Christians’ weird way of engaging with virginity is a big problem in their culture, as well as a sign of something seriously wrong at its core. Some recent events have reminded me anew of that dysfunction.
One of my colleagues has written a very good post about the mistranslation of the word “virgin” in the Nativity stories in the Gospels–it’s definitely worth the read if you like history and have a little time.
The unknown writer who wrote the first Nativity story chose a word meaning “virgin” because he was trying to riff off of an Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 7, though he and his prophecy-hunting peers were probably wrong about what it meant (and about a great many other supposed prophecies). But the Hebrew word in that series of verses actually meant “young woman,” not “virgin,” and didn’t make any claims about sexual history (the Hebrews had another word for that).
Two thousand years later, we still have women claiming virginity despite clearly having a sexual history, women claiming to be bearing gods’ babies, seeking various ways to re-virginize themselves, and even enjoying a TV show about a being “born-again virgin.”
And people wonder why Americans are so screwed up about sex!
A few years ago I wrote about a study that discovered that 45 out of 5000 mothers they interviewed claimed that they had never had sex. They obviously had had sex, since they had children, but they claimed otherwise.
The researchers were downright shocked, but I don’t know why they would be. Virginity is a huge hangup for Christians, and America still has an awful lot of Christians in it. The women making this claim were, indeed, generally young Christians who’d signed purity pledges as a promise to maintain their virginity until marriage.
Alas for the purity pledge people, the Christians who sign these idiotic things don’t tend to take them very seriously. There isn’t much difference at all between the sexual behavior of a Christian and that of a non-Christian–and even less so in virginity rates at time of marriage. Despite a nonstop marketing machine seeking to convince young Christians to abstain from sex, and nonstop illegal efforts in the public-school system aimed at trying to scare them out of sexual activity if nothing else, most of them have sex outside of marriage. Though marriage rates are plunging all across the board (including in Christian groups!) and there’s been a slight decrease in the number of people sexually active generally, some 97-98% of men and women have had sex by the time they’re 44 years old.
The pretendy fun time games seem to end where the rules might inconvenience Christians overmuch. But what should a proper young Christian woman do when crunch-time hits and she wants to get serious about marriage but has already spent her one precious coin of virginity elsewhere?
(Yes, men get hit with this nonsense too sometimes, but it’s mostly women who must deal with it.)
The easiest way to handle any problem in Christianity is to simply declare that the problem is solved and add, for more credibility, the “fact” that Jesus said so. This rule applies double to their arcane, labyrinthine rules about sex. A Christian can make any assertion at all, and as long as Jesus’ name is invoked as a blessing upon the enterprise, nobody can really gainsay it because then it’d call into question all the other things that Christians insist Jesus said and wants.
Using this method of solving problems, a non-virgin can simply declare that she’s a virgin again, and nobody’s allowed to say boo to her about it.
Born-again virgins is the usual term for women who have had sex but are recommitted to sexual abstinence until marriage. More than that, though, a declaration of born-again virgin status means that Jesus has totally forgotten that these women ever had sex at all.
This recommitment to celibacy can be simply spoken in private, or can involve signing written certificates, getting re-baptized entirely, or making public oaths, which is the route that pro athlete Russell Wilson and his girlfriend, the singer Ciara, took. They stood up in front of their entire congregation of fundagelicals to declare that they were born-again virgins and would be abstaining from sex until marriage, which appears to have done some absolutely horrible things for Mr. Wilson’s sportsball performance. They eventually married, and mazel tov to them, but this happy ending isn’t something that every couple can count on if they decide to roll back the sexytimes.
As you can imagine, the idea of being a born-again virgin (in America at least) belongs almost entirely to fundagelicalism; you’ll be hard-pressed, consequently, to find any accounts online by any of the participating women that doesn’t include lengthy discussions of their various religious epiphanies. We shouldn’t be surprised. Combine that tribe’s strongly puritanical adherence to purity culture with its reliance on magical thinking, and you get a culture that applauds young women for pretending that they’re re-virginized thanks to Jesus Power.
Thanks to the magic power of baldfaced assertions, Christian women can reclaim for themselves the ultra-desirable status of virginity without having to actually deprive themselves of something that most of the rest of the civilized world knows is fun, enjoyable, and if done correctly, risk- and danger-free. (More tragically, through this claim abuse and assault survivors can remove from themselves the tarnish of non-approved sex, because as much as Christians like to pretend otherwise, that tarnish applies equally to women who chose or did not choose to have non-marital sex.)
Whoever came up with the idea of simply declaring oneself a virgin again, the idea certainly took off. Now one can see instructions for becoming a born-again virgin on YouTube, complete with paternalistic, sex-shaming tut-tutting about how unapproved sex “defiles” women. (Bonus: enjoy the comments filled with Christians arguing about
what color Batman’s cape is exactly how to do sexytimes the Jesus-approved way. One hesitates to imagine what rape survivors think of it all.)
For what it’s worth, not all fundagelicals go in for this bit of showboating, though their objections typically center around the wrong things. Popular fundagelical site Got Questions is very skeptical of the idea of declaring oneself a born-again virgin and suggests declaring, instead, that one is forgiven, which is totally and completely different and better.
For about USD$2500, a woman can get surgery to repair her hymen so her next sexual partner will think that he’s deflowered a virgin. Women come for this surgery from all over the world, particularly from countries that value women’s virginity in cultures emphasizing male dominance (like Latin America and the Middle East–notice something those two cultures have in common?).
