1 Corinthians 7:8-9 states, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single […] But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Religion and sex are not mutually exclusive for many women. Because women raised in fundamentalist faiths are expected to follow moral rules from an early age, some develop an unhealthy, guilt-ridden relationship with sex. Sex is difficult to navigate on its own, even without the stigma surrounding it. Still, when added to religion, it is almost impossible.
Because of the first ‘sin’ recorded in Genesis, women are cast as Eve. According to Judeo-Christian tradition, Eve, the first woman, is why sin exists. If the legendary temptress had not persuaded innocent Adam to eat the forbidden fruit (thought by many as an analogy for sex), everything would have been peachy. To this day, women pay for Eve’s alleged crime; Eve’s story is used as a scare tactic to make women comply.
All Biblical rules on morality are not explicitly directed at women, but it is evident they’re all too often used to control women. Christianity and some non-Western religions support a patriarchal society, where men hold power and women are largely excluded from it. It is the woman’s responsibility to act as the nurturer in the relationship, and she is supposed to submit to her husband. Any other combination of partnering roles is wrong. The biblical character Paul wrote a letter to the Ephesians that states, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” This commandment opens the door for patriarchal abuse in numerous areas of a heterosexual relationship.
The Virgin-Whore dichotomy, a term initially coined by Dr. Sigmund Freud, is the basis for purity culture, an Evangelical movement that promotes sexual abstinence in women until marriage. It also teaches women are responsible for the sexual feelings and choices men make and that women must dress, walk, and talk so as not to “inspire” sexual thoughts. This illuminates the damaging reality that Christian fundamentalism has created. Also fittingly referred to as the Mary-Eve Dichotomy, it presents the idea that women can choose only two sexual identities: either a chaste virgin or a dirty whore. There is no gray area. Christianity has pushed this lie for generations and continues to do so today. This lie is problematic for several reasons.
The Virgin-Whore Dichotomy enforces abstinence over birth control methods, i.e. condoms, the pill, IUD’s, and the Depo shot. Individuals are seldom educated about safe sex, creating conflicting interests with the church and its mission. Christians loathe abortions and would do anything to prevent them except promoting sex education which would inevitably reduce unwanted pregnancies and, therefore, abortions. Moreover, lack of accessibility to sex education and birth control methods encourages the spread of STI’s.
“I felt so guilty when I was younger and performing sexual acts excluding intercourse,” says Amanda Larson, a twenty-something student at a major southern university. “When I finally had intercourse for the first time, my religious mother was so angry and disappointed with me for not waiting until marriage which further reinforced my malign perception of sex.”
After she lost her virginity, Larson believed she was ‘tainted’ with nothing to look forward to on her wedding night, a common refrain among young fundamentalist women. “It’s cliche,” she observes, “but I felt that I’d crossed from the ‘good’ side to the ‘bad’ side, which is exactly what Christianity wants women to think.”
Though she eventually pushed back against the culture she was reared in, Larson experienced a period that can only be described as a combination of numbness and self-loathing.
“Religious toxicity continued to fuel my sexual choices,” she remarks. “To avoid hurting emotionally over my impurity, I just blocked everything out; I continued to be sexually active with numerous partners in a short span of time because I thought I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t get my virginity back, so it couldn’t get any worse, right? I was, of course, never educated on the seriousness of STI’s because I was always taught to practice abstinence. Interestingly enough, Christianity fuels religious women to become exactly what they’re trained not to be. Religious women feel such deep guilt after losing their virginity; paired with the release of years of pent-up sexual tension, it is the perfect recipe to experiment– a lot.”
When women graduate from virgin to “whore”, the male gaze shifts. The virgin plays the motherly role. She is a woman to be respected, having sex to rear children, not for pleasure. She has sex because it is her duty, not because she likes it. The virgin can be loved, but she can never be desired. Christianity is obsessed with handcuffing women to this trope. The whore is a sexual object. She is desired, but she is also hated. The whore cannot be a wife; the whore cannot be a mother. The whore can, however, enjoy sex like a man, so she is a threat to the traditional heterosexual dynamic and looked down upon by patriarchal religion.
A sexually experienced woman is labeled as a sinner, yet a sexually experienced man is labeled as a conquerer; the biblical character David demonstrates this. In the book of 2 Samuel, David sends Bathsheba’s husband to the front lines of the Isrealite army to die just so he can have sex with his wife. David is repeatedly praised as the greatest king to ever live and referred to as “a man after God’s own heart” even after this occurrence. Women are told to keep their legs shut yet are simultaneously taught that men cannot control their sexual urges. The concept that men cannot help themselves perpetuates rape, with perpetrators often facing few consequences. It also promotes victim blaming (“What was she wearing?”).
Progressive society already empowers women to be comfortable and confident in their sexuality, but religious women are continually forced to hide any and all parts of their sex life from the world. This article does not aim to inspire women to abandon their faith but rather reform it. It is senseless for these religions to continue pretending women are not having sex. Unless someone is asexual, it is unreasonable in modern times to expect women to maintain their virginity until they get married especially when men have never been expected to preserve their purity. Furthermore, women in biblical times got married as young as their pre-teens. Applying the same rules to today’s society is unfair, illogical, and in most places, criminal.
Changing the negative connotation of sex in religious contexts is necessary for women’s physical and mental health. It is far past time to stop forcing women to fit into one of two categories. Instead, women need more opportunities to learn about and practice safe sex without fear of societal, familial, or eternal condemnation.