Twitter is up in arms again (at least it was when I decided to write this post)! It’s all about actress and comedian’s Yvonne Orji’s decision to wait until she’s married before she has sex. Yep! She’s a card carrying Christian virgin and proud of it!
The feminist outrage
Some people, feminists included, are somewhat annoyed at this news. They profess not to have a problem with celibacy as such, they just condemn the idea of holding on to one’s virginity as a patriarchal concept of preserving oneself for ownership by a man. Just in case, like me, you’re not sure what that means, I think it has to do with presenting yourself as a gift to your husband on your wedding night, unspoiled and (relatively) untouched. I guess it does imply ownership and potentially more worryingly, your husband’s control over your sex life even before you’ve met said husband.
Others are concerned about the unrelated link between a ‘woman’s worth’ and her virginity. Somehow being a virgin means a higher value should be placed on a woman. Still others lament religion as an oppressive force bullying women into repressing their natural sexual urges. Finally, I have heard criticism of the concept of sexual purity – the implication that sexual activity soils and therefore damages.
In all honesty, there is some truth to these criticisms. Historically various cultures, whether Christian or not, have placed value on a woman’s virginity and chastity . There is for instance the practice of virginity testing on the wedding night. Even in cultures where the wedding did not take place until the woman became pregnant (I understand that this was the practice when Mary married Joseph – the sequence was engagement, pregnancy and then wedding to avoid childlessness), few of them would have celebrated or even agreed to take a (previously ) sexually active wife.
One has to take into account that in historic times, girls were married off at a fairly young age. Perhaps sexual activeness at that age carried the risk of some kind of physical damage. Or perhaps ancient cultures were also bastards to women (like everyone else) .
A big part of feminism and sexual liberation (apart from tackling sexual harm to women) continues to be to (1) ending double standards between men and women when it comes to sexual activity (2) reversing the thinking that a woman’s personal sexual choices and sex life are matters of public shame – slut shaming and his evil twin brother who decides whether a woman is a victim of sexual assault based on how she’s dressed and how many sexual partners she’s had in the past (3) allowing women to acknowledge and express themselves sexually (4) and yes, ending the practice of determining a woman’s ‘worth’ by her sex life, past or present.
I must confess, I take issue with the whole ‘woman’s worth’ concept. It makes women seem like commodities and plays into the good woman (or ‘queen’ – a word I’m beginning to despise when not used to refer to actual monarchy) /bad girl division. People make commitments, behave honourably or badly, are compatible with you or not. That’s how you decide whether you want to be with them. They are not priced or awarded points as if they were on display in a supermarket. Anyway!
The Christian perspective
It is likely that the reasons for Orji’s decision are nowhere near as sinister as the above. In modern charismatic churches, both men and women are expected to abstain from sex before marriage. The thinking is that sex is a special expression of a certain type of love (romantic, I suppose, but that word feels too shallow) that God intended for us to undertake with one person in the context of marriage.
As to how some Christians apply it beyond their own personal standards and stray into ‘judging’ others, most (media-savvy) people would say “It’s just my personal belief. I’m not imposing these standards on anyone” then (in what seems to me like a slight shift in position) “I’m not judging !” In reality, it often goes beyond personal belief. Just like choice feminism has been roundly condemned in relation to this issue, ‘choice Christianity’ is, I suspect, not really credible in many charismatic churches.
The general belief is that if sex before marriage is wrong, it’s wrong for everyone or at least every Christian. Some churches may see at as a personal conviction, in that they do not expect individuals to account to some deacon or pastor about their sex lives, and may even tacitly accept that some church couples who are in a long-term relationship may be ‘doing it’. But generally in these churches you are not supposed to announce and publicly celebrate the fact that you are having sex before marriage.
