On “Virginity,” Women, and Worth

Let me tell you a story, and a couple of brief anecdotes.

A girl I went to summer camp with as a teenager was from a pretty observant Christian family — mostly Catholic but not exclusively so. She’d been raised to value virginity, and was very proud of the fact that she was a virgin despite the pressure she felt from her circle of rich, popular, athletic friends. And she used to regale us with stories of how she would lie to her parents and tell them she was going to a friend’s to study, and instead go to her boyfriend’s house and spend all day skinny dipping with him… etc. She also had strong views about the circumstances around re-pledging one’s virginity — apparently you could have intercourse exactly once and then repent, and God would accept you as a virgin again, but after that, if you had intercourse again, it “counted;” you were officially defiled at that point, and probably shouldn’t wear white at your wedding.

I have friends who are virgins by some variation of the technical definition, but who’ve fooled around with dozens of people, who’ve struggled with pornography addictions, or whose sexual fantasies dominated their thoughts. I also have friends who aren’t virgins by any of the most common understandings of the term, because they were raped or molested or sexually abused.

And speaking of how we define virginity, I read a news story a few weeks ago about Quebec barring doctors from performing “virginity checks” on girls as part of their annual physicals. It struck me, once again, how much our culture’s language of sexuality aims its force at women — a “prude” is usually a woman, but so is a “slut.” Physiologically, too, we too often attach the concept of virginity to intact hymens — body parts men don’t even possess!

Christians have an obligation to be more biblical than that, to refuse to put an unfair burden on women (who are substantially more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than men) or on men (who are much more likely to feel cultural pressure to be sexually active and to use pornography than women are) in the way we talk about God’s purposes for human sexuality.

I think it’s long past time we quit talking about the ideal for Christians’ sexuality in terms of “virginity.” What, honestly, does the word “virgin” mean if it can be applied to a person like my summer-camp friend above and a person who’s never been so much as kissed, but not to a person who has been sexually victimized? What purpose does it serve to hold up virginity as the standard, if not to confuse the “experienced,” alienate the abused, and stir up pride in the hearts of the “inexperienced”?

To those who might object that “virginity” is just shorthand for “sexual purity,” is there any real sense in which a pornography addict is sexually pure simply because he or she hasn’t had intercourse? Is there any sense in which a sexually victimized person is not sexually pure simply because sex acts have been forced on him or her? It’s ludicrous to think that God’s design for human sexuality can be summed up with a word that frankly isn’t used all that frequently in Scripture.

So once again I’m going to propose that we speak of chastity rather than virginity or even sexual purity. Virginity is a state of being, but chastity is a choice, an ongoing, daily decision to live one’s life in a way that embraces God’s design for sex and sexuality. Virginity, for most people — those who marry as well as many who don’t — is temporary. Chastity is a permanent lifestyle that continues into marriage, because it encompasses all godly expressions of sexuality. It’s just as accurate to speak of a chaste single person, a chaste husband or wife, a chaste person separated from his spouse, a chaste divorced woman, a chaste widow or widower.

Chastity is about a life, a choice, a path of dedication. Right now, as a woman who is not married, chastity is a way for me to witness to the ultimacy of Christ, over and above romantic or sexual love. My life, by God’s grace, can become a picture of the future God has for all his people. If the Lord purposes marriage for me, that path of chastity simply continues as my life becomes a picture of the church’s love for Christ.

Our bodies matter to God, it’s true. He made them, down to the minutest detail. But for those of us who have been made new in Christ, what we do with all of our lives in these bodies matters, not just a few parts. Let’s stop categorizing one another based on what we have done, or what has been done to us, with just a few of those parts, and begin to encourage each other to walk now in a way that honors God.

How Some Feminism Is Also Marxism (And How This Is Not That)

I said in my series prequel (which… I need to learn to quit telling people what I’m going to write about unless I have the articles written because if there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I am fickle, dude) that I’m not a Marxist. But the reason I mention Marxism in this context at all, is that I think Marxism and the whole class struggle worldview are foundational to pretty much all modern feminism — and, indeed, to most counterculture movements. Furthermore, I think many of the problems Christians have with feminism stem from our gut-level objections to Marxism, and that, if we can disentangle one from the other, we’ll be surprised at how much common ground there is between our two worldviews when it comes to women.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to use “Marxism” as shorthand for something like this: the set of beliefs and ideas in which the pattern of history is one of class struggle wherein powerful classes, using the structures and institutions of society (government, the Church, marriage, education, etc.) to secure their power, are locked in a struggle with the powerless classes who will, inevitably, rise up to overthrow them and the institutions they control; all those who stand in solidarity with the oppressed class are considered friends while all those who attempt to remain neutral must be crushed as supporters of oppression.

One of the most frequently-recurring themes in the conversation around modern feminism is this idea of “the patriarchy,” which, in the view of many modern feminists, is responsible for many of the wrongs women have suffered throughout history. While it sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory, it’s not — it’s better compared to the cultural water we swim in than anything most folks are aware of. It comes down to something like this: societies have been structured to favor the rule of men for lots of reasons (men are physically stronger than women, most women pre-contraception spent a lot of time pregnant which tended to limit their ability to, like, conquer and swashbuckle and whatever kings do to amass power). This leads inevitably to men oppressing and exploiting women because, you know, power corrupts, and since people in power usually like to keep it, it also leads to men enshrining their power in law at the expense of women. This “patriarchy” concept encompasses all the historical privilege, dominance, power, and authority that men have in a society, plus the way men use those things now — almost always unconsciously — to their own advantage and the disadvantage of women.

I think it’s important for me to be clear here: I don’t necessarily have big problems with this assessment. Men have almost always had more political and social power than women. They have, because of their sinful nature, sometimes used this power to make laws predicated on untrue assumptions about women, laws that unfairly burden women or infringe on their human rights. And — in much the same way that racist politicians in the post-Civil War south leveraged the “poor white” vote to shore up their own agendas in the face of potential enfranchisement of black citizens — powerful classes throughout history have been invested in portraying men and women in ways that make conflict between the sexes seem normal, and that instill fear that the rights women gain will infringe on the rights of men, so that those powerful men could keep their power.

But I think it’s also important to be note that my agreement is far from comprehensive. To the modern feminist, men and women have been locked in a perpetual battle for power, men have always had the ascendancy, and women (together with sympathetic men, and in solidarity with other oppressed and marginalized groups) have the obligation to rise up and overthrow this oppressive patriarchy in order to usher in a future in which there are no gender-based hierarchies — or any hierarchies at all, because the problem, in this view, is that some people have power over other people. To modern feminists and many modern folks generally, authority structures are to blame, and dismantling those structures is the solution.

It’s at this level that I part ways with modern secular feminism. I just don’t buy the Marxist vision of class warfare or the end game of a world in which there are no hierarchies. I think hierarchies and authority structures are built into human society by God — they’re a feature, not a bug. Hierarchy isn’t the problem. The problem is that men and women alike are, at a fundamental level, messed up by sin, and if you take a look at the consequences for sin given to all of us, fallen in Adam, it’s pretty easy to understand why some people look at history as a clash between two sides. Identity. Desire. Power. Work. Biology. That’s not a list of lecture topics from a Gender Studies class, y’all, it’s a summary of the stuff that sin messes with and that the curse affects. And as we can clearly see in that same passage, the end game isn’t overthrowing all hierarchies, it’s placing all authority structures where they belong: under the reign of the true King who will crush the usurper Satan.

But what all that doesn’t mean is that I’m somehow compelled to disagree with every assessment or proposed solution that comes out of a modern feminist’s mouth. Far from it. Feminists are right to be vocal and angry about misogyny, about exploitation, about stuff ranging from sexist jokes to sex trafficking, from how cops ask rape victims what they were wearing to how our society sees illegal sex workers as criminals rather than victims. We should be just as vocal about, and just as emotionally invested in, those things.

And I’m going to prove it.

Brace yourself next week for a look at some of the many and sometimes surprising areas we might find ourselves agreeing with secular feminists.

“Women Aren’t as Visual as Men” and Other Dangerous Lies

I read yet another article today in which a mother of boys reminds young women to be cautious about the pictures they post of themselves on facebook. It was all fair enough, though made slightly ironic by the photographs of her sons doing muscle-man poses in their swim trunks that were scattered throughout the article. But post Twerk-Gate, I’m not surprised by the content: the message that girls need to be counter-culturally modest gets recirculated around the Christian blogosphere every time a celebrity strips off in public or there’s a new case of teenage boys being arrested for passing around naked pictures of their girlfriends. You could practically write a Post-Scandal Mad Lib template: something about degradation, something about self-respect, something about how far our society has fallen, and a whooooole bunch about modesty, but only, or at least primarily, in the context of preventing lust among men and boys.

It’s all well-intentioned and mostly not terrible, but when it comes to modesty… you already know how I feel about that. (If you’re too lazy to click on those links, here’s a tip: in the Bible, modesty isn’t exclusively or even mostly about not looking “sexy.” It’s not mostly about covering up. It’s not even mostly directed at women, or in reference to men.)

But you might not know how I feel about the underlying assumption of a lot of these appeals, namely that men are always and forever, world without end, stimulated visually, and women just… aren’t; that there is a direct line between scantily clad women and men’s sexual sin, so please please ladies, if you love your brothers, cover up — I know you don’t understand because you’re not wired that way, but we are, so please please please…

So are you ready for this? That stuff is just not true. Men and women are different; that’s awesome, hooray. And I think mothers and fathers need to encourage their daughters (and sons!) to dress and comport themselves with modesty and dignity… but y’all, come on: we can’t just look at men, extrapolate from their experiences and preferences, and then assume women are the opposite. It’s lazy. It’s ridiculous. Women are women, humans made in God’s image in their own right, not just un-men. People will often cite these mysterious “studies” in which it is “proven” that women are more into words and men are more into pictures. But let me tell you why I have a problem with that.

First, I’m not sure you can deduce biological causality about men’s wiring from actions and characteristics that could just as easily be attributed to cultural expectations about how men act and what they like. A boy who’s grown up in our porn-saturated, women-as-props-in-male-fantasies society is not exactly a good control subject for an experiment designed to reveal pure biology. Second, just anecdotally, I don’t know one (straight) woman who isn’t physically attracted to the hotness of “hot” guy, whatever her definition of “hot” is. No, not every woman finds shirtless Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love attractive, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t visually stimulated for goodness’ sake. I also don’t know any men who don’t care about personality or character when choosing a potential spouse. And regarding that last point, I think it’s terribly insulting to men to imply that they’re basically just big hairy bundles of id, derping along until they find themselves in proximity to a hot, immodestly-dressed woman, whereupon they can do nothing but fall immediately into sexual sin.

Third, I think this set of lies is particularly dangerous because of where it leads. A couple of anecdotes:

A popular marriage book (which I won’t name here lest I get some of its terrifying supporters in the comments) describes in graphic detail the supposedly-true story of a young man, filled with lust at the sight of the snug-skirted young woman standing in front of him in church; the book’s author blames the young woman’s immodesty for causing his problem, implying that the young man’s lust was a purely biological response for which he couldn’t possibly be held responsible. If you can’t see the danger of blaming women for the sexual sin of men, maybe you need to read about the judge who last week sentenced a 49-year-old man convicted of raping his 14-year-old student to just 30 days in prison, claiming the victim’s maturity and apparent sexual control over the relationship as mitigating factors in the perpetrator’s guilt, despite the fact that, in the state of Montana, a 14-year-old cannot legally give consent, and the fact that the girl went on to commit suicide.

In addition to that issue, there’s also the fact that pornography use among women has skyrocketed in the last few years; among older teens and women in their early 20s, rates are rapidly approaching those of men of the same age. When we constantly beat the drum of Men Being Visual And Women Being Emotional, we are driving women who struggle in this area into seclusion and shame; when we offer resources to conquer porn addictions primarily in the context of men’s accountability groups, or hasten to add, “We know this won’t apply to most of you ladies” when teaching about pornography, or in any other way make sexual sin a male or female thing, we are heaping condemnation on these sisters, who now have to deal with feeling like freaks because they’re struggling with something that “isn’t really a woman problem.”

When the sum of our exhortation to women regarding sexual sin is to tell them to avoid Fifty Shades of Grey and make sure they don’t show any cleavage, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we treat men like out-of-control sex maniacs, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we talk about any sin as though it’s the exclusive territory of one group or another in the church, or rely on stereotypes and hackneyed statistics, we do a disservice to everyone in the church. Let’s seek a better path.

International Women’s Day and Casual Misogyny

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today in class we were talking about NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and how she (or rather, the popular portrayal of her) is an embarrassment to women everywhere because, although she’s ostensibly famous for her sport, she’s a) not as great at it as her fame would suggest, and b) far more famous for taking her clothes off and being a spokesmodel in skanky ads. We talked about how offensive it is to both men and women to depict women as empty-headed, easily-controllable imaginary objects just sitting there for male consumption, and I said something about how it turns them into these infantilized child-women, whereupon a student piped up with, “That sounds like a really bad superhero. Infantilized Child-Woman to the rescue!”

So we came up with a whole scenario for Infantilized Child-Woman, who goes around “rescuing” women from intelligent, deep conversations that aren’t about men, and turning them into flirtatious bobble-heads with one flick of her ruffled costume, and who foils male criminals by strutting around seductively until the cops arrive. Her arch-nemesis is Intensely Nerdy Boy, on whom her powers are useless because he prefers the smart girls he meets at ComicCon, and his secret weapon is a Fandom Gun, which makes everyone he shoots it at so involved in a fan community that they stop paying attention to Infantilized Child-Woman. Muahahaha!

I’ve been thinking about this today, a paraphrase of something I saw browsing just now on my lunch break: we need to stop thinking of sexism as part of an identity — i.e., so-and-so is a sexist therefore a wife-beater, a rapist, a woman-hater, etc. — and start thinking of it in terms of actions. Anyone can casually devalue women, and we, both men and women, do it all the time. So many things, from using pornography (i.e. consuming women’s degradation) to implying that women shouldn’t complain about discrimination (because we can, like, vote now and stuff), are sexist, and no amount of, “But I love women/am a woman!” negates that.

We might rightly roll our eyes at the antediluvian attitude that a woman’s place is always in the home and preferably in the kitchen. We might, I hope, get involved with charities that help free women from sex work. But it’s easier to let slide that sort of casual, condescending misogyny that applauds Danica Patrick equally for taking her clothes off and finishing 40th in some race, because it’s so subtle and so ubiquitous. It’s the kind of sexism that we need to be most careful of because it’s the easiest to slip into, the easiest to absorb from women’s magazines and sitcoms, and, I think, the toughest to eliminate.

But we have an obligation to value women, to treat them with the dignity they intrinsically have as image-bearers of God, creations whose absence prompted God to call something “not good” for the first time ever. Christians must strive never to be open to the charge of denigrating or diminishing that value, however casually or incidentally.

Big Scary Topic: Feminism, Part One

This first post is pretty timely, it seems. You see, prizewinning and bestselling British author Hilary Mantel recently gave a talk entitled “Royal Bodies” for the London Review of Books’ winter lecture series. It’s one of the more fascinating things I’ve ever read on famous women and their bodies and how we view them, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. It’s also turning out to be the talk that launched a thousand rhetorical ships: of course every British paper had an opinion, most of them pretty well to be expected (The Daily Mail’s coverage could be summarized, as usual, as WE ARE HORRIFIED BY WHAT WE ASSUME WAS SAID); even the Prime Minster waded into the fray, missing the point rather spectacularly. Twitter has been ablaze with the question of was-it-ironic-or-wasn’t-it (hint: yes), and NPR highlighted the controversy during their main news broadcasts today.

All that to say, a lot of people are thinking about big issues right now — women and how freely we comment on their looks, fame and beauty and objectification and otherness and what exactly these bodies of ours mean. Those are important topics, and I guess I’m about to tackle some of them.

But I think I need to issue a few denials before I forge ahead, and maybe a couple of affirmations. So here goes.

I believe men and women are different, and that any effort to flatten out gender distinctions is going to end in… absurdity. But I also believe that there are any number of ways to act and be feminine or masculine, not just one (more on this later).

I’m no Marxist; I think it takes a lot of blindly clinging to one’s assumptions in the face of evidence to the contrary to look at human history and deduce that hierarchy is the problem that must be overcome in order for people to thrive. Some hierarchies are awesome and some of them are terrible, but the existence of abusive, exploitative power structures doesn’t invalidate the hierarchy as A Thing. And honestly, does anyone over the age of 35 who has ever read a history book still believe that a human society completely without hierarchy is even possible on any kind of scale or for any length of time? So no, I’m not going to be arguing that women need to rise up and overthrow some mythological worldwide Illuminati patriarchy so that society can progress toward its next evolutionary incarnation.

I don’t believe that “society” as some abstract entity has an agenda to “keep women in their place.” I don’t think that what this country needs, necessarily, is more women in ________ industry or field. I do think that looking at a circumstance — say, the fact that women are underrepresented in the sciences — and failing (or refusing) to consider that the reasons for that circumstance might be incredibly complex and even, perhaps, tied to the innate strengths and weaknesses of the genders, is just head-smackingly stupid. I think it’s lazy-minded, thoughtless, callous, and just plain rude, on the other hand, to dismiss all such disparities as merely representative of gender differences rather than societally-influenced.

I don’t think “feminism” as a worldview has any real solutions to the problems of society. But I think traditionalism, for most of us in the Evangelical camp, poses a far greater danger. It’s a prettier poison for many of us, and a subtler one. We need to be able to hear past the talking points and bumper-sticker slogans and strawmen of the feminist vs. traditionalist shouting match and get down to what the Bible actually teaches about women and their value, about objectification, about bodies. And I am convinced that we’ll have an easier time locating Biblical Christianity in the syncretistic miasma of modern traditionalist religion if we spend some time looking at feminism’s critiques of traditionalism.

So there you have it, I suppose: a bit of an introduction to the Big Scary Topic of feminism.

In the coming weeks or however long I feel like writing about this because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want, GOSH, I’ll be looking at such topics as Plato, Augustine, and the body; big ugly traditionalism and its little ugly cronies; objectification and othering; and, Lord willing, really scary topics like sexual identity, orientation, and even (gulp) rape and sexual abuse — and how feminism and Christianity intersect at those points. Fasten your seatbelts.