Virgin Soil

Those who were chaste for religious reasons used to be quiet about it. Why are the new virgins loud and proud?

BY: Jeremy Lott

 

It's funny how religious stories sneak up on most American journalists. One minute, churchgoers will be going about their business and the next they'll discover that their worship/Sunday School curriculum/whatever is part of some New Hot Trend, even though they've been doing--or not doing it--it for years.



So it is with the "new" virginity movement among evangelical Christians. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, reporter Jeff Sharlet

writes

that he's found "the new organizing principle of the Christian right": chastity. In an explanation that sounds like it was copied out of a catalog for the Society for Creative Anachronism, he writes that this strange new virginity is "built on the notion that virgins are among God's last loyal defenders, knights and ladies of a forgotten kingdom."

But the emphasis on virginity for evangelicals is neither new nor terribly political. I know because I grew up in the '80s and '90s as part of the evangelical counter-zeitgeist. Heavyweights like radio shrink James Dobson and popular apologetics writer Josh McDowell trained their sights on premarital sex, to great emotional effect. Through books, seminars, and videos, speakers regularly scared the hell out of young Christians.

The message was twofold: 1) the correct use of sex--one man and one woman who have abstained until marriage--is a beautiful thing; but 2) violate this norm at your great peril. Speakers warned their audiences that if they slept around, they were likely to contract some sort of disease that would lead to sterility or death.

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The warning tended to be more accentuated than the positive vision, and the AIDS outbreaks of the '80s lent urgency to the message. In Baptist summer camp during ninth or tenth grade, I listened to a speaker deliver just such an address. There was no fire and brimstone, but his dire predictions had an effect. Through the sermon and after, girls trickled out of the room, weeping.

Some might balk at that scene, but it made sense to me. Sexuality is not a toy, and sexually transmitted diseases were not dreamed up in the fevered minds of pulpit-pounding preachers. I agree--with a few hesitant, throat-clearing coughs--with the moral order that is summed up in the word "chastity." And I give evangelicals full marks for successfully creating a countermovement that has become too large to ignore.

But some of the propositions advanced by virginity promoters seem misguided and faintly embarrassing. To wit, one of the bits of data to float up in the recent Georgia "runaway bride" story was that her fiancée was a "born again" or "secondary" virgin. On his MSNBC show "Countdown," Keith Olbermann had fun with this concept for several days. "When," he asked, "did they change that rule?"

Continued on page 2: »

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