When one of these hymen-repair doctors was asked whether or not restoring a hymen meant restoring actual virginity, he sidestepped: “Well, what is virginity? Virginity is not well defined.” He went on to say that yes, it’s a bit deceptive for a woman to undergo this surgery, but it’s a “little white lie” rather than one of the “big lies.” And he certainly supports a woman from a misogynistic culture getting the surgery to protect herself from outraged parents or husbands who might hurt or even kill her if they suspect she’s not a virgin on her all-important wedding night.
It seems that it’s much easier to penalize women themselves by making them feel compelled to spend thousands of dollars to get an operation that they will then need to hide having had for the rest of their lives than it is to change a misogynistic culture.
What makes me angriest here is thinking about the women who are driven to these extremes out of concerns for their own safety or out of despair over having been assaulted or abused. Through no fault of their own, simply because they belong to families or cultures that buy into the purity myth, these women feel compelled to try to repair damage that doesn’t actually exist.
Even More Absurd Lengths.
If someone really wants to outdo a virgin birth, then she’s got to be bearing a god’s child. And sure enough, we’ve got a young woman claiming such a thing–just in time for Christmas!
Nineteen-year-old Haley insisted to Dr. Phil last month that she was nine months along with the baby Jesus. (I couldn’t see if she claimed virginity as well, but that part isn’t hard to guess if she’s saying she’s pregnant with a baby Jesus.) She had flunked numerous pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, and every doctor consulted told her she’s not pregnant at all, but she insisted that she was–pooching her belly out and putting her hands around what was clearly just a gut as if it was a real pregnancy. She slapped tabletops and angrily declared that she was totally for sure and for realsies pregnant. (She also thought that Eminem is her biological father. Her mother refuted this and a number of other absurd claims.)
When I first heard this story, I was flabbergasted–until I heard her talking about how her “pastors at church” didn’t believe her story either–or even that she’s pregnant at all. “It really comes down to if you’re a true believer in Jesus or not,” she maintained, and of course she was among that number so there you go. The problem, of course, is the same one I observed while Christian: if she thinks that Jesus told her she’s gestating a mini-him, and her pastors are telling her something else, then it’s not like either of them have any real evidence either way for anything they’re saying. A big part of why I think Christianity’s claims are bogus involves how difficult it is to correct obviously-false claims like this one.
I haven’t seen any updates about this troubled teenager, but nobody’s heard of her having any baby at all, much less a reincarnated Jesus. And she’s not even the only disturbed young woman making this sort of claim.
There’s not a lot of research out there about the women saying this stuff, but I’m guessing that extreme religiosity plays a big role in their thinking. I can easily see how these claims can make a young woman who is otherwise marginalized and shunted into second-class status feel very special and get a lot of attention from her peers and leaders. After all, just look at the attention and veneration that the mythical character of Mary has garnered over the years!
And in the end I must agree with Christopher Hitchens about the whole Nativity myth:
Which is more likely: that the whole natural order [of reproduction] is suspended, or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?
A State of Being, or Not.
This obsession with virginity also plays into the fundagelical habit of granting esteem to people based on who they are rather than what they do. “Virgin” is a static state; it’s also one that vanishes in a heartbeat to become another static state of “non-virgin.” Young women get tagged with one or the other state and very little else matters about them other than that tag. They get told that their virginity is the very best gift they can possibly give to their future husbands, a silly idea that some of them still struggle to escape. Their aptitude for domestic tasks and parenthood, their innate sense of fairness, their faithfulness, their kindness, none of that matters–only the presence or absence of something between their legs.
And I don’t think that this whole born-again virgin thing is going to re-assign their tag in the minds of men who prize the state of never having had sex; no matter what “Jesus” is thought to remember or forget, a woman claiming to be re-virginized has still had sex at some point in the past. I personally know Christian men who want virgin brides precisely because they can’t bear the idea of their future wives having had other partners (and thus knowing what good sex is like, as at least one of these rat bastards once explicitly stated to me). They’ve bought into the idea that a woman’s past partners, people she met and had sex with possibly even before meeting her future husband, are actually competition for themselves.
A simple declaration of Jesus Power having restored a woman’s previously-exalted status isn’t going to cut it for men like that.
The Only Way to Win.
Having consensual sex is such an absurd thing to demonize and vilify, but as long as Christians do so, they’re going to sprout the sorts of bizarre coping mechanisms as the ones I’ve described today: women who claim to be born-again virgins, who seek surgery to recreate the physical signs of virginity, who bear children and still insist they’re virgins, and who claim to be bearing incarnated gods in their bellies.
It’s so desperately messed-up.
I can’t even laugh at the women involved, because I know exactly what kind of stress drives someone to these sorts of delusions. These are the signs of people turned inside-out by the number of impossible things they must believe before breakfast. This is the dysfunction we expect to see in a culture that is completely turned-around about sex, one that makes unbearable demands upon women and then blames them for whatever measures they take to try to regain their footing in a culture that will condemn them whatever they do.
Little wonder some women respond to such unreasonable expectations by trying to game the system. There is no way to successfully win with that angle, however, if the rulers of the system want to condemn someone, just as there is no way to fail if those rulers wish someone to succeed for whatever reason.
Really, the only real way that any woman can really win this arms race is to walk away from the game entirely. I hope that one day soon people will look back at it all and marvel at how quaint and backward our predecessors were.