by Ann Neumann
“For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication.” Thessalonians 4:3*
Ten years ago, The Revealer’s founding editor, Jeff Sharlet, wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine, “The New Virgin Army,” that chronicled several young Christians’ fight against the ultimate evil challenging their faithful adherence to Jesus, pre-marital sex (the article is no longer available online). “Chastity is a new organizing principle of the Christian right, built on the notion that virgins are among God’s last loyal defenders,” wrote Sharlet. The Christians Sharlet encountered, men and women in their early 20s living in New York, had proudly sworn off sex until their wedding night, employing bracelets, self-control tactics, and support groups to wrestle with what they saw as culture’s onslaught of sexual imagery. They described their pledges to celibacy as radical, even “counter-cultural,” and as what set them apart from their materialistic, consumerist peers. Saving sex for their spouses was a way to ensure that marital sex would “explode off of any known scale” because it would be “communion” with their partners and with the Lord. Sharlet wrote, “Sex that is just two bodies in motion strikes them as empty, even if love is involved. Every encounter must be a kind of threesome: man, wife and the Lord. Without that, it’s just fucking.”
In the decade since the article, True Love Waits, the Silver Ring Thing (“a radical response to culture’s view of sex”) and countless other Christian groups have expanded into a full-blown “purity movement,” hosting ceremonies across the country where thousands of adolescents receive silver rings, often with biblical verses inscribed on them, and vow to remain virgins until they marry. The ceremonies often resemble weddings, with fathers presenting rings to their daughters (click through for some truly creepy photos) as a promise and reminder to abstain from sex until Christ blesses her with a Godly partner.
Calls for abstinence are as old as the Garden of Eden, and for exactly none of that time have they been broadly heeded. Nevertheless, Christian evangelicals persist in their cultural and political emphasis on sexual abstinence. And that persistence continues to have serious consequences.
Since 1982 the US government has spent more than 1.7 billion on abstinence-only education, a program that teaches students to abstain from sex until marriage and prohibits teachers from discussing how to prevent pregnancy or contraction of sexually transmitted diseases. Countless studies have since shown that teaching abstinence has little or no effect on teen pregnancy or infection rates. Ninety-five percent of adolescents continue to have sex before marriage; 61% have sex before the age of 18. In fact, abstinence education has not reduced the rate of STD infection at all and may even cause a higher rate of teenage pregnancies. (Lord knows what unmeasurable ill effects all this shaming, blaming and denigration has had on the healthy sex lives of countless people; while children may be a blessing, they also deplete college funds and leave young women with limited future opportunities.) Despite all this data and a Democratic president, legislators continue to push federal and state funding for abstinence-only education. (These policies are not restricted to our shores. Google “US international abstinence policy” for a host of reports that show how the extension of faith-based abstinence and “fidelity” health policies abroad has been devastating for international family planning, HIV/AIDS and STD prevention.)
In April, Congress passed a health care funding bill that increased abstinence education by $25 million, and this month the House snuck a ban on comprehensive sex education into a rewrite of George W. Bush’s controversial “No Child Left Behind” bill, preventing any sex education that “normalize[s] teen sexual activity as an expected behavior.” (Because, um, only abnormal teens have sex?) Why does an education policy that has been proven ineffective—indeed, even harmful—to American adolescents continue to receive federal funding? In part because “sexual purity” has, over the past few decades, become the primary focus of Christian evangelicals who continue to wield disproportionate influence over policy.
When you consider the gross number of issues surrounding sexual health today, it’s impossible not to hold responsible those who purposefully keep our young in the dark. Several tragic abuse cases have come to light over the past few years—in the Catholic Church, and at private schools like Horace Mann—where systemic prevention of justice allowed abuse to continue, sometimes for decades. They show us clearly that young people need to know what behavior is acceptable and how to get help when they need it, without shame or disregard. Rape charges (and convictions), like those against Bill Cosby, Penn State’s football coach, Jerry Sandusky, Mennonite leader John Howard Yoder, and other men in positions of power, prove that men are often routinely protected from accountability if their status is high enough.
