True love, in the modern context, is the stuff of fairy tales and films like The Princess Bride. To many, it seems unachievable, but there is a strong movement among teens and young adults that contends that true love is common and achievable. However, a very strict path must be followed to reach that end. The modern Evangelical Christian culture stands firmly behind the argument that the only way to achieve happiness in a relationship (namely, marriage) is to remain sexually abstinent outside and before marriage. The arguments made by those advocating this lifestyle are based in a romanticized notion of what it means to be a virgin, as well as an idealized idea of sex and marriage.
The movement is characterized by an emphasis on the beauty of a sexual relationship within the context of marriage, and the excellence of the love implicit in the relationship. Many abstinence-centered youth organizations imply this in their names. There is True Love Waits, True Love Revolution, and the Pure Love Club. The rhetoric of these groups is that virginity is a gift from God, and that it shouldn’t be wasted. True Love Revolution, a club at Harvard University since 2006, distributed cards to all female freshmen on Valentine’s Day. The cards read, “Why Wait? Because you’re worth it.”
That attitude is repeated in the testimonials found on the Pure Love Club’s website. The Pure Love Club is an organization that advocates premarital abstinence. One member of the Pure Love Club, Michelle, writes, “I choose to be pure because that’s what God, my future husband, and I want. I know God wants it because he says so in his word. I know my husband wants it because it is such a special gift.” The 2008 president of True Love Revolution, Janie Fredell, frames the appeal of virginity in a different light, a more self-sufficient one. She claims that “virginity is extremely alluring “¦ [its] mysterious allure “¦ is not rooted in an image of innocence and purity, but rather in the notion of strength “¦ it takes a strong woman to be abstinent, and that’s the sort of woman I want to be.” In Fredell’s opinion, the benefit of abstinence is the absolute control over her own body it allows, a benefit she describes as unconventionally feminist.
There is a clear distinction between the intellectual idea of abstinence promoted by Fredell and the one experienced by many teenagers. Rather than abstinence being a choice and something to pride oneself on, it is an obligation and the loss of it is not just a personal failing but a deep shattering of ones place in the world. In Brio, a magazine for Christian teenage girls published by Focus on the Family – a conservative, evangelical organization – a reader writes to Susie, the “agony aunt,” with a question:
I’ve dated this guy for almost a year, unfortunately, I’ve given him my virginity. Now I’m feeling hurt and confused. I know God wants me to break off the relationship, but I don’t want to hurt my boyfriend. I feel as though I’m no longer one of God’s princesses. It seems there are so many other girls that He’d rather have in heaven with Him. I look at the Brio girls and how they’re still pure, and then I look at myself and feel disgusted! No Christian man will ever want to marry me. I’m so hurt!
This girl signs her letter “Desperate.” Susie’s answer is that this girl can still feel God’s love if she is repentant. The idea of a forgiving God, as described by Susie, figures into the born-again virgin movement, where past wrongs can be undone or forgiven by being reborn as pure in God’s eyes. The way “Desperate” describes her virginal relationship with God is notable because it represents virginity as glorious and the defining virtue of a teenage girl. Also, she describes a relationship with God as something akin to the cool table in a high school cafeteria. It seems that for this girl, and others like her, the emphasis on sexual abstinence is so overbearing that it becomes the central facet of a relationship with God, despite the scriptural, but frequently ignored, idea that God does forgive sins.
“Desperate’s” description of a virgin as one of God’s “Princesses,” and Fredell’s praise of the strength it takes to be abstinent, both lend themselves to the idea that it is universally better to be a virgin. At Harvard, in 2007, Fredell engaged in a public debate with Lena Chen, a sex blogger, at an event sponsored by True Love Revolution. Many of those discussing the debate on Internet forums reinforced “Desperate” and Fredell’s contentions that it is simply preferable for a young woman to be a virgin. In comments on Ivygate, a blog about the Ivy League, Chen was described by commentators as “a “˜slut,’ a “˜whore,’ a “˜total whore,’ [and] a “˜whore whore slut.'” Not surprisingly, one poster stated that “most guys out there would rather end up with a girl like Janie.” This echoes “Desperate’s” laments that because she is no longer a virgin, neither God nor a Christian man will ever want her.
The ideas of a forgiving God and the importance of sexual purity are central to the notion of “born-again” or “recycled” virginity. This is the belief that one can regain complete sexual purity through God’s grace. The idea is similar to the essential notion of being “born again,” the notion of a new beginning. In both, the past is forgiven and a new life is begun. In “recycled virginity” the idea is that through God, the past sin of sexual activity can be forgiven, but not erased. On the testimonial page at the website for True Love Waits, a young girl writes that, “Even though I know I am forgiven by my Father in heaven, the pain and grief still exist.” And while those who have strayed from the path of abstinence no longer have that sin weighing on their souls, they have not been restored to absolute innocence. Another girl writes, “I can never have that special gift back. I have ruined one of the best moments in my life with my future husband. I have ruined the honeymoon night, and the trust.”
