“I want my daughter to have sex before she gets married, and NOT with the man who will be her husband,” he said to me.
We sat on my couch, my friend and I, talking about a myriad of things, including his high school aged daughter who was dating her first boyfriend. It was the first time in my life that I’d heard someone say that, let alone a father. Some reading that might want to dismiss him as a cavalier parent. On the contrary, my friend is a religious Orthodox Jewish father of five and one of the most principled individuals I ever met, so when he spoke these words, I was mesmerized. Given the general attitude about premarital sex with which I grew up — standard conservative Christian rhetoric — it had never occurred to me that virginity had become some creepy badge of honor.
Our conversation would launch a thousand private thoughts as I entered the world of blogging, with sex as the plot, prudishness and promiscuity as the warring factions, love as the happy ending, and spirituality as the overall arc. I’m jumping the gun, however.
The Purity Myth
Ideally, one’s first sexual experience should be memorable, preferably delightful, and based on mutual trust, respect and satisfaction. Realistically, what often happens is more complex, at least in terms of how young women come of age. Many have argued that we live in a culture obsessed with virginity, both in direct and overt ways. This creates extreme pressures on both ends of the sexual continuum: girls are forced to choose between prudishness on one hand, or something akin to promiscuity (as opposed to sexual freedom) on the other.
Jessica Valenti, former editor of feministing.com, offers a brave call to over haul these narratives in her latest book, [italic| The Purity Myth (Seal Press, 2010). In a series of sharply formed essays, Valenti writes convincingly and offers solutions to these “combination of forces” that have “created a juggernaut of unrealistic sexual expectations for young women.” Dress suggestively, but don’t have sex.
Just consider abstinence-only education and chastity balls (according to Purity, over 1400 were held in 2006) on one hand, and the hypersexualization of girls and the pornification of culture on the other. The consequence of these opposing expectations is that nowadays, women face a gauntlet of social and religious repercussions (read: slut-shaming) for daring to make their own sexual choices. What’s more, the new ideal woman isn’t a woman at all. According to Valenti, she’s a girl.
“Most of us are aware of how subject girls are to inappropriate sexual attention, and how younger and younger women are presented as sex objects in the media,” Valenti writes. Then she lays out how “touting girls and girlhood as ideal forms of sexuality is simply another way of advancing the notion that to be desirable, women need to be un-adults — young, naïve and impressionable.”
The message is loud and clear: Our obsession with virginity is hurting young women; equating female morality with sexual ignorance is widespread, yet utterly preposterous; and our current cultural milieu heavily influenced by misogynistic porn means we have our work cut out for us. Valenti’s post-virgin world is an activists’ ‘dream’ (if by dream you mean you love getting mucky and making a difference the hard way).
What’s missing in today’s understanding of female sexuality is a balanced (sensual) middle ground, where all phases of a woman’s development and experience are revered, nurtured and respected, a new morality free from “rabid Dworkinizing and Girls Gone Wild vapidity,” as Valenti writes. That’s where my curiosity about sacred sex entered into the narrative.
If we scratch below the surface of the virginity myths, we find that once upon a time, visions of purity, chastity and virginity were much different than they are today. In matriarchal communities, women were moral actors outside of their bodies and sexual acts. Goddess legends divide womankind into three divine aspects: virgin/mother/crone, or maiden/wife/witch. Each of these phases was associated with mutually inclusive spiritual and sexual work as part of conscious evolution. Sexuality wasn’t befuddled as it is now.
I put my questions about virginity and sacred sexuality out to those in the know, and what I learned convinced me that our sexual HERstory is far different than the patriarchal notions with which I grew up. Thank Goddessness.
“Defining the Virgin by her unbroken hymen is a patriarchal concept, a limited and literal understanding of virginity. Metaphorically and psychologically, the Virgin is the autonomous part of a woman’s psyche; the intrinsic self not owned by, needing, or requiring a man’s validation. She could be sexual – or not,” wrote Adele (no last name) of HolyMoves.com, a website dedicated to ‘reclaiming female wholeness’ via integrating sex and spirit.
A virgin being sexual? This is inconsistent with mainstream religious views, which by definition equate virginity with abstinence from sexual activities or knowledge. Through research, however, I found references to earlier views of ‘virgins’ that differed greatly. Contrary to modern notions, a virgin was an independent and autonomous woman, not responsible to a man or for children, free to take lovers as she saw fit.
Of course, there were variations on this theme. The Vestal Virgins, high priestesses in the Roman Empire for example, were bound for thirty years to vows of chastity, but they were nobody’s property. Emancipated from patriarchal social structures, these women were highly regarded in society for their role in religious rituals and community functions.
Early Christianity even hints at a role for sacred sexuality in the notion of ‘Brides of God.’ Imagine my surprise when I read that the earliest concept of the ‘holy virgin’ wasn’t to ensure that no man had slept with (read: sullied) a woman. On the contrary, these women dispensed Goddess (Mary’s) grace through sexual worship, healing, sacred dance and prophesying.
Sacred sexuality asserts that within every woman – herself a representation of a holy trinity that comprises the maiden/wife/witch or virgin/mother/crone — exists a myriad of passions, pleasures and preferences. A woman can at once be, “chaste, promiscuous, motherly and bloodthirsty; she can find herself being modest or sensual, nurturing and ruthless; virginal, harlot, fertile and warlike; immaculate, wanton, motherly and warrior,” explained Adele. Intuitively, women often understand this, but culturally we struggle with what we’ve been taught as contradictory personas.
“What does it mean to be chaste and promiscuous?” Adele asked. “We do not have an image for it because our worldview denies a sacred sexuality; sex is either good or bad. So chaste is split from promiscuous, modest from sensual, virgin from harlot, immaculate from wanton.”
These distortions haunt us to this day. Our understanding (obsession) with virginal purity, itself a misrepresentation with no biological basis perpetuates the divisions within womankind. Have sex too soon? You are a slut. Wait too long? You are a prude. Want to be sexy? Dress up like a young schoolgirl and pout.
Motherhood, the most obvious sign that a woman has been sexually active, is divided into the MILF vs. the soccer mom camps. One is associated with retaining youth and looking fuckable; the other with helicopter parenting and car-pools. All contrive that a woman derives her primary identity vis-à-vis external gauges (husband’s wealth, her conformity to societal ideals, her children, etc.).
Moreover, the Crone is practically absent from discussions, with rare exception, replaced by images of old, sickly, wizened, hardly sexual, women.
Whether they caused this split, or simply took advantage of it, is almost a moot point. The result is that patriarchal religious forces distorted the feminine lover archetype that was once part of virgin/mother/crone trinity. Wresting control of the life cycle from the divine Goddess meant that sex could then be confined to specific times in a woman’s life. Procreation was allowed only in the context of marriage; the virgin became synonymous with purity, the mother image with chastity, and the crone was condemned. There was no longer room for the awesome power of ancient female priestesses who manifested and served love on a sexual platter.