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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Don’t make me wait, honey / Don’t make me say it out loud / Don’t hesitate now, honey / Or it will all fall down. (Chris Kalgren)

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?” They used to be the normal ones; hell, they used to be in the social ascendancy, commanding large numbers of cattle and linen garments as bride-prices.

There are way too many factors for this article’s word count to explain how virginity went from being normative to archaic. Most of it seems directly linked to changes in popular psychology: “letting our identity be formed by our sexuality, rather than letting our identity form our sexuality,” is the apt phrase of Kirsten Rumary, part of the national staff of Living Waters Canada, a ministry that deals with relational and sexual issues. Her track record, which began with promiscuity and has since included 17 years of celibacy, gives her a position of trust that is both lofty and isolated: “I feel like the orthodox trophy [that] they wheel out, when they want that perspective.”

In this cultural climate, 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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And true love waits / In haunted attics. Radiohead

Of course, any liability can be turned into an asset. There are many examples of people who, having gone as far as they could through looks and talent, leveled up by means of their virginity. Musician Rebecca St. James is better known now for the many books she has published on the strength of hers, while Tim Tebow’s raised him from noteworthy athlete with a spiritual streak to a figurehead of virtue.

While these luminaries proved that not every virgin is necessarily a mouth-breathing sexual paranoiac, it’s doubtful whether their publicity will bring chastity into vogue, any more than Heather Whitestone made deafness an enviable trait after her win at the 1995 Miss America pageant. After all, it’s likely that when Tim Tebow wants to, he’ll have less trouble than the average guy finding a nice girl to deflower him. From a cultural standpoint, the value of virginity has always consisted entirely in the opportunities it represents.

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.

After watching our parents survive loveless marriages for our sakes, or get divorced as soon as they felt we were old enough to deal with it, we are terrified of marriage. It doesn’t make us want it any less — come what cultural ebbs and flows there may, humans persist in wanting to get married — but it makes us much shyer about approaching it.

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. This attitude gives us a weird culture of child-brides and fail-safe courtship on one end of the spectrum, and sexual permissiveness of extra-biblical proportions, on the other end. The watchword of both camps is “love” — both claim to be the most humanly do-able ways of showing love to someone that you’re really committed to.

Between the two extremes, there falls a broad soft middle, the growing majority of culturally relevant churches who stay on message, but avert their eyes discreetly from couples who “mess up,” “make mistakes,” and “struggle physically.” As long as mistakes are acknowledged and the couple ends up married, sexual purity is regarded as something to aim for, but not to be graded on.

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Night is young, so are we. / Let’s get to know each other better, slow and easily. Jermaine Stewart

“I think we sometimes conflate institutional systems and structures, and covenant with God, to the point that we believe that signing a marriage license is God’s intention.” This from Christian Piatt, an author and blogger with Patheos and The Good Man Project.

“You can be married and use someone,” he points out. “You can devalue and denigrate someone without ever touching them. You can abuse someone sexually without ever having sex with them.”

He reviles the setting of arbitrary sexual boundaries as a means of emotional and spiritual protection in sexual relationships. “Hand jobs okay, intercourse not” is, he says, a Pharisaical reduction of the law to its letter. It preserves personal gratification, rather than reverence for the other person and their body, as the goal of a sexual relationship.

Marriage, says Mr. Piatt, is no magic pill for a righteous sexual relationship. The end of the matter, he says, is being able to say to your partner “‘I’m doing this out of love and respect and reverence for you.’”

It’s possible for a person’s virginity to impair their ability to say that to someone. One woman I interview, who requests anonymity, was engaged to a virgin whose sexual appetite took them much farther than she was comfortable going, even though she was not a virgin herself.

“He was so attracted to me, that it was like he was aroused all the time,” she says, while for her part, “my heart was bonded to him in a way that was too soon.” Even though she was more experienced than he, even though they didn’t have intercourse, the memory of it still makes her feel dirty.

“You’d think it would be different,” she says, “because we were in love.”

- – -

The world that I see inside you / Waiting to come to life / Waking me up to dreaming / Reality in your eyes Jason Wade

On these grounds, Mr. Piatt doubts that sex is meant to be a permanent consummation of a loving relationship. That idea, he says, “does presuppose that there is one man made to be with one woman, to be together for all time. I’m not sure that sharing a sexual experience with someone that you care about, or even love, devalues that experience or any future experiences simply because you aren’t sure yet whether you want to spend the rest of your life with that person.”

I ask him whether it wouldn’t be more loving, respectful, and reverential of that person to wait until you are sure.

“I don’t have a perfect answer to your question,” he says. “In a perfect world, I would love to see that happen, I guess.”

 - – -

I don’t know about you but I swear on my name they could smell it on me. / I’ve never been too good with secrets. Ben Gibbard

It’s not as easy as you might think to lose your virginity. If you want an actual human encounter, with corresponding feelings of attraction, you have to get through the strange moral barrier most people have against casual sex with a virgin. This often narrows down a first-timer’s options to an escort service or someone who really cares about them.

Because of this, some manage to slip through the cracks and remain possessed of their virtue well past drinking age. They’re commonly assumed to wear thick glasses and tightly-buttoned sweaters, and to get excited at a close brush with someone on a crowded sidewalk.

In fact, there is a whole cadre of virgins with ingenious strategic savvy who can play abstinence like a yoyo, giving out just enough and then snapping back, to mesmeric effect. It’s a marvel of technique.

There are also the “nice guys” and “great girls” about whom people wonder “How is he/she not married yet?” The question is answered when you see one of them get dumped. These are the virgins whose consciences chafe against a sense of entitlement that God (or the world, or one person in particular) should have long since rewarded their fortitude.

You’ll notice that these types are all united by a fixation on sex. Fearing it, defining it, courting it, avoiding it. It’s a lot of thought and energy spent on something that you’re committed to not having.

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I am the son / And the heir / Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar. (Johnny Marr)

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.”

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I can’t do it anymore / And I’m not satisfied. (Elvis Costello)

I didn’t want to write this article. Once I say what I think the Bible says about sex, then I’ll have to live with it. I can no longer leave myself open to being persuaded otherwise.

 - – -

I felt a rush like a rolling ball of thunder / Spinning my head around and taking my body under. (Bob Gaudio)

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.

- – -

Now if that’s your secret, you can keep it to yourself /
‘Cause if you tell me, I might tell somebody else.
(Big Joe Turner)

When I admit to others that I’m saving my first time for marriage (as of this printing), 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 kayaker1204

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: chelsea@convergemagazine.com

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  1. [...] was interviewed recently by Chelsea Batten for an article on virginity in Converge Magazine (yes, they wanted my opinion on virginity, what of it?), and she asked me about my take on the [...]

  2. [...] was interviewed recently by Chelsea Batten for an article on virginity in Converge Magazine (yes, they wanted my opinion on virginity, what of it?), and she asked me about my take on the [...]