Chastity and Virginity

May 10, 2013 | 67 comments
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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.

67 Responses to Chastity and Virginity

  1. Eric on May 10, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Agreed.

  2. Nathaniel Givens on May 10, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Excellent analysis, Nate.

  3. Kristine on May 10, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Nate Oman said: “The feminist criticisms on this front all strike me as correct.”

    I can die happy now.

    (I also happen to agree with your critique of the extended criticism. The End is Nigh.)

  4. Ben P on May 10, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Well done.

  5. D. Fletcher on May 10, 2013 at 9:19 am

    A perfectly nice Mormon guy, my roommate at BYU, said to me “I can only marry a virgin.” I asked him “what if your soulmate turns out to be a convert, who had relationships before she joined the Church?” and he replied “she would be for someone else, not me.”

  6. charlie on May 10, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Finally a well written article on all this chewed gum problem. Congratulations Nate.

    I agree with you in that we need to teach chastity correctly to youth and that means not equating it to virginity, however I’d point out that boys are also taught about the law of chastity and there we don’t use that virginity equals virtue argument with them nor with married couples who obviously aren’t virgins. We don’t teach young Mormons anymore nor encouraged them to think of chastity as a way of avoiding the loss of virginity, but rather encourage living chaste and clean for those other reasons you mention. But that is today’s church. Yesterdays church was influenced by the history you describe from paragraph two. But that was a problem of the past.

    However the point is that it is wrong to claim that virginity equals chastity or virtue (since any virgin watching hardcore porn every day can’t claim to be chaste or virtuous) and those cupcake and chewed gum analogies are simply wrong and shouldn’t be used by any teacher in church.

    So as a church we have actually already moved on from what Smart was taught in the early noughties (i guess) about sex being like chewing a piece of gum….and even Dalton’s talk didn’t actually equate virginity to virtue as many claim, nor does Moroni 9:9 if one even bothers to read it. That speaks of stealing someone’s chastity ie a having something stolen by definition they are victims and not sinners.

  7. Robert C. on May 10, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Nice, Nate.

  8. Cynthia L. on May 10, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Thoroughly agreed, Nate.

    For those interested in more reading on the topic, I thought this analysis of the evolutionary psychology of disgust and how that amplifies the problems with the cupcake/chewed gum analogies was very thought-provoking and well done (and I’m not a fan of a lot of evolutionary psychology work).

  9. Tim on May 10, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Very nice.

    I do have one tiny little quibble: “If people keep the law of chastity their entire lives, they will naturally be virgins on their wedding nights.” I think this sentence becomes problematic when considering rape victims.

  10. Nate Oman on May 10, 2013 at 9:53 am

    charlie: I suspect that practice and teaching in the church is too heterogeneous and contingent to say that we have left this behind us. For example, even if no one uses cupcakes and chewed gum, I think that some of the pretty common “purity” language that is used around sex is unfortunate. It suggests that (a) sex is dirty or impure; and, (b) that the loss of purity consists of the loss of virginity, which is of course irredeemable. One of the problems here is the ubiquity of euphemism in how we talk about sex. I think one important way of improving the teaching of chastity to youth is to stop using euphemism. Say: sex, intercourse, oral sex, sexting, pornography, masturbation, etc.

  11. Nate Oman on May 10, 2013 at 9:54 am

    tim: agreed.

  12. Kevin Barney on May 10, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Well said, Nate.

  13. John Hatch on May 10, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Really well done, Nate. As D. hints at, I’d argue an extension of the problem you elucidate so well is a sort of “fifth-generation” Mormon thinking, perhaps even Utah-centric, that assumes any faithful Mormon, by definition, would have to be a virgin. Linking virginity and chastity ignores the convert who has previously been sexually active.

    I wonder if there remains another problem: At least when I was growing up, youth were warned—-it felt constantly–about staying out late, being alone with a member of the opposite sex, etc., in an effort to reduce one’s chances of sinning. These teachings can mentally link those behaviors with chastity as well. Does this create an environment where a victim of date rape or sexual assault who did not heed the counsel to be home by midnight, feels complicity and guilt in the loss of virginity, and by extension, loss of chastity?

  14. Cynthia L. on May 10, 2013 at 10:02 am

    “One of the problems here is the ubiquity of euphemism in how we talk about sex. I think one important way of improving the teaching of chastity to youth is to stop using euphemism.”

    Yes, yes, 100 times yes.

  15. Russell Arben Fox on May 10, 2013 at 10:04 am

    One of the problems here is the ubiquity of euphemism in how we talk about sex. I think one important way of improving the teaching of chastity to youth is to stop using euphemisms. Say: sex, intercourse, oral sex, sexting, pornography, masturbation, etc.

    I like and agree with the whole post, but this piece in particular deserves real kudos. I suppose many people might consider the arguments about whether or not someone ought to say “penis” or “clitoris” in church to be bordering on silly PC or “naughtiness” concerns, but honestly, I really do think there is a genuine importance here. If you cannot get yourself to articulate the why and how of sexual standards in the church while using the actual words necessary to describe such standards, then you are opening the door to all sorts of presumptions, false judgments, and general incoherence.

  16. Chad Too on May 10, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Thank you for separating the concepts of virginity and chastity. Far too many conflate the two.

    I think the discussion could go even one step further: though we seem to be ok with the narrative of the non-virgin who converts to the Gospel and honors his/her covenants thereafter, to not include those who do indeed choose to be sexually active, even with Gospel knowledge in their lives, and then later fully and properly repent leaves the discussion short.

