I read Darian’s article Good Christian Girls Don’t Have Sex and was struck by her sincerity and her conviction. Now I personally do not subscribe to abstinence and notions of “saving” oneself for marriage or until you find that special The One. I did hold such beliefs at one time; my Christian upbringing impressed upon me that premarital sex was sinful so that even though as a male I was culturally conditioned to be the sexual aggressor, the teachings of my faith held even more sway. I did, however, eventually reject it, even before I became fully socially and historically conscious. Having fully understood now the cultural context in which such ideology was developed, I am not only firm in my rejection of this concept of morality but I also regret that I took so long before I became sexually active. Having said that, this in no way suggests that I look down my nose at those who do make the choice to remain abstinent.
But therein lays something very important and one of three main reasons I decided to write this piece. The issue of guilt is one. Combing through the comments I was struck by the fact some people seem to truly believe that because they eventually went against the teachings of the faith and had premarital sex or erotic petting or engaged in masturbation, that they are now impure or have fallen short of the standards of the Almighty. As disturbing as I think that may be, I’ll deal with that in another article. The valuated ideal of virginity itself needs to be addressed here. Additionally, there is a particular line in Darian’s article that for me is the most important line in the entire piece. She said in the last paragraph “refraining from sex is how I choose to express my sexuality.” This is a very powerful and profound statement. It is not fully understood how much of an issue it has been for people, specifically women and subjected people, to be able to CHOOSE how they express their sexuality.
Women’s virginity, that is virginity in the very narrow sense most of us are familiar with, has been an obsession in patriarchal ideology for hundreds and hundreds of years. That obsession stems from the fact that it is intertwined with the economic considerations of patricentric cultures, especially those of the Christian West and Arab Islam. We live for the most part in a world tainted by the ideas of morality of these two faiths and I make no apology for using the word “tainted” because of the extent to which cultural attitudes and customs of patriarchal Eurasia are woven into the fabrics of these faiths along with Judaism and Hinduism. A great many people still do not seem to be able to understand that and so acknowledge the difference between a given faith and the culture in which the faith was developed. I know of several people who argue that they see no need to have any sense of Africentric consciousness because “Jesus” or “god” is beyond culture. That’s the kind of thing Professor of African Studies at CUNY Dr Leonard Jeffries usually refers to as a paralysis of analysis.
Popular Egyptologist Dr Yosef ben-Jochannan never tired of telling us that “god is the deification of a culture” while local poet laureate Pearl Eintou-Springer maintains that it is man who made god in his image and likeness. One of the aspects where this is most evident is that of sex and the status of women. Euro-centred Christianity (in this regard the Eastern orthodox faiths are no different) inherited “pagan” Eurasia’s obsessive fear of sex and especially its fear of women. To understand this fully one needs to look at a certain aspect of Eurocentric culture. In fact it would be of great importance if many more people began to examine HOW these biblical beliefs really came to be and determine how much of it is actually cultural and not from some mystical force on high. Now I appreciate that many of the readers of this site are Christian and are devoted to the teachings of their faith. I also appreciate how deep runs the belief that the Bible is the “Word” of god and that whatever is written within those covers are beyond questioning for to question the scriptures would essentially be questioning god. That is one of the main blocks even I wrestled with for years. Suffice it for now to say that much of the scriptural teachings surrounding the importance of virginity have nothing to do with any god.
Culturally, Europe has worshipped above all else, power; power is the real divine force in Eurocentric ideology. If we subscribe to the arguments put forward (independently I believe) by the giant Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop and Canadian Michael Bradley, this obsession with power and control arose out of very real struggles to survive in the frigid, barren steppes of post Ice-Age Eurasia. They both argue in their respective works that the extreme conditions created a strange mindset that saw the natural world as hostile and an enemy and to be vanquished. It created a fatalistic, competitive mindset that felt the need to control all aspects of living and the natural world. This mindset carried over to the emergence of Greece and Rome even though ecological conditions had radically changed by then.
