Monday, May 19, 2008

Reframing virginity

The sexual abstinence pledges begun by the Southern Baptists and continued by Catholic and other Protestant churches have frequently been called "virginity pledges". It would be an interesting exercise for someone to trace the evolution of terms for these pledges, however, because I have the sense that the issue is gradually being reframed.

For example, the founder of the purity ball finds the term "virginity" and the idea of a virginity pledge to be too all-or-nothing. The pledges themselves rarely discuss virginity, and in fact the very first TLW did not mention the word at all. The term used in their timeline is "commitment cards," and the term used in the pledge itself is "purity". The evolution of the language used for pledges can examine when the term virginity first started getting used in the context of these pledges, and whether it was leaders, participants, or media members who introduced the word into the discourse.

Even if the movement had been ducking the laden term of "virginity", but they seem to be stuck with it. The theology may put the terms on people's minds, or adolescents' obsession with crossing the line into being an initiate of the behaviors they consider adult such as sex or alcohol use, or American society at large (which did, after all, invent the big lipstick red V on the forehead of first time Rocky Horror attendees). For that matter, many adult virgins over the age of 30 or 35 report feeling incredibly self-conscious until they too have crossed that line, so it's not limited to adolescents.

For whatever reason, then, the pledge movement is stuck with the term virginity and all its connotations, and they have to do something with it. The movement began by encouraging "secondary virgins", in which those who have had sex recommit to not having sex until marriage. The "secondary virgin" term sounds like "second class," and it's still attached to the idea of virginity as the goal, rather than some overall average standard of behavior.

I find it interesting, then, to see a book which reframes the term. "Soul Virgins: Redefining single sexuality" (2006) by two evangelical therapists --- one single; one married --- is a dating book aimed at young adults. They define a "soul virgin" as someone who "seeks to" fulfill an evangelical Christian sexual ethic, decoupling the question from actual sexual experience. It sounds like this term is one that they coined for the book, but it would be interesting if it together with the Purity Ball inventor Wilson actually reframed the discussion in terms of a sexual ethic rather than sexual experience and this laden term, and all its associated terms like "losing" virginity. I review the book at length in the following post.

No matter what they do with the term, they will have to deal with the fact that adolescents and perhaps Americans in general are consumed with the idea of initiation, and avidly use the term virgin, so the reframing may be a doomed cause. The impulse to reframe, though, is itself interesting.

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