    Both are worthy to approach the temple and, with a worthy fiance(e), benefit from the blessings of an eternal sealing.

    Virginity indeed cannot be captured again, but chastity can, and is, through the Atonement of Christ. Those who, like D. Fletcher’s BYU roommate, condemn those who aren’t virgins on their wedding day miss a great opportunity to understand the depth and breadth of the gospel of repentance.

  17. DLewis on May 10, 2013 at 10:27 am

    “I think that we should simply stop linking chastity with virginity.” Absolutely, but I’d take it one step further. The only way to save the idea of chastity is to abandon the concept of virginity. We need to stop talking about virginity as if it had any grounding in physical reality; the world would be better off if the word just went away.

  18. Howard on May 10, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Thank you for beginning to deconflate chastity and virginity. The chewing gum and cupcake analogies can be devastating to those who by no fault of their own are no longer virgins and it leaves the wrong message with the others.

    Chastity plays a significant role for the greater good of community in conservative political philosophy whereby the restriction of sex outside of marriage facilitates the stability of family and by extension community. I suspect this is the main reason religion revers it and cloaks it in language of righteousness vs. sin of misusing sacred procreative powers in order to gain compliance. But too much is made of this, after all what exactly makes something sacred? You know it when you see it? Sacred itself is too often conflated or confused with things that really aren’t. For example is virginity sacred? What if it’s taken by force?

  19. Geoff J on May 10, 2013 at 11:03 am

    “I think that we should simply stop linking chastity with virginity.”

    Yup.

    I think most of us already do that. But it is probably time to start calling out others who don’t.

  20. Bryan S. on May 10, 2013 at 11:28 am

    #9 Tim,

    Very nice.

    I do have one tiny little quibble: “If people keep the law of chastity their entire lives, they will naturally be virgins on their wedding nights.” I think this sentence becomes problematic when considering rape victims.

    You left out a very big part of his sentence. The full quote is.

    Generally, if people keep the law of chastity their entire lives, they will naturally be virgins on their wedding nights.

    (emphasis added is mine)

    Now you can disagree if you are of the opinion that more than %50 of all women who follow the law of chastity are raped before they get married. Then the “General” would be incorrect. Is that your quibble?

  21. Alison Moore Smith on May 10, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Great post. Great, great, great. Best analysis I’ve seen. Maybe we can get a first presidency, read-over-the-pulpit support of this?

    Just wanted to point out that apparently the media messed up the story. (Shocker!) Seems Smart wasn’t taught the chewing gum analogy at church after all.

  22. Nate Oman on May 10, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Bryan S.: I added the word “Generally” in response to Tim’s comment.

  23. Alison Moore Smith on May 10, 2013 at 11:42 am

    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.

    I don’t know how old you are, Nate (so odd that I don’t have the slightest idea about the physical traits of most of my co-bloggers), but this might be a generational thing. In addition to the bipolar modesty talk, women (in the church and out) have historically been “in charge” of sexual purity. Boys can’t help what they think, girls have to keep the boys from having dirty minds. Boys are biologically wired to get turned on by everything, women must control them.

    I well remember years sitting in Young Women wondering how in the world I could be responsible for all the boys when I had so much trouble being responsible for myself.

  24. Bryan S. on May 10, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Nate and Tim,

    My apologies. Feel free to delete or leave my previous comment then. I fully agree.

  25. MN on May 10, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Great post. For an additional perspective: http://meganmneedham.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/hot-topic-abstinence/

  26. Rachel E O on May 10, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    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.

    Never ever? Maybe not to such an extreme. And maybe not in Young Men lessons. (Certainly I am grateful that young men in the Church are taught chastity and held to a high standard on this front — though there are probably issues with the way chastity is taught to young men too…)

    But I definitely was taught variations of this idea growing up in an LDS community and home (and I’m only 25, so it’s not like we’re talking about some bygone era in church history). Not just in a modesty context. I had several chastity lessons in my YW classes from awesome, well-meaning YW leaders that emphasized or at least mentioned that you can’t count on young men to control themselves as much because their hormonal impulses are stronger. Certainly, they weren’t absolving young men of moral responsibility. But they were warning us. (Background: I grew up in a rural farming community that was about 70-80% LDS and where, anecdotally at least, teen pregnancy among LDS YW was pretty high.)

    For example, I remember the first time I ever talked to my bishop about sexual matters one-on-one. I was a sophomore in high school and I had just held hands (in a romantic sense) for the first time, and I was so shocked by the effect it had on me that I thought certainly I had violated the principle in the Sexual Purity section of “For the Strength of Youth” that stated:

    ”Before marriage, do not do anything to arouse the powerful emotions that must be expressed only in marriage.” [The revised version of the pamphlet released in late 2011 reads, “Before marriage… Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings."]

    Anyway, I think my bishop basically reassured me I wasn’t unclean or whatever and just cautioned me to keep the law of chastity in general. But the thing that stood out in my mind from that interview forever after was this: He proceeded to explain to me that even very innocent things I do can arouse sexual feelings in a young man. Like if I’m in a car with a young man and we’re driving down the highway and I put my hand up and just lightly tickle his neck – that can have a major effect on him.

