A very good friend of mine recently broke up with her boyfriend. They were both Christians, very involved in the church and on the outside seemed happy. I was not shocked when they broke up though, because she had confessed to me their biggest problem: He would not let go of the fact that she was not a virgin. Over and over he brought up that he needed to "mourn what was lost," even though these conversations would often end with her in tears. His fixation on the fact that she had previously had sex, even though she was repentant about this, clouded their relationship. He was devastated when she broke up with him, and could never admit anything he'd done wrong.
There is something seriously wrong with how much he, and so many other Christians, value virginity.
In college, hanging out in my dorm, my Campus Crusade for Christ leader was telling us about how terrified she was on her wedding night. Despite the months she'd spent daily working out and eating next to nothing, she was so petrified of her husband seeing her naked, it'd taken her two glasses of champagne and a bubble bath before she relaxed enough to consummate their marriage. I've heard similar stories of good Christian girls, who'd waited their entire lives to have sex, spend the days and hours leading up to their wedding in a state of panic.
Somehow, I doubt that this is the attitude God wishes us to have about marital sex.
Unlike those girls above, I lost my virginity when I was 19. Despite growing up in a loving Christian home, turning into a young woman who led Bible studies and attended Christian conferences, I messed up and had sex in college. My (worship-leading) then-fiance had convinced me that "in God's eyes, we were already married." Afterwards, when he left to take a shower, I cried for a solid hour, watching from my window as the sun came up. When he unceremoniously broke up me with two months later, I felt both the pain of rejection and the terror that I had ruined my chances of ever marrying a Christian man.
Seven years later, I'm married to an amazing man who has never once made me feel bad about my past. His gracious love led to me see something important; that the most damaging thing from my past was not the sexual sins I've long been forgiven of, but the lies I believed told to me by other Christians.
"Your virginity is your most important gift brought to marriage."
"It's better to get married quickly than risk falling into the temptation of premarital sex."
"If you're not both virgins when you're married, your marriage will suffer for years."
If you are a young man or woman raised in the church, you are told from very early on how important purity is. There is truth in this. 1 Corinthains 6:8 is clear when it commands us to flee sexual immorality, and that is hardly the only verse written on the topic. Personally, I do believe that sex is something that was designed by God for two people in a committed, monogamous marriage-like* relationship. Young Christians who want to follow God's design should wait until they are married. But the fact is that 80 percent of unmarried evangelical adults admit to having had pre-marital sex. Even if that number is flawed or inflated, it's safe to say it's close, and that at the very least more than half of all Christian men and women don't wait until marriage to have sex.
The problem lies in the churches, and many Christians, reaction to this news. Instead of changing the way they address premarital sex, and treating young people with the understanding and forgiveness needed, too many church leaders focus on trying instead to simply get young people to stop having sex. That's been the method for decades, and obviously, it isn't working.
It's not just the people who chose to have sex that these messages fail to help. There is also the large number of women (and some men) who had no choice in losing their virginity. One out of every six women will be the victim or an attempted or completed sexual assault in their lifetime. That's just in the United States. In the Congo alone, 48 women are raped every hour. Every hour. Imagine being one of these women, who made their way into a church service only to have to listen to the pastor give an hour long sermon on sexual purity. Or being a college-aged woman, having endured a sexual assault the year before, listening through countless Bible studies given on why waiting to have sex is the most important thing she can do for her faith. Even the media is obsessed with maintaining the lie that virginity is a Christian's greatest virtue. The hoopla over Olympic athlete Lolo Jones is a perfect example.
While there isn't anything wrong with encouraging young people to wait, there is something wrong when that encouragement is done by telling them how ruined their lives will be, and how much they've "lost" if (and most likely when) they do mess up. Maybe, instead of raising young people to be terrified of sex and the repercussions they'll face if they do mess up, Christian leaders should spend time talking about how amazing it can be when it's within the relationship for which it was intended. I have been on both sides of it, and I can say that sex with my husband is something incredibly different than anything I'd ever experienced before. Sex is both physical and spiritual, and when there is commitment, trust, deep love and intimacy, it becomes something vastly different (and better) than a quick, emotionless encounter. Sharing this truth with young Christians involves a level of transparency and honesty that is desperately needed within the church. Its a lot easier to convince people to wait for something that is wonderful, than warn them against something dangerous and sordid.
The truth is, I do wish I'd waited and "saved myself" for my husband. Every once in awhile I do feel a tinge of sadness that he was able to give himself to me in a way I couldn't give myself to him. But that's all it is, a "tinge." Because I've already been forgiven, and our marriage is so much more than sex. And we're in love for so many more reasons that have nothing to do with sex what so ever. Christian men and women are complex, amazing individuals who have been done a great disservice by being told that the most important thing they can bring to a marriage is virginity. Respect, maturity, integrity, a sense of humor, forgiveness, these are all traits that every happily married person needs. The church needs to be telling young men and women this, as frequently as they tell them how much better sex is within that committed, monogamous relationship.
* I say "marriage-like" since I believe this both for straight or gay Christians, and know that in many places in the world, gay Christians are legally not permitted to wed.