Abstinence before marriage has long been held as an ideal; from the tribal Middle East origins of the monotheistic traditions to contemporary Christianity. Even the “mother of God” was abstinent as well as a virgin when she delivered Jesus. As the Christian church evolved, some traditions like polygamy and arranged marriages were left behind; while the practice of abstinence, especially for women, remained firm.
Judith Butler examines the role of gender and its formation in social theory. I would like to take a look at a specific idea in her writing and relate it to women, sexuality and the church. The following quote references a French female philosopher and writer, Simone De Beauvoir who wrote The Second Sex.
“If there is something right in Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, it follows that woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a construction that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end. As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification.”
The idea of “becoming” or “identity creation” as a transformational practice leaves a world of possibilities for a human. In short, one does not have to remain anything; one can create and recreate identity, just as the cells of our bodies do. Staying in this line of thinking let’s turn this concept to women, sexuality and the church. The story of a young Jewish “Rebecca” who, after “becoming” a young woman is arranged to be married to Isaac seems from a bygone era. Today, most young girls “become” women as young as ten years old. However, as a society we do not recognize them as available for marriage until they are eighteen. Today the average age of men at first marriage is 28.7, while the average age for women is 26.5. So, this is an issue for both sexes. Many churches, Catholic and Protestant, still teach abstinence until marriage. However, many young adults are following their natural instincts and having sex even though they are not married. Along with this choice comes the unfortunate emotions of shame, guilt, unworthiness, and deceit; deceit possibly being the most concerning as it can manifest in other areas of life and later in relationships. These emotions can impact a young woman’s sexuality as she begins forming who she is as a Christian woman. Her body and sexuality become labeled with negativity and disdain unless she is like Mary – holy, pregnant and a virgin. Women must sustain the objectification of her body from society with its pressures to be sexier, skinnier, and more perfect. And within the church she must sustain the pressures of being holy, modest, and non-sexual. The formation of a woman, according to Butler, is “open to intervention and resignification.” And I would add, pliable, amazing and divine.
So, what will be the church’s responsibility in helping the “construction” process of a spiritually healthy young woman? Does the church have a responsibility? Or should the young woman look to other sources for development in this area? Will “covenant” rings and bracelets to maintain virginity continue to be given to the youth? Will there be stronger sermons on the necessity of “purity?” Will the ideal of sex only after marriage be held and younger marriages encouraged? Will the church completely stop addressing the issue? Will celibacy be the requirement within holy singlehood?
This short writing barely scratches the surface of this topic. I definitely don’t have all of the answers, but am interested in the conversation.
As a final note, I deeply adore the Virgin Mary, and feel a sense of compassion mixed with adoration for her. I seriously do…I’m not just saying this out of guilt. 🙂 Perhaps some of these issues might be resolved by looking at the humanity of Mary.
Elliott, Anthony (2009-03-21). Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction (p. 217). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.