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Virgin Fetish

How’s that for a title to appeal to your prurient interests? Actually, and to my own embarrassment, I once uttered those words. More on that later. (That’s called a “teaser.”)

The March issue of Perspectives has a review of Donna’ Freitas’ book Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses by The Twelve’s own Theresa Latini. While we have heard it elsewhere and often, once more we are told that young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christians comrades. In my limited reading, it seems that on about any aspect of sexuality that can be quantified, young Christians in the United States are virtually identical to the rest of their age group.

I believe that sexual activity is best within a monogamous, covenantal marriage relationship. Occasionally it is my job to try to make that very point with the middle schoolers and high schoolers of my congregation in some captivating way. But on this topic, I am boringly conservative and unadventurous (probably other topics too.) That said, I don’t see virginity at marriage as the sine qua non of Christians, nor is sex outside of marriage the unforgiveable sin.

There was a young woman—some details have been changed to protect the guilty—raised in a Christian home, frequent attendee of summer camps, graduate of an unabashedly evangelical college. She was very open about her intention, vow actually, to remain a virgin until marriage. Good. I commend her. Jesus’ admonition not to practice our piety to be seen by others might impinge here, but I’ll cut her some slack in this case. Making her intention very public might have functioned as some sort of incentive to live up to her own expectations. As far as I know, she did.  Once again—good.

I wish I felt as good about the rest of what I observed of her piety. I’ll sound very judgmental and say this same young virgin could seem rather uppity and cliquish, vain and materialistic, shallow and coquettish. Did anyone at church, youth group, summer camp, or college exhort her about these peccadillos? What if young Christians were encouraged to be shopping mall virgins? To abstain from intercourse with bigotry, avoid casual snobbery, and be warned of the risks of hooking up with xenophobia?

In her Sex and the Soul review, Latini observes that in the evangelical subculture, “a woman’s virginity functions like a dowry.” I don’t want to make light of sex. It is strong stuff—able to bless us and wound us in significant ways. But haven’t we shortchanged these young people, inculcating them with the notion that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily, almost exclusively about sexual ethics? If you remain a virgin until marriage then you have achieved the fullness of the Christian life.

When I discuss sexuality in my Christian ethics courses at Central College, I often begin by asking my students what they’ve been told about sex in church and youth group. They speak of a lot of guilt, pressure, and fear. Certainly they may recount their experiences inaccurately, but even in Christian contexts, apparently the tone is very similar to what they might hear in school from a scientific perspective—lots of statistics about the risk of pregnancy, the unreliability of contraceptives, the frequency of STD’s. Virtually no Bible, no theology, no discussion of the convictions behind Christian sexual ethics, none of the deep why’s—if my collegians are to be believed.

Like all ministers, most of my good ideas I stole from someone else. Most of them so long ago I can’t remember from whom I stole them. This is one such idea. When discussing sex with middle schoolers, begin by offering them all a little chunk of chocolate. They don’t know it is unsweetened baking chocolate or just very, very dark chocolate. They eagerly put it in their mouths, then grimace or spit it out. The chocolate looked appealing but was missing some key ingredients—sugar, milk, cocoa butter. And of course the lesson is—drumroll, please—that sex can look pretty appealing too, but without some key ingredients is actually bitter stuff.  And those ingredients might include…?

Knowing that examples like this make the rounds in church circles, I asked my collegians if they had  ever heard the chocolate candy story at summer camp or youth group. When one young woman raised her hand, I invited her to share with the whole class, expecting her to tell what I just shared with you. Instead, she told how everyone in her youth group was given a Hershey’s chocolate kiss. After being instructed to unwrap the candy, but not yet eat it, they were then told to put the foil wrapper and little pull-string paper back on the candy so it would look exactly had it before, as if it had never been unwrapped. It was at this point that I involuntarily muttered, “What a virgin fetish” in front of my class. Don’t worry. Many did not hear me and as for those who did—I think the phrase was too cryptic and contrived to be understood by most.

Always remember boys and girls, don’t have sex before marriage because once your wrapper is off you can never get it back on right! That is what we offer our youth? Apparently, for today’s youth that is the heart of the Gospel.


Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

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