A new poll out this month shows that 25% of women and 7% of men experience “unwanted sexual experiences” on college campuses, numbers that reveal a clear gender bias in what our expectations are regarding female and male sexual behavior. The complimentarianism, or assignation of a “headship” role to men and a submissive role to women, that is explicit in the purity movement contributes to the understanding that men take sex and women receive it (whether they clearly consent to it or not). Complimentarianism also leads to beliefs that particular types of heterosexual sex or gender roles are normal and that all other types, particularly homosexual sex, are sinful, an ideology that creates an environment of denigration, exploitation or abuse for women, gays and others who do not conform.
When you consider the gross number of issues surrounding sexual health today, it’s impossible not to hold responsible those who purposefully keep our young in the dark.
To all this personal tragedy add the horrifying rates of sexually transmitted disease infections, particularly among minorities, and the fact that 20% of pregnancies are unwanted. Factor in too, the increasing difficulty women have accessing family planning, contraceptive and abortion care, and a women’s health care system that has been shunted off into picketed clinics across the country. Clearly, the way that we teach American youth about sex is not working. Accurate information and access to affordable health services are the only answer for these personal tragedies, and yet, silence is all our young too often receive. Why? Because our sex education system is a failure. Why? Because it is created by and beholden to those who disregard the lives and bodies of our young for the sake of an impossible ideal: purity.
In her astute new book, Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, Sara Moslener chronicles the historical, social, and political forces that have propelled the sexual purity movement into its prominence today. Virgin Nation goes a long way in comprehensively explaining how we’ve gotten here and why ideology continues to trump adolescents’ right to live healthy lives.
While many have attributed the right wing’s focus on sexual purity to Christians’ backlash against the sexual and feminist movements of the 1960 and 70s, Moslener reaches back further, in a seeming paradox, to the first wave feminists of the middle and late 1800s. She writes, “Rather than acquiesce to the domestic realm and political irrelevance, these women used the claim of female purity to assert a moral authority beyond the confines of their homes.”By controlling the sexual behavior of men, these early radical reformers hoped to expand their relevance and influence. Women, they argued, were able to harness unbridled male behavior to create and maintain a civilized society. “The progress of America as a nation-state, then, was dependent upon the proper negotiation of gendered roles and morality.”
(Male) religious reformers of the Victorian era, however, disdained what they saw as the “feminization of religion” and countered it with “a biological essentialism that imposed the primacy of motherhood on all women.” Men and women, according to Dwight Moody, the great American evangelist who died in 1899, were complementarians. Men were valorous protectors; women were virtuous, naive and vulnerable, gender role ideas that were seamlessly fused with purity (and nationalist) ideals.
These early reformers were predominantly white and middle class, Moslener notes, blending ideas of gender roles and sexual purity with social Darwinism. Their work was in part a way to “connect their own race and class privilege” with the ongoing health of the country. (In a recent interview at Religion in America, Moslener notes that her next project will address relationships between race and sexuality.) She writes:
Sexual purity, they contended, was most prominently exhibited in the cultural, physical, and moral superiority of their own Anglo-Saxon race. As a result, purity rhetoric of this era equated social uplift with assimilation into white Protestant culture. However, this status was tenuous, because reformers viewed themselves as direct beneficiaries of classical civilizations felled by sexual licentiousness; reformers therefore interpreted the fall of these civilizations as a potent warning for their time.
Preservation of the nation-state turns out to be an enduring, complimenting thread that accompanies ideas of purity as they develop across subsequent eras of American history. By the early and mid-20th century religious leaders had begun to merge “Christian piety and US national identity,” a confluence that was enhanced after World War II when GIs exemplified “national strength and moral integrity.” Religious leaders focused their evangelizing efforts on adolescents, a newly named life-stage that was imbued with malleability and therefore ripe for conversion. Organizations like Youth for Christ, lead by the young Billy Graham, created an entertainment alternative for post-war teenagers that equated morality with nationalism. “YFC rallies called upon young evangelicals to make responsible choices that positioned them to serve not only as effective global evangelists but as faithful Americans working to make the world safe for Christianity and democracy,” Moslener writes.
Bolstered by a number of academic works at the time that chronicled the rise and fall of civilizations (Rome, Babylon) and by the anxieties of the Cold War (the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949) Graham fashioned his message of caution for believers. As Moslener writes, “national security was dependent upon the shared stability of domestic and public life.” Godless communism could only be countered by a Christian America whose foundation was a traditional family; should God lose his place at the American hearth—displaced by sexual immorality, moral collapse, the changing status of women, homosexuality, abortion, and new age movements—the country would crumble. Earlier Protestant charges that impurity would bring an end to America were, by Graham, now given an explicit, geopolitical cause.
