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.