On sex, the church, and chewing gum

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 oversexualnotbeenization 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.

morethanBut 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.

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27 comments

  1. Wow, funny that you posted this shortly after I found this article. Your blog post is more “sharable” but I think you might like this one too: http://www.elizabethesther.com/2013/01/virginity-new-improved.html

    1. Sarah, I do like Elizabeth Esther. I appreciate the gutsy honesty that makes her writing sometimes (understandably) un-shareable.

  2. I’ve had too many people share that they believe when they had sex before they were married they felt like they had committed the unpardonable sin. And, if 80% of people are having sex before they are married then clearly the shame based message isn’t working for the masses. And then you throw in the shame that results when someone didn’t have a choice in their premarital sex status because someone chose it for them. Given all of that, how do we talk about sexuality in a way that shows the value of purity (I’m assuming there is value in purity) and the power of redemption honestly without damaging shame?

    1. Jen, beyond the obvious start of not using “you’re a crushed flower” metaphors, I think a better purity narrative would focus on personal agency and conviction. Purity isn’t about doing what someone told you to avoid being THAT girl, to avoid ruining your chances at a happy marriage. It’s not an if-then scenario. If you are impure, then you will be miserable and spoiled. If you are pure, then you will live happily ever after in a fun, above-average marriage.
      Purity is a spiritual discipline springing from individual conviction. It is a choice you make because you believe it is God’s best design for your life. Not because you expect heavenly reward; not because you fear earthly judgement. We need to disciple kids to follow God’s heart, not shame them into following manmade rules.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with this message. In her book “Passion and Purity”, Elizabeth Elliot explains that no young man or woman is ever without the need of God’s sexual healing (something to that effect, though I’m sure she said it better than I). So basically, the idea that physical, sexual virginity counts for anything in God’s eyes is very misleading. I think in our context, Jesus may teach something like this: “You have heard it said that it’s a sin to lose your virginity. But I say if you have given your heart to any desire, you have already lost it.”

    However, I had a hard time getting through the article because I felt it had an overall tone of bitterness. It’s a deep shame to see the lackadaisical spiritual abuse from church leaders, but as a Christian myself, I find bitterness difficult to rally behind.

    1. Phillip, thanks for the perspective from Elizabeth Elliot. She was a wise woman.

      I’m pretty fascinated that you read bitterness as the overall tone here, when I was trying to write a call to grace. I don’t know how to explain harmful ideas without expressing the harm they’ve done to me and without expounding on the issues. Sure, I have some (I think righteous) anger toward this ideology of “you’re a virgin or you’re worthless.” I’m angry for every person who’s grown up to believe they’re unforgivable or ruined when they have been redeemed and restored. I’m angry — but I also hurt for them, and I rally when someone speaks up against the lies they’ve been told. It makes me hope that we can spread a better message of grace and healing. That’s the message I hoped to convey.

  4. Wow!Thank you! I have had the privilege of being an “un-chewed” piece of gum, and am very grateful! I like the thought process you present here – that grace is more than legalism, that it is in fact for when legalism is broken. The story of Jesus and the adulteress is one of my favorite Bible stories, and I believe it solidly backs up your idea that our worth goes far beyond our sexual status. Thank you again!

  5. I like removing the if/then, especially since the if/thens tend to be inaccurate, as you pointed out. And, yes, definitely removing the crushed flower metaphors. And I really like how you stated the rest of the stuff in your response to me. Thank you. It’s helpful.

  6. Friend of the Oppressed · · Reply

    I was born into and grew up in the culture of the evangelical church and have lived in it my entire life. One of my three children is married, the other two are young adults. You are right on point. I did not find your tone bitter. To the point, firmness is required on this hidden issue of abuse in the evangelical church. Why shouldn’t a woman be angry about injustice perpetrated against her and the hidden multitudes of other women and children who have no voice.

    The leading authority in our culture on Domestic Abuse, Lundy Bancroft, (spent his career counseling abusive men, author “Why Does He Do That”) says the proper response to abuse is outrage.

    There is something fundamentally wrong here. The abuse you speak of may not even be the beginning of the belief system permeating the evangelical church. The reality is, treating women as sex property coupled with “submit in all things to your husband” has lead to women and children being enslaved to treacherous men and wickedly abused “till death do us part” because the church has made an idol of marriage.

    You’ve heard “God HATES divorce” but have you read Malachi 2:13-16 in context? Ironic is an understatement. BIG names in the evangelical church counsel abused wives that physical abuse is not a biblical reason to divorce… and not really even adultery is reason enough to divorce. As such, if you divorce a man who has cheated on you and threatened to kill you, you have sinfully divorced. I haven’t read what their position might be on how to hold the treacherous man accountable by tossing him out of the church.

