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Students of Christianity, Yes. Virginity, No.

04/01/2008 04:43 pm 16:43:00 | Updated May 25, 2011

Sunday's piece in the New York Times Magazine, "Students of Virginity," was interesting to me both professionally and personally -- professionally, because I'm a Christian priest who sometimes deals with such issues in my parishioners' lives, and personally, because I used to be a student of virginity myself.

My education in virginity began as a teenager in a conservative Baptist church, and continued at Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school where some students go so far as to refuse to kiss before marriage. In those settings, I learned the Biblical arguments against premarital sex, as well as the more consequential arguments: that people who engage in it will struggle with self-esteem, depression, connecting with a future spouse, maintaining discipline and restraint in other areas of their lives, and, in case all this isn't scary enough, may even go blind or become sterile.

At Yale, however, both at the Divinity School and on the wider campus, I was surrounded by unmarried sexually active (or at least openly so) people my age who were put together and, contrary to what I'd been taught, were handling their complex sex lives just fine (with eyesight intact). Where they weren't, they seemed able to convert their sufferings into important lessons about life and vulnerability that they may not have learned had they shielded themselves from sexual intimacy.

At the same time, my studies there confirmed that the Biblical arguments for premarital abstinence are fairly flimsy. Jesus said nothing about premarital sex, period. As for Paul, whose writings make up much of the New Testament outside the Gospels, I had been taught that the word sometimes translated as "fornicate" (porneia), which Paul uses quite a lot, frequently refers to premarital sex -- an assumption that's common in conservative Christian writings on this topic. But in fact, Paul uses "fornicate" in myriad ways, and in only one verse -- I Corinthians 7:9 -- does it seem to refer to sex before marriage. Setting aside the fact that Paul was hardly referring here to two professional twenty-somethings living in a culture of birth control and later marriages, more careful reading of the Bible revealed that this verse appears in a chapter of Paul's writing in which he is more deferential about what he's saying than usual, adding disclaimers like "This is me speaking, and not the Lord," or "This I say by way of concession and not demand." It almost sounds as if he was fearful of reducing Jesus' teachings to lessons on sexual propriety, like so many of his followers have since done.

When Christians venture beyond Paul to support their argument against premarital sex, they're also on shaky ground. To use a typical example, the author of a popular book sold on Focus on the Family's website supports her argument that premarital sex leads to sexually transmitted diseases with this verse from Proverbs: "And you groan at your latter end, when your flesh and your body are consumed." In fact, the chapter of Proverbs in which this verse appears seems to be warning married men to avoid prostitutes, and I don't even need to elaborate on her absurd interpretation of "latter end." As with passages from Paul's writings, many of the arguments against premarital sex are drawn from passages that refer to entirely different sexual improprieties. In short: even if you call yourself a Biblical literalist, there's simply not much of a case there against premarital sex, except by way of such exegetical sleights of hand as this one.

Besides giving me a sense of what the Bible really says -- or doesn't say -- about premarital sex, divinity school also introduced me to some of the recent attempts to construct a framework for Christian sexual ethics that takes into account such changes in our culture as later marriages, increased sexual activity with lower risk of sexually-transmitted disease and pregnancy, and so on. Whether for sexual relationships inside or outside of marriage, various criteria have been suggested for such a framework -- justice, vulnerability, reciprocity, sexual enjoyment, intimacy, community, and so on. The Christian tradition has shown itself capable of adjusting to cultural shifts every bit as monumental as this one, and these efforts are part of that long standing tradition of helping Christianity move into the future, just like it has plenty of times before.

In my six years of being a priest, I've encountered a few people who felt premarital abstinence was right for them, and I've encouraged them in that. But more often than not, I've found that it's something people choose not to practice. Since it's not a divine mandate as far as I can tell, I've encouraged those people in their decision, as well. And as for me, I'm no longer a student of virginity, but I'm still a student of Christianity. Maybe even a better one than I was before.