I read Emily Timbol's July 14 editorial, "The Damage of Overvaluing Virginity," eager to see which points she would raise in the conversation. Two in particular were appreciated: 1) How God most likely does not want people panicking about impending consummation in the days prior to their wedding day, though this happens to many as she pointed out, and 2) that too many people do not think about how a person who has been raped is likely to hear all the talk about the importance of "sexual purity." The damage done in these two realms is nothing to take lightly.
Yes, I agree that there is something disturbingly wrong with the way so many Christians (and people of various faith traditions) place such a high value on virginity. But it seems to me that describing pre-marital sex with phrases such as "messing up" or failing to "save oneself" all serve to perpetuate the value placed on virginity.
Perhaps we need to look a bit deeper to name the source of the trouble here, which is actually much more than a concern about whether a female has an intact hymen on her wedding night. The source of the issue is, in my and many Christian theologians' opinions, the view of bodies and sexuality in general. All the talk about purity -- variously (un)defined -- focuses predominantly upon females, and throughout faith traditions the main concern is with women's virginity. Thus the main crux of this conversation is actually women's bodies; they are seen as objects to be owned, controlled and adorned properly.
Understandably, many people do decide to turn to the Bible for guidance on this topic. As with most topics, however, one can find biblical passages and stories to back up multiple angles on the issue of sex and sexual encounters. In the New Testament, Paul does encourage sexual relations only within marriage; he simultaneously encourages people to abstain from marriage entirely if they can handle it. In 1 Corinthians 7 he states three or four times that singlehood is to be preferred to that of being married. By the way, this line of thinking lead to some early Christian groups believing that marriage itself is a sin, due to how sex was viewed (for more on this please consult April DeConick's "Holy Misogyny: Why Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter").
It also ought to be noted that in Matthew 19 Jesus apparently affirmed his disciples' worried claim, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." In fact, if one can handle it, becoming a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom is even suggested by Jesus in that exchange.
I am not sure, then, how we are best to invoke Paul's or Jesus' advice in the discussion of sex at all. It does strike me as foolishness to quote from one of Paul's letters on this topic, given his outright claim to be single: We do not ask a childless person for advice on parenting, do we?
If we turn to Genesis 2:24, the infamous passage that is foundational for all no-sex-before-marriage claims, what we see is a highly biased choice of wording. It might be more accurate if we read it, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his woman; and they shall become one flesh." It is a choice on the part of the translators to translate ishshah as "woman" in 2:22-23 and as "wife" in verses 24 and 25 and. The only reason to make this shift is because their sexual union is implied, though there is no discussion of marriage. This is perhaps one of the most powerful "lost (or gained) in translation" moments in Scripture, given what it has allowed the Church to claim in terms of the sinfulness of premarital sex. Of course this is bolstered by passages such as Deuteronomy 22:13-21, which says that a marriage is only valid if the woman is a virgin. If she is not, she is to be executed. With this kind of consequence associated with a woman's, but not a man's, virginity, it is no wonder that traditions influenced by biblical ideals place such "value" on virginity, disproportionately more focused on females. Additionally, given the numerous times men in the bible have non-consensual sex with women, it becomes very difficult to suggest that there are biblical standards on this topic worth imitating today.
But all these dissections of biblical passages keep us from dealing with the deeper issues, still.
Consider looking at the topic from this perspective: sexuality is a part of being human. Sexuality is a component of love and intimacy. It is a part of what we are wired to engage in and enjoy. As with anything that can affect our health and wholeness I do not endorse abusing it, but when engaged in respectfully and responsibly it is a good thing. Silencing the conversation and communication about mutual, pleasurable, responsible sex is absolutely detrimental to people, and many will confirm that it is detrimental to intimate love relationships.
Consider how every time we talk about sex and sexuality in dualistic terms -- as either right or wrong in whatever form -- we are controlling others' experience of it instead of being interested in their well-being. One might want to consult teenage pregnancy rates in this country, and note that the highest rates overlap with "Bible belt" regions. Coincidence?
When we label sex according to whether it is "pre-marital" or not we perpetuate the fallacy that "normal" sex only happens within a marriage and is the only form of "legitimate" sex. There is an affirmation that being married is best for all people because that is when a person is finally complete as a human, now able to have sex. Additionally, "it is better to marry than to burn with passion" has led to countless marriages between young people who have not been taught how to maturely handle their passions.
And suggesting that being "sexually pure" is the greatest thing a person brings to her or his partner in their marriage? This actually says that sexual intercourse is a form of ownership of the other person. It says that "purity" is about who gets to lay claim to you, which is the quintessential way of objectifying a person.
I think it is time to lose the shaming language too often used in this conversation, and to reframe how we think of, talk about and value sex altogether.