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.

Category: Bedroom

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

19 Responses to A Sea of Pins and Feathers II

  1. Φ says:

    Mmm . . . there is a lot to unpack here, but let me focus on one part: the alleged anti-feminist packaging of the Evangelical abstinence message. Two points:

    1. With the caveats that my own Evangelicalism (Presbyterian and Lutheran) may be relatively moderate compared to some other iterations being cited, and also that I can’t speak for how women experience the same message. Having said that, there is no shortage of exhortations to men to behave themselves sexually. Nowhere have I heard taught or preached the message the church is being accused of: that abstinence is primarily a female responsibility, or that women are more morally culpable than men in sexual sin. If anything, the Evangelical default is the same as the cultural default: anything that happens must be a guy’s fault.

    2. This is not to deny that the message is out there, only that Evangelicals are not its source. The source is, quite simply, the reality of the situation at every turn. Leave aside, for the moment, that women and not men have babies, and that women are at greater risk for STDs than men. Let’s look at the social implications of losing one’s virginity. Women just don’t care as much as men about the fact or number of their partner’s prior sexual episodes. Personally, I think think this sux. As someone who remained chaste until marriage (on a couple of occasions, by choice), I was greatly disappointed to learn in my 20s that this may have carried net-negative cachet, even among Evangelical women (though not, happily, with my wife). As I have blogged about before, this is the problem that Evangelicals should address creatively, not some non-existent anti-feminism. The double standard is real, but it is mostly the fault of women.

    • trumwill says:

      There was a story a while back about a Catholic school in Alabama that refused to let a pregnant girl walk at graduation. But they let the boyfriend who had impregnated her walk. I remember in a lot of discussions at the time among people I knew, the notion that “guys are the accelerator and women the breaks” came up, if not in those exact words. It’s hard for me to look at the current state of affairs and not see that attitude. Not specifically among evangelicals (the above example is Catholic) but they do seem to be among the cheerleaders.

      I don’t think this falls entirely or mostly on women. It also comes across to me as something that goes beyond “boys won’t want to date you” which is where the discrepancy – to the extent that it’s true* – you describe comes up.

      * – I’ll defer to your experience insofar as the evangelical community is concerned, as far as this goes. My observational experience is somewhat different. Namely, that evangelical guys may prefer virginal girls over sluts, but I’ve only rarely come across attitudes where individuals would refuse to date people for having sexual experience. This itself runs somewhat contrary to The Atlantic piece, though I see it more as an apparent disconnect between the pulpit and the parishioners.

  2. Φ says:

    This story may be something of an “admission against interest”, but when I brought up the subject of the recent Ohio case with my family, my wife, emphasizing to our girls how dangerous the world is, became . . . overheated in her rhetoric. (She was mainly mad at me for having broached Unpleasantness at the dinner table, which I must admit I am wont to do.) “A fate worse than death”, “their lives are destroyed”, that kind of thing.

    It was bad enough that I went to the girls later and said, in effect: Don’t listen to your mother. If anything bad should ever happen to you, don’t think about anything except surviving and coming home to us.

    My cursory examination of her website tells me that this is Elizabeth Smart’s message as well, not a “rethinking the whole virginity thing.” Ditto for the actual message of most of the Evangelicals quoted in the Atlantic article, once you read what they actually said.

    Honestly, I’m beginning to think the Atlantic is degenerating into just another lefty rag since Ross and Megan left.

    • trumwill says:

      The Atlantic’s piece came across as describing to me a whole range of sentiments against what it would term as virginity-obsession. Smart has appeared to be pushing back mostly against the lost-virginity-ruined-for-life thing, which is among the more minor of the proposed shifts (and is not mutually exclusive with prizing abstinence). I will agree that either she has said some things that I haven’t seen specifically quoted, or she has indeed been taken out of context.

  3. Φ says:

    There was a story . . .

    Okay, but I’ve been hearing this same anecdote for (what seems like) 20 years, mosstly at church from other Evangelicals who disagreed with it. I will concede its wrongness if you will concede that a lot more evidence is needed to demonstrate that it is representative of Catholic, let alone Evangelical, policy.

    Guys are the accelerator, women the brakes.

