Impurity Culture: Surviving Virginity

What is the big deal with virginity? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately.

Evangelical purity culture centers it's whole self around virginity, but the wider culture seems pretty obsessed with virginity -- or the lack thereof -- too. The new Netflix show Sex Education has a few plotlines centering around teens who are either eager or anxious about losing their virginity. This season of The Bachelor is fixated on Colton, dubbed The First Virgin Bachelor. Almost any TV show or movie featuring young people and sex⁠ will mention or reference virginity.

Christianity places a strong emphasis on purity – hence, the term purity culture – a concept that revolves around remaining a virgin until ( heterosexual⁠ , monogamous⁠ ,) marriage, especially if you’re a woman. Church teachings about virginity manifest in a variety of ways, but the overall effect is generally to instill intense shame in those who didn't, aren’t, or might not remain, virgins.

Maybe you grew up in purity culture. Even if you didn’t, you’ve probably encountered and have to live with its ideas about virginity. I want to unpack some of those things, and consider what’s true and what isn’t.

Virginity & Ownership

Ideas about virginity are deeply linked to ownership. If you grew up Christian, you probably ran across one of the many Bible verses about virginity and ownership.

For example, if a man marries a woman and accuses her of not being a virgin, her parents are expected to provide evidence of her virginity, like with a set of bloody sheets (which were frequently faked, since most people don’t bleed with first intercourse⁠ in the first place) from her wedding night, apparently displaying that her hymen⁠ was intact until then –  something based in false information and belief about that anatomy. If a woman is raped, the Bible says her abuser has to marry her and pay her father for the price of her virginity (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). In this cultural economy where maintaining the family line was of utmost importance and marriage served as a way to solidify alliances and gain power, a woman’s virginity was a commodity. A woman’s purity was controlled and passed around like property, first in the hands of her father and then her husband.

Present-day purity culture movements hold to this concept, if in a less drastic form. The book And the Bride Wore White by Dannah Gresh asks women to evaluate their sexual⁠ purity and to answer this question (for real): are you a disposable Styrofoam cup, an easily replaceable mug, or a priceless china teacup? Other books and ministries speak of virginity as the greatest treasure a wife can give to her husband and insinuate that men will not find you attractive as a spouse if you’re not a virgin, because you’ve already given away their big prize. Focus on the Family recommends that girls write letters pledging their abstinence⁠ to their future husbands and that families celebrate the anniversary of a daughter’s purity pledge with a gift or getaway – basically assigning monetary value to her virginity.

Exposed to these ideas, you start to believe that your worth as a person is absolutely linked to your status as a virgin.

If you’re a woman, purity culture teaches that your body does not belong to you, but to your spouse. You might focus on “protecting” your virginity, so that on your wedding day, you can give your husband the gift of your untouched body. Not only does this tend to cut you off from your own body, and your sense of desire⁠ and pleasure, but the idea that virginity is owed to your spouse continues to develop into the idea that sex is also owed to your spouse. Many evangelical teachers urge women to submit to their husbands - when it comes to decisions, authority, and sex, a woman is expected to be submissive and allow her husband to have the final say. What this means is that if your husband wants sex, you are always supposed to supply it. This creates an environment that enables, allows and permits abuse⁠ , and this is why some people refuse to acknowledge that marital rape⁠ is rape. If a wife’s body belongs to her husband, her consent⁠ doesn’t matter.

The Virgin & The Whore

Christianity has two primary sexual tropes for women: the virgin and the whore. The virgin, of course, is the ideal woman – pure, chaste, gentle, meek, mild, all that. The Virgin Mary is often held up as the epitome of feminine⁠ perfection, and girls need to live up to that standard. Never mind that it’s impossible to be both a virgin and pregnant – Mary somehow managed to be the mother of God and also maintain her purity. Meanwhile, the whore is used to personify sin and ignorance. The book of Proverbs contrasts two figures, Woman Wisdom and another woman, sometimes called Madame Folly or the Foolish Woman. She is described as the adulterous woman whose steps lead straight to death (Proverbs 5). So basically, purity = wisdom; sex = death. That’ll give you a bit of a skewed view of sexuality.

The Problem with “Virginity”

What even is virginity anyway? You probably already know that the most common definition of a virgin is someone who, if they have a penis⁠ , has not had their penis inside a vagina⁠ or who, if they have a vagina, has not had a penis inside their vagina. That’s a very, very narrow conception⁠ of sex. It isn’t even always about sex in the first place: sometimes those kinds of experiences aren’t sex for people, but abuse or assault.

When you start to expand your ideas about sex so that they are more reflective of everyone’s lived experience, the notion of virginity starts to fall apart fast. Are you still a virgin if you’ve given oral? What about if you’ve received it? What about hands? Toys? What about if you weren’t even given a choice about sexual activity, but were sexually assaulted? Where and how do you draw the line between being a virgin and not being a virgin?

Where does this all leave you if you grew up in — or are still in — purity culture?

Purity culture values virginity above all, and is very effective at instilling shame and guilt, so if you aren’t a virgin anymore, it’s easy to feel ashamed and guilty. Purity culture essentially teaches that sex is bad, and then when you get married you’re expected to suddenly be able to have great, mind-blowing sex. It’s not that easy to flip that switch, because the guilt and shame associated with sex is so deeply ingrained in your body and mind. I have friends who did what the church told them to do – waited until marriage – and then struggled with intimacy. People have come to Scarleteen over the years asking for help with these kinds of struggles, too.

