Let’s talk about virginity shaming

You don’t actually have to be watching the sixth season of Australia’s version of Married At First Sight (MAFS) to know that one of the participants has a very dark secret. His confession has been heavily featured in the show’s endless promos.

This week, 29-year-old Matt Bennett was “married” to a woman he’d never previously met, but not before making his embarrassing confession to all the other male contestants at the bucks’ night, and in on-camera interviews with the show’s producers.

Even on his wedding night, he was quick to reveal the ugly truth to his new “wife”, Lauren. And it sure was awkward.

“For me, honesty is very important. I feel like there’s something I want to tell you and something you should know about me,” Matt stammered, “I’ve sort of been on the fence about whether or not I should tell you because you know it’s been weighing on me a bit, it’s a big thing.”

Pause for effect…

And then… “I’m actually still a virgin.”

Lauren’s response to this news summed up the mood of everyone on the show.

“Shit!” she gawped.

The idea that a young man could nearly make it to 30 without ever having had sex is a matter of genuine surprise to all. In an earlier episode he revealed his chastity had nothing to do with religious beliefs either. He’s just a shy, sensitive introvert who hasn’t gotten out much.

But let’s face it, virginity is definitely out these days.

In fact, I was left wondering how many 20-something-year-old virgins were at home watching MAFS, mortified, their head in their hands, feeling Matt’s national humiliation deeply.

But virgin-shaming doesn’t only happen on MAFS.

After recent revelations of child sexual assault by members of the priesthood, it was common to hear calls for the Catholic Church to ditch celibacy as a requirement for their clergy. It’s as though celibacy or virginity was the cause of so much pedophilia in the church.

Similarly, the backlash against the evangelical church’s purity movement isn’t giving virginity a good name.

The purity movement arose in conservative churches in the early 1990s, and was promoted by organizations like Focus on the Family and True Love Waits. It emphasized sexual purity and promoted abstinence-only education. Teens were told to remain virgins until the day they marry. Churches held purity balls, during which rings were exchanged and pledges were made to remain abstinent until their wedding night.

These days, participants in the purity movement are saying the emphasis was placed more on female virginity than male abstinence. Girls and young women were told if they were virgins when they married they were holy; if not, they’re damaged goods. Worse, as non-virgins they were shamed as “stumbling blocks” to young men trying to remain abstinent.

Linda Kay Klein, a woman raised in evangelical purity culture, and who has written about its shaming effect, says, “In the evangelical community, an ‘impure’ girl or woman isn’t just seen as damaged; she’s considered dangerous.”

One of the key texts in the purity movement was Joshua Harris’ 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In case you can’t tell from the title, Harris went all out and encouraged Christian teens not only to abstain from sex, but even from dating. Well, last year, he released a statement apologizing for the harm his book had done, and announcing that he will be discontinuing its publication.

Also last year, Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber released her book, Shameless, a kind of purity movement recovery text on how that movement had shamed young girls into disconnecting from their bodies. As part of the promotion for the book she called on women who had signed abstinence pledges in the 90s and early 2000s to send her their purity rings so she could melt them and recast them as a “golden vagina.”

Breanne Fahs, associate professor in clinical psychology and women’s studies at Arizona State University, says simply, “Purity is never a good thing. Whenever that word shows up we should get nervous.”

We’ve come a long way from the 8th Century treatise St Aldhelm sent his female relatives in their east London nunnery, In praise of virginity. There seems to be no praise for it at all these days

So where does this leave us? Do we completely abandon the concept of chastity? Here are a few random thoughts on the topic:

Virginity is entirely conceptual.

Virginity is a social construct. Whenever Matt Bennett does have sex (and hopefully it won’t be on a reality television show) he won’t actually lose anything. Having intercourse won’t change his identity or affect his worth. It won’t even change his life. It will simply be a new experience. In saying this I am not suggesting it isn’t an important life choice. But marking it as a loss is unhelpful. There’s hardly any other experience like it that we frame in that way. Conversely, it’s unhelpful to think of becoming sexually active as a step up. We often assume that non-virgins have upgraded. They’ve reached a new tier; they’ve leveled up in life!  No, actually they haven’t.

Shaming people is always damaging.

Christianity and many other religions teach that it is healthy and appropriate to wait until you are married before you have sex. But shaming people based on their status as a virgin or non-virgin is very hurtful and should stop. It is also a way of reinforcing gender norms. Rather than viewing male virgins as pitiable, and female non-virgins as fallen, the church needs to foster a gracious, welcoming posture that accepts people for the choices they’ve made and attends to them as they seek to become the people God wants them to be from now on.

