“I just can’t set aside what I know of biology,” my dear friend Dwight told me as he explained why he had not yet tackled the June 7th topic in his blog series addressing the coordinated sermons being preached by a group of anti-progressive pastors in Arizona this season. The topic at hand? Why it matters that Jesus was born of a virgin.
“Virginity is not about biology,” I started to explain. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the role of Mary in my radical Christian faith lately as my community choir prepares for its Christmas in June concert. “Let me take a stab at it.” Dwight generously conceded some blog space to me for sorting through my swirling thoughts on the issue.
Right up front, I want to be clear that the historical question of whether or not Mary and Joseph had premarital sexual intercourse is not central to my faith. If I had a Divine Magic 8 Ball that could give me a definitive answer, it would change very little about my connection to the Christian tradition and the call of Christ on my life.
There was a brief period in my teenage years, however, when Mary’s lack of sexual involvement with Joseph would have been of much more concern for me. I was a champion of the True Love Waits program in high school and knew all the talking points regarding sexual purity (defined as abstinence until heterosexual marriage). God has a sense of humor, though, and handed me a brainteaser when I was 16 years old: How does one come out as a lesbian while maintaining her True Love Waits vows? What do words like sex, virginity, and marriage even mean in the context of lesbianism?
In Greta Christina’s essay, “Are We Having Sex Now or What?,” she shares with her readers how hard it has been to determine how many times she has had sex.
“The problem was, as I kept doing more different kinds of sexual things, the line between Sex and Not-sex kept getting more hazy and indistinct. As I brought more into my sexual experience, things were showing up on the dividing line demanding my attention. It wasn’t just that the territory I labeled ‘sex’ was expanding. The line itself had swollen, dilated, been transformed into a vast grey region. It had become less like a border and more like a demilitarized zone. Which is a strange place to live. Not a bad place, you understand, just strange.”
At one point Greta even writes about needing to re-assess when she first had sex, a true challenge to the binary categories of “virgin” and “not virgin.”
Marilyn Frye also wrote about what qualifies as sex in 1987.
“My own view is that lesbian couples ‘have sex’ a great deal less frequently than heterosexual couples: I think, in fact, we don’t ‘have sex’ at all. By the criteria that I’m betting most of the heterosexual people used in reporting the frequency with which they have sex, lesbians don’t have sex. There is no male partner whose orgasm and ejaculation can be the criterion for counting ‘times’. (I’m willing to draw the conclusion that heterosexual women don’t have sex either, that what they report is the frequency with which their partners had sex.)
It has been said before by feminists that the concept of ‘having sex’ is a phallic concept; that it pertains to heterosexual intercourse, in fact, primarily to heterosexist intercourse, i.e., male-dominant-female-subordinate-copulation-whose-completion-and-purpose-is-the-male’s-ejaculation… We [lesbians] quit having sex years ago, and for excellent and compelling reasons.”
How refreshing it was to discover that other women had examined this language issue, this obsession with determining what counts as “sex,” and found it such a fascinating puzzle! We read these essays when I was an undergraduate student, and it led me to eventually write a thesis titled “The Sexually Active Virgin” in which I looked at the discrepancies between medical practitioners’ definitions of sexual activity and female patients’ self-assessments of whether they were sexually active. I left college fairly convinced that people are talking past each other when they use words like “sex.” And if we don’t even know what we mean by “sex,” what do we mean when we say that Mary was a virgin?
A few years later in graduate school, I trained as a sexual assault crisis advocate. This introduced me to an even deeper understanding of the socially constructed nature of words like sex and virginity. One of the staff members conducting the training gave a talk she humorously titled “My Hymen’s OK, Your Hymen’s OK.” In this training, I learned that some people are REALLY into the idea that virginity is a biological state, that a doctor or other individual could examine a woman’s body and determine whether she had ever had sex.
There are two problems with treating virginity as a biological state.
1) The hymen is a highly mythologized body part. Men seem to like the idea that they can lay claim to a woman, forever changing her nature by “piercing” a part of her body in the way one might pierce the ground by planting a flag when claiming land. The idea that there is a piece of virgin-status-defining tissue that a man tears through in intercourse leads to the idea that a woman who has had sexual intercourse is “damaged goods,” no longer in her pure intact and unopened state. In reality, the amount of membranous tissue in the vagina varies from woman to woman. Most of the tissue has often worn away through hormonal shifts and daily activities (not necessarily some traumatic fall on a bike) by the time a woman reaches adulthood. And if a woman is sufficiently aroused, lubricated, relaxed, consenting, physically mature, sexually aware, and with a gentle partner, she is not likely to produce those mythical prized bloody bedsheets the first time she has penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. There is no defining physical difference between women who have and have not had sexual intercourse.