Prior to the rise of patriarchy many ancient cultures were matrilineal or at the very least matricentric. Women, therefore, held considerably more direct power and influence than what obtains today. Independently of men they owned property which they could bequeath to either their offspring or those of their brother, depending on the culture. There is still considerable debate as to when exactly the concept of fatherhood was known as this is believed to be one of the main turning points in man’s arrogation of power over women and their sexuality. Be that as it may, prior to the emergence of patriarchal ideology as an all-encompassing entity, circa 2600 BCE, sex was an integral aspect of social life in a great many African, Asian and Mediterranean cultures and civilisations. In fact, much of what is read in the Old and New Testament are actually coded – sometimes suppressed – references to sex acts, orgiastic rites and even solemn oaths involving the genitals that were observed in many parts of the ancient world (but we’ll go into THAT some other time). Women were not only central to many of these observances but often attained high office BECAUSE of that.
It is often claimed that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. That is not at all correct and that “honour” must in fact go to the priesthood (and perhaps be called the world’s oldest hustle). However, the infamous “whore” now scorned for her unfettered sexuality was once deeply revered and integral to sacred ceremonies for that very same thing. Barbara G Walker in her book The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and Merlin Stone in When God Was a Woman informs us that the title “whore” and the many variations of it – hor, horasis, hore, horae, horeb, horab, etc – were all titles of the sacred sexual priestesses of the various forms of Goddess/Sacred Feminine veneration such as Auset/Isis, Ishtar, Cybele and Astarte. Even the word we use to reckon time, hour, is said to come from the ancient Egyptian priestesses who kept time throughout the night as the symbolic boat of the divinity Ra moved through the various symbolic stages. As part of their functions most of these priestesses engaged in sexual acts within the precincts of the temples. Scholars like Walker and Raphael Patai argue that the biblical King Solomon in all likeliness participated in once such ritual, known today as the hieros gamos.
What is noteworthy is that these priestesses were referred to as virgins; virginity was then understood to be simply a high state of consciousness and not a physical condition determined by whether or not a woman had had sex. These priestesses were all politically powerful and economically autonomous, often running their businesses and deciding political affairs from within the temple precincts. So highly respected were they that even the wives and daughters of nobility aspired to be initiated into the ranks.
All that would change gradually with the rise of patriarchy coming mainly from the very militaristic tribe known as the Indo Aryans or Indo-Europeans who swept down from the Eurasian steppes from about 4000 BCE. They settled in the more southerly parts of Eurasia including Western Asia which is now erroneously called the Middle East as well as in India and from there slowly began to expand outward carrying with them wherever they went their cultural beliefs. One such belief was that sex was dangerously corruptible, “impure” and that women, who because of their maternal functions and their menstrual cycle were considered physically inferior, were the possessors of that sexual power. In all probability and given the tone of many ancient writings, it was considered dangerous and contaminating because that emotional hold of sexual interaction essentially took away from the valuated activities of hunting and warfare which were vital for the clans’ survival. By the rise of the Greek city-states around 900 BCE these ideas of women’s inferiority and as sexual contaminants were firmly embedded in many civilisations along the Mediterranean.