I started attending the Church of England after I got married (so the whole sex before marriage wasn’t really my problem by then ha ha ha). I’ve not heard the prohibition against sex before marriage actively advocated in C of E . Much will depend on the individual church of course -for instance Holy Trinity Brompton is one of the biggest and most charismatic congregations of the C of E, as far as I know, its founder, Nicky Gumble, believes that sex should take place within the confines of marriage. In the churches I’ve attended, it’s not unusual for the vicar to be openly accepting of people living together and producing babies before marriage. Perhaps someone has a word in private.
The issue is not without difficulty in the church. There is some discontent among Christians who reject promiscuity but wonder, when they find themselves involuntarily single in their late 30’s and 40s, whether the rule against sex before marriage has prevented them from forming compatible relationships. Some women (especially as there always seems to be less men in churches) find themselves completely disillusioned with the whole thing and wonder if they have wasted the ‘best years’ of their lives waiting for this ideal of a sex-less relationship (their mood, I suspect, turns especially sour if it turns out the married pastor has been schlepping the single choir mistress the entire time but I’m hoping that, despite the media sensation such events generate, that this is relatively rare) especially when there appears to be no direct Biblical authority for the rule (although plenty of implication and Biblical context).
It doesn’t help that some pastors take it too far and preach all kinds of weird analogies for the consequences of sex before marriage. My favourite went something like this: when two people come together in sexual union, they somehow mould together so that they are incomplete and damaged when they are ‘ripped apart’ – a bit like cookies or cakes which, meant to be separate, have (wrongfully and annoyingly!) migrated towards each other on the baking sheet while in the oven, formed an unsightly whole which you first try and break apart and disguise the flaw with icing then abandon the idea and end up eating them standing up, cursing, in the kitchen.
The above is to demonstrate their belief that sex is an act which invariably has emotionally and spiritual consequences as well as long term effects. My main problem is with presenting these theories as if they are undisputed Biblical law when at best they are interpretations sometimes tenuously based on scripture.
My general perception is that a lot of active Christians have managed to overcome whatever reservations they had about having sex before marriage although few would defend promiscuity as being within Christian beliefs or ‘God’s plan’. It continues to be a difficulty in the church, especially in light of the very different standards of secular society, and I’m not sure how consistently or effectively the rule is followed.
Most importantly….my opinion!
I’ll get to the two things that disturbed me about the feminist outrage. The lesser is the hypocrisy of some feminists in supposedly rejecting choice feminism in this context. An example is a tweep (she may even be what another tweep described as a ‘thought leader’ with her 19k followers – I’m not jealous at all) who has been pro choice feminism about a number of sex positive things. Such were her bizarre conclusions that she had me exploring radical feminism like:
I was shocked (shocked!) to hear her condemn choice feminism when it came to Orji’s virginity (I don’t know if Orji is a feminist but the issue is whether feminists can justifiably assert that her position is inherently patriarchal or whether this is one of the choices that feminism should absolutely protect ).
This tweep was quoting anti-choice-feminism threads with not a hint of irony or qualification – as if her previous pro choice/sex positive feminism tweets didn’t exist. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood her. I regularly follow and unfollow her out of exasperation/sneaky admiration/envy (I’m afraid I’m one of those ‘unfollow and scroll’ people. I’ll unfollow because some tweet annoyed me, check on the tweep’s timeline to see “wha’ gwan”, follow again because “ah she/he doesn’t seem that bad”, get annoyed by another tweet…ad infinitum).
The bigger issue is linked to my own personal experience. I never fully accepted that a sexually active person/woman was soiled or that sex before marriage was necessarily damaging. I have been and am a bit suspicious of the claim that it is a sin because of lack of a direct Bible quote. I am a bit wary of promiscuity, partly because I’d like my partner to be faithful and I think what keeps you faithful is commitment and self-control, which is built through life experiences (as opposed to ‘love’ and the fact I’m so much woman he won’t go elsewhere).
However, what really bothered me was the fact I never felt I owned my sexuality. I always felt that when I was dating, I owed it to society, to men, to be sexually active when they decided I should be sexually active. I never even got a chance to make my own objective decision and (much like my eating now) after a while I had completely lost anything resembling a natural instinct in my 20s and early 30s.