2) Many people implicitly acknowledge that virginity is a social/psychological state more than a biological state when they accept the validity of a sexual assault survivor continuing to call herself a virgin. While there are those (too many of those) who will insist that somebody’s virginity can be “stolen” from them and a person who has been raped is now “damaged,” many resist such notions,instead believing there is something about virginity that relates to self understanding, social positioning, and bodily autonomy and therefore is not forcibly taken through rape.
It is this psychosocial aspect of virginity – as a state of bodily autonomy – that brings me to my answer to the religious question “Does it matter that Jesus was born of a virgin?” For me, the answer is Yes, it matters. Not in the same way it did to my teenage True Love Waits self, of course. It matters because the story of the virgin birth significantly impacts my ability to relate to the biblical character of Mary as a lesbian feminist.
Now don’t worry. I’m not about to say that it’s important Mary was a virgin because sex with men is icky.
You may have heard some people refer to themselves as “sex positive feminists.” There are conversations in the world of feminisms about how we view sex, sexuality, sex work, etc, and those who call themselves “sex positive” are frequently wanting to make it clear that they oppose shaming women (and others) for sexual choices and behavior. This is a laudable goal, and one I have generally found is shared even by those of us who eschew the label “sex positive.”
Those of us who are cautious about personally adopting the label “sex positive feminist” do not necessarily desire to shame people around issues of sex but have particularly salient concerns about how sex has been used to control women and how ideas like “consent” and “choice” are sometimes employed in popular culture as magic erasers of discussions about power, implicit bias, gendered socialization, etc.
I was recently asked on a dating site whether I was “sex positive,” and when I pressed a bit further to determine the other person’s definition of that phrase, it became clear that they were defining “sex positivity” as willingness to have sex with them. By saying that I was not able or willing to declare my interest in having sex with somebody I had only exchanged 2 messages with, I was dismissed by this person as “sex negative.” While I for various reason may not call myself “sex positive,” I’m certainly not sex negative. Recognizing how sex has been used to control women – and honoring the power of saying “no” to sharing one’s body with another person – doesn’t require thinking sex (however one defines it) is bad or dirty.
The virginity of Mary – the fact that our bible stories say she had not become a wife and been physically, spiritually, socially “joined as one” with a man – has been an inspiration and model for women throughout Christian history who have sensed a call to something other than heterosexual marriage. Many women have found that they can best pursue their vocation when not sexually tied to a man. Christian religious life has provided one way of living that out. The popular Catholic stories of Saint Agnes, patron saint of virgins, illustrate the subversiveness of a woman dedicating her life to Christ rather than to a husband in marriage. According to legend, Agnes’s refusal to marry (read: have sex with a man) and steadfast dedication to her sense of religious vocation resulted in her persecution and eventual martyrdom.
Of course, consecrated virginity or vowed religious life is not the only way women have resisted the imperative of sexual activity and marriage to a man. In her well-known essay titled Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich shares multiple examples, from “the banding together of those women of the twelfth and fifteenth centuries known as Beguines… who practiced Christian virtue on their own, dressing and living simply and not associating with men” to “Chinese marriage resistance sisterhoods — communities of women who refused marriage, or who if married often refused to consummate their marriages and soon left their husbands — the only women in China who were not foot-bound.”
These stories of women finding creative ways to define their lives apart from sexual relationships with men are compelling to me as a lesbian, as a feminist, and as a Christian. They inspire me to believe that I, too, might have a role to play in this world even though I am not called to heterosexual marriage.
And so the virginity of Mary matters to me. The idea that our stories say 2000 years ago a virgin woman BORE GOD INCARNATE — formed in her body and birthed The Divine into this world without the socially expected sexual claim of a man upon her – is incredibly powerful! In today’s world where “woman” is still a subordinate class, where some Christian traditions require the presence of men (but not women) to celebrate the Eucharist, where lesbians and others who dare to create lives apart from men are subjected to punishments ranging from social censure to tax penalties to “corrective rape,” it matters to me that Mary – a bodily autonomous, unmarried young woman – a VIRGIN (whatever that means) – was ordained to bring God into our world.
Virginia Dicken is a health and diversity educator, lifelong learner, and aspiring stonecatcher