Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Friday, 25 May 2007

On Being a Virgin

This week was another Kindlings Muse, actually the last of the season. The Muse has been running through a series of late, on C.S. Lewis, but I hadn't yet attended, until this past Monday. The series is running at a new venue- not Hales Ales, but rather the Burke Natural History Museum. Monday's topic was Lewis and sexuality. Not sure why I attended.

It was interesting as always, but I'm not sure that the Lewis format agrees with me. An expert of some sort, this time Dr. Bryan Burton of Fuller Seminary, speaks on Lewis' ideas on a particular topic, and then two people of a younger generation disagree on Lewis' relevance to the post-modern era. Generally they are strawmen, not truly believing what they are arguing, but rather creating a false Socratic dialogue in the hopes of bringing out something new. I think I prefer when both parties truly believe what they are saying, as happened in the earlier Muse with Adrian. And I miss the old venue, where there was plenty of beer.

Much of what Dr. Burton shared on Lewis wasn't new, but still quite good. Burton spoke of the classic sexuality metaphor that Lewis used: What would you think if you came upon a society that brought out a giant cooked turkey, slowly uncovered it, and then stared at it in awe, without eating it. Lewis's detractors suggested such a society would be one that was starving, but Lewis responded that, on the contrary, this society would be likely to be one with an over-abundance of food, so much that they could waste it on such a display, where the real purpose of the food is forgotten. Just so, our society now treats sex. It is not over-valued; it is under-valued, as it is near omnipresent. Echoing Lewis, Burton spoke of how Christians actually greatly value sex, and see it as a wonderful thing- it is modern society's treatment of sex that diminishes the beauty of intercourse. It reminded me a lot of the feminist critique of the objectification of women which I've recently read, Female Chauvinist Pigs. There Levy discusses how we no longer aspire to real sexuality, but now try to be like porn stars, who were always merely a caricature of the real thing. You can hear the entire discussion, along with my perfunctory question, at the Muse.

In the course of the night the awful movie Forty Year Old Virgin was brought up. This represents where society is at, that sex is so highly valued that someone being 40 and still a virgin is unbelievable, and can only be an extended joke. We have come so far that virginity, once a value in itself, is now distasteful as soon as you reach puberty and can remove the blight on your body. There is no longer any consideration of the value of merging two souls in the act of sex, and what is lost when you have sex without the commitment of marriage. And sadly, Christians in America are no better at this than the general populace. Those who make the chastity pledge in high school prolong the first time by a couple years- they statistically are no likely to abstain than those who never made the pledge at all. A quick survey of statistics reveals that 80% of American teenagers have had sex. Only 33% of single Christians are virgins. And the saddest fact of all, 79% of women have sex before marriage, and 93% of men.

So when we got to the human sexuality section of biology, I would let my students know that I was part of that 7%, so that they could have some sort of positive male role model in that regard. Even in Morocco, this was important. Casablanca's a city with two red light districts, where wealthy fathers will often take their sons to a prostitute for their first time, in an Islamic double standard looking only towards the Qur'anic prohibitions of female sexuality. I begin to despair that around the world, and especially in my own country, there is no longer any value to virginity. Oh, sure, people will often pay lip service to it, but their actions tell a different story. Even when premarital sex is fought against, it is only for teenagers, as they "aren't ready". No one speaks anymore of the moral value of abstaining until marriage even as an adult. And I have no answers.

The nationally famous Seattle Folk Life Festival is on this weekend. I'll share more about my time there later. But yesterday there were some guys out with rather large signs. There was a lot of writing on the signs, but it basically boiled down to "Got Jesus? If not, you're going to hell." (I'm not making this up. It actually said that.) In front of them were a small horde of clean-cut, well-dressed teenagers, holding up dingy cardboard signs with bad writing, along the lines of "I'd rather go to hell than believe this shit." (Again, not making it up.) Rarely have I so vociferously disagreed with two parties that were so completely at odds with each other.

Every little while one of the teenagers would get a sly grin on his face, and sidle up to right of one of the hellmongers. He'd pull up an even dingier cardboard sign, with a simple statement, and an arrow pointing to the left. The sign read, "Virgin". And the crowd would roar with laughter, as the most despicable term imaginable was applied to someone the crowd was already disposed to dislike.

12 comments:

drh said...

I'm proud to be a virgin.

Anonymous said...

I don't see value in being a virgin, or the opposite. Why should you be valued if you are a virgin? That makes no sense for me.

Each one should just decide what is best for one self. If you feel happy being a virgin, go for it.

