The New Virgins

Christianity has always forbidden premarital sex. But the 1990s were a turning point for the chastity movement in America.

BY: Jeff Sharlet

 
Jeremy Lott's critique

of my article on the new emphasis on chastity in politicized Christianity is shortsighted. He argues that the emphasis on chastity as an organizing principle of the Christian Right is not new. Lott, normally an able media critic, fails to see that the chastity movement of the '80s and '90s are, in fact, part of the new emphasis within the Christian conservative movement.

The "new" of my argument refers to the last couple of decades, a period during which the "Christian Right" as a coherent political movement with mainstream influence has come into being.

While any extramarital sex was always verboten among Christians throughout their history, the actual practice of chastity has always been a rare phenomenon. The current emphasis on sexual restraint combined with promises of sexual ecstasy for the virtuous is entirely unprecedented. Even the Puritans, famed for their moral rectitude, were not as "Puritanical" as newly popular chastity books such as "Every Man's Battle," which argues that men can avoid the "sin" of masturbation by training themselves to have asexual wet dreams every 72 hours. (To their credit, the Christians I profiled in Rolling Stone were aware that the notion that masturbation is a sin is based on a very peculiar reading of scripture.)

Christian conservative movements of the 20th century, pre-1980s, certainly promoted chastity; but a survey of the literature of any of these movements reveals a much higher emphasis placed on other issues. Indeed, the "muscular Christianity" movement at the beginning of the century carried with it a subtly implicit endorsement of randy sexuality as a proof of virility.

Leslee Unruh, head of Abstinence Clearinghouse -- an officially nonsectarian organization closely allied with the Christian Right -- was working on chastity issues in the 1980s. But in my interview with her, she identified the early 1990s as a turning point when chastity as an agenda moved to the center of the public square.

Like Lott, I grew up in the 80s. My home was not an evangelical one, but many of the families I grew up around were. Chastity was expected, but not nearly as emphasized. There was no

True Love Waits

, no

Silver Ring Thing

, no

T-shirts

with which one could declare one's virginity.

That changed in the early 1990s. Ted Olsen, an editor at the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, suggests that the new emphasis on chastity might be considered a result or a dividend (depending on your perspective) of the end of the Cold War. With communism mostly defeated, much of the politicized Christian Right -- that is, Christian activists who express their faith in the realms of law and governance -- moved on to sexuality issues.

Lott writes that anyone who grew up in an evangelical subculture already knew that "not having sex means talking about it constantly." I applaud Lott's open-minded family, but I expect that many readers will confirm my impression -- based on the evangelicals in my extended family and my study of a century of evangelical literature -- that most Christians did not, in fact, feel comfortable discussing explicit sexual practices and actual experiences in church, as do many of the new virgins I've encountered in my travels in evangelical America, a community I would not -- as does Lott -- dismiss as a "subculture."

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