws regarding virginity?

The concept of virginity, at least as it stands in Deuteronomy, is inextricably linked not necessarily to notions of “purity” as much as it is linked to whom gets paid and how much. The laws around female virginity “see[k] to protect the honor of the father and make the seduction or slander of an Israelite virgin an expensive proposition.”[14] In other words, the laws dealing with virginity—or lack thereof—are questions of economics and not morality per se. The woman, again, has not much say in whom she marries or how she is treated—she is, ultimately, the father’s property. And, may I remind you, the Bible is okay with that, too. The sexual ethic embraced by purity culture is essentially a form of divine command theory: the Bible says that you must be a virgin on your wedding day. That’s how they interpret it. This leads to a strange morality in which women and men are so preoccupied with keeping hymens intact that all forms of sexual expression—such as anal and oral sex—are given the blind eye. So where does that leave us? Having laid out the mostly evangelical Christian case for the maintenance of virginity, being inspired by purity culture, and having articulated at least one view that criticizes the biblical scholarship for maintaining it, I will now turn my gaze towards a feminist critique of purity culture and its cozy relationship with virginity.

Jessica Valenti has a problem with purity culture. In attempting to de-emphasize the sexual in inter-sex, heterosexual relationships, it has perpetrated—in a rather profoundly ironic way—the sexual. Valenti points out how having sex is tantamount to being immoral in purity culture. “Idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality means that nothing else matters—not what we accomplish, not what we think, not what we care about and work for.”[15]The mostly evangelical, mostly Christian Right, continues to reduce all inter-sex relationships to the sexual. When a male who was born and raised in purity culture engages in a relation with a female, he is, in fact, taught to be interested in one thing, and one thing only: is the female a virgin? If so, she is a “godly” (read: “ethical”) girl; if not, she is a slut/whore/cunt (read: “unethical”) girl. Morality is reduced to sexology; the moral human, female agent is reduced to what happens “down there.”

Valenti laments how women think that what happens “down there” is tantamount to being “moral.” For Valenti, this is a patriarchal reinforcement of women’s “ethics of passivity”; that is, women are only able to be ethically passive—all that matters is that they don’t allow active penetration of their vagina by a man’s hyperactive penis. She condemns this ethic of passivity by stating: “[R]estraint does not equal morality.”[16] If a woman chooses not to have sex—for whatever reason—that does not make her a good or bad person, a virgin or a slut. What matters, instead, is whether she is, indeed, a good or bad person morally—just like a male is judged.

One of the larger problems that we have avoided articulating until now is the definition of virginity. In her groundbreaking book Virgin: The Untouched History, Hanne Blank details her findings concerning the concept of virginity. “What we mean when we say ‘virginity’ is as ephemeral, as relative, and as socially determined as what we mean when we say ‘freedom.’”[17] Having said that, Blank broadly defines the term to mean “a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others.”[18] Notice that her definition has nothing to do with a hymen, blood stains on the bed sheets, or females. For, as Blank points out, the moment we begin throwing in hymens and such, we are left with strange consequences. For example, if “virginity” is reduced to “having an intact hymen,” then all males are immediately virgin, whether sexual or not. Moreover, this implies that all gay men and lesbians (who have only resorted to cunnilingus) are also virgin. If you define the term to mean sexual intercourse with the opposite sex, you likewise lose all the homosexual people. And you fail to include the couples that engage in non-vaginal sex acts like anal sex, cunnilingus, and oral sex.

Trying to think about the concept of virginity is nothing new. Augustine of Hippo, in thinking about Christian virgins who were raped by pagan men, could not help but redefine virginity. For him, “being raped did not constitute a loss of virginity, providing one had resisted with all one’s heart and soul.”[19] Without having the space to relate the mass amount of research Blank relates, it should be quite obvious that “virginity,” however one looks at it, is a very elusive term. When purity culture invokes it, they usually mean “a human who has not had[20] physical, vaginal sexual intercourse.” Fantasizing about sex—as in Jesus’ saying[21]—does not constitute the act of sex. You can fantasize about sex day and night, and still be a virgin in today’s mainstream evangelical culture. And we haven’t even begun discussing masturbation, vibrators, dildos, and other sex toys. This leaves us in the precarious position of having to articulate an ethics of sex in which virginity is taken to mean something that we cannot quite grasp. It remains a term that is both vague and elusive. Despite that, I will now attempt to articulate a view that embraces feminist critiques and allows us—both secular and Christian people—to move the discussion forward on virginity and premarital sex.

