WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGE IN THIS ARTICLE
“If…no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.” DEUTERONOMY 22:13-30 NIV
Little is known of the sexual habits of prehistoric humans. Some scholars argue that female chastity became an issue when men realized their role in reproduction. Others believe that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture worked out to women’s disadvantage.
Patriarchal societies depend on lineage and inheritance passing through the male. Women were always certain that the child they bore carried their genes. Men on the other hand could never be certain if they were the fathers of their partner’s children – today paternity can be established beyond doubt by a simple test. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are patriarchal religions – no surprises here!
In order to ensure paternity, draconian and punitive measures were put in place to curb and control female sexuality. Virginity became mandatory for single women and married women were expected to remain faithful to their husbands, needless to say that these restrictions did not apply to men. This is still the norm today in some countries, particularly Islamic ones.
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam patriarchy was and still is the social order mandated by God. Sex became a sin and women were defined by their virginity/chastity. The “good” women were chaste and obedient, the “bad” women were disobedient, defiled whores.
“They must not marry women defiled by prostitution or divorced from their husbands, because priests are holy to their God.” Leviticus 21:7
” If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire.” Leviticus 21:9
“The woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people, so he will not defile his offspring among his people.” Leviticus 22:13-15
The sexual revolution of the 1960s, the second wave of feminism and the availability of the pill ushered in a new era of sexual freedom for women, although men had always enjoyed sexual freedom with the so-called bad women. For the first time in history women had access to reliable birth control and safe abortion. This did not sit well with religious conservatives who began denouncing the new era as immoral, decadent and permissive – the word permissive usually applies to societies that grant sexual freedom to both sexes; societies that uphold the sexual double standard are known as traditional and conservative.
At a glance, the phrase “true love waits” sounds romantic and idealistic. The virginity crusade goes under the banner “True Love Waits” – after all most people – including myself – see nothing wrong with love and romance. However, if you peel off the “True Love Waits” sticker you will find a hotchpotch of anti-abortion propaganda, misinformation on safe sex and mouldy religious morality based on the activity of one’s genitals.
TLW targets young people, especially young women. The objective is to instil the notion that sex before marriage is a sin, abortion and contraception are morally wrong, IUDs and the pill are abortifacients and that condoms do not protect against AIDS because they have tiny holes which allow the virus to pass through – see www.lovematters.com
There is a problem when the word pure is applied to anything other that olive oil or honey. When young women are exhorted to remain pure until marriage, it is implied that the alternative of being in a state of purity is defilement, contamination, filthiness and depreciation of value. In other words, if a substance has been tampered with, it is no longer pure. Just like the spaghetti sauce jars on supermarket shelves that have a plastic seal around the lid, in order to ensure that the product has not been contaminated or tampered with. Any young woman who deviates from the path of purity will be made to feel guilty, dirty and unworthy in other words she would be called a whore. The notion of sexual purity promotes the idea that sex is dirty and reinforces sexual double standards. A young convert of TLW had this to say: ” I just want to wait until I meet the right person, the world is so messed up as it is. Society wants you to be a whore basically.” (source: Prevention News Digest, 08/SEP/03) “Pearls of Wisdom” from www.lovematters.com
“There is nothing redemptive in two unmarried people engaging in premarital kissing”.
“We don’t allow what we refer to as “bathroom talk” among the children. Bathroom talk means any private part, or the various bodily function, or noises of those parts.”
“Avoid sexual fantasies.”
“Avoid petting and necking”.
“Virginity until marriage is God’s plan. Since God is your manufacturer, He has the authority to stipulate how your body should operate.”
“Our children should know from an early age who owns them”.
“Our daughters are taught that there is one man designed by God for them to give their heart to and that they are never to give their heart to anyone else. Our daughters are to always be a one man women; first to their father, then to their husband. Nothing in between.”
“With regards to dress, we teach our boys that there is a way for a girl to dress that will defile his heart, and to walk away from girls dressed defilingly whether in person or on the magazine rack or billboard, etc.”
“We assist our children during the time that their heart is being trained by teaching our children that they are never to use a word or phrase, read a book or magazine, participate in a conversation or be involved in any other activity that they have not heard or seen mom or dad say or participate in. To violate this rule is automatic corporal punishment.”
If young women abstain and remain “pure”, young men will sow their wild oats at brothels and with so-called bad girls. The cherry on the cake will be on the wedding night when the groom presents his “pure” bride with an STD for a wedding gift, after all condoms do not prevent disease – according to chastity campaigners – so why should he bother using one!