Should we be proud of being vegetarians, or non-vegetarians?

forrest said...

There's a difference between fasting and starving. Temporarily going without something one desires can evidently serve as a kind of "sacrifice"; doing this points one's attention more toward God and creates a useful hope of more active spiritual experience.

The time I fasted over my city's neglect of homeless families was like that... It led to me feeling very close to God, also more mentally alert than usual--but also depleted of physical stamina. I became very grateful for the existence of food and the pleasure of eating--and enjoyed wonderful meals in my dreams. I also realized that it was not right, in general, to refuse one of God's good gifts.

Analogous things happen when one cuts back on the usual sexual outlets. Anyone who imagines that wanting to do something means
"needing" to do it could find this a pretty dangerous condition. Consider how the Catholic Church has been impacted by their practice of requiring celebacy of priests...

And where is the value of expecting people to sacrifice an essential part of their nature primarily to satisfy traditional (and no longer really accepted) mores? -- particularly when those same mores render most people confused and conflicted about that aspect of things, perhaps ashamed to realize how important it is to them, so that they can end up blindly sacrificing more than they can or should give?

@bdul muHib said...

I appreciate your comments, Anon. I think the value being placed here really only makes sense from a Christian perspective (or Muslim, etc.). There's a whole set of apriori beliefs that are foundational before one finds value in virginity. And of course, the value being discussed is not inherent in virginity, but simply in the idea that, outside marriage, it is valuable.

This is because many of us find that sex is incredibly powerful. It is not just physical, but the merging of body, mind, and soul, as two people become one. Outside a special container, it just gets messy. The container we're speaking of is commitment- lifelong commitment. We're looking at how all of you should be engaged in sex, and therefore all of both of you should be engaged with each other. Sex is only the powerful representation of the act of committing one's life to the other. Many have been hurt many times by engaging in casual sex- sex outside marriage; many more have been hurt and haven't yet admitted it.

Personally, when I describe marriage, I think of it as the commitment two people make to stay with each other for life. It doesn't have to be in the eyes of the State, definitely. It doesn't even have to be in a church, or with a church gathered around- but I highly recommend that, as it helps knit the two together and provide support in a very hard work they have before them.

With all that background, then, the value is in refraining from giving all of your physical being when you have not given all of your being. That is the value of virginity. And with all that, it then becomes incredibly sad that someone would even jokingly think that calling someone a "Virgin", as that young man did at the festival, would be an insult.

@bdul muHib said...

Thank you Forrest for your deep and friendly thoughts. Yes, as you say, there is value in fasting, even from sexual activity, even between married couples. It focuses both towards God, and helps you appreciate the joy that you do have at other times.

I think some people are called, to use the old language, to give this up for their life. They make a life of abstaining, a life of fasting sexual activity. I'm not one of those people. But I'd say there is definite value in abstaining until marriage. They aren't merely traditional- they are foundationally Christian. They are the clear morals of Paul, Peter, and Jesus. But you're right- it's not about doing it because it's traditional. The why I adressed in my thought immediately prior to this one.

Those mores often do render people confused, you're right. But I don't think it needs to be that way. I grew up in a Christian commune, and that impacted how I see the world, naturally. Perhaps that somehow gave me a leg up. But then, many others in that commune did not stay abstinate until marriage. Still I have no answers.

But plenty of questions. How can we appreciate the incredible power sex has, the importance of housing it within marriage, and help people abstain from it until that point? How can we say it's wonderful (Song of Songs), and yet also one needs to be careful with it. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's quite possible to abstain, as I and others have. Perhaps some of it is saying that, as Christians, we refuse to be like the surrounding culture (in some ways)- we commit to the Kingdom, and not to the nation-state. Certainly, that is easy for some to do, where they set up their own Christian subculture that is blander than everything else. I don't refer to this. I say, be like the culture around you in all ways, except for that which causes offense, to borrow from Augustine. And the offense I'm speaking of is offense towards God. Which I would say sex outside marriage is.

How can we as Christians learn not to give in to the culture around us without removing ourselves from it? To be in the world but not of it? To say sex is wonderful, an extravagant gift, and to take it seriously (and playfully), celebrating it, honoring it, by treating it as sacred, in the traditional sense, and not simply as profane as American culture would take it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Abdul, yet again the anon, who is called Alex.

Thanks for your thoughtfull answear, it helped to clear a lot of misunderstandings.

Speaking of the value of virginity in the context of a religion makes much more sense than what I had understood the message was: the value that society at large should place in virginity.

