A Sea of Pins and Feathers II

School_cafeteria_3596006286Abigail 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.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. This was really excellent, Will. I (mostly) agree with everything you say here.

    My quibbles are really pretty minor: My reading of your post suggests you think liberals think evangelicals should change their sexual mores; my experience is that liberals don’t really care, they simply don’t want to be either publicly shamed for mainstream practices or curbed by public policy that dictates non-evengelicals must behave as if they were.

    I agree that the biggest explanation for the discrepancy in premarital sex rates has to do with the average marring ages of the different groups. A more even comparison, it seems to me, would be that of adultery and divorce rates for adults in subsequent decades of life. Here evangelicals are right with everyone else, if not slightly higher.

    Lastly, and this is just speaking for me, but it would be s mistake to classify me as unsympathetic. So long as there isn’t an effort to create public policy that dictates non-evengelicals live by evangelical sexual mores, I don’t really have a problem with their outlook. Waiting till marriage to have sex, getting married at 18 rather than 30, or choosing to have sex for procreation but not pleasure (or at the very least have that as a goal to strive for), focusing on male pleasure vs. female pleasure, etc… each of those is as valid a choice for a person (or two people) to make as is their opposite. My one exception to this is the same as yours, which is the degree of the difference in social consequences doled out to the two sexes for perceived transgressions.

    • I disagree. The consequences for these choices can be dire indeed. Creating culture that incentivizes non-consensual sex is not a good thing.

    • Tod,

      I think “publicly shamed for mainstream practices” may do a lot of lifting here. To the extent that people with conservative sexual stances keep to themselves, I agree that there is a degree of “let them be”… at least with some. But that’s rarely how it works. Sexual values are not kept to oneself, whether liberal or conservative. It becomes a part of a national discussion because it matters.

      A while back I read a poll that suggested that the stud/slut gap is narrowing, meaning that there is less difference in views between male promiscuity and female promiscuity. The movement, though, was on the male side. Promiscuous males being more harshly judged and all that. I remember reading a few items lamenting that while it’s good that the gap has closed somewhat, it closed in the wrong direction.

      “Don’t judge” becoming a value unto itself.

      • An ye harm none, do as ye will.
        I don’t think it’s a bad motto.

  2. One problem with the no sex before marriage worldview is that we still have to determine what couples can and can not do before marriage. A lot of diverse cultures believed in no sex before marriage, at least in theory. There was considerable difference what people could and could not do romantically before marriage. Societies where people married in their twenties rather than their teens tend to be more liberal on the subject. Western societies before the sexual revolution allowed much more physical love and romance than India. The problem with the Evangelcial no premarital sex worldview is that they want an even more restricted dating culture than that allowed by pre-sexual revolution standards. This simply is not possible.

    The other issue is that its women who suffer most for having sex before marriage even if they were rapped because they apparently aren’t “pure” or something anymore. This is more about treating virginity as a special sort of state than it is about disallowing pre-marital sex though.

    • I think the disparate impact was addressed adequately in the post, but yeah we can agree that is a problem. But if you get rid of that, I think a lot of people will still have an issue with it.

      I think a lot of the tension towards young dating in conservative circles is actually a product of the fear of sex. Basically, that in the modern world dating leads to premarital sex. Less concern of the latter would, I would expect, would lead to more freedom in the former.

      • The ideological ancestors of today’s Evangelicals advocated for very restrictive courtship even when most non-Evangelicals were with them on the no sex before marriage thing. They were against dancing, kissing, hugging, or anything even when premarital sex was officially supposed to be off the table.

  3. The point that has to be made by religious people of all stripes is that if there’s a taint resulting from premarital sex, it’s a moral one, not a physical one. Being forced doesn’t count against you. I’d hope this isn’t controversial: don’t honor killing horrify all of us?

    • They train boys to go after non-consensual sex, and then say it’s the girls’ moral failing if she “gives in.”

      • See Tess of the Dubervilles for a particular apt take on this particular innaity.

    • I think that Orthodox Judaism has the best approach to this. No sex before marriage but virginity isn’t seen as anything special and its expected that you will get married and have sex at some point, sooner than latter, in your life.

      • Ahh, always the flowers and never the bees.
        I’d respectfully submit Orthodox Judaism as being a pretty bad example of a number of things, including approach to sexuality.
        Romantic illusions aside, Orthodox Judaism is still not a fun day.

        • I mean, do I really need to start talking about chicken bladders full of blood?

        • I’m just saying that for a culture that takes the no pre-marital sex thing seriously, the Orthodox Jewish approach is probably the best possible. Its not the best possible approach to sexuality in general, just the best possible in this regard.

          And hey, Orthodox Judaism is not squimish about these things. The Talmud is filled with references to the body and all its urges and needs.

      • IS this true? A sub-culture that places a high value on women who are virgins on their marriage night doesn’t downgrade the value of marrying a women who’s been taken by another man, regardless of her level of willingness?

        You might be right, but it doesn’t pass my sniff test. I suspect theres a lot more going i there than just a simple moral test.

        • I’m saying that doing so is a moral imperative, not that it actually happens.

        • It is sometimes true. There is even a line of thought that even if you did consent you can be spiritually revirginated (I can’t remember the actual term) if you didn’t really know what you were doing (either too young or you hadn’t been saved yet).

          It isn’t always this way of course but it sometimes is.

    • I agree with this sentiment (forced sex imputes no moral taint upon the victim, if any moral taint there be) so far as it goes. A trouble spot will be the “unwanted” but at least overtly noncoerced sex; not wanting but nevertheless consenting to sex is a nuance that does not compute for some people. The extent to which that population overlaps with the population that is willing to impute a moral taint to premarital sex in the first place is not known, but it seems reasonable to expect some overlap.

  4. 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.

    I’m struggling to get this whole paragraph, but: I am very discomforted by this view of sex; the ‘boys get lucky, girls get shamed’ view.

    Girls have very powerful sexual urges, and they are trained to repress them. With, obviously, varying degrees of success. To suggest that this should be girls responsibility is really troubling to me; and I’ve met enough women who seemed to have been sexually stunted by it to think it ought be considered a problem for those women’s potential sexual partners. Inversely, I think boys would be a whole lot better off if they were taught some repression is good and normal, that ‘stumbling’ is not expected.

    I’m not sure if that’s what you’re driving at in this paragraph, but that’s where I’d hope it might go.

    Nice, Will. This is a fraught topic, and you wrote on it respectfully.

    • Zic, I don’t entirely agree with that line*, but it is the thing that people who think the burden of abstinence falls disproportionately on the woman say. I mention it because of we accept that, then I think it actually makes the opposite case that in fact we should focus more on the accelerator (I had a post written on this a while back).

      * – To the extent that it might be true, a lot of that is precisely site to the social dynamics of putting the pressure disproportionately on the woman, rather than being entirely on biology.

      • Kinda thought that was your view; just wanted to be clear.

        And on a related note, did you see this NYT op-ed?

        And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

        I’m pretty sympathetic to this; particularly because while I find many believers seemingly short on every having reasoned their beliefs, they have reason for embracing their beliefs; and those reasons are revealed by what they focus on.

        Which sort of disturbs me when so much of that thought seems to be on all those things young women might be getting up to. . .

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