Last month, a controversial blog post was doing the rounds on Facebook. It was written by a lady named Samantha Pugsley and was entitled “I Waited Until My Wedding Night To Lose My Virginity And I Wish I Hadn’t”. Samantha was raised in a Christian household and remained a virgin until marriage, but now regrets her decision and has since left the Christian Faith.
I was greatly troubled reading Samantha’s post. Her experience sounds horrific and her story truly tragic. I read through many of the reader comments at the bottom of the post and was dismayed to find that most of the exchanges between Christians and other readers were less-than-civil. For several days I debated internally as to whether or not I should write a blog post in reply. While I wanted to address various points raised in the article, I knew that it would be very easy for such a response to be seen as judgmental, condescending and “holier than thou”.
In the end, I did decide to write a response. Before you continue reading my response, however, I would first invite you to read Samantha’s article in its entirety; it’s a sobering read. My reply to her post is in no way a personal attack on Samantha. She is a child of God, made in His image and likeness and she is of countless worth. I did not have the same upbringing as this lady and I do not claim to have walked in her shoes. However, I have some thoughts I would like to share concerning her story.
The reason why I decided to write a response to Samantha’s post is because I think that the issues raised in her article are too important to leave unaddressed. Not only that, I feel that this young lady’s story should serve as a warning to all Christian leaders and teachers. What we teach others about sex (or fail to teach) has significant consequences. Theology is important and when someone’s formation is either poor or incomplete, the results can be simply dire.
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness – James 3:1
During his pontificate, Pope St. John Paul II gave a series of teachings which later became known as the “Theology of the Body”. It is my contention that, if Samantha had received formation in this rich theological understanding of sex and marriage, her story could have played out very differently. I say this because I think she was badly taught and was given a theology which could be described, at best, as “anaemic”. I believe that this woefully inadequate formation set her up for the heartache which she later experienced. In this post, I hope to show the practical difference that good Catholic theology could have made to her life.
Abstinence or chastity?
As I read Samantha’s article, I found the most striking feature of her narrative to be her repeated use, in some form or another, of the words “abstinence” and “virgin”. Now, since the article was about her decision to save sex until marriage, one might say that this is hardly surprising. However, to Catholics who have been formed in “Theology Of The Body”, this kind of language sets off alarms bells. You see, in Catholicism we draw very clear distinctions between those words and another word which will appear many times in this response, “chastity”.
If a guy tells me he is “abstinent”, it doesn’t really tell me a lot. All I can say for sure is that he currently isn’t having sex. What it doesn’t tell me is why. If he tells me he is a “virgin”, then I know that he has always been abstinent, but again it doesn’t tell me why… Maybe he has terrible breath? Maybe he’s a Star Trek nerd who serenades girls in Klingon on the first date? (This, by the way, is something I recommend saving exclusively for marriage)
So, the words “abstinence” and “virginity” really don’t tell us a whole lot. “Chastity”, on the other hand, tells us much more. Chastity is a virtue, in much the same way as honesty or courage. Chastity protects love from selfishness and instead nurtures holiness. If a man is pursuing the virtue of chastity, then he loves authentically, seeking the good of those whom he loves, even at the expense of his own convenience or immediate personal gratification.
It is important to point out that virginity and chastity are not the same thing. Abstinence and virginity speak about the past, whereas chastity speaks about the present. For example, someone may have been involved in sexual relationships in high school, but has since decided to live a life of chastity. Not only that, even within marriage one is called to be chaste, to love husband or wife rightly. Abstinence may end with a wedding, but it is chastity which forges a strong marriage. Not all virgins are chaste, and not all who are chaste are necessarily virgins.
Hopefully, in the above paragraphs I have shown the important distinction between “chastity” on the one hand, and “abstinence/virginity” on the other. Abstinence and virginity will tell me that a person doesn’t have sex, but it tells me very little else. For example, someone who is physically abstinent may, in fact, view women as objects of lust. Likewise, someone who is technically a virgin may have compromised himself by engaging in countless sexually arousing activities, even if it has never resulted in the full intercourse. This stands in stark contrast to chastity. Someone who is chaste does not view women as objects to be used, but rather as people to be loved. Someone who is chaste doesn’t seek for what he can get out of a relationship, but rather what he can give.
Chastity in Samantha’s Formation
As I read through Samantha’s article, I got the impression that the distinctions described above were not present in this young girl’s formation. For example, here is how she spoke about her pledge:
“…I make a commitment…to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship. As well as abstaining from sexual thoughts, sexual touching, pornography, and actions that are known to lead to sexual arousal.”
This is just a long list of “no”s. She promised to say “no” to this and “no” to that. Chastity isn’t a “no” to sex, but a “yes” to love, a seeking of authenticity in friendships, relationships and marriage.