Wealth and power had also become defined by material possessions in these mobile, militaristic cultures. As such, women’s sexual fidelity was gradually imposed and the concept of virginity was also gradually redefined to the narrow understanding we have today. Lineage was removed from the mother, traced now through the father, with women’s offspring being considered the property of men. Sons became more favoured than daughters because more sons meant more warriors which meant longevity for the clan or community. In these mobile, warring cultures, daughters, like pregnant mothers, had very little military value. Often a family that had more than one daughter sold one off into slavery or carried the baby girl outside the limits of the village and left her to die through exposure to the elements or by predatory animals. The daughters that were kept were raised principally for their economic value through marriage. Marriages were then mainly business arrangements or to solidify political alliances. The main bargaining tool for the suitability of a daughter for marriage was her hymen. A girl’s sexuality was fiercely guarded by her father in order to fetch a higher bride price and then, upon marriage by her husband in order to ensure that the children she bore came from his lineage so as to continue the economic/political process when they grew to marriageable age. This rationale existed long before Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam came into existence and this was what profoundly informed the thinking of theologians when these faiths were being formulated. So when one reads in the bible that premarital sex was a sin, it was not because of the Almighty having a problem with a girl having sex, it was because the writer, influenced by Levite Judaic priests who Merlin Stone believes were Indo-Aryan descendents, required a “pure” woman because in their society a young bride brought in a higher price and greater assets that elevated the father’s social and political status. But the average Christian knows nothing of this because it is hardly ever taught in Sunday School or on the pulpit. Most of us know only of the Judaism and Christianity of faith, little of the history or social reality of Palestine, Rome and Greece is however taught to the laity.
What I am saying here is that it was patriarchists who always sought to define what woman’s sexuality was acceptable. But that definition was always motivated by economic and political concerns, religion was merely used to provide justification and to ensure unquestioned conformity; it is very informative that the word “adultery” comes from a Latin term ad alterum se conferre – to confer PROPERTY on another. In other words, it was an economic term.
The issue of women choosing virginity is equally important. Very much so. When I read Darian’s line about her choosing virginity to define her sexuality it instantly reminded me of something I picked up on as I began my research for the book I am working on. Something that I saw repeating itself over and over and over throughout the history of rigid patriarchy. As I said before the Eurocentric cultural valuated ideals revolve around power. Specifically, WHO controls power: men. Women were consulted less and less as they were removed from the various institutions of power (I have a theory that control wasn’t always wrested from women, they may have voluntarily ceded some of it for the betterment of the wider community). Yet, even as patriarchal ideals and values expanded themselves to cover all aspects of social life women, within the repressive patriarchal institutions always sought to find ways to define their own sexuality on their own terms. Virginity and marriage virtually took turns, each one ebbing and flowing depending on what the MEN were using to exploit women’s reproductive organs. When marriage was made into an institution of chattel, sexual exploitation for women, they embraced virginity (such as the cloister during the Medieval period); when patriarchists found ways to exploit the cloister, marriage was embraced. One can establish a link today with the so-called raunch culture; as women became more and more sexually liberated once again in the post-war West, the pornographic industry exploded, run mostly by men and sought to objectify and commodify women’s sexuality to satisfy men’s sexual fantasies. This led to splits in the feminist movement where some feminist thinkers now condemned eroticism, liberated sexuality and pornography. At the same time, the mainly Protestant right-wing conservatives in the US created institutions like abstinence-clubs and “purity” rings which essentially commodified virginity and seeks to impose the rigid sexual conservatism that many bemoan was flung out of the window from that watershed period of 1967.
What became evident to me was that the real issue is, as it has always been, the patriarchal insistence of monopolising and retaining control of power. In later times the notions of virginity and “saving” oneself for marriage was spiced up with stories and poems evoking images of all sorts of tender romantic expectations of “de-flowering” but the underlying theme remained rooted in the patriarchal ideas of private ownership – namely the man’s ownership of the woman’s hymen. What patriarchists find most intolerable is a woman deciding for herself what was her sexuality, her politics or her social priorities. Regarding sexuality, whatever the majority of women were embracing, patriarchists found ways to gradually co-opt, absorb and/or outlaw. All the time religion was the principal means by which patriarchists ensured conformity. Patriarchal ideology, unlike matricentric cultural ideology, tolerates no diversity. Doing so potentially threatens whatever are the principal interests at any given time in patriarchal constructs.
My point is that if a person wishes to abstain from sex, eroticism and any sensual pleasure before marriage, then by all means do so. But that should be because they WANT or CHOOSE to of their own accord be it to minimise the possibility of contracting an STD or whatever. Religious teachings, specifically teachings created well over two thousand years ago to mask narrow secular interests, should not have any influence in such a decision.