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This time of year seems quite appropriate to talk about a virgin birth. Or rather, 46 of them and counting.

In a rather surprising long-term study done over 19 years and involving 8,000 participants, researchers followed women over their lifetimes to get some information about women’s sexual behaviors and attitudes. Over those 19 years, about 5,000 of those women got pregnant and gave birth (which fits in with the figures I’ve heard about 20% of women not ever having kids by their 40s). To their astonishment, 45 of those 5,000 mothers (0.8%, or 1 in 200) claimed they had never had sex.

English: Annunciation by Guido Reni
English: Annunciation by Guido Reni (Photo credit: Wikipedia). “And name him Brayden Hunter ben-Yahweh.”

That number surprised the researchers. Obviously they hadn’t thought to actually ask, “Were you a virgin at the time you had your child?” because who ever would think to ask something like that? What they had asked instead were normal, standard questions about these women’s sex lives and some of the answers came up, in the words of the study’s leader, that “a number of these individuals who stated they were virgins also reported pregnancies.”

What to do, what to do? Well, obviously they immediately stamped out the possibility that the responses had been some kind of “programming error.” Then they wanted to find out why some women might say that sort of thing.

They found that it was mostly younger women who claimed to have had virgin births–under 19, less informed about how to use contraception correctly, and–strikingly, twice as likely to have signed purity pledges (these are generally Christian things where a young person will promise not to have sex before marriage, sometimes during a big church service, and sometimes even featuring weird quasi-weddings or formal dances for little girls and their fathers, who even give their daughters creepy “purity rings” to seal the deal) as women who did not claim virginity at the time of their children’s births.

Why would almost 1% of the women in a study claim they were virgins when they had children?

To understand that question, I’m going to set the Wayback Machine for about 2,000 years ago and head for the Middle East.

It’s important to know ahead of time that virgin births aren’t uncommon in ancient myths. The whole mechanism of how women got pregnant wasn’t totally understood, and it was such a dangerous enterprise–so fraught with life and death and blood and pain–that it had a truly mystic connotation all by itself. It still does, for that matter; making pregnancy and childbirth seem magical and miraculous is about 90% of the word-manipulation of those who oppose abortion access.

Portrait of a Woman as a Vestal Virgin (1770s)...
Portrait of a Woman as a Vestal Virgin (1770s) by Angelica Kauffmann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As makes clear, a number of people were said to have been born of gods and virgins. Anybody who seemed supernaturally smart or wise or strong or fleet might be said to be truly the son of a god or goddess, and naturally the young woman involved had to be a virgin so it couldn’t have been anybody else who’d done the deed upon her. Plato was thought to have been born of a woman who’d been impregnated by Apollo. POCM goes on to list a number of others: Romulus (as in one of the founders of Rome, born of Ares/Mars and a Vestal Virgin), Perseus, Danae, Melanippe, Auge, Antiope, Apis, Glycon, Attis, Hephaestus (well, his mother was a goddess, but she conceived him spontaneously without having had sex, so I’m counting her), Athena (she burst fully-formed from Zeus’ head), the list goes on and on.

The “virgin” part of Jesus’ birth happens because there is an Old Testament “prophecy” that got shoehorned into the New Testament by the authors of those books. The word is almost certainly some kind of mistranslation; as most fundamentalists know, there was a word that meant “maiden” that generally got translated “virgin,” and there we are and Bob’s your uncle. But even this mistranslation wouldn’t have bothered anybody back then; virgin births of god-men were absolutely everywhere.

What I’m saying here is that nobody back then would have thought it was crazy or weird or bizarre that Jesus’ parentage might include a god and a virgin. We think of it as the most amazing thing about the whole Christmas story, but in actuality, this was a necessary part of the myth–he had to be descended of a god on one side and a mortal human on the other, and in the theology of the time, that generally meant a divine father and a human mother. His mythmakers and ghostwriters were only emulating the other religions in their area and time.

I learned a lot of this stuff back in college. I had been told that the Christmas narrative was unique, that it was some kind of world-changing event that had never happened before, that a god had never, ever “lowered” himself to touch humanity like that. The Incarnation (that is Christianese for “when Jesus became a semi-divine fetus”) was presented as this totally unique event that had never happened before with any divinities. Discovering that no, actually, lots of divinities have impregnated women without sexing them up in various myths was a huge blow to my faith. I really struggled with the idea that there really wasn’t much about my religion at all that was truly unique. I do wish that the reality of the myths had been presented to me so I wouldn’t have been struck such a body blow, but at least my eyes are opened now.

Of course, it didn’t take long back then for stories to emerge that maybe Jesus’ father was a little more of an earthly fellow. Even back then, people maybe didn’t take his biography at face value. It’s important to note that I don’t give these tales any more credence than I do the ones in the Gospels; there’s no evidence either way for any particular person or divinity being the father of the character called Jesus in the Bible. I just think it’s interesting that there were these competing narratives even shortly after the New Testament got written and Christianity’d gotten rolling, and that not everybody bought the party line about him.