Later in her article, Samantha outlined the twisted understanding of sexual purity which was presented to her:
“I learned that as a girl, I had a responsibility to my future husband to remain pure for him. It was entirely possible that my future husband wouldn’t remain pure for me, because he didn’t have that same responsibility, according to the Bible”
I consider myself pretty well-versed in various wacky beliefs held by different Christian groups, but I’ll admit I hadn’t heard this one before. Since when is purity just for girls?! With this warped understanding of purity, Samantha described her dating life:
I wondered where the line was because I was terrified to cross it. Was he allowed to touch my breasts? Could we look at each other naked? I didn’t know what was considered sexual enough to condemn my future marriage and send me straight to Hell.
As soon as one enters into this “How far can I go?” thinking, chastity has long since evaporated. When Samantha told her boyfriend that she was saving herself for marriage we are told that “he was fine with that because it was my body, my choice and he loved me”. If bodily autonomy was his main reason for not engaging with her sexually, then that’s a far cry from the virtue of chastity. If his motivation was chastity, then it would have been real love compelling him to postpone sex until marriage, in order that he could seek what was truly best for her and her future husband.
A vision of sex and marriage
From the contents of the article, I couldn’t help but conclude that Samantha was never given any real theology concerning either sex or marriage. In the earlier portion of her article she wrote:
“The church taught me that sex was for married people… Once I got married, it would be my duty to fulfill my husband’s sexual needs”
Was that it? Was that really all she was taught? If this was the sum total of teaching she received, then she was woefully underprepared. In fact, I would go so far as to say she was thoroughly cheated, taught to reduce sex to base biological urges and the human person to an object. Samantha’s distorted view of sex was evident in her description of how she felt returning from her honeymoon:
When we got home, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Everyone knew my virginity was gone. My parents, my church, my friends, my co-workers…. They didn’t tell me that I’d be on my honeymoon, crying again, because sex felt dirty and wrong and sinful even though I was married and it was supposed to be okay now.
Samantha’s impoverished formation concerning sex had taught her a false but simple message: sex is sinful, dirty and something you save for your husband. How wrong is that?!
Against this pallid teaching, the Catholic Church speaks of the marital union in the highest, most exalted of terms, understanding marriage to be an icon of Christ and His Church. In Catholic theology, we understand marriage to be a Sacrament, a means of grace given to us by Christ. On the wedding day, each spouse gives to the other this Sacrament and they are bound together in a lasting covenant. This covenant is then renewed each time husband and wife come together in marital union. It is a bodily renewal of their vows and a tangible sign of their complete and total self-donation to each other. I can’t help but ask: was Samantha ever taught this?
The Catholic Church also sees marriage as an image of God Himself and the life of the Holy Trinity. In the Trinity, the Father pours His love out to the Son, the Son pours His love out to the Father, and the love between the two we call the Holy Spirit. In marriage, husband and wife are called to a similar exchange of love. As Scott Hahn says, sometimes the love between husband and wife grows so strong and tangible that it becomes a third person and, nine months later, is given its own name.
“Sex, therefore, in its proper place, which is in marriage, is a summons from God to share in creation, since man and woman are God’s co-workers in the sweet tasks of quarrying humanity” – Fulton Sheen
I would suggest that the Catholic Church presents to us a beautiful, awe-inspiring vision of sex and marriage which it appears was sorely absent in the teaching which Samantha received.
From reading the article, Samantha gives three primary reasons for abstaining.
1. “Extramarital sex was sinful and dirty and I would go to Hell if I did it”
There are certainly elements of truth in what she was told. Sex outside of marriage is, indeed, a serious sin. There is no getting around that apostolic teaching. However, one should want to save sex for marriage for more than the simple reason that “God’s rule book says so”.
Here, again, we find the difference between abstinence and chastity. Abstinence has us saying “no” to vice and running away from Hell. Chastity, on the other hand, has us saying “yes” to virtue and running towards God. Avoiding sin out of fear of Hell is not the same thing as avoiding it out of love for God and others.
2. “I was told over and over again…that if I remained pure, my marriage would be blessed by God and if I didn’t that it would fall apart and end in tragic divorce”
Was she really presented teaching with such little nuance. It is true that purity is blessed by God and that a life of purity (and by that I mean chastity) is an excellent preparation for marriage. Repeated studies have shown that those who live chastely prior to marriage have fewer divorces and happier marriages.
However, there is no vaccine against struggles in marriage. Nothing in life is a cast-iron guarantee. Premarital sex doesn’t automatically guarantee divorce any more than virginity guarantees life-long happiness although, as noted above, a very strong case could be made that one of these two is a far better preparation for a life of fidelity, commitment and sacrifice.
3. “Everyone knew I’d taken the virginity vow, of course. Gossip is the lifeblood of the Baptist Church. My parents were so proud of me for making such a spiritual decision. The church congregation applauded my righteousness… “For more than a decade, I wore my virginity like a badge of honor… It became my entire identity by the time I hit my teen years.”
A sizeable part of her reason for remaining abstinent was simply social pressure and fear of shaming, which hardly seems healthy!