Gendered approaches to virginity are wrong.

Related to the previous point about shaming, we often reinforce gender stereotypes through our attitudes toward virginity. If virginity is treated as a commodity that can be lost, when a woman has sex, she loses her value. This lies behind much of the pushback by women who grew up in the purity movement. In her book, Pure, Linda Kay Klein says the psychological effects don’t end when young women leave the church; they can continue into their adult lives, leading to mental and physical side effects similar to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. As Klein writes, “It’s teenage girls who end up most affected, because while boys are taught that their minds are a gateway to sin, women are taught that their bodies are.” Whether you like Nadia Bolz-Weber’s publicity stunt or not, this is what she’s getting at.

Celibacy is an honorable vocation

I find it interesting that while heterosexual leaders in the church are giving up on virginity (or sculpting golden vaginas), it’s homosexual Protestant leaders like Wesley Hill, David Bennett, Eve Tushnet and Sam Allberry who are commending the ancient vocation of celibacy. Admittedly, they are doing so in the wake of the fallout of the conversion therapies that are now so discredited. But that said, it is still worth asking whatever happened to celibacy in the Protestant church. We affirm and support abstinence from alcohol, drugs, tobacco or meat. We host 12-Step recovery groups in our church halls. But when was the last time you heard a sermon about the virtues of celibacy? Not to shame those who don’t commit to it, but to commend it as a gift for some. Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and Mahatma Gandhi all practised celibacy for at least some period of their lives. Leo Tolstoy called it the greatest spiritual gift he’d ever been given.

Sex doesn’t equal love, and love is so much more than sex.

No doubt, Matt Bennett signed up for Married At First Sight to find love. At least, that’s what he says. But in the first few episodes of his journey the focus has been on sex. That he hasn’t had any. And whether he’s going to get some. But sex doesn’t equal love. And, as much as it can sound cliched, sex alone cannot satisfy the yearning to be accepted, loved, and cared for.

By questioning or mocking someone’s decision to remain a virgin until they find someone they feel is worth the wait, we demean and disrespect them. I get the anxieties about the shaming culture of the purity movement, but are we throwing the baby out with the holy water? When women and men make the admirable choice to use their bodies (and their power) honorably, to value others as more than physical beings, and to understand the incredibly complex and beautiful nature of sex between committed partners, they deserve our support, not shame.

Likewise, when young people experiment with sex, or even make choices they are not happy or comfortable about, instead of judgment and condemnation, they need a safe community in which they can process their feelings and gain some insight into the kind of adults they want to grow into.

As Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, now says, “I now realize how there’s heartache and there’s pain no matter what pathway you choose in life. There’s no path you can choose that can protect you from that.”

But there should be a community of grace that can loves you unconditionally through all that heartache and pain.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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12 thoughts on “Let’s talk about virginity shaming

  1. I like your focus on celibacy over virginity and purity. The practice of being celibate whether you are a virgin or not is very powerful. We live in a time where a person may not be a virgin because of assault and not by choice. If a person became a believer after living a sexualize lifestyle, being celibate is still an honorable thing in God’s site. Thus not making a person’s past or assault something to be ashamed of into the future.

    1. It’s more practical, methinks, 4 more of us than. . . .

  2. Virginity shaming just like any other shaming should not be part of our DNA, but sadly it is, especially since the 1960’s Singles were liberated to “do it”, to have sex, and has become more common in Christian Circles…

    A transformation took place in which traditional norms of behaviour began to give way to a new culture of freedom and experimentation.

    It was a “feel good” era, where the old was replaced with the simple feeling of pleasure as many Singles sampled the sexual waters…

    However, in the 80’s, things started to get complicated…A few letters like STD and HIV began to peer ominously over the horizon…Suddenly free sex had a steep price!

    Then the Sex Gospel of the 80’s-90’s said to strap on the Latex Messiah and worry no more…What a colossal blunder! For did you know condoms fail at least 10% of the time to prevent pregnancy…

    Further, condoms do not fit over your mind, heart and soul…

    Sex connects your soul to the soul of another person like superglue…

    Indeed, many Singles may not be addicted to sex, but they continue to do it out of fear, in a craving for intimacy, even though they know it’s against their beliefs. The reason they continue to have sex despite the emptiness, danger, and loneliness is because they do not see a significant reason to wait.