To many of the modern day advocates of abstinence, however, marriage is only defined by the sexual relationship included in it. Themarriagebed.com is a website offering sex advice for married Christians. In an article titled, “Why Wait?” Lori, one of the contributors to the website, writes, “When you have sex before marriage there is nothing really special to look forward to after marriage.” How can this be? Ought not marriage be a spiritual linking of two lives? Why is it that the marital relationship is assumed to be purely sexual? Certainly there may once have been a time when sex primarily existed within the confines of marriage, but today that is nowhere near the case. Perhaps that is why Lori makes that point – that sex and marriage should be mutually exclusive, and since sex shouldn’t exist outside of marriage, a spiritual connection like marriage shouldn’t be present of sex. Rather, sex and marriage are one and the same.
Granted, what Lori writes is not explicitly stated by many in the “wait until marriage” movement, but a huge emphasis is found on the magical beauty of marital relations. At a “True Love Waits” conference in 1994, “girls were told a sentimental fairy tale about true, eternal love and the achievement of the feminine dream of romance through the preservation of virginity.” It is understood that waiting until after “I do”s are exchanged will enhance any sexual experiences between married Christians. Susie from Brio describes waiting until marriage as “delayed gratification.” However, it should be noted that what Susie describes as “delayed gratification” is not the typical understanding. She writes, “You may want a piece of chocolate cake, but if dinner will be served soon, hopefully you’ve learned to delay gratifying that desire.” She doesn’t discuss that the cake may be better after dinner. Leo Keliher, Janie Fredell’s “True Love Revolution” co-president, describes sex as “breathtakingly beautiful,” but presumably only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage.
The magnificence of sex within marriage can be ruined by indulging in it too soon. Abstinence proponents claim that engaging in sex before marriage means that married sex will be unfulfilling and the marriage will be doomed. Chastity.com claims on their website that “early sexual activity and having multiple sexual partners is strongly associated with increased depression, greater likelihood of maternal poverty, and higher rates of marital infidelity and divorce in future marriages.” These claims are refuted by Martha Kempner of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, who says that there is no evidence that premarital sex leads to these consequences. However, it may be that if one is a reader of Chastity.com, or had been taught one’s entire life that premarital sex is sinful; the claims of “True Love Revolution” may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, the sources cited by TLR for the claims of increased depression and higher rates of divorce are misleading. In terms of increased depression, the studies cited focus on sexually active adolescesants and don’t seem to discuss depression outside of adolescence. The claims of higher rates of divorce come from a study published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Lori, from Themarriagebed.com, writes in her article “Why Wait”:
Premarital sex is not like marital sex. No kidding. There is a certain “naughtiness” and excitement about premarital sex. That “naughtiness” backfires after marriage. People tend to back away from it to have “good married sex.” The problem is that they’ve already done everything and it’s already been labeled “naughty.” Talk about frustration. It feels like bait and switch and can take some real unlearning to make sexual things ok for marriage. If you wait for marriage that sexual excitement becomes a part of married sex instead of being the “naughty stuff” you did before marriage.
It seems that those who are pro-abstinence are advocating a commitment-free life, that is, until marriage. Fredell says that because she doesn’t have sex with her boyfriend, she would be able to walk away from the relationship without regrets. Lori poses the question, “How bonded do you want to be before you say “˜I do’?” Many of those writing from the Evangelical viewpoint on the questions of premarital sex discuss the “bonding” nature of sexual activity. While few may deny the bonding effects of sex, the emphasis on it in the Evangelical community is overwhelming, as a further method of deterring premarital sex.
Premarital sexual activity, as understood by Evangelicals, is shame-producing, intensely regrettable, relationship suicide. This consensus in based in the romanticize of both virginity and marriage. It is intensified by the indoctrination of those romantic ideals, with a strong presentation of the supposed perils of premarital sex. To those who are brought up in this mindset, premarital sexual activity is absolutely wrong and to engage in it is not only a deep sin, but will sabotage the chances of future happiness.
Byerly, Lori. “Why Wait?” The Marriage Bed http://www.themarriagebed.com/pages/sexuality/ engaged/whywait.shtml
“FAQs,” True Love Revolution. http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/tlr/faq.php
“Feedback” Lifeway Student Ministry: True Love Waits. http://www.lifeway.com/tlw/students/feedback.asp
Hendershot, Heather. Shaking the World for Jesus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Patterson, Randall. “Students of Virginity,” New York Times Magazine, March 30 2008. Accessed online via nytimes.com.
“Research: Teens and Sex.” Chastity.com. http://www.chastity.com/research/document-library
Shellenberger, Susie. Brio Magazine. [NOTE: Brio Magazine’s archives are no longer available online]