The Value of Virginity


Suddenly, we’re farther than I’ve ever gone before. Beyond the mind-altering sensations that follow one upon the other like stock cars on their final lap, my ears are ringing with the impact of having met this unlikeliest of all people, to whom there’s no need to explain jokes or literary references or certain secret hopes, whose nearness sets my ears ringing with an inertial mantra:

“This is it. This is it. This is it . . .”

Suddenly, I’m angry. I’m angry because I’m not sure that he’s as sure as I am. Suddenly, with sex closer than it’s ever been, sex is beside the point. I don’t care that it’s not his first time, but I want it to be his first time feeling toward someone the way I feel toward him. To act as though sex with him is just . . . whatever . . . would be a lie — a lie about the oldest, truest part of me. And it would be equally a lie to proceed as though it isn’t important to me that sex with me be important to him.

So I say, “Wait.”

I’ve wondered ever since what my life would be like now, if I hadn’t said that then.

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Those virgins who remain, floating on the periphery of modern culture like a raft full of castaways in sight of an Ibiza beach, may find themselves looking at each other and wondering, “How did we get here?”

Being possessed of your virginity is like owning a savings bond — worth keeping only until you understand its conceptual value. After that, it’s best cashed in before the exchange rate dips any lower; the harder you hold onto it, the harder it is to get rid of. Recently, a string of entrepreneurial virgins appeared, selling their virtue at auction and raising questions about the monetary worth of modern day maidenhood. Catarina Migliorini, a 20-year-old Brazilian woman whose beauty required several medical tests to prove the integrity of her offer, made nearly $800,000 off her first time (proceeds to benefit charity).

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In ancient times, marrying a woman who wasn’t a virgin admitted the possibility of disease, political disturbance, and the possible late appearance of bastard children. Even as recently as the ’50s, a person’s own character was partly assessed by the virtue of their spouse, which could lead to restriction from social groups, clubs, and jobs even as lofty as the US presidency. Men might love their mistresses, but they didn’t marry them.

This made for a high value on virginity; it did not always make for good relationships. That became evident during the ’70s, when the divorce rate doubled in just 10 years, and brings us up to date, in an age where wives (and husbands) long for the relational privileges of mistresses.

We’ve also grown up with a century’s worth of mixed messages. In one ear, the church and the conservative mainstream beg us to suppress sexual feelings until we can fully indulge them, while in the other ear, psychology says that our very identity hinges on our freedom of sexual expression (with the resounding agreement of our hormones). The only thing they agree on is characterizing sexuality as both an ultimate good and an unstable compound, against which human beings have practically no power. (Nor, as Freud argued and Kinsey echoed, should they have any.) In light of all this, unmarried virgins are treated even by the church as accidents waiting to happen.

– – –

The most common (and perhaps most successful) objection to virginity goes along the lines of “What’s the big deal? It’s just sex.” But the objection itself reveals an implicit understanding that sex is not just sex, at all. If it’s simply a rite of physical pleasure, there’s no real need of another person’s involvement. (Indeed, if spokespeople like Louis C.K. can be believed, the DIY version can be better.)

What sex is really about was succinctly posited by God, right before He created the necessary condition for sex to occur:

“It is not good for man to be alone.”

 – – –

According to the Bible, sex is a physical way of binding yourself to someone. I don’t just mean the release of oxytocin, either. Sex is the integrated human being — mind, body, spirit, emotions —communicating to another integrated human being, “You are not alone. From now on, you have me.”

To be clear, this isn’t me getting poetic; I’m getting this from 1 Corinthians 6:12 through chapter 7. These verses indicate what sex is, and that it’s meant only for people who are married to each other.

There, I said it.

Accordingly, sex is largely a matter of truth between two people, and truth in sex is largely a matter of timing. Here’s what I mean:

Commitment is a strange word, a reflexive verb, where the subject makes itself the object. You commit yourself, and then you are committed. By saying you are committed to someone, you indicate that you have done something to yourself. In sexual relationships, the Bible indicates that what you must do to yourself is make another person your owner. (That’s 1 Corinthians 7:4.)

If you’re putting off marriage until you finish your school, or get your finances in order, or decide whether you’re really compatible, then you’re more obligated to those things than you are to the person you love. There’s no shame in that. But under these circumstances, having sex with someone is a lie.

It’s lying to the other person about himself (or herself), telling them they have you fully, when actually they don’t. It’s lying to yourself, that you’re committed to them, when actually you aren’t. It’s lying to both yourself and the other person about God, that He didn’t mean what He said through the Scripture about sex, or that He doesn’t know what you really need right now.

– – –

When I admit to others that I’m saving my first time for marriage (as of this moment), I can see the distance widen between us. From that moment forward, they’re either looking down on me as a pitiful case of sexual repression, or looking up to me like Dante’s Beatrice. I’m not interested in either position; both make me feel helplessly alone.

This is why I find virginity auctioneers to be only as culpable as the well-meaning church folks who hustle horny teenagers toward the altar. Virgins are not martyrs; they’re just another group of people who, by choice, aren’t having sex right now. They deserve less pity than people whose spouses are chronically ill, or deployed overseas, or exhausted from working two jobs in order to provide for their families.

If it’s true that God’s goodness includes giving us good things at the right time, then there must be a way that virginity right now is not just a holding cell, but a form of active blessing on my life.

I’m talking about finding a better reason for my virginity than the promise of better sex within marriage. I’m talking about a better reason for getting married than relief for my sex drive.

Like so many virgins, I’m tired of waiting for my life to finally begin. My need for intimacy exceeds my patience for a boyfriend to come along and love me, or the church to properly support me. The only recourse is this thing I’ve hardly asked God for — intimacy with Him.

. . . And I confess to being uneasy with that.

I can’t imagine what that feels like.

 . . . Our meeting will mean something only when you wish it. So, I’ll wait. (Letter from Simone Beauvoir to Nelson Algren, 1950)

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Flickr photo (cc) by John

Chelsea Batten loves old cars and John Steinbeck, and can't fall asleep without the This American Life podcast. She is an itinerant journalist making camp somewhere in the USA -- you can find her by going here or drop her a line: