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.