I have been trying to think through Elizabeth Smart’s remarks about chewed up gum and the way that we teach chastity to our youth. I have never heard the chewed up gum analogy, but I remember stories about cupcakes passed around and similar visual aids. I always thought there was something ugly about these lessons. It seems to me that the fundamental problem with all of these analogies is that they equate chastity with virginity.
Virginity by definition is something that once lost is never regained. Historically, it has also been associated with a whole bunch of disturbing male attitudes towards women. In some contexts female virginity is literally a piece of property that can be sold to men titillated by the prospect of deflowering a virgin. There has never been a comparable treatment of male virginity. For example, historically a lot of legal systems have allowed parties to a marriage contract to back out of the deal if the bride was not a virgin. I know of no legal system that created a similar escape clause for men. Not surprisingly, feminists have long pointed out that reducing sexual morality to the idea of female virginity has a host of troubling implications, from a sexual double standard for men and women, to the commodification of female bodies, to the treatment of rape victims as irredeemably fallen.
The feminist criticisms on this front all strike me as correct. The argument is often taken farther, however, to reject the entire idea of chastity as a moral ideal. In effect, chastity is equated with a fetish for female virginity. This, I think, is a mistake. To be sure, the idea of chastity often gets entangled with the idea of virginity, and historically the two have often been indistinguishable from one another. Conceptually, however, they are distinct. Chastity is the idea that sexuality is a God-given power and gift, one subject to limits that are not exhausted by affection and consent. It does not rest on the idea that sex is dirty or fallen. It simply insists that sexuality be nested within a context of restraint, commitment, and family formation. It is also symmetrical by gender. I have never, for example, ever heard it taught in a church context that girls must remain pure but that boys will be boys and can be expected to sow their wild oats. The only place where Mormons compromise on this message is in some of the bizarre ways we have of teaching modesty to young women. (Another complaint of mine, but one for another time.)
At a deeper level, chastity as a moral ideal marks a rejection of the liberal ideal of self-ownership. Rather, we are not our own; we were bought with a price and belong to God. Chastity makes no sense within an ethic of self-ownership other than as a choice, a deliberate action in response to a taste or a preference. Mormons, however, do not experience the demands of chastity as a preference or a choice, but rather as an order given by God, one that points beyond themselves and their moral power as an agent to generate obligations for themselves. We may choose to follow God’s law, but we do not choose to author it and its authority is not contingent on our consent.
Seen in this light, focusing on virginity creates problems for an ethic of chastity. First and most disturbingly, it disconnects chastity from notions of moral accountability in the case of rape. It runs counter to the idea that people will be punished for their own sins and not the transgressions of another. Second, it disconnects chastity from the idea of repentance. Faith in Christ’s atonement requires the belief that one’s garments can be washed completely clean in the blood of the lamb, that one can constantly be made anew worthy to be co-heir with Christ of all that God has. Virginity, however, once lost is not recoverable. To equate virginity with chastity thus implies that infractions of the law of chastity are, in some sense, unforgivable sins. No sins – except perhaps the sin against the Holy Ghost – are supposed to be beyond the reach of Christ.
Finally, for youth who are trying to make sense of the sexual world opened up by puberty, a focus on virginity undermines a proper understanding of chastity. Rather than cultivating an ethical response to sexuality that sees it as a gift from God to be treasured and used in a way that draws one closer to him, young Mormons are encouraged to think of chastity as a way of avoiding the loss of virginity. Rather than learning to think about what it means to live as though sex were a gift from God, they tend to think in terms of how far can I go before I have really violated the law of chastity. “How far can I go?” however is ultimately a question about virginity not a question about chastity. Virginity is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for chastity.
I think that we should simply stop linking chastity with virginity. The purpose of the law of chastity is not to make sure that everyone is a virgin before they are married. Generally, if people keep the law of chastity their entire lives, they will naturally be virgins on their wedding nights. That, however, is not the point of chastity any more than the avoidance of coffee stains on your desk is the point of the Word of Wisdom. Rather, chastity is one of the many ways in which we cultivate a view of ourselves, our relationship to God, and our relationship to others that marks the acknowledgment that we are never purely our own.