Helmut Thielicke, in his masterful The Ethics of Sex, believes that the Christian sex act must never be reduced merely to the biological. “[I]f sexuality were merely a function, we would hardly be able to understand why the partners should not be exchangeable at will and why promiscuity should not be legalized and made a social institution.”[22] This leads him to conclude, “[O]nly the ‘being’ of a person is unique, irreplaceable, and unrepeatable.”[23] For Thielicke, a human being must be encountered as a holistic individual, full of emotions, a history, characteristic traits, and, ultimately, as someone who was “bought with a price” (1 Cor.6:20; 7:23).[24] Theology plays a very particular role here: it forces one to view the Other as an individual who is important to God; it forces one to see the imago dei in the Other. “He who seeks only the partial—only the body, only the function, and again possibly only a part of this—remains unfulfilled even on the level of eros, because, having lost the wholeness of the other person, he also loses the other person’s uniqueness.”[25] In addition to engaging with the Other in his or her wholeness, as a being created by an Almighty God, Thielicke also believes that the Bible gives us its own way of interpreting the sex act: in the Bible, sex is a method of “knowing” the Other. Thielicke argues that in the Bible the euphemism for “to have sex” is “to know.” Hence we have the phrase: “Adam knew his wife, Eve” (Genesis 4:1). Why was the verb יָדַע ([yada‘] “to know”) chosen to signify “to have sex”? For Thielicke, this was simply because the act of sex itself was viewed as a process of knowing the Other. Thielicke contrasts this method of sexual knowledge, calling it “knowledge ‘from the inside,’” with mere knowledge of sex, calling it “knowledge ‘from the outside.’”[26] He writes, “Sexual knowledge is qualitatively different from knowledge about sex.”[27] What is important in human relations, from a theological perspective, is to remember what sex is: it is more than just a biological function. To have sex is to engage in the mystery of unveiling secrets—it is about getting to know, to really know, the other human being. It is knowledge of the Other “from the inside.”

The driving factor in Thielicke’s ethics of sex is this irreducible view of it. He wants to continually reinforce the idea that there is something more going on here. He calls it “the mystery of sex.”[28] But there is also another implicit verb running through the book: agape.[29] “[A]gape brings out, ‘loves’ out, as it were, the real person within the other human being.”[30] In the process of knowing the Other, in the process of “loving out” the real person, one encounters the face of God. It is this—and not virginity per se—that makes sex sacred, that makes the mystery of sex a μυστήριον (mustérion). In fact, virginity virtually plays no role in Thielicke’s work. He mentions it briefly on roughly two pages.[31] The reason for maintaining virginity in Thielicke’s opinion is because he believes in the now-discredited view of “the formative power of the first sexual encounter.”[32] Having said that, Thielicke is not reducing the mystery of sex to merely the physical. One could argue that, when discussing female virginity (which usually has to do with the physically intact or non-intact hymen), purity culture is mostly reducing sex to biological function. In contrast to this, Thielicke allows the act of sex to be seen in its totality, in its relationship to everything human beings touch—be it the physical, the biological, the ethical, or the romantic. Perhaps this is why he failed to write a book on hymenology. Instead, he wrote a book on what it means to engage in sex from a theological and ethical perspective.

Whether one is secular or religious, one cannot help but stand in sheer appreciation of Thielicke’s poetic views on the ethics of sex. Yes, if one were to idealize sex, this would be what it would look like. It would be an act of agape coalescing with the act of knowing the Other “from the inside.” Whether his view is “biblical” or not is open to debate, I do not know. What I do know is that whenever a church or a couple want to meaningfully discuss the ethics of virginity—what, how, and why we should remain virgins until marriage—his thoughts on the subject must surely be engaged with. If the purity culture route is taken, one is, as the feminist critique has shown, prone to reducing the human relationship to biological functions and hymenology. That is, one is left merely describing physical traits of the Other. “She is a virgin; her hymen is intact; she must be an ethical person.” Such stringently descriptive accounts of the Other are seldom useful. Moreover, purity culture tends to reduce ethics to sexology. As Thielicke has shown us, the sex act is about knowing the Other on an intimate level. Merely describing what a female’s hymen looks like at any given moment does not imply we have engaged in intimate knowledge of the Other. In fact, it’s probably shallow at best. As Hanne Blank has demonstrated, the idea of what it means to be a “virgin” is a great deal of culturally relative speculation. It is not something set in stone, something we can easily pinpoint and manipulate. The Bible itself, as a collection of books written over many centuries, does not offer us “clear guidelines and commandments.” Likewise, in the spirit of the Bible, this paper concludes by offering no such clear guidelines and commandments. All I can offer are thoughts influenced by the Bible, culture, reason, and science. Pick and choose as you please. It seems to me that the principle of love is more important than naïve adherence to the Bible and some of its obsolete commandments.[33] I would like to close with the following quote from Augustine: “Love…and then do whatever you will.”[34]