    Well, part of me was kinda like, whoa, okay, hormonal boys on the loose, gotta be careful. But part of me was like, man, if a young man reached up and caressed my neck while I was driving down the highway, it probably would have such a “major effect” on me that I’d go careening into the median … I.e. here I was internally sort of freaking out about the way holding hands (full stop) had aroused me, and my bishop proceeded to warn me about the ways such innocent things could arouse young men.

    Anyway, pedagogically, warning me about the excesses of teenage male sexuality was probably not the best approach to take when I was trying to sort through my own budding female sexuality. Though I don’t know what else I’d expect from a male bishop, honestly. (And he really was an awesome bishop on these issues and others.) And of course, there is still a part of me that is not completely unsympathetic to the validity of this warning, from a physiological perspective. (But I know this issue has been mangled back and forth in bloggernacle comments sections ad nauseum…)

    (And here I go again with my habit of making extremely intermittent forays into the bloggernacle, but whenever I do, posting excessively lengthy comments.)

  27. Rachel E O on May 10, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    More importantly IMO, the anecdote I gave in my previous comment (#26) raises a broader question about the meaning of chastity… frankly, to play the devil’s(?) advocate, hadn’t I violated that For Strength of Youth teaching that I quoted above, strictly speaking? My hand-holding — not to mention the kissing, etc., that I did in my high school and college years before marriage — certainly “aroused sexual feelings.”

    In other words, I hear ya, Nate, that the focus on “how far can I go?” encouraged by a focus on virginity is completely antithetical to the true principle of chastity. But in some real ways, that line from the FSY pamphlet – which, to be fair, seems to be a pretty doctrinally straightforward principle of chastity – says “don’t go ANYWHERE.” And yet, I of course received mixed messages because I never was taught NOT to hold hands or kiss or do *anything* before marriage. And I certainly did those things. But in my lived experience, those activities were incompatible with the FSY teaching to not do *anything* to arouse sexual feelings. As a result – and I’m not bitter or anything ;) – but I lived in a state of perpetual guilt in my late teens and early twenties. Maybe that’s not a problem. Guilt can be good. But sometimes it can be counterproductive too, a dynamic to which I can also attest.

    Now, as I’m embarking on a journey of raising my own children, with the distant prospect of having teenagers in the home, I do still wonder, what is chastity, in practical concrete terms, for a youth (or anyone outside of marriage)? I know an easy answer is to say that my question is reductionist – that chastity is about more than “don’t do X”; it’s about a state of heart and mind, a training of the desires, a proper understanding of sexuality and its role in God’s plan of happiness. I’m not denying that all of those things are true. But in the spirit of calling a spade a spade (as you laudably advocate in your comment #10 above), I think the practical realities of sexuality have to be discussed as well.

    (P.S. I really like your original post, by the way, Nate. Best I’ve read on the subject. And after posting it, I saw that my previous comment was in the same vein as Allison’s comment #23.)

  28. Nate Oman on May 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Rachel: I don’t disagree, but I suspect that we are not going to be able to come up with a good set of rules that clearly identify permitted and prohibited behavior. I think that the best we can hope for is a set of rules of thumb, and probably a set of hard and fast rules that rest as much on prudential considerations as they do on moral imperatives per se. One implication of this is that keeping the law of chastity is probably less of a binary than we assume. It becomes rather more like the command to love one’s neighbor. FWIW, I think that in our teaching on chastity we don’t do a very good job talking about sexual feelings. I don’t think that every occasion of sexual attraction or arousal is a sin.

  29. Mtnmarty on May 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I agree with Nate’s point but I’d like to comment obliquely on two points of the discussion.

    The first is the Elizabeth Smart comment. The crime against her was not against either her virginity or her chastity. It was against what Nate refers to her as her self-ownership. Even though she should hold no guilt over what happened due to the chastity vs. virginity perspective, that in no way diminishes the wrong done to her person and the physiological and psychological consequences of that wrong. I’m not suggesting that Nate meant things that way, just that it in the wrong hands it could lead to a “rape is not that bad because you are still chaste” type of attitude. As Nate points out there is a long tradition of excusing bad male behavior.

    The second point is that I think that people calling for a more direct, yet neutral discussion of sex are somewhat asking for the impossible. Here is the argument. To have a realistic discussion of sexual relations, you need a realistic discussion of sexual arousal. You cannot have that discussion without creating sexual arousal. An analogy is in order. If we are going to have a discussion of the best flavors of ice cream realistically, we will call to mind and experience sensations of taste. For many people, discussions of sexual arousal are sexually arousing, hence the use of indirect language. You could argue that this is just circular in that if we culturally used explicitly descriptive sexual terms in non-sexual context they wouldn’t we arousing. That may be true but I still think the main point holds that one doesn’t “understand” sexual passion unless one feels it.

    I’m not arguing for ignorance or prudery, I just saying there is no “safe” or “neutral” discussion of sex.

    Rachel E O well describes how sensitive these matters can be particularly for teens.

    More speculatively, I wonder what chastity means post-marriage versus pre-marriage and how much sexual arousal is tied to the breaking of taboos. There seems to be differences of opinion here from taboo breaking has nothing to do with healthy sexual relations, to marriage is safe place for danger, but this involves a certain paradox that if sex is not taboo within marriage then it can’t involve a sense of taboo breaking.

    The point being that there seems to be a bias in the threads that guilt and ignorance are a problem in relation to attitudes towards sex, and I believe that its quite a bit more complex than that. Openness doesn’t really solve very much in human relations.

