She is clothed with Strength and Dignity…
… she laughs without fear of the future.
Around this time last year, several of my college friends were planning a long weekend trip to the beach. To save money, we decided we’d split a beach house and share rooms and beds and bring air mattresses (we wouldn’t be spending much time inside anyway). As we excitedly planned the trip, I told another friend about it, and he asked if the group attending would be co-ed.
I explained that yes, of course it would be, there were even two married couples coming. We were all good friends and had shared rooms before, and there would be many of us in a small beach house. He suggested that I should “be careful” and then casually offered that he was just trying to “protect my dignity.”
I so appreciate having people in my life who want to keep me safe and happy and care about my well-being, and I know there were no malicious intentions of any kind. But his choice of language struck me because it is so prevalent and it is not okay. Admirable as his intentions may have been, the words “protect your dignity” grated through me. Because synonymous with that use of “protect your dignity” would be “protect your virginity”.
Synonymous with dignity would be virginity.
I wonder, if anyone knew that I was going to spend time with a person prone to gossip, lying, or even murder, if anyone would go before me and offer to “protect my dignity”. I highly doubt it. Because my dignity is not found in my ability to not murder or not gossip or not lie.
Somehow, however, the language we use reflects that my dignity is found in my ability to Not Have Sex.
Perhaps even more strikingly: my male friends are not prone to rape or adultery or assault of any kind. Yet no one offered to protect their dignity, or suggested that they should find somewhere else to sleep to keep their reputation intact. While my dignity evidently comes (and goes) with my intact hymen, their dignity is found in their gender.
In some cultures, religious fixation on virginity has led to obscene treatment of women and even young girls, including female genital mutilation, honor killings, and rape-suicides. The emphasis on virginity has so distorted what it means to be faithful, what it means to be female, even what it means to be human that women are treated as valuable only as virgins, and discarded (sometimes horrifically) if and when that status changes.
Even in contemporary American Christian culture, sex and all things sexuality-related are considered Untouchable and Unforgivable sins (especially for women). We have rings and conferences and “True Love Waits: The Musical” and retreats for youth trying to get them to buy into waiting until they get married, because clearly that is what is most important to God.
And therefore, as a born and bred church girl, my ability to hold on to my virginity and control my sexuality seemed like a pretty simple way to earn my salvation.
If virginity could save me, then controlling my sexuality would effectively be my god. Treating anything other than God as God is the very definition of idolatry. So let’s come out (see what I did there?) and say it: the way conservative Christians speak about and promote virginity can and does lead to idolatry.
It took many, many years for me to understand that virginity couldn’t make me, or anyone, good enough to stand before a Holy God. It took even longer to really believe that Jesus is better than that.
What I wanted to say the moment my friend offered to “protect my dignity” was this: My dignity is not, never has been, and never will be found in virginity. Dignity and virginity are not correlated, for any woman, ever, period. It doesn’t matter if the woman is a virgin or a prostitute or was sexually assaulted or is a lesbian or is in a committed monogamous relationship or if she waited for marriage. Her dignity is not found in her virginity or lack thereof. And until the men and women in this world believe that, there will still be places where virginity is not only synonymous with dignity, it is synonymous with value.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God.“ All humans, regardless of gender or ethnicity or religion or sexuality, are made in the image of God and given one wild and precious life to live, and life is beautiful. Humans have dignity because they are created in the image of a perfect God, loved infinitely by him, and bestowed infinite mercy and grace. Virginity could not possibly add to or take away from that.
I would urge you then, brothers, sisters, friends, family, strangers, whoever is reading this: be careful with your words. You don’t know to whom you speak, and you might not realize what you imply. Some research shows as many as 80% of the young unmarrieds sitting next to you on Sunday have lost that “dignity” and Christ died for their shame just as much as he died for yours. Make sure the way you speak reflects that truth and the love that Christ feels for them as well.
And love them like Jesus, because they are just as much made in His image as you are, but they might have more trouble believing it.
I’m linking up with the women over at SheLoves this month as they talk about Honor. Dignified women are honored women. Let’s honor each other today.