Was this really all the teaching Samantha received? Was that really the sum total of her formation as to why sex should happen only within marriage? If so, then her teachers really did her a disservice. Given these three sources of motivation, how did Samantha remain abstinent until her wedding night? Her answer is incredibly concerning:
An unhealthy mixture of pride, fear, and guilt helped me keep my pledge until we got married.
Now, nobody is saying that living a life of purity is always easy, but her description here sounds appalling. She was simply white-knuckling abstinence until they said “I do”. This would have been a terrible preparation for marriage.
Chastity is not like this. It allows one the leisure to get to know someone well, to take time to see if that other person really is a good match. It avoids (a) the emotional clouding that comes from engaging in sex, but it also avoids (b) the emotional clouding that comes from wanting to have sex but feeling like you just can’t wait. Samantha’s story shows the problems with (b), but (a) is just as destructive. Chastity saves us from both.
The wedding night
As she was getting ready in the hotel bathroom on her wedding night, Samantha said to herself “I made it. I’m a good Christian”. Made it?! The challenge is just starting! Her description of the night was tragic:
There was no chorus of angels, no shining light from Heaven. It was just me and my husband in a dark room, fumbling with a condom and a bottle of lube for the first time.
Given her description of the formation she received concerning sex and marriage, “Fumbling around in the dark” is a very apt phrase. A condom and lube? Well, doesn’t that sound romantic?! For a long time I had issues with Catholic teaching on contraception, but now when I read stuff like this, my heart breaks. Her honeymoon should have been the great culmination of her wedding vows, whereby she was fully united to her husband: freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully. Instead, a layer of latex still stood between them. She did not experience a complete gift of self-donation. Put bluntly, she got used.
I wasn’t special anymore. My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn’t know who I was without it…
Within marriage, virginity is a gift to be given, it’s not just something you lose. For a more thorough treatment of this idea, please see Jackie Angel’s post “I didn’t lose my virginity when I got married”.
After such a troubling experience, things didn’t get better for Samantha:
It didn’t get better. I avoided undressing in front of my husband. I tried not to kiss him too often or too amorously so I wouldn’t lead him on. I dreaded bedtime. Maybe he’d want to have sex. When he did, I obliged… I’d been taught it was my duty to fulfill his needs. But I hated sex.
I let it go on this way for almost two years before I broke down.
To his credit, her husband refrained from sex from this point and encouraged her to see a therapist. But two years?! How on earth does this go on for two years? How could her husband have not known? They had dated for six years; why were they unable to communicate?
As a result of all this, Samantha left the faith of her childhood:
I don’t go to church anymore, nor am I religious. As I started to heal, I realized that I couldn’t figure out how to be both religious and sexual at the same time.
Although it’s understandable that she felt a conflict between sex and faith, it really does have to be pointed out that Christians for 2,000 years have not found the two to be in conflict. This has been because Christianity has much more to say about sex and marriage than Samantha was ever taught. God made sex! He made it good and enjoyable, he stamped the design into our very bodies. One of the earliest commands in the Bible is to “be fruitful and multiply” and I don’t think God was talking about oranges and arithmetic.
Samantha says that if she could do it again, she wouldn’t have waited until she got married to have sex. I do wonder though what would have been different? I do wonder if they would have stayed together if they weren’t married and their first sexual experience was anything like that of their honeymoon. She also says that they “would have gotten married at a more appropriate age”. She doesn’t say in the article how old they were, but since they dated for six years, I can’t imagine that she was any younger than twenty-one, which is young, but hardly an inappropriate age to get married.
In a phrase rather reminiscent of her boyfriend’s earlier comment, she speaks to her readers:
It’s your body; it belongs to you, not your church. Your sexuality is nobody’s business but yours.
All this has left Samantha, in my opinion, in a position no better than she was before:
When I have sex with my husband, I make sure it’s because I have a sexual need and not because I feel I’m required to fulfill his desires.
If I were her husband reading this, I’d be heartbroken. What she was taught before was twisted, but this seems to me to be equally broken. Rather than her, it’s now her husband who is being used, objectified. Sex for her continues to be not about self-donation, but about fulfilling basic biological urges. Whether he knows it or not. Emasculate. Use his body.
Jesus, the Church and Pope St. John Paul II point us to something far grander. This is the reality which must be proclaimed. When speaking about this important aspect of life, we cannot be vague and we cannot water-down the truth. Couples are called to be living icons of God Himself. Spouses are exhorted to image Christ and His Church. We are all called to chastity, to forget ourselves and live lives of authentic love.
This is not an ethereal theology, however, a nice idea dreamed up by scholastic theologians. No, the “Theology of the Body” offers to us a concrete, robust understanding of the human person and the goodness of sexual union. I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by couples who live chastely and have embraced the Church’s vision and it is truly beautiful.
David Bates is a Englishman, software engineer and Eastern Rite Catholic currently residing in San Diego. He writes at http://restlesspilgrim.net/blog.