    Contrary to the mainstream sex teaching that sex will make you feel good, it actually causes us to feel bad about ourselves, destroying our self-esteem, self-respect, and plaguing us with guilt and disappointment.

    One must also ask, why are so many young women suddenly swearing off the world of “junk food sex”? The answer is that they have found better food for their soul – wholeness…

    Making the choice to save sex for later is food for your soul. It’s the choice to be whole again. When you binge on junk food sex, you simply scatter yourself sexually…You devalue yourself, the person you are with, and the sex act itself.

    Benefits of Saving Sex for later…
    1.You will experience maximum wholeness and a healthy sense of self respect.
    2.You will have healthier more fulfilling dating relationships built on the foundations that last.
    3.You will enjoy sex inside of Marriage the way God intended it to be. And when I meet Singles or Formerly Married or Partnered who say they are going to leave sex for later, but find themselves having sex, in my Counselling and Pastoral Care, I just ask them did you enjoy it? -)

    This disarms most people and they respond: “Enjoy it! Colin, it was Fantastic! However, as a Christian, I know I have done the wrong thing according to the Bible.”

    Then, I gently share with them, that the God who instituted Marriage, also talks about Grace…And we chat some more! Then I Pray with them and for them…And many Men and Women who have walked into my Office and Shared their Heavy Heart, walk away free, forgiven by God and full of Hope…

    1. well…. i asked my childhood sweetheart to marry me, and she always been adamant about waiting for marriage. it was a price i was willing to pay, so imagine my suprise that after 14 years together (since age 3.our parents thought it was cute) she turned up pregnant 4 months before the wedding. her parents through a big announcement party 100+ people. she’d let them think whatever and never told me i’d had to wait. so i got to find out with an audiance.

      The last 20 years have been pure hell in terms of dating and trying to remain possitive and confident under the onslaught of hatred and humiliation. some by men, but mostly by women. they have zero sympathy for the situation. none. i’ve had my nose broken with a plate in olive garden when one gf found out. another screamed “i haven’t got time to teach a boy to f***!”. Been made to eat the thanksgiving dinner that is just purchased, cooked, and delivered to a family that didn’t have any (i was alone also) out in the rain because one of the teen girls didn’t feel comfortable with “someone like me” around…. and 100 other stories. I’ve also killed myaelf twice.

      Both times my well-laid plans got screwed up by people being where they should not have been. And both knowing CPR enough and getting there soon enough that I didn’t suffer brain damage for their “heroic” actions. being a nationally ranked winner for many years allows for less oxygen to be necessary.

      No, aim not weird. Though I do have panic attack that have begun if air see a pretty girl, a family, couple holding hands, that kinda thing. like a physically painful athsma attack or somthing. and it will drop my to my knees. It’s the same feeling you get when your wife tells you your d*** is too small so she’s been f****** the neighbor and your kids aren’t really yours. arhat first 10 seconds every time.

      i’m also not ugly, poor, racist, entitled, or man spirited. What I am, is something worse than AIDS (there’s a pill now for that) , i’m a virgin. stranded that way after opti by for love once many years ago. No, ai don’t want a whore. and i shouldn’t hide it, and couldn’t if i wanted to at this point. aid someone wanted to i’d never believe her. i’ve been too close too many times…. and i can’t do casual sex. no stranger sex. I want a good women who loves me and the relationship, same as always. But… i’d passed on dumping that girl ages ago, and the hookups after, and now I’m no longer good enough.

      my last date sent me a message and I wish I could send you the screenshot. she says what i’ve heard all my life, but bluntly, and to the point. women i’ve shown it to either agree and are like “what? and? she’s right. kill yourself. i would”. or encourage me to ignored her and be patient…the latter group being 100 % married or 1,000 miles away.

      i just think boys should be told this freshman year of high school. so that they’re aware how pivotal the decisions they would make are. they’ve got a few years to sleep with someone, or nobody ever would (it’s not a movie) and they’d eventually die by suicide, and women will unsympathetically watch them die while ridiculing and humiliating them for their efforts.