Sonia Johnson a Mormon woman who was excommunicated from the Mormon church for actively supporting women’s rights, lucidly wrote about the chastity lectures and double standard morality in her book “From Housewife to Heretic”:
My first overtly rebellious act in the church came about because of a lecture on chastity given the young women in the Logan First Ward in the early 1950s when I was about fifteen. Chastity night was held once a year and, as I recall, was invariably dreadful. Later, as an adult and president of the young women’s organization, I remembered my own youth and did what little I could to make chastity nights, times of useful discussion. But this particular night took the all-time atrocity award.
About twenty girls, some with their mothers, were gathered to listen to a woman we had heard marvellous things about for the preceding few weeks. In front of her on the table, in a white bud vase stood a single white rose, a pure, virgin rose. As she spoke about the evils of necking and petting and referred vaguely to other acts of physical intimacy between males and females, she tore off the rose petals one by one, crushing them between her thumb and forefinger and dropping them bruised and wrinkled, onto the table. Hypnotised I watched those ruined petals fall, one by one, each striking shame to my soul as I remembered the kisses and embraces and occasional hot fumblings at bodices and crotches I had indulged in at one time or another (and felt certain many of the other girls in the room had as well).
Then, by way of finale, she staged a major performance by trying to pick up the brown petals and fit them back onto the stem. Impossible of course. Triumphantly she announced, “You are just like this rose. If you sully your body by allowing boys to touch it in forbidden ways, you can never be whole or beautiful or pure again, just as the petal of this rose can never be pure and white again. No good man will ever want to marry you.”
This declaration shocked me out of my stance of self-hatred and self-condemnation.
Another incident happened at about this time in my life that completed my evolution into a lifelong foe of the double standard. I remember hearing Elder Mark E. Peterson, one of the most revered of the church’s twelve apostles, speak about chastity. One example he gave has not lost its putrescent lustre over the thirty intervening years: “Girls, every time you let a boy kiss you, its like having someone licking butter off a piece of bread. What man is going to want a piece of bread with all the butter licked off?”
The implications behind this are legion and obvious, and I must get on with my story. But briefly, I felt, though I could not understand it clearly then, that this denied female sexuality entirely. It denied that girls kiss boys, too. It said that they were sexually passive – objects that males act upon. The buttered bread theory also implied that boys never had their butter licked off, no matter how many females they kissed. They can kiss and neck and pet their heads off and still have their butter intact, but are well within their self-righteous rights to go around checking suspiciously for girls’ butter. But most of all, what this said to me was that men are not roses, they are not pieces of buttered bread. They are not objects, they are human beings. Only women are things – roses and bread. Never in the church do we hear men referred to by analogies that make them objects or anything less than fully human. Women, like objects, are presumed to have been created for men’s use.
The double standard is the basis of the patriarchal order: men have privileges that women do not have, only one of which is that they never lose their chastity – never get their butter licked off. Chastity is not a concept that relates to men. No woman would refuse to marry a man who was no longer a virgin. It is a concept men impose upon women, not upon each other.
Several years ago, in a sacrament meeting in the Sterling Park Ward in Virginia, a young woman who attended Brigham Young University and was home for the summer was speaking. She told about going out with a young man at BYU whom she came to like very much, and apparently the feeling was mutual. One night after he had taken her to visit his family, which seemed a hopeful sign, he drove to the local parking spot and parked. She was dismayed and panicky, because she knew she had two options. On the one hand, she could allow some lovemaking, which might make him think she was “easy” and therefore not a nice girl, not the sort of girl he would want to marry. On the other hand, she could insist that they leave, and risk humiliating him and therefore losing him. The classic double bind. I believe she said an urgent silent prayer at this point- I certainly would have if I’d been of her mind – and then said to him, quietly and oh so gently so as not to offend, “Do you think Jesus Christ would approve of this?”
Silently he started up the car and took her home. For the next few days she lived in a state of agonized apprehension. Then, thank God, he called, and as they drove around town he told her how much he respected her for doing what she had done, and confided that if she had “let” him, he never would have gone out with her again.
She ended her speech in church by saying how thankful she was that the church had made her the kind of girl who could keep the affections of this kind of boy.
I was appalled at her recital. And even more appalled at her blindness to what she was actually saying. How could she still think highly of a boy who would park and neck with her but despise her for necking with him? If she had not totally accepted the double standard entrenched in the church, she would have sent that clod scampering for his life, instead of being humbly grateful that he still liked her. I hope that she never settles for any man who does not take equal responsibility for the decency and goodness of their relationship. Because any man who is willing to let the woman he claims to love bear the terrible weight of responsibility and guilt for any sexual misdemeanours loves a suspiciously unloving love.