  30. Nate Oman on May 10, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    ” women (in the church and out) have historically been “in charge” of sexual purity. Boys can’t help what they think, girls have to keep the boys from having dirty minds. Boys are biologically wired to get turned on by everything, women must control them.”

    Allison: This is a message that is given to YW about YM. It is not a message that is given to YM. We have a lot of middle aged women telling teenaged girls what it is like to be a teenaged boy. We do not, by and large, however, let those same middle aged women tell teenaged boys what it is like to be a teenaged boy. Rather, we give that job to middle aged men, who actually give young men a different set of messages. The ONLY time young men hear these messages in church is when they “overhear” what is being said to young women. That is one of the big problems with modesty discourse in the church in my opinion. It simply isn’t true, however, that when teaching YM we teach them that YW have greater responsibility than themselves for sexual conduct. I have NEVER heard this in any teaching directed at young men, and I defy you to find any official teachings with regard to sexuality addressed to young men that suggest that they are anything less than fully culpable for their own sexual conduct.

  31. Nate Oman on May 10, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Cynthia: I read the link you put up. It sounds right to me. What is interesting is that the scriptures try to leverage on the purity response rhetorically. We talk about the miracle of the atonement in terms of making what was impure pure. The language triggers assumptions of irreversibility that serve to emphasize the miraculous atonement. Think about a phrase like “having one’s garments washed clean in the blood of the lamb.” The way that purity gets linked to virginity in a way that motivates disgust and undermines the idea of repentance, however, strikes me as being spot on.

    The post gets extra points for getting to this point clearly and without borrowing warmed over post-Marxist humanities babble from academic feminist theory.

  32. Howard on May 10, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    You cannot have that discussion without creating sexual arousal. Sure you can unless you’re severely repressed! Exaggerated blatant sexuality is sexualizing but so is sexual repression. If you can’t have a neutral discussion of sex without becoming aroused you’re sexually repressed!

  33. Rachel E O on May 10, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Nate, I definitely agree with you that not “every occasion of [premarital] sexual attraction or arousal is a sin.” I suppose that was my point in raising the issue. And in saying so, I assume both you and I are probably referring to not only instances of more-or-less involuntary arousal, which are more obviously not sinful, but also arousal in the context of controlled, limited, and respectful expressions of mutual romantic affection. [Maybe it's time for a petition to get that sentence removed from For the Strength of Youth!! What say ye!? ;) ]

    I was also being cheeky about my experience of ‘perpetual guilt’ — I certainly had a brain and a good deal of wise counsel, and I realized there was some degree of sexual feeling or expression that was appropriate before marriage, depending on context. But I also can’t deny that navigating and re-navigating the content of that appropriate expression was one of the more spiritually challenging experiences I have ever had, especially as a pretty emotionally effusive person during a (relatively) long-term dating-and-engagement.

    Anyway, I’m probably delving too much into the personal here. But generally speaking, I think these are very relevant questions in the context of teaching our youth — that I realize, as Mtnmarty says, have no easy answers. But I do hope to be able to come up with a way of talking to my future teenage and young adult children about sexuality in a way that communicates the proper principles to enable them to make appropriate real-world choices. (I can’t deny that one thing I’m going to tell them is to avoid long engagements like the plague…)

  34. Mtnmarty on May 10, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Howard,

    In a certain literal sense the whole point of chastity is to repress sex to a marriage context, and the context here is to aid and abet that form of sexual repression.

  35. Weston on May 10, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Boys can’t help what they think, girls have to keep the boys from having dirty minds. Boys are biologically wired to get turned on by everything, women must control them.

    But I definitely was taught variations of this idea growing up in an LDS community and home (and I’m only 25, so it’s not like we’re talking about some bygone era in church history). Not just in a modesty context. I had several chastity lessons in my YW classes from awesome, well-meaning YW leaders that emphasized or at least mentioned that you can’t count on young men to control themselves as much because their hormonal impulses are stronger

    There are no shortage of problems with what’s taught in YW, but it may be a mistake to use them as a basis to infer what messages are being taught in YM.

    In youth programs in the late 1980s, I think it’s safe to say that my local cohort and I were *definitely* taught that it was always our responsibility to control ourselves. Boy, were we taught. I remember being taught it was my responsibility to promptly and decisively get myself out of a situation where somebody else wasn’t interested in chastity, like Joseph getting away from Potiphar’s wife. I remember being taught about various hedges about the law to avoid ever getting *into* a situation where this was even a possibility. I remember being taught about my responsibility never harbor a sexual thought — and that if I did, I’d already more or less committed adultery. I remember laundry lists of techniques to achieve mastery of thought from hymn humming to cold water. And it was also made clear to me that as bad as thoughts were, how much more I’d be hurting not only myself but the poor young woman involved should I ever go beyond that and actually be physically unchaste with her.

    Some of these lessons were probably worthwhile. Some have their own problems and lingering effects, but an absence of responsibility wasn’t one of them. I think it’s possible that both young men and young women are taught not to rely on the agency of others.

    This isn’t to say I never experienced the idea that men were in the grip of a greater lust. If nothing else, I remember a seminary lesson about “The Intimacy / Commitment Funnels” — diagrams of the progression of relationships in terms of both commitment and sexual activity — and being told that men control the commitment funnel and women control the sexual activity funnel, because of the inverted proportion of desire. But that’s actually one of the few instances I can recall of being taught that message in a church setting. I think to the extent that I did pick up that message, it was more influenced by the culture at large. And reinforced by the intensity of my own fog of teenage lust, which could certainly seem stronger without any point of comparison or manifest symmetry.