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and philosophy of language. 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Bloch, Ariel and Chana Bloch. The Song of Songs: A New Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Burt, Donald X. Day by Day with Saint Augustine. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Knust, Jennifer. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Thielicke, Helmut. The Ethics of Sex. Trans. By John W. Doberstein. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Scanzoni, Letha. Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Letha Scanzoni, Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 30.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 79. Italics original.

[4] For example, the modern ethical discussion surrounding gay marriage and gay relationships are not considered by Scanzoni. Why? Because the Bible “clearly” instructs against such relations. The principle of obedience to God over-rides concerns such as the principle of “love.” What if two gay people want to have premarital sex in a loving relationship, is that permissible? Such questions are dismissed a priori simply due to the fact that the over-riding principle of obedience to God, being the practical application of divine command theory, stands in direct contradiction to the sort of ethic one may discover when applying other principles, such as love.

[5] Letha Scanzoni, Why Wait?, “Introduction.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 50. Italics original.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid., 99.

[10] Some scholars, however, dispute Knust’s interpretation of the Song, see Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). “Some commentators have attempted to understand this verse as a euphemistic account of sexual intercourse. This is implausible…” (Ibid.). In addition, I’m not sure that Knust is correct in making the assumption that this poem is describing premarital sex. It’s possible the lover and the beloved are married—nothing in the text suggests that they aren’t. (Knust is over-zealous in her want to demonstrate how strange, liberal, and non-evangelical the Bible is even when it isn’t [as it may be in this specific case].)

[11] Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 5.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] The slave woman does not appear to have any say in what happens to her. “When it comes to their sexuality, the consent of women, slaves, and foreigners was not sought” (Ibid., 63). The marriage to her master or her master’s son is, presumably, not something she has a say in. Hence, my calling her a “contractual sex-slave” is probably fair—for, at least in the modern world, marriage without consent is not valid. So, contra the Bible, I wouldn’t call her “marriage” to her damn master (!) a marriage! In fact, I am calling this contractual arrangement what it is: sex slavery with some benefits.

[14] Ibid., 62.

[15] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009), 24.

[16] Ibid., 25.

[17] Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 5.

[18] Ibid., 6.

[19] Ibid., 7.

[20] The verb here conveys one of two things: (1) the male having sex with his penis penetrating a female’s vagina; and (2) the female having sex with a male who’s penis is repetitively penetrating her vagina. This sounds redundant and maybe unnecessary but that is not the case: one could come up with all kinds of scenarios in which some exception to this rule is created (for example, a man only “sticks it in” once and then abandons the girl, does that constitute the vaginal sex act?).

[21] Matthew 5:28 says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NRSV). Apparently, having sex with someone else “in his heart” is not really sex. But try having sex physically and without one’s heart, that’s sex!

[22] Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 23.

[23] Ibid., 24.

[24] Ibid., 25.

[25] Ibid. Italics original.

[26] Ibid., 67-8.

[27] Ibid., 66.

[28] Ibid.

[29] In the New Testament, agape (“love”) is usually the verb used to describe God’s love for humanity. It is a theologically loaded word.

[30] Ibid., 98. Italics original.

[31] The pages are 67 and 83.

[32] Ibid., 85.

[33] I can only make such a bold claim because there are plenty of biblical scholars who have written massive tomes dealing with ancient customs that are, by all means, obsolete (I am thinking of such things as sacrifices and slavery, for example). In this paper, I cited one such scholar: Jennifer Knust. For evidence of contradictions in the Bible and some of its strange stances on human sexuality, I refer my readers to her book.

[34] Quoted in Donald X. Burt, Day by Day with Saint Augustine (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006), 4.