I was completely unreasonable for ‘making him wait’ for any period of time/until I felt comfortable, I was manipulative, I was withholding, I was wasting his time, I was trying to force him into a serious relationship/marriage. I was too easy (when I finally said, “ah screw it/me”). I wasn’t making enough effort. As soon as I expressed an interest in a guy (not all my exes), I felt he was watching my vagina with a proprietary eye, waiting for me to give him what was rightfully his.
It wasn’t just the men. From my ‘non-waiting’ girlfriends, the advice seemed to be you had to have a strategy for determining whether he was serious or not. Once you decided he was serious, give him the most exotic, exciting booty he had in his life in order to ‘keep him’.
My waiting friends advised me to resist, resist, resist so that God would reward me with a good Christian husband. The problem was the potential Christian husband seemed to come from a pool of arrogant young men, subject to sexist indoctrination of expecting submission from their wives, who were very much aware of their special-breed status and WHO DIDN’T SEEM TO LIKE ME.
I was completely lost and I behaved very strangely, and sometimes badly, indeed during those lost years. All these people that say Orji should make her sexual decisions free from patriarchy, religion or this, that or the other; I wouldn’t have known where to start. From the moment I entered into a relationship, I felt burdened with the job of managing other people’s expectations about my sex life.
I didn’t know what I wanted until I said to myself “HALT! I am what I am. I am a product of my contradictory upbringing (my mum wanted me to be fairly chaste but not so ‘frigid’ (a sexist, entitled, rapey term) that I drove away a prospective husband), personal experiences and my religious beliefs. If I’m going to change, dismantle everything about the above, it’s not so some man can have access to my vagina or so some women can have some kind of collective validation about their own lifestyle. I YAM WHAT I YAM. Feminism felt natural to me. This does not”.
This is why I am bothered enough to write this post about some of the feminist discussion on this issue and on sex generally. I’ve seen tweets describing the decision as sad. Before Orji, I’d previously seen a tweet saying that women should grow up and accept they are sexual beings (it’s the ‘should’ that bothers me). The brilliant ‘Dear Ijeawela/Feminist Manifesto’ says it is disingenuous to pretend sex is an “only in marriage” act – it is for some people (through choice obviously, most people are physically capable of having sex outside marriage).
There is of course the type of sex. One feminist suggested that a girlfriend who does not digitally/anally manipulate her boyfriend is not a real girlfriend (I bloody well hope she was bloody well joking – as an aside, I’m led to believe by Twitter that if I was young and dating in 2017 I would regularly be expected to ‘eat ass’. I’m ashamed to say that it took me a very long time to realise that this is not just crude slang for oral sex and personally the thought of it has shaken my liberalism a bit).
There’s probably nothing wrong with the bum stuff and I’m a complete prude. However, the serious point is that I’m alarmed to see that feminists and entitled men (from the left and the right unfortunately) saying some of the same things. Give it up (and in accordance with some pornographic fantasy of what is supposed to constitute good sex – I recently re-tweeted the article by Jean Hatchet about the pressure teenage girls are under to have anal sex) at THIS point or you are damaged/brainwashed/being bloody difficult.
My fear is, under the guise of a collective war on patriarchy, we are attempting to force on Orji our own ideas about sexuality and to be totally dramatic about it, co-erce her into sexual activity. I wouldn’t describe myself as a choice feminist – I think feminism is a global tool to fight inequality and oppression against women (and I don’t think sex work is ’empowering’ FFS) but individual sexuality needs to be left alone. It can be so complex and scary with so many people trying to lay claim to female sexuality. So much harm has been done in the execution of the idea that a woman’s vagina is collective property, of collective interest. There is so much entitlement in that area that feminism must march towards individual choice, in my view.
Patriarchy and sexism has done more harm to women’s sexuality than feminists can probably conceive of. But for me, there is something inherently terrifying in trying to co-erce a woman into sexual activity for her own good and for the common good.