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Oh look, another thing in the news right now that I get to dissect because of my fundamentalist religious background. Oh goody. This week it’s the bride who gave her father a certificate of her virginity after having a doctor inspect her private parts for evidence of a hymen.
Brelyn Bowman presented the “certificate of purity” to her father, a Christian preacher, during her wedding reception–I imagine sometime between cutting the cake and throwing the bouquet. It had his name in giant, golden letters. If you think that’s bizarre, or it feels somewhat incestuous, well her dad thinks you just don’t understand the things of the Spirit, a reference to being a bad Christian or unbeliever.
(Note: Another writer for this site has already explained how using vaginal penetration as a measure of losing one’s virginity is a poor definition that excludes many sexually active people. But in many fundamentalist religious circles being discussed here, it would be the default definition.)
It’s okay to refrain from sex until your wedding night, or whenever you feel ready. You can even abstain (or partake) for spiritual reasons. But it’s important to be informed about the history and messages behind that decision, and even the possible consequences that have been observed for those who pursue a sexual ethic based on a religious text.
I was a virgin on my wedding night, and had refrained from any form of sex or sexual touching while dating the man I ended up marrying. Like Brelyn, I was active in a conservative church where the Bible informed our sexual ethic. Her certificate reminds me of a sermon on Deuteronomy 22:13-21 where any bride who was suspected of not being a virgin on her wedding night was to be dragged in front of the elders. Her father would need to provide proof of his daughter’s virginity in the form of a bloody rag or sheet from the wedding night (in the days before giant golden certificates). But if no proof was found, then the woman was given time to explain what had happened. Perhaps she was one of the 20% of human females born without a hymen, maybe she had shed it naturally as part of daily activities, or maybe she had suffered a sexual assault. In any case the elders would make sure the bride was okay and everyone would mind their own business.
Okay, no, that’s a lie. They would actually drag her to her father’s doorstep and stone her to death. To quote: “They will bring the woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city will stone her to death. For she has committed an outrage in Israel by being promiscuous in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from you.” Today’s fundamentalist father would drag their daughter in front of the church for a good shaming, at the very least.
Because the focus was so much on a women’s virginity in my religion, I didn’t know men could even be virgins until I was a teenager!
And why is the father involved in this at all? Because girls in the Bible were the property of their fathers. Their lives could be arranged, forced into slavery, violently used, or even ended by their fathers. It’s a term called chattel. Women and children were viewed as chattel in ancient times. I have previously written about how viewing women and children this way has played out in modern times in some religious communities.
Virgin girls were especially lucrative as a chattel commodity. They were included among the livestock, gold, and other spoils of war after a battle. The most blatant biblical example of this is when 32,000 virgin girls were caught and distributed to lustful warriors after their towns were violently destroyed. That’s not all: of those girls, 32 of them were considered tribute to the Lord, and as such were given to Eleazar and his priests “as the Lord commanded.” Religious people in my childhood church couldn’t completely ever condemn this as wrong because it had the God-stamp of approval on it in the biblical text.
So when my pastor told me that my virginity was valuable, I hear that today in this context and it makes my skin crawl. When I read one of many comments on Brelyn’s father’s Instagram picture that says, “I’m glad that this story has come out. A lot of these young girls don’t know their worth,” it’s horrifying to me. A hymen is not a woman’s worth, just like her finger nails or body hair are not her worth. This thinking seems to be confusing a woman’s hymen with her humanity. Haven’t we moved on from ancient times?
Now I’ve spent decades studying the Bible and I know there is a difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: in other words, while you may think a holy book is teaching one thing, you don’t necessarily go out and live your life that way. Most Christians do not read about father ownership in the Bible and think that’s prescriptive. (Unless you’re the Duggars.) Take President Jimmy Carter for example. He is championing human rights, including the elevated worth of women in society. And even though his article is titled, “Losing My Religion For Equality,” it’s actually faith in God that spurs his efforts, even when it puts him at odds with his religious denomination. In fact, almost all of the Bible-believers I know personally are people who were so inspired by their faith that they spent enormous resources helping others out of poverty, staying up all night on suicide lines, or donating a kidney to save a stranger. There are whole churches who have driven sexism out of their worship as best they can, and are welcoming women to all levels of leadership. Orthopraxy has changed over the centuries. No one today is practicing Bible-based Christianity the exact same way as they were a thousand years ago, even a hundred years ago, or twenty years ago. That knowledge used to drive me crazy as a fundamentalist, but those are the facts. And as the faith continues to evolve, I would hope churches like the one I was raised in would follow the example of President Carter and shed anything about them that are proven to cause harm.
I doubt Brelyn got the idea that her worth was tied up with her virginity, something she owed to her father to honor him, because she read Bible passages about Lot throwing his daughters at a mob of rapists, or Jephthah sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, and thought, “That sounds great!” I’m sure the message of father ownership has been greatly watered down, stretched out, surrounded in love, and applied in much more subtle ways. That’s how I was told to be a “wall.” When I was a girl, the people I loved most told me to guard my virginity like a wall, a reference to the girl in Song of Songs 8:9-10 who was told by her brothers to be a wall and not a door. If she became a door (for a boy to enter) then her brothers would barricade her with “boards of cedar.” But thankfully the next verse presents her as a faithful wall so that her husband didn’t have to worry. Of course I wanted to be a wall to honor my family! I did it proudly!