    Because of blogs it is evident there is a growing number of disenfranchised evangelical women who have been horribly abused by their husbands. After the broken wife, who was indoctrinated as you describe, gathers up the courage to go tell it to the church, the church further betrays and abuses the oppressed and afflicted and colludes with the treacherous man. She has to leave the church because the church supports him and labels her evil. She is shamed into believing all the abuse is her fault, if only she were a better wife.

    “The local church is one of the favorite hiding places of the abusive person. Conservative, Bible-believing religion is his frequent choice of facade.”
    Jeff Crippen “A Cry For Justice, How Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church!”

    If you have children of any age in any church program, be aware. Or perhaps I should say, BEWARE!

    Keep on shining the light!

    1. Friend of the oppressed: Thanks for your thoughts. While I wouldn’t want to misrepresent complementarianism as universally bad, the “submit to your husband” train of thought certainly can and has been twisted by abusive individuals to oppress women/families into thinking they have to stay silent and stay married to please their husband and to honor God. The “righteous suffering wife” trope is terrible and harmful. That said, I think a majority of Christians acknowledge a woman is justified to divorce an unfaithful or abusive man and to protect her children. Abuse does happen under the umbrella of submission and in the context of churches trusting “reformed” perpetrators too soon & too much, though, and it’s certainly something we need to acknowledge, condemn, and fight against.

  7. Reblogged this on Madeline Hyatt.

  8. Wonderful, thought provoking post. I’m pondering a few things.
    1. It ties in directly, but think its worth noting that I see us dealing with pornography in basically the same way. The if-then scenario shows up here(if you look at porn as a teen, then you won’t be able to be intimate in marriage, etc) as does the attempts to motivate via shame and guilt. As is obvious to anyone who is paying attention, that message is not keeping people(especially guys) away from porn.
    2. I’m also wrestling with what this looks like, in a practical sense. I’m heavily involved in youth ministry(currently vocationally, but transitioning into a volunteer role soon) and I’m trying to get a better grasp on how I communicate this in an honest, real, grace based, shame free way. And its especially difficult because I also think that the scripture teaches consequences for our actions. Condemnation, shame and guilt are NOT part of the Christian walk, but consequences and blessings are. We see this all over the in Bible, though it often doesn’t look like we want it to(Paul and Peter, to name only a few, sure lived a charmed life as a result of their faithful service). I have no idea how to communicate both grace and consequences. I’m not saying that the consequences of sexual sin are what the church has claimed them to be(the candy bar/chewing gum/flower examples are revolting and offensive and gross) but our past shows up in our future. How do we communicate that without resorting to shame and guilt tactics? How do we create personal conviction from the Spirit?

    1. Ben, thanks for reading and interacting. These are great questions without easy answers, but I have a few tumbled thoughts.
      1. I believe pornography does set up unrealistic expectations for sex and unhealthy views on gender roles (men are always fierce uncaring dominators; women are always ready and willing to be used). There’s more to porn than just wanting sex, though; there’s also wanting power or affirmation. Maybe addressing why people turn to pornography, beyond just “you’re horny teenagers” would be helpful. Preston Yancey has some interesting thoughts on why men, at least, use porn: http://goodwomenproject.com/sex/womans-role-in-his-fight-against-porn.
      2. Acknowledging consequences without exaggerating them is tough. A starting point could be simply stating that while sex can be a big deal, it’s not The Biggest Of All Deals. It can affect your future, but it won’t derail it. It can affect you, but it can’t ruin you; it can’t alter your value as an individual or in God’s eyes. Nothing puts you beyond grace.
      I think one of the overarching problems is that we set up purity as a matter of delayed gratification rather than of spiritual discipline. We talk about waiting (for dating, for The One, for sex) A LOT, but “waiting” puts so much emphasis on a finish line and on eventual reward. This narrative overemphasizes the greatness of the hypothetical future without giving much present hope for a fulfilled life. What if we talked less about Not Having Sex or kissing dating goodbye until that perfect soulmate comes along but instead focused on encouraging people to do good, pursue holiness, practice spiritual discipline, have fun, invest in relationships with all kinds of people, and develop character, talents, and ambition? What if we acknowledged singleness has an equal place at the table?
      I hate “waiting.” I hate “I’m dating Jesus!” These phrases make it seem like you can’t possibly be a whole, happy person without a boyfriend, spouse or sex life – so in place of a relationship with a real person who will fulfill all our wildest dreams, we’ll substitute Jesus, for now. But what if we reframed the purity and relationship narrative to focus on the beauty of spiritual discipline, not as a means to Future Guaranteed Blessings but as an end in itself?

  9. Kerry Tay · · Reply

    Thanks for writing this. I have shared it with others on facebook, as I believe this is a message women are yearning to hear.