    That is a widespread but naive understanding of male and female sexuality, as anybody who has spent a day with WKSB well knows. But how many Evangelicals are actually using this in a normative sense?

    boys won’t want to date you

    Well, no, and I didn’t actually say that. I said chastity is a net-positive factor for girls and and net-negative factor for guys, and that this double standard is maintained by women.

    • Trumwill says:

      What stands out about the story is that a lot of the guys I talked to about it – of various religious stripes – was the degree to which they were mostly uninterested in talking about the boy. The main point being that the school was right about what it did with the girl. It wasn’t that they necessarily agreed with the double standard, but that their focus was so much on the girl.

      Which is how it appears to me. Not just in the Evangelical or conservative Catholic community, but broader society. I don’t think it’s the case that Evangelicals are unique in their focus on female sexuality, but given the skepticism of premarital sexuality it takes on more significance. I think it requires a lot of conscious effort not to place more of the burden on the female. I don’t think that Evangelicals – or most people who don’t expressly concern themselves with gender equality – really do that. (I think feminists and feminist-sympathizing men do, and I’ve been making a real effort here, though many of them do go quite overboard in their analysis.)

      As far as the difference between how guys and girls view sexual behavior of one another in a dating context… that’s a relatively minor component, is what I’m saying. I think a lot of the difference in approach comes from the top down. We can argue that we view things this way because of the dating disparity, but I think we view it that way for a host of reasons, some admirable (a sense of protectiveness) and some less than admirable.

      • Φ says:

        I’m not sure exactly what your objection is. Is it that your fellows were exercised about the inequality. To this, I suppose I should plead guilty: equality in this instance comes way down on my list. At the top of that list is finding a sanction regime that works. We once had far more inequality (or to be specific, far more dimorphic social arrangements) than prevail today . . . and also much lower levels of the misbehavior at issue. If your point is rather that the Catholic school was somehow obligated to let a visibly pregnant student participate in a graduation ceremony, then obviously we will disagree.

        I appreciate you concession that the “emphasis on the girl” is a characteristic of the broader society, but why then do you single out Evangelicalism? We at least formally hold both sexes equally accountable. The broader society — at least, that portion with children — doesn’t even try. That applies to both titular “progressives” and amoral rightists of the Roissy variety. Evangelicals are the only ones with skin in the game that give basically the same message to everybody.

        • trumwill says:

          My objection is the extent to which, while even as they were not opposed to equality (I don’t think any of them said “No, it’s right that the boy wasn’t tagged”), there was a sense of urgency with the sexual activities of one side that was absent with regard to the sexual activities of the other.

          I think that places an unfair burden on one of the parties. And I think that’s significant.

          It’s not so much that the school had an obligation to let her walk, but that the first question after deciding not to let her walk is “What do we do about the father?” and it apparently wasn’t.

          I target Evangelicals and Catholics because that’s where the rubber hits the road. that’s where the discrepancies matter a lot more. Once one advocates social sanction to discourage certain behavior, I think it becomes more important that strives are made towards equal treatment or something close to it.

          And inside the household and communities… how many boys are lead to feel the way that Elizabeth Smart apparently did? Well, progressive-minded seculars make a point that nobody should feel that way. So even if there are somewhat more paranoid about their daughters than their sons, their treatment doesn’t lead to the sort of shaming described.

          Of course, part of the question is… how common is what Smart is talking about the case? Prior to hearing about it from her, and some of the followups from other people raised in sexually conservative households, I would have guessed “not very.” Would I have been wrong? Don’t know. But my limited exposure (which may well be blinkered) with Evangelicals and religious conservatives in general is that there is a difference in the degree of spoilage for a guy and a girl who has premarital sex, and that the spoilage isn’t primarily coming from judgments of potential suitors or partners, but from the community more generally. And I could well be wrong about that, too, though if there’s been a push for equal treatment and coming down harder on boys (which I think is necessary, to combat default-harder treatment on girls), it’s not something I have really noticed. Except maybe at PCC (which I will give them credit for, I suppose, despite their faults).

        • Φ says:

          I think that’s significant.

          I can’t help regard an effort to police Evangelical efforts at preventing sexual immorality for inequality as being in especially good faith when the policeman doesn’t actually have a problem with sexual immorality. If Evangelicals have a fault, they spend way too much time worrying about equality, but I’ll at least give them credit for trying to find something that works.

