Did you hear Lolo Jones is a virgin? Scanning news headlines a couple weeks ago, I was surprised and somewhat bemused by the sudden obsession with Lolo Jones. Apparently she told Bryant Gumbel on HBO’s Real Sports that staying a virgin is more difficult than training for the Olympics. The prurient American media (and apparently quite a few similarly fascinated international news outlets) reported the story and updates on public response, then the international news media followed suit when not dealing with more serious issues like the massacre in Homs.
While youth pastors across America will argue that young people need role models who are open in their commitment to virginity, such an emphasis on sex actually reinforces the root problem: the issue in contemporary society is not virginity per se and the difficulties faced in “saving it for marriage,” but is defining the self as a sexual being needing to act on sexual impulses in order to be fully realized as a human being. (And, yes, I recognize the irony that, in even writing this post I am participating in a culture that focuses on sex at the expense of other, far more significant issues.)
When we fetishize sex, and in a way that having it with the person of one’s choosing—or not having it with any one at all—becomes a or even the defining feature that constitutes an individual’s identity, we reduce the dignity of the human person by limiting human identity to one, single, pleasurable/reproductive function. Although Christianity throughout the ages has celebrated virginity, it seems to me that the current trend among certain strains of Christians to proclaim their commitment to virginity prior to marriage is misguided. Please read carefully here…I am not saying that the commitment to chastity is misguided, rather the compulsion to announce this commitment—literally to broadcast this decision to the entire world—is misguided. In doing so, Christians participate in the broader culture of reducing individual identity to sexual (non)practice and lose the opportunity to offer a different perspective on what it means to be human.
The biblical tradition celebrates sex within marriage but it does not make sex, in any way, the sum total of marriage, let alone human identity. To be human, according to biblical Christianity, is to be created in the image of God: it is to be a relational, creative, (re)generative agent in the world God has made. While sex clearly is one act that can be characterized as relational, creative and generative, it is not necessarily relational, creative and generative and few would be silly enough to argue that sex is even the best, highest, or fullest expression of these characteristics. In fact, put in those terms, sex in itself appears pretty low on the scale of meaningful human activities. Furthermore, when we define ourselves in terms of our sexual activities, we become enslaved to those activities because foregoing sex (or the lack thereof) would be to lose the self, to lose what makes a person unique. For example, if Lolo Jones were to get married (and presumably have sex), well, then she’d just be another committed Christian Olympian and her Christian faith would need to be defined publicly as something other than abstinence. While I’m not suggesting that Jones’s faith is nothing more than her virginity, by publicly emphasizing this aspect of her faith, she has participated in reducing her faith—and her identity—to her virginity. It may make for good PR and press coverage but, in the end, her virginity becomes the story rather than her hurdling, rather than her faith, rather than the God whose image she bears.
I agree with this post on some levels. It is unfortunate that much of culture does reduce identity to sexual practices and preferences, many time to the exclusion of other aspects of the human experience. However, I would much rather have the errors on the side of the Lolo Jones sexuality scale then culture engaging in such items as the recent erotic novel that has become a runaway best seller. The content of the book by E. L. James is truly disturbing and reduces everything to the sexual act and particulary ones bordering on violence and abuse towards women.
Elizabeth–Thank you for your comment. While I certainly agree with you that James’ success is disturbing, the point I was hoping to make is that the best way to challenge the equation of sexuality with identity is not to substitute a different sexual identity (one of virginity in this case) but to shift the terms of the discussion such that human identity is defined differently. When Christians in the media spotlight allow their sexual experience and/or identity to become a defining feature of who they are, they do nothing to challenge the broken paradigm of human identity that rules the wider culture. While celebrating celibacy may seem more benign than much of what is on offer in the wider culture, such a focus on celibacy merely continues the false assumption that who you are is grounded in who you do (or don’t) have sex with. The great, freeing truth of the Christian tradition is that human beings are more than their bodily impulses, more than their desires, more than their past experiences. In a culture that can be–as you rightly point out–so disturbingly violent and abusive toward women, particularly through sex, it is all the more important that Christians remember that God loves his human creatures regardless of the violence they’ve suffered or the mistakes they’ve made (sexually or otherwise). And, more importantly, we must proclaim God’s love–a love that is specifically directed toward freeing us from a limited and broken identity grounded in a broken and limiting past.