I used to wonder about Mary, the mother of Jesus. There were all these myths about her–Catholics of course adore her, and I was a Catholic until my teenaged years so I heard an earful. I’ve still got very old Catholic-printed books about her and lithographed photos of paintings of her. If she hadn’t really been impregnated by a god, why would she be telling people she was a virgin when she got pregnant? She was Jewish, of course, a nice Jewish girl who’d made a nice engagement to a nice Jewish man, so would she be terrified of getting stoned to death for having sex outside of wedlock and bearing a child Joseph knew wasn’t his? Would she have been a rape victim who hadn’t screamed the right way or been lucky enough to be raped in the right location, so she’d either be murdered by her own family for “wanting it” or married to her attacker?

I could easily see a lot of reasons why the gospel writers would have Mary putting out the story that she was a virgin when her pregnancy got large enough to be visible.

And not much has changed now for many young women who find themselves pregnant after unapproved sex.

The young women in question in this study might not have understood what the term “virgin” meant, or maybe they were some of the young women who have totally redefined just what “sex” means. For the ones who have signed “purity pledges,” they may well have been given misinformation about contraception or been told that only “bad girls” prepare ahead of time for sex to avoid adverse risks like pregnancy and STDs; whatever the cause, it’s beyond established by now that those who sign “purity pledges” not only do not have less sex than those who do not (in fact there’s no difference at all in the rates of teen sex between the two groups), but that those who’ve signed pledges are way less likely to use barriers and contraception than those who do not sign them, so they’ll face more pregnancies and diseases than those who don’t get involved in such shaming and misinformation campaigns. I’ve also heard evidence that those who sign such pledges may engage in alternative forms of sex like oral or anal sex, which do carry some risks of their own.

As some commenters in various places have noted, some of these young women may deeply regret the sex that led to their pregnancies and subsequently not be “counting” that sex in their responses to their surveys. Or they’re considering themselves virginal even though they’re doing absolutely everything but vaginal intercourse, as one blogger put it, and though it’s not common to get pregnant from some of those other activities, it can happen if there’s any connection between a man’s, er, output and a woman’s, er, input region. I knew some girls–I was one of them, incidentally–who considered themselves “born-again virgins” if they’d been sexually active before conversion or baptism and decided to abstain afterward. I’m not sure what I’d have answered, had someone asked me back then if I’d ever had sex. I might well have answered the same way this study’s virgins did.

Some of this sex may have been non-consensual, too, and when I was a Christian, young women who’d been assaulted often decided they were still virgins because otherwise they would be counted as “damaged goods.” Something’s seriously wrong with the whole “purity pledge” concept when (as one survey I’ve linked found) about half of the girls who sign those pledges deny ever having done so just a year later–that kind of selective memory seems like it’d also lead to being a little selective about remembering actual sex.

But it does seem clear that for whatever reason, a pack of younger, uneducated women did not want to say that they had actually had sex before becoming pregnant.

I love thinking of the Christmas myth, though I am long out of the Christian religion. I love thinking of the quiet wintry night that must have been the mythmakers’ inspiration, the quiet and calm and sharply chilly night that seemed downright pregnant with meaning. I love thinking of how a desperate young woman turned out to be carrying the child of a god, of the sacrifice of her fiance who gave up his own desires to be the father of this godling, of what they were both thinking as they moved toward Bethlehem*. Those myths are laden with meaning for humanity; they are how we connect with the divine, and they are how we contemplate the divine’s embodiment in ourselves.

But they also reveal a lot about how people hold together a belief in two very different competing ideas–for example, a young woman who knows she shouldn’t have had unapproved sex, but has the undeniable reality of a pregnancy to endure–a dilemma similar to the one which a young woman in a myth from thousands of years ago faced.

Given the ages of the young women involved, usually women in their late teens, I’m wondering if maybe these people were dependent upon their families still, so the fiction was more important to maintain for them. Or if their religious fervor is so strong that they can’t possibly have had honest-to-gosh sex because only “bad girls” have sex and they’re obviously not “bad girls.”

I was a little surprised when I first heard about these 45 virgin births. The one from 2000 years ago, I’d heard about that one often of course. The countless others in mythology, I learned about in college and afterward. But now I understand that desperate young women claim they happen even today, and I see them in a context of a society that stigmatizes sex and seriously punishes women who have unapproved sex. Faced with who even knows what penalties, it’s no wonder that some women who get pregnant might deny ever having had sex to get there. Then we place those situations into a context of ancient myths, which understood virgin births to be a necessary component to a claim of semi-divinity, to a god’s reaching down to humankind, and it starts looking downright crazy that on the one hand these unapproved pregnancies were so seriously punished and stigmatized, and yet on the other hand glorified and required.

No wonder we’re messed up about sex.

We’re going to talk about secularization next. A recent poll indicates the beginning of a sea change regarding American beliefs–we’re definitely getting less religious. The sky is falling! Please join me as we pelt toward the end of the year.

* Yes, yes, I know: it’s all mythology. I know that if Jesus was real at all, which is by no means a given, the Nativity story didn’t happen at all in any way like the myths talk about it. I still like the myth as a myth and “O Holy Night” is still one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...