          Elizabeth Smart. A very tragic case, and fortunately very rare, statistically speaking. It’s too bad that nobody told her growing up what I told my daughters. But the Atlantic article uses her case to leverage an effort at making repentant girls more comfortable, and then use that to pry open a discussion about dismissing the need for repentance. Like I said: bad faith.

          The more I think of it, the more put-out I am at the Evangelicals quoted in the Atlantic article. Not only have they allowed themselves to be manipulated by their enemies, but they ought to know that churches taylor their message to different audiences. The emphasis on “virginity” is pitched to young teens who need to commit their loyalties. Repentance and healing is preached to the wayward.

        • trumwill says:

          Well, you can assume bad faith if you choose. I spend the first two paragraphs of the main post explaining my relation to the issue and my relative lack of standing. If after reading that you think I am critical of the church just for the sake of being critical (or whatever not-good-faith you would assign), not much I can do about it.

        • Φ says:

          My apologies. The insinuation of bad faith was directed more at the Atlantic.

  4. Φ says:

    I struggle how to characterize my own Evangelical — Fundamentalist in fact — high school. Hit Coffee readers would no doubt consider it strict, but by the standards of, say, PCC, maybe not so much. Anyway, as I learned years later, the administration allowed a pregnant girl in the class ahead of mine to participate in graduation — indeed, she gave Salutatorian address. But this was not generally known; probably only a handful of staff and faculty knew about it. It was known that she had a much-older off-campus boyfriend. (Her poor family was sufficiently scandal-plagued already that year.)

    I’m inclined to view this decision positively. It’s an example of dealing with private sin privately, and public sin publicly. That pregnancy will eventually make fornication public for women in a way that it does not for men is . . . well, too bad, but it’s not intentionally discriminatory against women.

    • trumwill says:

      I don’t see why, if you’re going to punish a woman for having a pregnancy belly, it shouldn’t be automatic that you also tag the guy who did his part to get her in that state (if he falls under your jurisdiction, anyway).

      • Φ says:

        Well said, but I would encourage you to link the source of the anecdote in question and see if your assumptions (that the source of paternity was generally acknowledged and under the school’s jurisdiction) have held up as well as you think. I would also encourage you to find some evidence that this reflects a general policy among Evangelicals.

        • Trumwill Mobile says:

          Fair point.

        • trumwill says:

          This is the incident in question.

          If you say this type of thing wouldn’t happen in a Evangelical school, or would generate a whole lot of pushback, I’ll take your word on it. That fellow parishioners have commented about it in a disapproving manner is encouraging.

  5. Φ says:

    Okay, so 8 years ago. My mistake.

    I know it’s hard to look skeptically at a story that confirms all your prejudices, but basically, you have one AP story spawning a bazillion sympathetic blog posts. The story doesn’t name the father, doesn’t actually say that the administration knew who he was, doesn’t attempt to even ask St. Jude about the incident. Apparently, it took, um, Alysha Cosby’s story at face value.

    But it’s a big world. Bad stuff happens, and I promise you way worse stuff has happened at Evangelical schools too. But again, this isn’t actually a case against us yet.

    • trumwill says:

      I know it’s hard to look skeptically at a story that confirms all your prejudices,

      That’s not exactly how I relate to these stories. I actually find them quite frustrating because stories like this make a lot of things I do believe easier to dismiss because it’s “all about punishing women.” (Which I don’t think it is.)

    • Φ says:

      Here is the St. Jude code of conduct. Under pregnancy and paternity, it reads: “If a student becomes pregnant, she will immediately be asked to withdraw from St. Jude. If it is determined that the father of the child attends St. Jude, he will also be asked to withdraw. Neither the mother nor the father will be allowed to return to St. Jude.”

      I suspect that this policy was written in response to the 2005 controversy, but it probably reflects more or less what they were already doing.

      According to its Wikipedia entry, St. Jude was created in 1946 as a ministry to Negro students, and it was apparently active in the civil rights movement. My intent here is not to dismiss it as a “black school”, but to point out it doesn’t quite fit the profile of conservative right-wing wymyn h8ers. Yes, I know, the AP article doesn’t exactly call them that, but that’s the prejudice they’re counting on. But that said, St Jude also doesn’t appear to be letting liberalism get in the way of policies that keep their at-risk population out of trouble.

      I wonder if they would talk to us if we called them.

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