    It also may be a mistake to generalize my own experience. But there it is.

  36. Adam G. on May 10, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Nate O.,
    your argument makes sense from a purely religious perspective. Once you include the insights of biology, however, the real-world importance of virginity, especially but not exclusively female virginity, becomes apparent. I’m not convinced that should matter too much for us, but I’m not convinced we should totally ignore it, either.

  37. Mtnmarty on May 10, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Howard,

    oh stop, your posts are turning me on. :)

    (Nate PLEASE don’t ban me for this, I’ve been really good since my warning.)

  38. Rachel E O on May 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Nate (30), sure. There are no official Church teachings that give young men or men in general a pass on moral accountability for their behavior, nor are there any official teachings that assign more responsibility for chastity in relationships to young women. This is one of the many areas where I am so grateful for the way the Church and its teachings are counter-cultural.

    BUT, you write: “We have a lot of middle aged women telling teenaged girls what it is like to be a teenaged boy.” Not only middle aged women. Also a lot of middle aged *men* (e.g. my bishop, comment 26). They may not say it to the boys (and I agree, I have never ever heard of that being taught directly to young men in the church), but many of them do say it to the young women.

    In other words, yes, it’s not a “Church doctrine” problem. It’s a cultural problem. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change (I realize you’re not saying it shouldn’t). And it most certainly is not *only* a problem that is being perpetuated by “middle aged women”… (okay, I realize you’re not actually saying that either, but still, I had to balk at that sentence).

    But on this subject, it seems to me that there are a unique set of challenges when it comes to teaching young men about sexuality (well, not wholly unique — these apply to young women too, but anecdotally it seems a bigger deal with young men): While it is wonderful that we teach young men to be accountable for their sexual behavior, the way these principles are taught does sometime seem to unfortunately and unintentionally create guilt complexes and self-hatred among good, valiant young men who nevertheless have real sexual feelings that sometimes are expressed involuntarily or voluntarily or somewhere in between. I think the key to addressing this problem is actually in how we teach about the Atonement and repentance process. But still, it’s a doozy.

  39. Dave K. on May 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Excellent post Nate.

    Perhaps others have mentioned this already (apologies if so), but there is more fundamental dischord that strikes me with all of these analogies. Whose idea is it to reduce sex to an act in which the woman is an inanimate object consummed by her mate? Perhaps it’s just mormon’s sweet-tooth speaking, but every analogy seems to involve cookies, cupcakes, gum, etc. (oddly, no jello?). I find myself asking, “so what if the cupcake avoids getting licked until it is married, it still gets eaten … so what if the gum saves itself until marriage, it still gets chewed up and thrown away.”

    This problem is amplified by some of the “fixes” to the analogies I’ve recently read. For instance, some suggest showing YW how chewed gum can be pressed back into it’s original form (I call dibs on a trademark for “the great gum-press of the atonement”). But the real answer is this: Women are not gum. They are not cupcakes. They are daughters of God. Women’s bodies are not just something they save for their husbands to consume. Sex is a God-given part of the plan of happiness for both women and men. Sex is not something that gets consummed and thrown away. It’s a foundational part of most any successful marriage.

    So instead of revising the analogies, why don’t we just decide that ANY analogy is inferior to a frank, honest, discussion of sex that can be understood by our youth. For heaven’s sake, many of these kids will soon be leaving the YW/YM program to get on a plane for a mission in some far corner of the world. How about we treat them like the young MEN and WOMEN they are and stop hiding behind analogies?

  40. Howard on May 10, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Mtnmarty,
    Well said but I am questioning the wisdom and efficacy of overreaching in pursuit of that goal. It’s quite possible to remain celebrate without being sexually repressed but probably not with a highly restrictive Law of Chastity.

  41. Facetious on May 10, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    If we stop using euphemisms, then some companionships I fondly remember from my mission will no longer be funny. Is that a price we’re really prepared to pay?

    So long, Elders Johnson and Wang.

  42. D. Fletcher on May 10, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    When I was in the Aaronic Priesthood, I was told during one lesson that girls are “vessels of sanctity.” We giggled about the last two syllables of that last word.

    But yes, girls were called “vessels.”

  43. JLMerkling on May 10, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    I think the most interesting thing to me, in context of the discusion about teaching chastity and “useing our words”, is
    ths statement from the OCTOBER 2012 Ensign.

    “Too many youth and young adults express frustration that their parents and even Church leaders tend to use “code words” and implicit messages that actually render more questions than answers and more tension than relief. This is especially true when it comes to sexual topics.

    While serving as a bishop of a young single adult ward, I was often asked what “petting” meant. My faithful ward members had been taught that they shouldn’t be involved in petting, but they were never taught what petting actually means. It was difficult for them to keep instruction they didn’t understand.”

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/10/teaching-chastity-and-virtue?lang=eng

  44. Casey on May 10, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    “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.”

