Last week, abduction and rape survivor Elizabeth Smart spoke at a John Hopkins human trafficking forum, explaining why she didn’t try to cry out for help or try to escape during her nine-month ordeal: because she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after being raped. Raised in a religious community, she had been taught the importance of abstinence, a teacher comparing giving up your virginity to being a used piece of chewing gum.
I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value,” she said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.
While Smart was specifically addressing human trafficking, her comments are sparking a broader discussion about how we talk about purity in culture and teach shame-based sexual ethics in the church.
The chewing gum comparison? I know that metaphor. I’ve heard it before, and others like it: Your body is a Christmas present wrapped up all pretty and sweet. If you have premarital sex, the gift is opened, its contents used, and you have nothing left to give your future spouse; you have taken the joy, surprise and fun out of your hypothetical marriage bed. Your body is a candy bar. Every time you kiss, or make out, or have sex, the other person is unwrapping you a little more and nibbling away at your sugary goodness; when you get married, you’ll be a half-eaten candy or, worse, an empty wrapper smeared with someone else’s spit. Your body is a delicate flower, and sexual activity rips away the petals until you’re just a plucked and wilted stem for your husband. Your body is a lollypop. You wouldn’t want your future spouse enjoying you after others have had a taste, would you? You don’t want to enter marriage empty-handed, weighed down with all that baggage?
Besides the blatant creepiness, there’s some dangerous subtext lurking behind these images. The people who perpetuate these ideas may say purity is a woman-affirming alternative to the oversexualization of Victoria’s Secret or magazine covers; but the way purity is presented , it just echoes the same message: You (especially if you’re female) are essentially a sex object. You have a brain, personality, skills, all that, sure, but your ultimate meaning in life is determined with how pure you are on your big honeymoon debut. Your value is determined by what you do with or what is done to your body. If you violate that pledge of abstinence you signed when you were twelve, you might be forgiven by God, but you will always be less than whole. You are forever ruined. The candy bar is gone. The petals have been plucked. Once you lose your virginity, you lose your worth.
This heavy dose of fear and shame is usually coupled with an alluring promise: If you’re a good little virgin on your wedding day, God will reward you with an amazing sex life! No baggage, no hang-ups, no problems. Then there are the vague, unsettling stories about promiscuous young people who later get married but suffer for their earlier indiscretions. They can find Jesus, overcome other shortcomings, break habits, be transformed into a saint. But they can never overcome their teenage mistakes. Their explicit memories will torment their relationship, and their sexual mistakes will bar them from full satisfaction. Their broken souls may be redeemed, but their lost virginity never can be.
The awful implications of these teachings may be obvious, and repulsive, to adults reading about them on the Internet – but for the children who hear them from parents and leaders, they are not so obvious. Growing up in the church, kids (especially girls) are fed this message at church, during modesty fashion shows, at youth retreats, and in purity & dating books. And when kids are repeatedly told their finest virtue is being untouched, their greatest gospel is where their genitals haven’t been, their deepest destiny is as a virgin bride or groom, guess what? They will believe it. They will internalize these half-truths and these lies.
Then what happens when eighty percent of them end up having premarital sex, and they think they’re permanently tainted? What happens when they don’t go all the way, but they mess around a little then enter marriage feeling dirty and fearing lifelong consequences? What happens when they’re sexually abused, and they feel stripped of their worth?
What happens is guilt, warranted or not. What happens is fearful compliance to subjective rules. What happens is unfulfilled expectations for those who remain untouched and unrelenting shame for those who don’t. What happens is aching silence about abuse.
I know that shame. I know feeling worthless. If these metaphors are true, if this attitude toward purity is true, then because of what I’ve done and what others have done to me, I have been used up. I am a soiled candy wrapper crumpled in the trash. I am a chewed-up stale piece of gum stuck to the sidewalk. I am an unwrapped toy, already broken and forgotten. There is no personal merit or marital bliss left for me, or for so many of my sisters and brothers who have fallen off the pedestal or been violated against their will.
That doesn’t sound like grace.
In fact, pretty much nothing about that sounds Christian at all. It sounds like legalism, like oppression, like good intentions gone badly, horribly wrong.
Remember that story about Jesus, some Pharisees and a woman caught in the act of adultery? How she was caught cheating on her husband and hauled to the temple by a bunch of strange men, exposed and afraid? Here was a woman clearly in the wrong (unless you take the interpretation she was coerced into the situation), clearly violating moral and civic laws. She was ripe for the condemnation the religious leaders clamored for. She faced a literal stoning.
But when those self-righteous men asked him to condemn her, Jesus didn’t. He didn’t compound her shame, but rather protected her from judgment and death. She was fully disgraced, yet he saw her as a person, no worse than any other. Who among the Pharisees, who among us, is pure enough to devalue someone because of what they’ve done with their bodies?
Isn’t that what grace should do: Recognize the worth & affirm the humanity of the fallen & the abused. Offer freedom to sinners. Fight the harmful ideas (and gross metaphors) that perpetuate shame. Invite pariahs to the table. Support victims in healing. Celebrate old creations made new. This is true religion.
If you’ve been taught you are only as whole as your virginity, know that you have been misled. You are not an object with a one-time-use or no-returns policy. You are more than the sum of your sins or your scars. You are valuable – as is, as has been, as will be. You are known by a God who is near to the heartbreakers and the brokenhearted; and loved by a God who created you and called you good – and beautiful – and whole.
And if you’re a parent or a church leader, or just a religious everyman, please pause to evaluate what you’re communicating to youth. You can discuss sex, even encourage abstinence, without fetishizing virginity or instilling shame. Drop the chewing gum theology. Drop the stones you’re poised to throw. Where there is opportunity for callousness or condemnation, offer healing and grace instead.
Image of Seattle’s chewing gum wall by Jeremy Gesicki.