It’s ironic that in our culture being a virgin is something of a disgrace. While many cultures around the world value purity, in our culture it comes with stigmas that few of us want attached to us. If you’re male, being a virgin practically means you haven’t entered manhood yet (since losing your virginity seems to be one of the last rites of passage we have left for men). You risk opening yourself up to others condescension and disrespect by letting it slip that you haven’t yet had sex. If you’re female, it means your naïve, repressed, or brainwashed. You open yourself up to being seen as an ideal instead of a person: the simple minded, untouched, libido-free, ultra-submissive woman of every chauvinistic man’s wet dreams and every feminist’s nightmares. No wonder most of us keep our status as virgins private.
Of course, the Christian community is more than accepting of virgins. In fact, we are practically their poster children. But, again, they idealize us to an extent that is as offensive as it is ridiculous. (The virginity obsessed “Purity Movement” has especially made us both a joke and an obscenity).
All of the fuss that’s made about virginity really isn’t justified. For most of us, it is a temporary state of being. One that the majority of us will happily move beyond eventually. Therefore, too much value or significance shouldn’t be placed on virginity itself (especially since it is a state of being that isn’t always as much in our control as it should be due to the reality of rape).
At the same time, there is no good justification for looking down upon virgins either. Sex is undeniably loaded with potential emotional and physical repercussions (while the risk of getting pregnant may be at an all-time low the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease is at an all-time high). Whether motivated by practical, personal or religious reasons, there is nothing foolish about being patient and choosy when it comes to physically uniting your body with someone else’s. Remaining a virgin until you’re in the right relationship, or married, is neither ignorant nor shameful.
An important distinction needs to made, for ourselves and our culture, between being a virgin and practicing chastity. While the one is a very changeable state of being, the other is a spiritual disciple that one decides to practice. Despite what you might be led to believe, chastity isn’t about the repression of one’s sexuality (though it is certainly grounded in the theory that there is much more to us than our sexual desires). The purpose is to abstain from sex for the sake of pursuing something else. The practice of chastity it is not confined to just people who have never had sex.
That last statement might be kind of radical or new for those of you whose understanding of chastity has been entirely shaped by the standard dictionary definition: “The state of being chaste; purity of body; freedom from unlawful sexual intercourse.” While that definition may suffice to capture its meaning in many novels and articles, it is not an adequate definition of the religious practice. Chastity is a spiritual discipline that anyone can practice. The purpose isn’t to keep yourself untouched, it is to grow spiritually. To view the world, and sex, through the lens of faith, and develop a closer relationship with God.
Viewing chastity as a spiritual discipline, among other spiritual disciplines like fasting and solitude, helps to normalize it in a healthy way. For starters, it reminds us that abstaining from sex is not meant to be seen as the only way nor most important way to have a deeper relationship with God. (In short, you don’t have to be a nun to be close to God). Also, by seeing the connection between chastity and fasting, it helps us to retain a healthy view of sex. You don’t abstain from food during a fast because it is necessarily dirty or perverse, you do it in order to become more aware of your hunger for God and to help you pursue Him more (as hunger pangs become a reminder to pray or read the Bible). Similarly, one doesn’t abstain from sex because it is necessarily dirty or perverse, but “in order to remember that God desires your person, your body, more than any man or woman ever will.” As Lauren F. Winner points out in her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (which I very much recommend).
I also like how calling it a spiritual discipline implies that it requires practice as much as self-discipline. You may not be perfect at it from the start. You may slip up a lot in the process. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth committing to nor that the whole process, failures and all, won’t be beneficial. Personally, I’m terrible at fasting from any type of food. I’ve never managed to complete a Lenten fast without breaking it a few times along the way. Even so, participating in Lent has almost always been beneficial for me. While assuming failure isn’t a good idea, with any discipline, realizing that an imprudent decision or two don’t nullify your commitment is good to keep in mind.
Clarifying what chastity actually is helps to dispense with some of the stigmas attached to virgins. It dispels the idea that “Purity culture is rape culture” (a growingly popular feminist slogan) because this type of purity culture doesn’t support the idea that women’s bodies are solely for men’s pleasure. It reveals how much the Christian Purity Movement is not only detached from reality but blind to the reality of chastity itself. From their ignorance of its actual purpose and value to their idiotic understanding of how to practice it (as if “purity rings” and “purity pledges” are actually useful let alone beneficial).
Adequately understood, chastity isn’t a rejection of sex, it’s an affirmation of it. It just affirms a view of it that’s somewhat counter-culture. It’s also an affirmation of our sexual identity but it’s rooted in the belief that we are fully spiritual and fully sexual. Therefore, the two can’t be divorced without splintering ourselves. (As Rick McKinley says in his wonderful sermon series Love, Sex & God, which I also recommend). All of which grows out of a conviction that singleness serves a greater purpose than promiscuity. That our lives can be fulfilling and enriching even without sex.