Let me just say upfront, this post is about Christian sexual ethics, so if you’re not a Christian, you’re welcome to read this, but please know that this isn’t about you, and I have no expectation that you should have the same view of sex that I have. You, like everyone, are free to choose to do what you want. But feel free just to read this as an interested (or disinterested) third party.
We Christians have a problem with virginity.
A few weeks ago I spent a few days on a school camp. I was the speaker for year nine and my job was to run six sessions talking about sex and relationships. In preparation, I found myself listening to a bunch of Christian books on sex and relationships. In one book (written in 2017) the author described how he and his wife bought purity rings for each of their young daughters to wear on their ring finger to remind them of what they were being taught about relationships. The author’s plan was to give them the rings and tell them that God was going to bring them each a husband who would care for them as he cared for their mother, and they should not give themselves to anyone until that day.
I don’t know how that makes you feel but I felt pretty uncomfortable. Imagine your father giving you a ring that symbolises your sexual purity (which is code for virginity) and then, when you’re older, you sleep with your boyfriend. What are you supposed to do with your ring? Do you keep wearing it and feel like a fraud who is lying to their father, or do you take it off and face the shame of letting your father down? And imagine having to wear a constant reminder of your parents expectations that you save sex till marriage? You don’t have to wear any jewellery to remind yourself not to lie, or you keep yourself from greed, but for some reason sex is given a special role in your life.
Now I know the whole purity ring thing is much more of a deal in the US than it is here in Australia. But virginity isn’t only valued in American Christianity. One of the things that struck me while on camp was that I was asked a number of questions about virginity. “If I do this, am I still a virgin?”, “Is it ok not to be virgin?”, “Will I be the same after sex?”. These students, growing up in Christian culture, had absorbed the same message many of us who have grown up in Christian culture absorbed: virginity is important.
I believe that God’s intention for sex is that it would be kept within marriage, and therefore I think we should wait till marriage to have sex. But as I dealt with these students’ questions I kept coming back to the idea that virginity is the wrong way to think about sexual fidelity. In the Bible, there is an expectation that sex is to be saved for marriage, but it’s not the be all and end all of sexual ethics. You can be sexually unfaithful and still technically a virgin. And you can sleep with someone before you’re married, and still have spent most of your time pursuing faithfulness.
Virginity is somewhat binary. You either you are or you aren’t. If, as Christians, we emphasise virginity, then we run into trouble. You either are a virgin, and you can be proud that you can present your unsullied sexuality to your spouse, or you aren’t, and you feel shame and must seek forgiveness, feeling bad that you cannot offer your spouse your greatest gift of all. Neither outcome is good.
What’s more, if you’re a rape victim, aside from all the other baggage you have to deal with, our Christian preoccupation with virginity can mean you can feel shame and of diminished worth, because of what someone else has done to you! What an absurd burden to have to carry after an already terrible experience.
As Christians we have made too much of virginity. Actually, we as humans have made too much of virginity. You only had to watch a few episodes of Married at First Sight this year to see Matt’s entire character reduced to the fact that he was a virgin. He was referred to as “Virgin Matt” until he had sex and then he became “ex-Virgin Matt”. I was unsure why everyone on the show wasn’t referred to as “ex-Virgin Bryson”, or “ex-Virgin Cam”.
In the secular world, the virginity narrative goes something like this “Have sex when you feel ready, with someone you love. Preferably between the ages of 16 and 20. If you’re a virgin after that, you start to get weird. The longer you go without sex, the weirder you get.” I remember people finding out that I was still a virgin at 30 and they were astounded.
In the Christian world, the virginity narrative goes something like this “Remain a virgin until you get married. Your virginity is the most precious gift to give to your husband/wife.” But as I mentioned above, this only leads to pride or shame. Plus, once a Christian has lost their virginity, what point is there to pursue sexual faithfulness in their obedience to God? You’re damaged goods anyway, so go and do whatever you want, you’ve squandered your special gift anyway. We sometimes send the message, “God can forgive your sin, but you’ll never get your virginity back.”
Considering all this as I spoke to the young people, instead of talking about virginity, I encouraged them to sexual faithfulness. To be honouring their current boyfriends/girlfriends, their future spouse, and their boyfriend or girlfriend’s future spouse. A life of faithfulness is not binary. Faithfulness means pursuing obedience to God, and love for others. If you fail to be faithful, it’s not the end of the world, it doesn’t mar you forever. You get forgiven, and you recommit yourself to faithfulness in the future.
The work of Jesus at the cross is not about making us feel shame for our sin, but about freeing us from shame. The shame for what we have done, or what others may have done to us. Jesus invites us to receive forgiveness, healing, and wholeness. Your identity in Jesus is found in being a child of God, not in your virginity. If you follow Jesus, to God you aren’t viewed as a virgin or not, a sexual sinner or not, but as his child. Your purity and value comes from Jesus, not from what you have or haven’t done.
As we teach about sex, we need to talk less about virginity and talk more about pursuing sexual faithfulness – in singleness, in relationships, in friendships, in marriage. Sexual faithfulness encompasses not just not having sex before marriage, but how you treat people you’re not even in a romantic relationship with. It encompasses how you navigate sexual tensions, and power dynamics. We are called to sexual faithfulness towards all people, no matter how we feel about them. Faithfulness is not about pride and guilt, but about pursuing love and honour in all our relationships.
In the end, my main message during the camp was this: “You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.” I don’t know how many times I said those words, but I wanted the students to know that no matter what they had or hadn’t done, no matter what had been done to them, no matter who they are attracted to, they are loved. If they can understand that, accepting the love of Jesus, everything else can be sorted out. Understanding Jesus’ transforming love frees you to live a life of faithfulness to others.
We have a problem with virginity, but perhaps we can fix it by calling each other to faithfulness. As we know God’s faithfulness to us, we will know we are loved. As others are faithful towards us, we will receive their love. As we pursue faithfulness towards God and others, we will love. Jesus saves us to freedom. Emphasising concepts like virginity only weighs us down with pride and shame. Faithfulness to Jesus and others sets us free to love the way we were created to.