As for society, I think it should let people decide for themselves, as mentioned earlier. I think you are probably talking more about peer pressure, that pushes people to search for sex just to feel "normal".

I would not blame society at large for this, but just young people group's dynamics. It's the same for tobacco and alcohol, and society at large does not put value in drinking alcohol or smoking, quite the contrary, healthy lifestyles are pushed forward, at least for a significant part of it.

Now your comments linking sex with marriage and lifelong commitment are interesting to me, and I think I could give you my perspective, comming from an atheist mindframe.

I agree with you that sex is very powerfull. It can totally alter your emotions, feelings, and irreversibly change your life, by giving you children or bringing you death and pain through STDs. A very mighty thing indeed.

Despite often feeling attraction for beautifull women around me, I have never had sex with someone with whom I didn't have an important emotional investment. Maybe I just feel there are too many consequences for a random meeting to be worth it.

In my life, I only had intercourse with one woman, the one with whom I am married (we have been together for ten years). I did not counsciously choose to behave like that, or place any moral value in it, it just happened, I am naturally monogamous, it seems.

Now one big difference between my history and your conception is that we had sex many years before we married. I could not imagine marrying a woman with whom I don't yet have a functional sexual life.

For me marriage is a commitment. It's a commitment to share projects together, to give each other support, love, trust, to spend time together. But it's not a commitment for a life long companionship.

I understand that religious people make that promise because of sacred prescriptions, but I personnally think we have no way to know how we will evolve with time, and thus no right to make promises we cannot garantee.

Imagine that two 6 year toddlers promise each other eternal companionship (sometimes it happens). What is the value of that promise? They are not fully developped, they do not know what their adult self will be, and if they will be able to love the other adult's self. It's just a gamble.

For me it's the same for adults. You don't know how you will grow with time, and it may come a time where both partners have diverged beyond what their common bounds can accommodate.

I personnaly do not think that a marriage wich ends with a divorce is a failed marriage, as long as both partners cherish the time they had together, and commonly agree that it was not possible to continue together.

Personnally, I don't think it is morally right or wrong to be monogamous or more casual about sex, as long as everybody takes responsability for the consequences of sex. But I do note that those lucky enough to have a naturally monogamous nature have a more easy time having stable relationships. Simply there is no merit in it, since it's their nature, to start with.

forrest said...

If God was ever offended by my sex outside of marriage, he did not lead me to see it that way.

There was the time I consulted him via the I Ching about a particular woman--where there was a strong emotional affinity, and more difference in perspective than I'd realized. The line I got was, "You are very far from happiness," and when I decided to ignore that, I certainly found that it was true. But even she, when I ran into her decades later, did not think that we had been bad for one another.

Marrying the woman I first married was a mistake. My wife's first husband was almost a mistake; she left him when the children were grown, because he would not stop drinking or lying to her--but he remained her good friend until his death, and I can't regret the children they had, or the son my ex and I adopted.

This was very "California." Anne's daughter was getting married. The mother and father of the bride followed them down the aisle arm-in-arm, and behind them I came arm-in-arm with her ex's wife, the step-mother and step-father of the bride.

My ex, on another hand, ran off to Connecticut with her Lesbian wife, taking our young son, so that I've only in the last few years been able to really know him. She has many admirable qualities (and was right that we do not belong together), but my forgiveness here has a bitter flavor...

I don't know how things would have gone if I'd stayed with the first woman I courted; if my heart had not gone numb then, if I had been able to know her as much as I loved her, this might have been best. Or perhaps it was intuition at work, pulling me toward the wife I know I belong with.

I have always felt that people have put forward "the teachings of men" as if they were commandments of God, much to our cost. But God continues to do his best for us, even when this must seem as Wrath...

@bdul muHib said...

Hey Alex,

A couple thoughts. Thanks again for what you shared. 6 year old kids aren't of course able to make that sort of decision- we need to talk about adults. It's true we can't tell how we'll evolve over time. But that's the point of eros love, when tempered with agape love- that you love unconditionally. You love despite the changes that might, that will, occur in both parties. That's the hard part of love, once the neutrophin-addled hormones have ended.

Secondly, I don't believe that any of us are naturally monogomous. I think we are evolutionarily selected for polygomy- both genders, though the evidence is admittedly stronger for males. Further, this selection is not just polygomy, but serial polygomy, and works best as secret polygomy. We are "designed" to cheat. That's the best way to get the most offspring, and make sure they live long enough to reproduce. At least, for our species.