    I think this statement is generally true in the church but it might break down on the fringes–with Mormons who, for whatever reason, question or even reject the Church’s authority on certain matters yet still self-identify as some kind of faithful member. Given that the bloggernacle tends to amplify those kinds of voices, it’s worth taking them into account, because my impression is that there are some Mormons who approach chastity primarily through a lens of self-ownership rather than divine commandment. There have been times when I’ve questioned to varying degrees the church’s capacity to speak for God, but at no point did I ever doubt the usefulness of chastity. I can’t say I developed a comprehensive liberal rationalization for staying chaste, but neither have I ever thought about it in terms of being bought with a price or belonging to God, so I dunno where I’d locate myself on the spectrum. Maybe I’m not Mormon enough, or maybe I’m just missing something :). I quite like this post overall, though.

  45. Carolyn on May 10, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Thank you, Nate, for an excellent post. Yes, chastity and virginity are not the same thing. I think it would also be helpful if in the Church we stopped thinking of chastity as something that only concerns youth and singles.

    I’m reminded of a Relief Society lesson some years ago. Our teacher was not only new to the Church she was also new to the country and therefore probably unfamiliar with Church stereotypes. She gave a lesson on the law of chastity where the ENTIRE focus was on fidelity within marriage.

    What ensued was one of the most moving, deep, profound, sincere class discussions I’ve ever experienced in all my church life. A lot of the discussion concerned what to do if your partner strays. A very thoughtful and meaningful exchange and entirely fitting for group of LDS women. One did not come away from that class thinking that chastity/fidelity was not an issue for married women in the church.

    Unfortunately that was the first and last time I heard chastity discussed in that comprehensive way. Virtually every other talk/class/discussion that I’ve experienced at church seems to be addressed to youth/YSA/SA and can be summarized as just make it to your wedding night and then you will be home free. No more problems after that of any kind whatsoever.

    I think broadening our concept of chastity as something that is also important within marriage would go a long way to help separate the concept of chastity from the concept of virginity.

  46. Mtnmarty on May 10, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Dave K.

    What would a frank, honest discussion about sex have to say about what men and women experience in sex? I almost never hear frank, honest discussions of sex among LDS adults in a group setting, how could one be produced for the youth?

    Its an emotionally charged and personal issue. Imagine trying to have a frank, honest discussion of what attracts men to women and women to men. Its contested from the ground up.

  47. Mathew on May 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I honestly can’t think of any real-world importance of virginity from a biological perspective. Am I being trolled or am I just ignorant.

  48. Allen Lambert on May 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Very thotful and well stated and important point.

  49. Geoff - A on May 10, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Surely there are sex education classes in schools in US. Most of the time spent on sex ed in Australia is spent on self esteem, the right to say no, social pressure, alcohol, power imbalances, and a small amount on sexual intercourse, and birth control. These classes are normally conducted with both boys and girls together.

    Obviously there would be a moral element to a church discussion, but these other issues seem to be missed in favour of the moral, in church.

    Interestingly the rates of teenage pregnancy, teenage abortion etc. are lower, by factors of 3 or 4, where good sex education is presented than in areas where only morality is available.

  50. charlie on May 10, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Nate #10 “I think one important way of improving the teaching of chastity to youth is to stop using euphemism. Say: sex, intercourse, oral sex, sexting, pornography, masturbation, etc”

    I’m wondering what ward or rather what state you are in because we actually do use those correct terms: sex, oral sex, masturbation etc. Last time I covered this was in mutual late last year when we covered all of that including what chastity and virtue actually mean with both YM and YW as a one off class. Only hassle was when an important point made by the young men’s president, that oral sex was also breaking the law of chastity but the kids giggled saying “he said oral”!

    Maybe where you live they still do that losing chastity as losing virginity thing but where I’ve been, 3 different countries in the last 10 years in many different calling, we’ve never done that, never pushed that line that losing virtue and chastity is forever or unrecoverable, nor spoken to youth with euphemisms. That’s why the comment above.

    However I’m not trying to take anything away from your analysis. It well done. Just noting that in the church that I know we are past those damaging analogies.

  51. charlie on May 10, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    And also Elder Bednar didn’t use euphemisms when he spoke on the law of chastity last April.

    He mentioned ‘complete sexual abstinence’ and the Church .. has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality.. etc…

  52. Kurt on May 11, 2013 at 12:17 am

    Nate, a well thought out posting and a very respectful tone. I think your post contributes nicely to the litany of recent related posting on various blogs.

    I believe that chastity as a way of life leads to a lifestyle of purity. Associating it strictly with virginity is immensely problematic – as you point out. I remember while pursuing my undergraduate degree learning of hymenoplasty in one of my sociology courses in the context of a trend (in the U.S.) being seen where loose sexual lifestyles were pursued and then followed by the procedure prior to marriage so the individual could be considered a virgin. To this day, it has remained in my mind a vivid example that chastity is a way of life, a belief, a state of being, etc., rather than the being or not being a virgin.

    A chaste and virtuous lifestyle, as you noted, will lead to chaste and virtuous decisions. When sexual abuse takes place, it is a tragedy. When sexual promiscuity occurs, it is also sad – though for different reasons. What remains a constant, however, is that the atonement of the Savior can provide healing to both victims whose agency and bodies have been violated and to those who engage in the process of repentance, seeking to grow line upon line in acquiring the virtue of chastity.

    To me, it seems as if teachings tools such as the chewing gum or licked cupcake analogies seek largely to motivate individuals through guilt. Conversely, teaching tools that move both men and women (and boys and girls) to seek testimonies of the Savior and His atonement seem to motivate individuals through love.