I knew that virginity was my best commodity, and I also knew that I could lose that commodity, and by extension my value–like a car once it’s left the lot. Or, as a recent teacher told school children, I would become like chewed gum. This made leaving the house difficult as rape would ruin my worth forever. (I had my own “boards of cedar” in mind as I avoided parties and walking at night.) This also explains why half the pages for our fundamentalist Christian driving manual for girls was on how to avoid rape. Going out into the world came with risks to our very self-worth. Now I can rightly identify this thinking as rape culture, victim blaming, and even spiritual abuse.
So my over-inflated sense of virginal worth did not do me any favors or lead to any sort of freedom in my life as I guarded it day and night against demons (read: my own normal human lust), and evil rapists hiding behind every bush. But it also stressed me out in other ways. My sexuality had a duality to it; it was both the dirtiest evil and the most precious gift at the same time (hard to separate this from a reflection of myself), and the trick that ultimately decided which it was–whether good or bad–ended up being completely dependent on when I used it!
But like someone holding back from chocolate cake while dieting, and then splurging all at once, my honeymoon had some achy side effects. This led to me suffering something I’ve rarely seen talked about outside of religious environments like mine: a severe case of vaginismus.
Vaginismus is a rare condition where a woman’s vagina closes tightly due to stress and prevents penetration. According to Wikipedia, this condition affects women who suffer from anxiety, have experienced rape or trauma, or who have my religious background (which they call “strict conservative moral education” which can “elicit negative emotions”). I wanted to have sex so badly while dating my guy. I thought about sex constantly and had all the typical urges for a young person. But the wedding night came and I just couldn’t physically do it. We went to the emergency room on our honeymoon thinking something was really wrong with me. We followed up with a local doctor when we got back. Eventually, many long weeks after our wedding day, we were finally able to achieve (painful) penetration. I thought that made me finally officially married in the biblical sense, and felt so ashamed it took so long.
Anna Riesling talks about this in a Cracked article titled “5 Insane Things I Was Taught in Abstinence-Only Sex Ed,” (Page 2, Subheading, “Abstinence Broke My Vagina”). It was the first time I had seen someone else talk about this in print. Riesling writes,
“For years of my life, a huge chunk of mental processing power had been devoted to my “Not Fucking” app. And it turned out that some paperwork and a ring doesn’t make your mindset do an automatic 180. My wedding night came, and I was finally naked with my husband. Everything was right with the world now, and I could at last enjoy those horny drives I’d been suppressing all this time.
Except my vagina didn’t get the memo. As much as I wanted to have sex, she was not on board. She clamped down and refused with all her might to be penetrated. When I tried to have sex, it felt like shoving a wood rasp up my hoo-hah.
If you’re wondering why this is relevant to my whole “purity” upbringing, […] vaginismus is super common in religious people.”
I, too, worked night and day to make myself a “wall,” even counseling (read: harassing) my girlfriends who were also being walls for God, and I just could not get out of wall mode! Sex with my guy was “sinful” and “dirty” and “wrong” one day, but the next day (wedding day) sex with the same exact guy was “good” and “God-designed” and “better?” Yes, we were told that sex would be better in marriage if we “saved ourselves.” (Then after we got married, and during premarital church counseling classes, we were told that sex was a chore for women who had a duty to their husbands even when they are in physical pain or exhausted. So who exactly was this better sex for exactly?)
I dated my guy for five and a half very restrained years before we got married, so imagine waiting that long for this big “God-promised” payoff and then having your vagina go on strike. I was devastated! A doctor once told me that if I had just had sex one of the multiple times I was horny and relaxed and alone with my boyfriend then I could have avoided vaginismus entirely. She didn’t understand that I would have suffered something much worse than physical pain (and weeks of emotional uncertainty) if I had. I would have suffered deep guilt, loss, failure, and maybe even ostracization from my religious friends. I went home and prayed for her soul (because only the devil could make her say such things, right?), yet I couldn’t shake the niggling doubt in my heart that if those promises for following the church’s prescription for sex were truly from an all-powerful God, then why was that not the experience of myself or many of my friends? Why was this sexual ethic not defeasible?
Another promise my religion made to me (through church, Christian college, Christian camp, etc.) was the promise of a better relationship if you honored God by following the Bible’s sexual ethic. But in a recent study (MacInnis, Hodson, 2015) it was shown that religiosity and conservatism actually go hand-in-hand with greater likelihood of searching for sexual images. To quote the abstract:
We observed moderate-to-large positive associations between: (1) greater proportions of state-level religiosity and general web searching for sexual content and (2) greater proportions of state-level conservatism and image-specific searching for sex. These findings were interpreted in terms of the paradoxical hypothesis that a greater preponderance of right-leaning ideologies is associated with greater preoccupation with sexual content in private internet activity.
In other words those who vilified sex by making it “sinful” in certain contexts either became obsessed with it or were already obsessed with it. Terry Firma wrote an interesting article on how those in the Bible Belt are more likely to have these sexual hangups. She quoted a Harvard study from 2009 that shows “a significant correlation” between those who are very religious and subscriptions to porn sites. She quoted Andrew Sullivan who says, “[Conservative religion] doesn’t conquer sex; it just fetishizes it and forces it underground.” That doesn’t mean that all religious people are obsessed with sex. It just means that bottling up sexual feelings can make them come out in other ways. And it definitely shows that it’s false to claim that abstinence before marriage, and following a conservative religious sexual ethic, will solve all of your sexual problems. It’s been shown to actually create new problems!
So giving your daddy a certificate of your virginity does not seem to be in line with a healthy view of sex or women, nor does it guarantee sexual satisfaction or faithfulness from a partner. But it can definitely make you a rock star in your religious community, as it did for me. And that rock star status can even put you in a position to promote this sexual ethic as “God ordained” and push it on more women. And that worries me. Especially when Brelyn posts that she is enjoying “the promises of God” for her life.