Abigail Rine has a triumphant piece at The Atlantic about how some Evangelicals are rethinking the whole virginity thing:
In a recent summit on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University, kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart made some surprising remarks about why victims of rape may not try to escape their captors. Her conclusion? They, like she, may have been raised in a culture that says a woman’s worth in rooted in her sexual purity. Recounting an anecdote from a childhood teacher who compared having sex to being chewed like a piece of gum, Smart, a Mormon, tells her audience that she “felt crushed” after being raped: “Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand, so easily, all too well, why someone wouldn’t run.”
Smart might be the most famous figure to speak out against her conservative religious culture’s sexual ethos, but she’s not alone. Increasingly in recent weeks, prominent evangelical writers and bloggers have also decried the emphasis placed on sexual purity in conservative Christianity. While exposés of evangelical purity culture are hardly new (see, for one, Andy Kopsa’s recent article in The Atlantic), what is noteworthy is that these criticisms are beginning to emerge from within conservative religious circles themselves.
As someone that is not an Evangelical, I have very limited standing in their community to argue how they should or shouldn’t view sex. I don’t view sex in quite the same way that they – or Catholics – do. So it would be easy for me to say that they ought to take a more broadminded view like I do for, more or less, the same reasons that I think people who have no real reason to ought to agree with me on everything.
That said, I am considerably more sympathetic to their worldview than a lot of other folks. Certainly most of the folks at The League, and a fair number of people at Hit Coffee as well. My primary points of disagreement are (a) the inordinate focus on the female role in all of this, and (b) my belief that under the current social structure it is simply unrealistic to expect most people to wait for marriage. Evangelicals do have lower premarital sex rates than non-Evangelicals, but both rates are quite high and I have my doubts that the social prescriptions they apply to get that 10% reduction are ultimately worth it. But my context, of course, is different than theirs.
The article looks at both issues, the focus on women and the practicality of the demand. And so it shouldn’t be much surprise that I liked a lot, if not all, of it.
There are at least four dynamics through which to view sex that isn’t expressly procreational: physical consequences, economic consequences, emotional consequences, and spiritual consequences. It’s the last one, as much as the others, that Evangelicals are concerned with to a far greater extent than myself. And it’s there that I generally lack standing. Liberals primarily look at the first three. Usually through an eye towards mitigating the consequences (government support for children, abortion availability, social acceptance of sex, etc.) and an acceptance of the underlying act (the sex). I am not entirely unsympathetic to this view, but I am not entirely on board with it, either.
Which brings me back to (a) and (b). The first item in the piece involves this:
Moreover, while women are subjected to the language of purity and seen as irreparably contaminated after having sex, the same is not true for men. According to Beck, a boy losing his virginity is seen as a “mistake, a stumbling,” a mode of behavior that can be changed and rehabilitated. This, he argues, exposes a double standard at work in the language of sexual purity: women who have sex are seen as “damaged goods,” but men who have sex are not.
Which I do genuinely view as a problem. If men are the accelerator and women are the breaks, then both matter and arguably it’s the accelerator that matters more between the two. A distressing percentage of female first sexual encounters is “unwanted” (meaning not that they were raped, but that they were pressured into it). The men and the boys are the driver here. Which suggests to some degree that at the very least, parity in our response is advisable. And between the two views, premarital sex as an irreversible damage of one’s state of being, or premarital sex as a stumbling mistake, I suspect that a move towards the latter would be better with the effects that I am mostly concerned about (physical, economic, emotional) and the lesser (though not absent) extent I am worried about the fourth (spiritual). But, if I’m wrong about that, it’d be good to start coming down a lot harder on the men.
The second part is trickier. I read a chart a while back that the average age of first sexual encounter hasn’t actually changed nearly as much as the average age of marriage. If our young people are to wait until they’re married, then we need to start re-evaluating the post-collegiate progression. This is an area where the LDS Church has taken the bull by the horns in a way that Evangelicals have not. Not without reason, though. Most people just aren’t enthusiastic about their kids getting married young. Nor make the social changes required to re-order society in such a fashion (it would likely involve more welfare, and the elimination of “the college experience” – albeit not college itself – for many).
It also may not be possible more generally. The LDS Church succeeds in large part because it’s top-down hierarchy gives it greater latitude in shaping its culture. What we think of as “Evangelicals” is decentralized and lacks much structure at all. I personally have mixed feelings about the extent to which I want society to move in that direction, but it’s probably a moot question unless you can get the elites on board, and I don’t think you can get the elites on board.
Some of which I consider to be a shame. In a lot of ways I want to side with the knuckle-draggers and prudes. And I do in the cases where I think they’re right. I share their distaste for sex in popular entertainment. I share – at the least – a skepticism towards promiscuity. There’s really only one main difference between my idealized timeline (love-sex-marriage-cohabitation-kids) and theirs (love-marriage-sex/cohabitation-kids) and a lot more differences between them and their rivals (which I’d list out, but most orders are considered okay or the appropriateness is situation-specific).
Outside of “lookee here” articles in The Atlantic, I wouldn’t expect Evangelicals to ever actually accept premarital sex to the extent that I do. But any movement in this regard would be welcome. I’d guess the concern, other than the obvious, to believe it’s “give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” Which I understand, though it’s questionable to the extent that the hard line has actually worked. And there reaches a point that, for a whole lot of people, the way that things “should be” is so divorced from the reality on the ground that it’s not applicable advice to guide real world behavior.