    I think the potential for misunderstanding chastity grows immensely when it is associated so closely with virginity. I concur with your conclusion. Teaching, understanding, and growing in chastity is a process that occurs line upon line like other principles of the gospel. To link chastity with a single act opens up the floodgates for misunderstanding, and as you indicated, can also support a mindset of how close one can approach the line of virginity before being considered unchaste.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and respectful posting on an important and delicate subject.

  53. Riley on May 11, 2013 at 2:49 am

    Nate,

    I started copying and pasting quotes and found my notes to only be distinguishable from yor OP by the quotation marks at the beginning and end of each paragraph. But the ones I am committing to memory are:

    “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.”

    “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.”

    To those I say, “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!” – Kenny Bania

  54. Riley on May 11, 2013 at 2:51 am

    PS – the first quote should be the new slogan for BCC :)

  55. Ben S. on May 11, 2013 at 2:56 am

    For those who may be unfamiliar, Nate is alluding to 1Co 6:19-20, which says “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?
    For you were bought with a price;” It then leads into some sexual questions from the Corinthians, who were going a bit overboard.

    The “being bought” idea has to do with redemption, being bought back from sin by Christ through the atonement, thereby becoming his servant and doing his will. If you want to get into that more, I’ve got a podcast on Ruth that talks about it, here. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/oneeternalround/2010/05/gospel-doctrine-podcast-lesson-20-ruth/

  56. Steve on May 11, 2013 at 5:48 am

    I appreciate the distinction made about chastity vs. virginity and I would like to see the same distinction made between chastity and abstinence.

    And lest I get away without annoying someone, I don’t think any young person, male or female, should have to be in an office alone with a man who asks them personal questions about sex. If I had it to do over, I would tell my kids that if any man, whether bishop or stake president, asks them questions that make them uncomfortable they should tell him politely that they want to consult with their parents before answering.

  57. Rodney Ross on May 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    I think we are straining at the gnat’s eyebrow here. We only loose our virginity and deviate from the law of chastity if we give it up voluntarily. If a person is forcefully raped they have no choice about what happened. All these illustrations which have been mentioned, most of which are inappropriate to begin with, are given with the intent of keeping youth from voluntarily surrounding their chastity. As has been taught, a person who has been sexually abused or raped has not voluntarily surrendered their purity. That also needs to be made clear when we teach virtue lessons. We also need to remember that being attracted to the opposite sex is a natural, God-given urge. To control that urge is good, but to repress it (pretend it doesn’t exist) is harmful. Young men and women are naturally going to have sexual urges. It’s normal. Teaching them how to control those urges is the important thing. I grew up outside of the Church. My Dad, however, taught me to respect all women and not to treat them inappropriately. That guided me (well, not perfectly) through my single life and into a happy marriage.

  58. anon on May 11, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    You suggested that virginity, once lost, is gone forever.

    In the old days in the temple, the temple play was performed. The actors were generally old men and an old woman. At first I was a little put off by these white haired old people playing young Adam and Eve. I came to see, however, that in these people, at the end of their lives, was an innocence and sweetness that the lusty couple in the current movies cannot capture.

    If virginity can be regained, these people, now long dead, had regained it.

    As a young man I married my dear friend who was divorced. I had never considered this, meaning the thought had not crossed my mind that I would not marry a “virgin”. However, she was as pure and virginal as is possible to be. Virginity is a state of mind, not of body, both to the person and to the beholder. God had made the match, I did not complain.

  59. anon on May 11, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    But I understand, you are talking about “technical” virginity.

  60. IfThereIsAnythingVirtuous on May 11, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Pres. Packer has taught many times, “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. … The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.” This comes very, very close to nailing the doctrine right on the head. Excellent column!

  61. Mark D. on May 12, 2013 at 1:05 am

    “And no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins.” – Rev 3:4

    Does anyone think that all these folks are or will be unmarried? So why do we have to define “virginity” in terms of not yet having engaged in sexual relations? Why not something more practical like never having willingly engaged in illicit sexual relations?

  62. Mark D. on May 12, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Sorry, that is Rev 14:3-4.

  63. Erin Olsen on May 13, 2013 at 1:03 am

    I just wanted to echo the thoughts that anon shared with his experience of the cyclical possibilities of virginity. Another example of this taught in communities where the moon cycles of women are highlighted as revelatory and divine rather than medical (needing some pharmaceutical ameliorative) and annoying. These communities (and there are many and varied forms of them whether we study indigenous groups, modern upshoots of paganism or earth connectivity, or even sects of Judaism) speak of the virgin or maiden stage. For the moon it falls right after the new moon and for the woman it falls as soon as bleeding has ceased.

    In orthodox Judaism this is the time period (for 7 days post bleeding) that a women does not touch nor is touched by her husband, making her free from the act of sexuality and able to develop her relationship with her husband in other ways. In earth worship communities this is the time of greatest clarity and lack of distraction where the women experiences all of the strength of youth. Biologically speaking it is a time where the lowest rates of hormones are bouncing around the body. It is a time of focus and planning for the rest of the month, but also playfulness and laughter.

    So in every month for 7 days you are a virgin. Then there are seven days of a mother (during ovulation, full moon), seven days of Enchantress/Wild Women (we call this PMS), and then the seven days of wisdom (during bleeding. New moon). Anita Diamant brought this to popular parlance with her novel Red Tent where the wise women of Abraham’s family would separate themselves into a red tent to receive revelation for the tribe once a month.