The point being that none of us are natural monogomists. It is always a struggle, and that's a big part of what it means to truly love another.

quaintance said...

You are right; evolutionarily speaking, very few of us are naturally monogamous.

Female choice in mate selection is evident in humans, though subtle. The difficulty of raising a human offspring to independance tempers a lot of the polygamy. Without the help of a second (male) parent, the offspring may not thrive. There are studies that suggest females are more attracted to males with physically strong features (maters) during the time of ovulation, and more attracted to males with softer features (nuturers) the rest of their cycle. I recall studies on human sperm competition, on how knowledge of menstrual patterns can influence the chance of conception by one partner over another and of the evolution of certain human social behaviors as limiting extra-access to males or as a manner to fool male partners, but I can't pull specific details.
Matt Ridley's _Red_Queen_ goes into this in some detail, if I recall.

Despite this, I find it difficult to hold romantic interest in more than one person at a time. Perhaps this is learned, perhaps this is innate, I'm not certain . I'm also not super willing to spend time determining which it is, because I simply desire that one deep interpersonal connection, and I'm quite happy to take my time to find it.

@bdul muHib said...

Yeah- all the woman needs to do is get the guy to think he's the father enough to raise the kid- evolutionarily speaking.

But I don't know that it's so much genetic x/y as it is cultural- and microcultural at that. I, too, find it nigh impossible to be really interested in more than one woman at a time.

Yvonne said...

I think that it's a case of different strokes for different folks.

In some Pagan schools of thought, all acts of love and pleasure are sacred.

If a sexual encounter is an offering to the divine by both parties, and doesn't cause harm to the participants or anyone else, then that's fine.

Unfortunately, our secularised society has lost the sacred connotations of both consecrated virginity and consecrated sex. In ancient Pagan traditions, there were the Vestal Virgins and other virgin priestesses, and there were temple prostitutes, who offered their sexuality to the gods. Both celibacy and sexuality and can be paths to the divine - think of Tantra for example. It's all a matter of behaving mindfully and considerately.

The reason that secular sex is often messy and complicated is because once it falls outside the generally accepted social mores, no-one knows what rules to follow. If everyone subscribed to an ethic of honesty and mindfulness, then polygamy might work.

I agree that love should be the basis of sexual interaction - but love can manifest in many different ways (eros, agape, fili and storge for example). Sometimes eros is in the driving seat.

@bdul muHib said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Yvonne.

It is true, that in some pagan schools of thought, all acts of love and pleasure are sacred. But then pagan is a very broad term, originally based on the Greek word for "civilian", as someone who wasn't Christian or Jewish. It therefore encompasses almost every religious belief on the planet, or in common parlance, every polytheistic belief. So some pagan schools of thought saw love as sacred; many others saw it as detrimental. Some saw sexuality as so profane as to engage in it in some rather vile ways- with animals, with close relatives, with S&M or death, or with ritual prostitution. It's just impossible to lump all pagan beliefs into one.

I would say the Vestal Virgin lot was not a good one. They experienced a great amount of grief for their status, and it placed women into a box in the ancient world, where they could only be elevated if they refrained from practicing their sexuality that was part of their being women. Of course, Christianity fell into this same lot for centuries while later, but for a brief window there was some hope for change within that faith.

The temple priestesses that have existed in many pagan beliefs are definitely a way that women are mistreated. They become an excuse for men to satisfy their lust, in the replay of mythical gods' relationships, and then bear the brunt of repeated sexual encounters and diseases. Often this involved child prostitution, as in Thailand today. Completely forgotten and ignored was the tremendous spiritual and emotional attachement that occurs when two people become one- which the women were forced to endure again and again and again.

Polygamy likewise has historically mistreated the woman. (Polyandry is so much rarer.) Polygamy in general is also something where the commitment to oneness is ignored- all of yourself is shared with all of the other, as you become one, and then become one with someone else, and someone else. Not that I'm advocating divorce, or even that polygamy should never be followed, but it is simply not God's best for us, where we can fully enjoy the other, be fully known and know.

I agree with you, that sex has become confusing because there are no longer any mores or rules. But I most wholeheartedly disagree that any love can be the basis for sex. Perhaps you did not mean to say that? Philia or Storge as a basis for sex is a distortion of the idea- especially Storge, the love of family. Indeed, even agape can't be a basis- not without eros. Eros is the sexual love- it's designed for that. Once it's in place, then other loves might be combined with the sexual act, but they in themselves can never be the basis.