It’s hard to create a healthy sex life if you’ve spent your entire life trying to avoid sexual activity, desires, or even just thoughts. Even if you’ve rejected the beliefs of purity culture, developed a sex-positive theology, and willingly decided to have sex – you might find yourself feeling ashamed. Even if you didn’t grow up in purity culture, it’s possible that you’ve encountered — and internalized — the idea that sex is dirty or shameful.

That shame is a tough thing to reckon with.

Even if you’ve changed your thoughts and beliefs, the thing about shame is it really lives inside your body. It takes time to intellectually, emotionally and physically unlearn the physical feelings of guilt and shame that have lodged themselves deeply in you. If you feel this way – please, know you’re not alone. And you don’t have to be alone. Talk to your partner⁠ about how you’re feeling and why. Consider talking to a therapist or counselor who has training and education in helping patients process and unlearn sexual shame.

Maybe you need to take it slow. You can spend time masturbating and getting to know your body, and may even only do that for a few years before you branch out⁠ with partners.

Remind yourself your body is not bad, it’s good. What makes you feel safe and at home in your body? Is it lazy mornings with coffee, or a long run? A hot bath? Yoga? Growing up evangelical, you’re taught to ignore your body: it takes time to learn how to trust yourself and your instincts, and to acknowledge and appreciate your body. Find some ways to feel connected and present in your body that aren’t especially sexual, and then start working on taking that presence and connectedness into sex.

I also personally prefer to speak in terms of being sexually active⁠ or not, as opposed to being a virgin. Virginity generally only focuses on penis-in-vagina intercourse⁠ , and also usually without any mention of consent; sexual activity encompasses the much wider spectrum of sexual expression and incorporates agency into the mix, too. When it comes to sexual activity, you choose what acts you participate in - or don’t participate in - at your own pace. Being sexually active is also about more than just which body parts come into contact with other body parts. Virginity usually boils sexuality down to simply physical contact, but sexuality also includes things like feelings, thoughts, societal norms and expectations, social experiences and spiritual beliefs.

If you're in a relationship⁠ where sex is expected and demanded, without regard for consent – please, do whatever you can to get out. If you’re in a relationship where your sexual choices are regulated - if your partner demands virginity from you, or tells you that you aren’t allowed to masturbate - that’s not a relationship where your needs and desires are respected. Know that you should expect and deserve a sexual relationship that is centered on mutual and shared respect and consent. Even if you’re in a healthy relationship, however, sometimes the idea you owe a partner sex is a hard one to shake. I’m in a wonderful relationship filled with care and respect. My girlfriend has never demanded or expected sex, or expressed upset if I wasn’t in the mood. But I still feel a sense of guilt if she’s trying to initiate intimacy and I’m not interested.

How do you unlearn this idea that sex is something you owe to one another?

One thing I’ve found helpful for myself is to imagine if the situation were reversed. If I wanted to hook up and my partner wasn’t feeling it, would I be upset? Would I feel she wasn’t giving me something she owed me? Of course not. I would never want my partner to have sex with me out of a sense of obligation or duty. That’s not respecting their pleasure, their desires, their body or their autonomy⁠ . If this is how I would feel and behave if my partner didn’t want to hook up, chances are my partner feels the same way when I don’t want to hook up.

So, what’s the big deal with virginity? It shouldn’t be a big deal, but society has built up all sorts of expectations and ideas around virginity. Notions of virginity usually involve misogyny, sexism⁠ and double standards - women are often shamed if they aren’t virgins, while men are shamed if they are. The language around virginity - protecting, saving, giving - speaks of virginity, sex and, usually, women, as commodities. But people’s selves, bodies and sexualities aren’t property. Instead of a sexual ethic that declares all premarital sex to be bad, and women, sex or bodies as capital, we should develop a sexual ethic that is centered around respect, consent, and pleasure for everyone.

Take the time to unlearn some of those ideas, educate yourself, and decide for yourself how you feel about virginity and what your boundaries are. Here are some places right here at Scarleteen to start learning about what sex and sexuality actually are, instead of what purity culture claims:

You shouldn’t feel pressured not to be sexual, just like you shouldn’t feel pressure to be sexual. If you’re ready  and want to engage in respectful, consensual sexual activity, you get to make that decision, and you also deserve to feel good about it and to be supported in it. If you’re not ready for sexual activity, you get to make that decision, and you deserve to feel good about, and should be supported in, that choice, too.

Growing up in a society that teaches you these ideas about virginity and sex is hard, and painful, and damaging. If you’re hurting, if you’re confused, if you’re wondering how you can recover - know you’re not alone. There are a lot of us who have been hurt, and a lot of us who have found a way to heal. I can’t tell you it’s going to be easy or fast, but we’re here with you and you can get there.

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  • Heather Corinna

If you say nothing, it's unlikely he'll know. The bodies of people with vaginas really don't change when they have any kind of sex, unless they become pregnant or contract an infection. Vaginal sex can wear a hymen or partial hymen away more, but so can and do a lot of other things, and at your age…