    The idea that chastity is bound to virginity is ludicrous. The idea that virginity is a fleeting gift that can never be restored and is “lost” is likewise ludicrous. As I have read in popular female-authored fiction out of Egypt and Iran where virginity is so violently taken away while simultaneously demanded, I have learned that many young women refuse to jump down more than two stairs, ride horses or bikes, or perform exercise with the fear that their skin protecting their virginity might rip. Thus rendering them a non-virgin although never having held a man’s hand (see Shahrnush Parsipur’s controversial work Women Without Men) .

    Virginity is not a flap of skin, and the idea that it is a flap of skin is another bit of apostate doctrine that we ought to collectively reject – either by receiving our own personal understandings on the matter (as discussing women’s bleeding cycles probably won’t jive in Sunday School), or by adopting other, morally and physically healthier ways of understanding virginity that are on display in the rich fabric of human cultures. Doing so not only avoids the tragic interpretations we’ve all had experience with (and that have set the bloggernacle bells a ringing lately), but also allows us wonderful new insight into our own LDS scriptures and doctrine. “By the blood you are sanctified” reads Moses 6:60. The body of a woman renewing the virginal status post bleeding is an enactment of this scripture while reminding us of the great bleeding act of Christ.

  64. Tamara on May 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Nate, I appreciated your thoughts and that you used the word “we” in discussing the teaching of our youth. I also very much appreciate comments like Steve’s about parent involvement (fully agree about Bishops consulting with and pointing youth back to parents!). I keep hearing voices commenting on “the church” or “those YW leaders” without as much discussion about parents. We parents need to be the ones helping our youth to understand these issues, using better language, making home a safe place to learn and to debrief from learning that happens anywhere else. As we become wiser parents, we can help mitigate hazardous messages of all kinds for our youth, from any sources, in or out of church contexts. I want to be careful to clarify that I am not commenting about any specific parents (including the Smarts), but generally about the need for all of us as parents to keep getting better at being parents, in being the first, the strongest, and the truest voices for our children to learn from and with.

  65. Tamara on May 13, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Let me correct, Steve’s suggestion was about children consulting with parents when talking to church leaders. I agree AND I think that some Bishops could do better at pointing youth back to parents and asking permission to consult with parents. In the new youth curriculum model, all youth leaders teaching youth are to be “counseling together” with parents, it would be good to see that happening more effectively.

  66. JT on May 14, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Dave K (39): “But the real answer is this: Women are not gum. They are not cupcakes. They are daughters of God.”

    You may not have liked Jesus’s parables very much. One could very well say: “The kingdom of God is not a mustard seed! It is God’s sovereign rule!”

    “[E]very analogy seems to involve cookies, cupcakes, gum, etc. (oddly, no jello?). I find myself asking, ‘so what if the cupcake avoids getting licked until it is married, it still gets eaten … so what if the gum saves itself until marriage, it still gets chewed up and thrown away.’

    Again, “so what if the mustard seed grows into a large shrub, it still dies eventually, and the kingdom of God is not supposed to die.”

    I’m not saying that the gum and cake anologies are good ones. But let’s keep in mind that analogies are analogies, and there is no such thing as a perfect analogy. To be sure, there are reasons to not like these analogies, but your argument would go against every analogy or object lesson ever created. You would exclude the teachings of the very person the church is named after.

  67. Charles Randall Paul on May 17, 2013 at 2:09 am

    I am going to share some thought experiments to help clarify some issues that are intertwined with notions of purity, male and female virginity, chastity, and marriage. If we ask ourselves the question: “What does it matter to me if, during the process of deciding to become engaged, I have a candid chat with my lover and discover that he/she has had sexual intercourse with others on purpose as an adult without being married? ” Then qualify the question “with a married spouse prior to divorce?” This question helps to clarify what we believe on this matter.

    Is chastity a law of loyalty that is only indirectly related to sexual behavior? (One major sign of my loyalty is exclusive sexuality with those to whom I am married. This allows for polyandry and polygyny that are chaste, because exclusively loyal to married partners.)

    Or is chastity a law of human/divine exclusivity that creates a unique ONE TIME relationship that is directly related to the first sexual intercourse–meaning penetration for the sake of this question? (Jesus said if we divorce someone and they remarry we cause them to commit adultery and the apostles said to this: Why would anyone marry then?) Translation: Why would I risk my soul (7th commandment) for the benefits of marriage when I know I might end up hating my wife or liking someone more and wanting to write her a divorce? Male language used here, but today we could use either gender for this.

    Alter the question now once more and ask “what difference would it make to my feelings and thoughts if I were given the OK from my conscience, my spouses, and my religious tradition to have a fully polygamous life–men AND women both simultaneously living with multiple spouses in marriage?” These questions tend to isolate the sexual intercourse issue from the social exclusivity issue. It helps with our self understanding to think about these things.

    I do think there is a common psychological desire for unique value of having sexual intercourse with only one other person to whom we are by that act “forever united”. This reflect more than a romantic fantasy. I think we are wise to think about why (beyond moral sanctions or cultural traditions) we feel and think about sexual intercourse with others the way we do. I believe the Spirit of Christ will help us with this and perhaps give us different answers; but it has a lot to do with the value of blending ourselves with another unique person we have chosen–not just anyone. Marriage has been a contract to have and protect children and a way of preserving social dynastic power and diplomatic peace. But I am talking about sexual intercourse for the sake of mutual valuing between two unique persons that consider their act a permanent bonding.

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