Soon after I was excommunicated, I received a letter from a Mormon woman that said: “My awakening occurred twenty years ago at the end of a pristine (in my view) date with a young Mormon man who brought me to my door, called me a Jezebel, and castigated me for the lustful thoughts I had aroused in him. He ordered me in his best patriarchal voice to enter my home, fall on my knees, and pray for forgiveness for the sins I had made him long to commit. A few days later when the shock wore off, I began a long process of analysing the church’s attitude toward women…”
· Sonia Johnson’s book is available from www.ffrf.org
Growing up in the Greek/Cypriot culture as a young woman during the seventies, I too had to contend with rigid tradition and the sexual double standard morality, in Sonia’s case girls were programmed to police themselves in my case we were policed by our families. Fortunately the old traditions are dying out although some diehards still cling to them. Girls were expected to remain virgins till marriage. After the wedding night the bride’s mother would present the bloodstained sheet to the groom’s mother as proof of the bride’s virginity.
If a girl succumbed to temptation and lost her virginity before marriage she could always have a hymen reconstruction operation. The most important thing was for a girl’s hymen to be intact. There are anecdotal tales of a chicken being slaughtered and its blood used to provide the much esteemed evidence of the bride’s virginity. In some other countries the double standard morality is downright deadly. Parts of the world such as the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan, women and girls can be killed by their male relatives if they are found to be non virgins on the wedding night, these killings are known as honour killings and are sanctioned by conservative Muslim clerics. It is a known fact that a torn hymen is not necessarily a sign that a woman is not a virgin. In some Muslim countries women and girls can be stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage. Women can also be killed by their male relatives for disobedience or mere suspicion of adultery. At this moment, in Nigeria, Amina Lawal is awaiting execution by stoning to death for having a baby out of wedlock, she will be buried in the ground up to her neck and the men will gather around her throwing stones at her till she dies. Look up Amnesty International’s – Honour killings in Pakistan article.
The euphemism “female circumcision” is used to describe the gruesome procedure inflicted upon millions of women and girls in Africa, parts of the Middle East, Indonesia and Malaysia. Female Genital Mutilation -FGM- predates Islam and Christianity. It is practised by Muslims some Christian groups and among animists in Africa. In countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia FGM is encouraged by some religious leaders in order to guarantee chastity for women and girls although there have been a few clerics who condemned the mutilation, much to their credit. The most widely practiced form of the mutilation is the removal of the clitoris and labia minora.
In some parts of Africa women undergo what is known as infibulation. Infibulation is the most horrific type of genital mutilation. The victim is held down by four women and her legs are spread wide. The mutilator uses a sharp object such as razor blades, scissors, knives and broken glass. All the external genitals are sliced off and the. remaining skin stitched together over the wound. Only a small opening remains to permit the passage of urine and menstrual blood. The victim suffers excruciating pain and haemorrhage. It’s not uncommon for victims to die from blood loss and infection. The effects of FGM are many, infection, difficulty in passing urine and menstrual blood, painful sexual intercourse, agonizing childbirth – women have to be cut open in order to deliver the baby.
According to Christian Right ideology, AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. Why is it then that lesbians have the lowest incidents of infection and that some people have been infected via contaminated blood transfusion? Why is it that babies born from women who have AIDS also carry the disease. Isn’t God being unfair?
In some parts of Africa up to 30% of the population is infected with the AIDS virus. Quite often both parents succumb to the disease and the children are left to fend for themselves. Campaigns to promote the use of condoms and safe sex practises have been met with opposition from religious organizations, particularly the Catholic Church, which has made the crusade against condom use its number one priority – after that of legal abortion. African society is polygynous. Men are allowed to have more that one wife plus extramarital liaisons. Women are expected to remain virgins until marriage and faithful to their husbands after marriage. In many cultures women have no right to question their husbands whereabouts or demand that their husband wear a condom. Furthermore, they are not allowed to refuse the sexual demands of their husbands. For these women ABSTINENCE is not an option.
The implications of the religious fundamentalists’ abstinence/ignorance campaign are clear. We re going to have a generation of young people growing up ignorant, misinformed and with a poisoned view against sexuality. They would be the ones less likely to use condoms and or birth control when they do have sex and therefore be more vulnerable to disease and unwanted pregnancy.
There is nothing wrong with encouraging young people in their early teens to wait until they are older. Young people need to be told that it is okay to say no and okay to say yes. That’s what personal choice and autonomy is all about. Honest, down to earth sex education with emphasis on contraception and disease prevention cannot be overrated.
Depriving young people of the means to protect their health is not only life threatening, it is also unethical. For the fundamentalists who are always at odds with reality, ignorance is a virtue and knowledge a vice – especially knowledge in sexual matters!
Recommended Viewing: The Magdalene Sisters
By Voula Papas