      Everything above is fact, and can be cooperated by hundreds of people, including dozens of women armed with an apology. In the last month alone, thanks to online dating…. I have been told to kill myself 84 times. i’d just screw one and be done with it… but if I HAVE to hide that.. i don’t want the nasty ole trick anyway.

      here’s a link to that message. no, it’s not unusual. it’s standard:
      https://m.facebook.com/john.bellbobbitt/posts/pcb.10222762039414272/?photo_id=10222762036654203&mds=%2Fphotos%2Fviewer%2F%3Fphotoset_token%3Dpcb.10222762039414272%26photo%3D10222762036654203%26profileid%3D1073587213%26paipv%3D0%26source%3D49%26refid%3D17%26_ft_%3Dmf_story_key.10222762039414272%253Atop_level_post_id.10222762039414272%253Atl_objid.10222762039414272%253Acontent_owner_id_new.1073587213%253Athrowback_story_fbid.10222762039414272%253Aphoto_attachments_list.%5B10222762036654203%252C10222762036974211%5D%253Astory_location.4%253Astory_attachment_style.album%253Athid.1073587213%253A306061129499414%253A2%253A0%253A1619852399%253A5635850713290300729%26__tn__%3DEH-R%26cached_data%3Dfalse%26ftid%3D&mdp=1&mdf=1

  3. Sometimes someone you really trust says something you really needed to hear, and it changes everything. I’ve been reflecting on these “random thoughts” all day. I’m so grateful to you for sharing them.

    1. Thank you for telling me that.

  4. […] how virginity is really on the nose in our society, comments Sydney missiologist Michael Frost in a blog post this […]

  5. Thank you for the article. I always appreciate your insights. When you say “beautiful nature of sex between committed partners,” why do you not say “marriage couples.” Do you believe sex outside of marriage is a sin? And I’m curious about the phrase “admirable choice to use their bodies (and their power) honorably.” Indeed, is an “admirable” choice to wait to have sex until marriage, but isn’t it more than that? Isn’t wait for sex being obedient to God and what His Word teaches? I’m not trying reverse-shame anyone for having sex outside of marriage. I’m only trying to understand your view. To me, it’s and oxymoron for any Christian to shame a virgin when celibacy is what God has called unmarried people to. Do you agree? Please point me in the right direction here. Thanks.

    1. “Marriage couples” is an awkward expression. Committed partners covers it pretty well, I think. As to whether it’s “admirable” or “obedient” to remain a virgin until marriage, I see those terms as being very similar. Not the same, I acknowledge. But I was getting at the same thing. I think the Christian standard is to marry as virgins, but many can’t (for a variety of reasons – some of their choosing, some not) and I wouldn’t want to label them as “disobedient”. Gods grace abounds, as should ours.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. I meant “married couples.” My bad. I agree, some people might have been sexually abused and can’t marry as a virgin and I definitely wouldn’t want to label them as disobedient. But what about the people who have chosen to engage in sex before marriage? Aren’t they disobedient? I don’t come in hear pounding a purity flag on anyone, but I’m trying understand how God’s best for sex. According to the Bible, isn’t sex outside of marriage a sin? I think we could hold a healthy debate whether it’s a small sin, big sin, or the just another sin, but doesn’t it miss God’s mark?

        1. I just read a book on what the bible says about household economy. It explored the biblical teaching on hospitality (opening our homes), work and leisure (sabbath-centered living), consumption, sustainability, giving, savings and investments, and debt. It was incredibly convicting. It reminded me that Christians (myself included) are disobedient to the word of God every day without even thinking about it. Why are we so quick to call a person sinful if they have sex with their boyfriend/girlfriend, but NEVER call me to account for where my money is invested or how I open my home to others? It’s as if the household purity codes are optional, but the sexual ones are compulsory. I’m not suggesting we all get a free pass to live any way we want. We should be continually called to God’s standard, but can you see how unfair it is to load young people (especially women) with enormous guilt about their lack of purity, but let old men like me do whatever we want with our homes and money.

          1. I hear you. Good points. I certainly don’t walk on water myself and have failed many times in the areas you described in the book you read and elsewhere. I don’t think I’m quick to judge or call anyone sinful–that’s not my job. But as a teacher, I’m am trying to understand how to be holy in all areas (it’s a snail-like process for me) and teach others a way of life in the Kingdom of God. The list you mentioned like greed, lack of hospitality, and a general “lack of concern” are all sins–sins we don’t talk about much in the Western Church, sadly. I don’t know what else to call them? Is this term “sin” passe? Is it simply unhelpful? Should we be using euphemisms? I don’t know. But I believe the Bible teaches they are sins, or areas where we need mercy and grace. The only reason why I’m trying to get to nail down God’s standard is because how can we give grace to our women (and men) who struggle with sexual sin if we don’t know why we’re giving them grace? We offer grace because they did or didn’t do what? It’s like offering forgiveness without someone knowing what they’re forgive from. Shouldn’t we know what we should be doing? Am I making sense? This goes for all the areas in which Christians struggle.

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