I’ve mentioned before that my childhood was significantly dictated by my experiences in the conservative Evangelical church. Now that I’m geographically separated from the Bible Belt, it’s a bit easier to reflect and deconstruct some of the messages I received from church. For one thing, I’m still committed to the church; I value its narrative (I’ll leave it as that as I want to avoid theological conversations on this blog to the best of my ability) and its desire to create community. But there are still some visible scars that I’ve recently began tending to. This four-part series has involved more editing than most of my posts do because I want to make sure I’ve eliminated as much of my emotional baggage as possible, sticking to a scientific and philosophical exploration of the value of the church’s teachings on sexuality and abstinence.
My youth group didn’t participate explicitly in “True Love Waits“, a program designed to promote abstinence until marriage amongst Christian adolescents. A company called The Bradford Exchange markets purity rings with the slogan “My Daughter’s Faith and Love“, as if the success of her Christian faith revolves around ability to prevent lustful boys from touching her sexually; some people in my youth group wore purity rings to represent their pledge to virginity, but I don’t remember an overt encouragement from our youth directors to sport these $99 pieces of premarital bling.
There were subtle forms of participation in the True Love Waits culture. My church promoted premarital abstinence, and during one discussion, we rationalized (my denomination is quite cognitive) reasons for waiting until marriage to have sex. My 16-year-old self mentioned not wanting to get a girl pregnant. Another student talked about not wanting to get an STD. One student raised his hand and responded, “Because God said so,” and then proof-texted his answer. The facilitator of the conversation seemed so proud of this kid for his answer (and I remember even then being quite aggravated.) We turned to 1 Corinthians 6 and let the apostle Paul’s bashing of the Corinthian church provide our model for contemporary sexuality, focusing specifically on our bodies being temples for the Holy Spirit, with the assumption that if we have premarital sex, we’ve violated and defiled God.
In some ways, I’m not the person to comment upon the painful experiences of the True Love Waits culture, as material seemed to be heavily focused on making sure teenage girls remained “pure”. Samantha Pugsley, blogger at XOJane, writes the following about her experience:
“The church taught me that sex was for married people. Extramarital sex was sinful and dirty and I would go to Hell if I did it. I learned that as a girl, I had a responsibility to my future husband to remain pure for him. It was entirely possible that my future husband wouldn’t remain pure for me, because he didn’t have that same responsibility, according to the Bible. And of course, because I was a Christian, I would forgive him for his past transgressions and fully give myself to him, body and soul.
For more than a decade, I wore my virginity like a badge of honor. My church encouraged me to do so, saying my testimony would inspire other young girls to follow suit. If the topic ever came up in conversation, I was happy to let people know that I had taken a pledge of purity.
When we got home [after our honeymoon], I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Everyone knew my virginity was gone. My parents, my church, my friends, my co-workers. They all knew I was soiled and tarnished. I wasn’t special anymore. My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn’t know who I was without it.”
I don’t remember virginity being an identifying adjective during my religious sex education, but I’m not a woman. How many young women share Samantha’s story of dedicating their lives to Christ, becoming deeply involved in mission projects and emotion-filled youth rallies, with the caveat of pledging to virginity as a sign of their commitment to Jesus? If you have sex with someone, you fail. If your church was like mine and relied on metaphors of being “the bride of Christ” (again, this only pertains to women) to symbolize marriage not just to your partner, but also to God, a non-virgin arrives before Jesus as defiled, broken, shamed. The implicit (unfortunately, in some cases, explicit–one girl in my youth group who got pregnant was asked not to come to youth group events) implication is that Jesus is disappointed with you and may reject you for not keeping your vow. (Much more to write about the messages of virginity in future blog posts.)
Here’s the problem. Most people that take virginity pledges fail to keep them. For instance, Antoinette Landor of UNC and Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons of the University of Georgia interviewed almost 1400 university students, approximately 400 of whom owned virginity pledges, about sexual behavior and commitment to church and religious beliefs. In “Why Virginity Pledges Succeed or Fail: The Moderating Effect of Religious Commitment vs. Religious Participation”, an article published in July’s Journal of Child and Family Studies, the researchers discovered that 65% of virginity pledge owners did not follow through on their pledge. 77% of virginity pledge owners reported having oral sex.
My hope is that learning of the ineffectiveness of abstinence-based programs, even when they are couched in religious language, is not news. Numerous studies have defined the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs (government-funded and otherwise). Bible Belt states, such as Mississippi and Texas, not only promote abstinence-based sex education, launched by the fear that teaching teenagers more about sex will convince them to have sex, but also have higher levels of teenage pregnancy and STDs (and in Mississippi’s case, higher levels of general sexual activity from teenagers.)
Landor and Simons’ research provokes some really interesting questions about the intersection between religion and adolescent sexuality that will be explored in the next three blog posts. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the gray areas of virginity and the concept of “how far is too far”. Landor and Simons identify that virginity pledges are more likely to work for those with higher levels of religious commitment; in Monday’s blog post, we’ll explore the consequences of virginity pledges “working”. And on Tuesday, we’ll explore Landor and Simons’ discovery that college students who signed virginity pledges as adolescents but have lower levels of religious commitment have more sexual experiences and partners than those who didn’t sign virginity pledges in the first place.