Preservation of the nation-state turns out to be an enduring, complimenting thread that accompanies ideas of purity as they develop across subsequent eras of American history.
In subsequent decades, Graham’s peers magnified and extended his message, but the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s captured the nation’s attention and politics, moving evangelicals out of prominence. “Despite feeling politically sidelined, evangelicals sought other avenues for cultural impact and easily found them in retail merchandising and lifestyle media,” writes Moslener, a change that shifted their focus from outreach to “maintenance of evangelical identity.” By accommodating new technologies, including TV and radio broadcasting, and embracing a new “therapeutic culture,” evangelicals reestablished their public relevance. Believers left traditional denominations in droves, opting for more “individualized” faith paths that led them to media-savvy mega churches which “combined cultural relevance with biblical fundamentals.” Now, embracing traditional values was radical; evangelical youth engaged in political protest that championed “personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, and the traditional family.”
When the Cold War ended, assorted new threats took Godless communism’s place: secular media bombarded the sanctity of the home; changes in the racial make up of the nation threatened white status; and Protestant Christianity’s undulating narrative of apocalypse and rapture became an urgent concern. Evangelicals adapted their message about purity to the current environment and, through the work of legal and political groups like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, that message gained a foothold in the broader culture. Moslener writes, “The politicization of American family life by late-century evangelicals is best understood as an attempt to return to Victorian ideals of domestic piety. Domestic ideologies of the nineteenth century fostered a direct correlation between the well-being of the nation-state and the health of the family. Domestic ideologies imagined the nation as a home with foreign bodies, actual and ideological, as always presenting a potential threat.”
Personal health and well-being, evangelicals charged, were undermined by any kind of sex other than that they deemed to be sanctioned by God. Extramarital sex (of any kind) was an assault on Christian ideals—and thus the nation’s health and sovereignty.
Public health is always rife with the politics of moral judgment (exactly what makes this column possible!). Public health regulations are often a telling barometer of our country’s moral compass, from vaccination laws to the legal drinking age. And no public health category is more fraught with moral minefields than sexual health. Right now, our moral compass is set on shaming and inhibiting the lives of young people, particularly women, by setting up and devoting wads of money to an ideal that will never be achieved (not least by a majority of those espousing it). “That is the erotic dream of Christian conservatism: a restoration of chivalry, a cleansing of impurity, a nation without sin, an empire of the personal as political,”Sharlet wrote at the end of “The New Virgin Army.”
On July 2, 2005, shortly after Rolling Stone published Sharlet’s article, Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Moslener writes that True Love Waits was founded in conjunction with the Southern Baptist church), responded to “The New Virgin Army” at his website. He wrote:
What Sharlet seems not to understand is that the cultural left made sexual abstinence the issue by targeting it for extinction. The resurgence of emphasis on sexual abstinence was driven by outrage over what was being communicated to young people by Hollywood, the educational establishment, the therapeutic industry, and popular culture in general. Sexual abstinence seems revolutionary only to those who bought into the sexual revolution in the first place.
Mohler’s need to be right (and persecuted in his conviction) outweighed the truth of the matter: that the idea of sexual abstinence was a romantic ideal uncorroborated by how we all live or have lived in any period of history—and that its fetishization converts health, wealth, and acceptance into shame. Sharlet responded, “They’re not simply looking backward to the golden age that never was — they’re inventing a whole new narrative of paradise, one with sex at its heart.”
And it’s a cold heart. The core of evangelical purity is a lie that generations of Americans have paid for with their sexual health. Moslener’s book goes a long way in explaining how purity culture has overtaken evangelical politics and our sex lives. The current state of sexual health in the US proves that the movement has an awful lot of broken dreams, heartache and ill health to answer for.
*Thessalonians 4:3 is a verse often inscribed on purity rings
Past “The Patient Body” columns:
Ann Neumann is a contributing editor at The Revealer and Guernica magazine and a visiting scholar at The Center for Religion and Media, NYU. Neumann‘s book, The Good Death, will be published by Beacon Press in February 2016.