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Is Virginity at Marriage a Mistake?

marriage-handsIn a column on Salon.com, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez – a fabulous writer, as far as I can tell – called her virginity at marriage a mistake. Wedding night sex was not what the church (nor the purity ring she wore) promised it would be.

Neither was her marriage.

Six months into it, Jessica wrote, “the idea of separating seemed more appealing than feigning headaches for the rest of my life.” She saved sex for marriage, “hoping it would ensure a successful marriage. Instead,” she wrote, “it led to my divorce.”

But did it?

I agree with what Jessica implies: the church camp where people preached premarital abstinence at her probably can be blamed in part for the sour start of what would be a short-term marriage.

But I disagree with what else she implies: That saving sex for marriage is a problem.

Excerpts of Jessica’s essay follow in italics, followed by my commentary:

But that ring! Silver and engraved with entwined hearts – everyone I knew was wearing one and I’d finally been given the opportunity to get my hands on it. And it wasn’t just the ring. This was a movement with T-shirts and hats and the added bonus of superiority over kids in school who couldn’t keep their clothes on, those sinners. 

This points to an important, unfortunate truth. Churches long have promoted premarital abstinence by talking about everything except for sex: the perils of unwed parenthood, the stigma associated with sexually transmitted infections, and how much “better” you are for not having sex than the kids who do. This is fear mongering, a lot of shame-based “why not,” and not a lot of genuine “why.” That is a problem.

The morning of my wedding day, I threw up. Everyone assumed that I was nervous about having sex. I wasn’t.

That everybody assumed Jessica barfed because she was anxious about having sex is indicative of a lie our culture tells us: that “the big moment” is what happens in bed on your wedding night, and not on the altar at your wedding. That is a problem.

When I look back on my wedding day, I remember a passionate kiss at the altar. But after rewatching video footage, I see it was little more than a peck on the corner of my mouth and a long hug. Two years of halting wandering hands as they grazed under blue jeans, and the second we have the permission from God, we hug. These are what red flags look like; my rearview mirror is lined with them.

When a church (or a school or a parent) says “wear this ring” and “sign this pledge” and then stops talking about relationships, girls and boys become women and men who basically only know not to have sex. Otherwise, their concepts of marriage and sex are shaped by their friends or media. That is a problem.

This was not lovemaking. There was no bond, no sanctity – this was not the amazing sex I was promised from the pulpit. This was disappointment three to four times a week.

To all people who preach “amazing sex” from pulpits: Please define amazing. The amazing part is not the sex. The amazing part is what’s implied by the fact that you saved it – your patience, your participation in the destruction of self absorption, your willingness to communicate outside (and eventually in) the bedroom. When you don’t define amazing, the assumption is “pleasurable sex will be intuitive and effortless, beginning with our wedding night” when, for most couples, that is so not true. That is a problem.

These problems plus premarital abstinence do not equal exemption from the consequences of these problems. They equal virgins at marriage who experience the consequences of these problems: not knowing the purpose of marriage or sex, more concern with preparedness for the wedding night than with preparedness for marriage, concepts of relationships and sex shaped by the media, and unrealistic expectations.

It is these consequences (among others, of course) that result in divorce, regardless of whether you’ve saved sex for marriage.

This article originally appeared on Ignitum.com and is used with permission.


Arleen Spenceley is a Roman Catholic Christian, a writer, and a counselor. She has a master's degree in rehabilitation and mental health counseling from the University of South Florida and a bachelor's degree in journalism from the same university. Please visit her website at www.arleenspenceley.com and follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ArleenSpenceley.
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  • Claire

    Thank you so much for addressing this issue! Lately some Christian bloggers have been writing articles against the Purity movement. Some of their criticisms are valid, but they have not offered constructive insight in how to promote premarital chastity in a constructive way. Consequently, they give the impression that they do not value premarital chastity. I appreciate that you have taken this to a deeper level and brought these concerns to light without “throwing the baby (permarital chastity) out with the bathwater”.

  • eddiestardust

    Certainly many, many couples down through the years had to confront the problem of learning “How to” as they began their married life! Just saying that a person’s marriage fell apart because they were both virgins when they married is an excuse for choosing wrongly!

  • Eileen

    I’d probably agree with the author more than I’d disagree with her. I do think the purity indoctrination she received was responsible for her young, ill advised marriage. However, the author cites her lack of compatibility with her husband as a sexual one – clearly there was much more missing from the relationship and the two should have never married in the first place.

    So how do we Catholic parents guide our children into holy relationships? I wish I had the answers. My teens aren’t really dating yet (thank God) but my oldest will be 17 soon and I know it’s around the corner. One thing is for sure – if we make not having sex THE focus of their romantic relationships, their view of sexuality and relationships will almost certainly take an unhealthy turn.

    • donttouchme

      Exactly right. Kids can start to fear physical affection as if its a bad thing and that can prevent learning about compatibility. It should be a part of the dating experience though obviously chastely. I think hugging, some kissing, the girl sitting in his lap kind of things are probably very good to do as a relationship develops toward marriage.

    • Claire

      Instead of dwelling on not having sex, we could encourage them to focus on getting to know each other intellectually, spiritually and emotionally in order to develop a healthy relationship foundation while discerning whether this relationship is ordered toward marriage when the physical aspect can be fulfilled in it’s rightful context.

  • Rachel

    Great point of view! I look forward to sharing this with the parents of my youth group!

  • Katherine Anne McMillan

    There’s not anything Catholic in any of the responses here, including yours Arleen. I have to wonder if any of you know the purpose of the sacrament marriage. It certainly wasn’t created by God for lust and pleasure, but for the salvation of souls. Any Christian that marries for lust and pleasure should not expect for God to bless their union.

    No where does anyone respond to this lost soul that love is not a feeling, it is a choice. You choose who you love. God did not create a nation of robots, we have free will. We can choose to love and serve God or ourselves. Marriage is the same deal. I don’t understand how you can look at God hanging on a cross for our redemption and ask for anything more.

    Ladies be careful who you marry, 2/3 of the DNA of your children will come from their father.

    Gentlemen be careful who you marry, the education of the child begins twenty years before the child is born with the education of the mother.

    Consider what you will have once the lust is gone. Marriage is for the salvation of souls and the propagation of the species. Christ said, “Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of your hearts.” It would seem our hearts have been turned to stone again. We are so self absorbed and shallow.

    Cor Jesu sacratissimum, miserere nobis.

    • Claire

      Labeling our responses as unCatholic is way out of line, Katherine. No one here implied that marriage was created for lust and pleasure. And yes, love is a feeling. It is both a feeling and a choice. That is precisely why we’re not robots.