Christian virgins are overratedI’m republishing this old article of mine from May, 2006, as it is very relevant to the recent conversation on sexual morality.


In an article entitled “Christian Virgins Are Overrated,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford makes a series of good observations about the conservative approach to sexuality, particularly as it relates to sex before marriage and a recent development in American evangelical circles, a ceremony known as a Purity Ball. He summarizes the conservative position thus:

Premarital sex is evil. Female sexuality must be, as ever, contained, repressed, shoved deep down lest it tempt men to sin like gleeful pagans licking ice cream from the pierced nipples of the devil.

Succinct. Satanic tits aside, he has a point, as did the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire when he claimed, “It is one of the great superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.”

The truth is this: we lean heavily upon our culture when establishing our personal sexual ethics, which has leaned heavily upon the influence of the Christian church in doing so, which itself has leaned heavily upon the influence of a few key characters in church history, which themselves have leaned heavily upon loaded, weighted hermeneutical exercises and subjective personal perceptions to establish their opinions. One such character was St. Augustine, in whose writings he provided formative direction to the early Christian church regarding such issues.

It is the claim of best-selling author Jostein Gaarder that his 1995 book ‘Vita Brevis’ (which roughly translates as ‘life is short’) is a transcript of a letter to Augustine by his ex-lover/concubine, called the Codex Floriae (translated from Greek in his book). We know Floria from Augustine’s Confessions – she is referred to frequently throughout – and this letter from her is a scathing critique of what he says in his Confessions. What’s interesting about it is the way it challenges the entire premise of Augustine’s anti-materialism, thus provocatively challenging some of Christianity’s key, but post-Christ, precepts. In her letter, Floria doubts that many of Augustine’s conclusions regarding human sexuality would have been shared by Christ himself, and suggests that he is cuckoo to believe that his premarital sexual relations with her should suddenly be regarded as evil. Remember that Augustine was writing in a time when having a concubine was accepted and normal, so he wasn’t ashamed due to having fallen short of societal standards. She believed he was trying to buy his way into heaven by putting aside things of the flesh, that it was an invention of his own guilt. She said she could not believe in a God that demanded such a thing.

Given that Augustine and others helped shape our standards, and that the reasons he did so may not make sense in universal terms, it may not be a bad idea to try and come up with some original thought – yes, liberated thought – about human sexuality. After all, the results of relying upon two-thousand year old thought on this matter aren’t always good. The Roman Catholic Church has long forbidden the use of condoms on a theological premise – yet it is clear that had they not done so, millions in Africa and around the world would not have needlessly died from sexually transmitted diseases. That at least sounds like a good thing to be liberated from!

Morford’s article comes at this from a more practical point of view. He says that the offspring of conservative evangelicals are going into marriages sexually uneducated (or perhaps miseducated):

…unable to tell an erogenous zone from an elbow, a clitoris from a belly button.

(This left me a little puzzled, since I have always assumed that the elbow was an erogenous zone. This may explain the perplexed look my wife has always given me at bedtime.) The article goes on:

Voila, the standard recipe for emotional, physical and spiritual catastrophe, for roughly 17 years of vague marital misery capped off by divorce and much therapy and four unhappy children and the profound and aching need located somewhere deep beneath the pelvic bone to try something, anything new and different and sexually liberating.

Sounds like he’s talking from experience! Maybe not. But despite his tendency to exaggerate here, I think Morford may have put his finger on something.

According to a Harvard study, half of all teens who take any sort of virginity pledge have broken it less than a year later. 88 percent end up having sex before marriage anyway, and, to the further consternation of conservative parents everywhere, only 2.7 percent of respondents in an online sex survey had waited until marriage to lose their virginity (48.9 percent lost their virginity to a school boyfriend or girlfriend). Just how do you keep ’em down on the farm? In fact, more respondents were victims of rape or incest (4.1 percent) than who waited until marriage to have sex.

So is the conservative position really that common in practice anyway? What we see in reality is actually something other than the monogamy sanctified by conservatives and so approved by our cultural correctness. It is, instead, more of a ‘serial monogamy’, where a person will have only one sexual partner at a time, but may have several such partners throughout their lifetime. This can be observed in the example of a typical man who perhaps had three girlfriends, got married to the last one for several years, was divorced, dated twice and remarried to the second, thus having six sexual partners in total (rather than the single sexual partner approved by the Christianity-derived standards of society). That’s probably a fairly typical example.

According to Derek McCullough and David S Hall writing in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality:

Serial monogamy is perhaps an unconscious compromise between the cultural ideal of monogamy and the facts of human nature – in other words, we acknowledge that you can love more than one person, but only one at a time. The destructive effects of serial monogamy on children are well documented, with 8 million single parent families in the US, infidelity-fueled acrimonious divorces, through to the spate of spouse murdering lately. Much of the evidence seems to indicate that human attainment of the cultural ideal of monogamy is a myth.

George P Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas recorded the types of marriage found in 1231 different societies around the world from 1960 to 1980. Of these societies, only 186 were monogamous, less than 15 percent. The rest were either occasionally or frequently polygamous or polyamorous, where the cultural norms we have do not exist and they have a number of sexual partners simultaneously. It hasn’t torn those societies apart, evidently. Yet despite this we are quick to judge polygamous marriages in this country (even making polygamy illegal – a position which is plainly bizarre on several levels), and are just as quick to judge any of the other myriad of sexual arrangements which exist.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote:

Confusing monogamy with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error.

It is also true that many societies have condemned sexual pleasure as sinful or wicked, using the idea that God, or the gods, don’t like sex. It’s worth noting that in most of those societies, female sexuality was regarded more as a service than as a result of co-operation between autonomous individuals, and women regarded more as property than as equals. So, in this strange society of ours, we have learned that women are equals, but have not learned that sexuality is more a matter of pragmatism than it is a matter of morality?

Morford’s article concludes that we would be “utterly transformed” if we had:

…a new agenda, a sexually informed education system that truly empowered teens, that taught open-minded respect for bodies and flesh, pleasure and joy and physical/spiritual awareness.

Like many of the other points Morford makes, I take issue with his analysis here. I’m pretty sure that a centrally authorized and approved education system is the last thing we need, contrary to his implication. It is, rather, parents that should be empowering their children, ensuring that the maturity they want to see in all other aspects of their lives extends also to their sexuality. It has always amazed me that parents will see that their kids by the age of 18 will have experience with money, responsibility, jobs, education, voting for the next leaders of the free world and so much more, but that they shouldn’t even be thinking about sex!

By being a role model to their children – with true openness about sex, and dropping the hang-ups about it – many a conservative parent could have prevented their children finding out the hard way. We know, for a statistical certainty, that they will probably have sex anyway – why not ensure that they are educated and feel they can talk about it openly? When my son is 14 years old and hears his friends’ awkward, crude sex talk, gleaned from the overheard conversations of their older siblings – I’d like his reaction to be something like, “Big deal! My dad taught me that years ago. Was that supposed to be funny?”

As Morford goes on to say, parents should

…arm [their] virgin daughters and inept sons with slick and giddy reverence for the joys of the flesh. There is no sacredness in the virgin. There is only the fear, were she to be educated and empowered and really let loose, of what she could become.

Conservatives have guarded fiercely the safety of their children with great regard to what they feel is right. But maybe an autograph on a marriage certificate doesn’t approve sex in God’s book any more than not having one condemns it. I believe there’s a little more to it, and a better approach than that. And I have a feeling it doesn’t depend on a sanction from anyone other than the individual themselves, virgin or not.