  10. Great post. So thoughtful and well written. I almost totally agree. I think that my perspective on chastity as an LDS religious educator of young adults and teenagers is a bit difference from yours, but I think that your main point is spot on.

  11. Carolyn Smith · · Reply

    Yes, offer healing and grace. Offer God’s love! Hopefully, when we teach our children about purity, we include purity if heart. As you say, we are all sinners. We are all “damaged goods”. That is why we rely on the infinite mercy and goodness of God. He commands us to love one another as He has loved us. It’s a tall order, but that is what He asks. We are all ” damaged good” because we all sin. Every sin has human consequences that affect body and mind. As Jesus went out of His way to meet the sinner where the sinner is, we are called to imitate Him.

    it would also do us well to remember Mary Magdalen, a common reference when it comes to sexual sin. However, what we don’t always think about when her name arises is that she, who was “damaged goods”, was the FIRST to whom Jesus revealed the Resurrection, the most important and transforming event in the history of the world. The Redemption of the world was first revealed to a woman who was on fire with love for God. She was beautiful in His eyes!

  12. Carolyn Smith · · Reply

    I’m sorry, i sent a comment moments ago. I didn’t include my website — probably because it isn’t a blog and questioned whether or not it is appropriate. I am author of Growing Up In God’s Image, a New Approach to the Facts of Life Talk. Our website is: growingupingodsimage.com.
    Carolyn Smith

  13. Dave Chiu · · Reply

    Even if you don’t accept the religious reasons for respecting human life via abstinence before and fidelity w/in marriage, you would have to take pause at the presumption that modern birth control makes any “consensual” intimacy no big deal for the “properly” educated.

    Humanity has spent thousands of years more usually protective of unmarried youth, and even now almost nobody feels other than regret about sexual involvement w/ those who didn’t turn out to be a keeper. The whole reason abortion/AIDS/etc are so bound up in the highest level of privacy anxiety is because IT MATTERS who/how/when/etc you get sexual.

    It’s personal on a level that abstinence education is as common sense as measures to prevent identity theft and avoiding posting regrettable pics on Facebook.

    Even more so youth will benefit from a sense that intimacy belongs to the union of marriage, and so to go w/ the “it’s my body” cliche’ is to justify embezzling — just because you are w/in arms reach doesn’t mean you should take what doesn’t really belong to you… it’s wisdom to consider how you would hope your eventual best match is taking care of their half of the someday mutual investment.

  14. Denise · · Reply

    This is such a distorted view. We teach the importance of purity, We do NOT teach if purity is lost, there is nothing left. God forgives and there is restoration. I don’t know where you heard this stuff taught, but I have NEVER heard it in any of the churches I have attended.

    1. I am glad you have heard more balanced messages in your churches. Certainly there are individuals and communities approaching sex and purity better than what’s described above. But I do think this is a systemic problem in conservative evangelicalism (although systemic does not mean universal).

      1. Confused · ·

        I have been part of conservative baptist churches and christian schools my whole life. I am currently a missionary supported by 29 churches. NONE of them teach what you are explaining. I would say this problem isn’t as widespread as you are suggesting.

  15. Confused · · Reply

    Interesting read but I am confused about your position. Is premarital sex a sin? Yes. Are there ALWAYS consequences including a feeling of guilt? Yes. Can you be forgiven and restored? Yes. Should abstinence be taught? ABSOLUTELY. These are all Biblical answers… if you are suggesting otherwise I would be interested to see where you find the answers. Also, Jesus did not condemn the woman because it was her sin that condemned her. Don’t get the idea that she wasn’t condemned and guilty. She was. Just like we are.

  16. So, so beautifully said. Geez, on so many levels. Now I’m going to read them all. (My blog is about LGBTQ, a group that could evenfit from the same question: “Who among the Pharisees, who among us, is pure enough to devalue someone because of what they’ve done with their bodies?” Also love the last paragraph. Just beautiful.

  17. […] My parents and pastors raised me to believe that there was “the One” waiting out there for me. (And, of course, if I actually loved her as much as she would love me, I would be a virginal piece of candy still in the wrapper for her, not chewed up second-hand gum.) […]

  18. […] My parents and pastors raised me to believe that there was “the One” waiting out there for me. (And, of course, if I actually loved her as much as she would love me, I would be a virginal piece of candy still in the wrapper for her, not chewed up second-hand gum.) […]

  19. […] post-evangelicals say, “Purity culture damaged me,” (I’ve discussed this myself here and here, for instance,) and both of those are important. But I appreciate this article detailing […]

  20. […] wear skinny jeans”). Because of my series on modesty and guarding your heart — and an early post with the words “sex” and “chewing gum” in the title — I get a lot of search terms like […]

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