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.