I usually don't get involved in the Christian/feminist blogosphere arguments, but this one is something I've written about extensively before, so I thought it might actually help to add my voice to the discussion this time.
Rachel Held Evans wrote a post explaining that because she rejects a shame-based purity culture, people assume she doesn't think saving sex for marriage is important, but in reality she thinks striving for holiness and self-control in relationships is important.
Libby Anne at Love Joy Feminism then responded that Rachel didn't actually make a case for saving sex for marriage and that her focus on sexual self-control seems to be limited to the time before marriage.
What's interesting is that both women describe -- and reject -- the same two ends of the spectrum: a purity culture in which your entire self-worth is dependent on what you do with your body, and a free-for-all in which you have sex with as many people as possible and it never has any effect on your life.
Yet both woman also seem to consider their own position to be "the middle ground" between these two extremes, and lump each other's position in with one of the other groups: Libby Anne groups Rachel's "self-control" position with the purity culture extremists ("what she's saying here really isn't that different from the purity culture rhetoric"), and Rachel emphasizes sexual holiness and warns those stepping away from purity culture to avoid "swinging to the opposite extreme to endorse an anything-goes sexual ethic."
In fact, there are a multitude of possible positions that fall somewhere in between the extremes.
Where distinctions can start to be made are in answers to these two questions:
- Is saving sex for marriage a valid choice?
- Is saving sex for marriage the best choice for everyone?
Rachel clearly answers Yes to the first question, but I'm not sure her answer to the second question is as clear-cut as Libby Anne implies. What Rachel does say is that "some have wrongly concluded that I don't value saving sex for marriage" and that she gets frustrated (as I do!) that TV shows "take it for granted that characters attracted to one another [will] sleep together after the first date."
In my view, she (or anyone else) could answer Yes to the second question and still not be anywhere near as extreme or damaging as the purity culture she's worked to combat. There's a big gulf between "this is the ideal situation" and "if you don't do this you are damaged for life and all of your relationships will be ruined." Ideally, Mike and I would always be loving and patient with one another, but that doesn't mean either of us thinks our marriage is destroyed if we fail to live up to this ideal.
What's interesting is that I don't think Rachel and Libby Anne are that far apart in their beliefs, even while painting each other as being on the far ends of the spectrum. They both agree that a healthy sexuality involves some measure of self-control, and that your overall approach to sexuality is far more important than any particular act that you do or don't do.
The main difference, it seems, is how they each interpreted the point of Rachel's post. Libby Anne seems to see Rachel's post as "Here is why saving sex for marriage is the right decision," and then points out that it really doesn't do a good job of making that argument. Which is true.
However, I read Rachel's post as having a different message, which was, "Here's why I haven't thrown out the idea of saving sex for marriage yet, even though I reject purity culture messages." Some of the criticism -- of equating self-control with abstinence-before-marriage -- still stands, but I think it's easier to know how to respond when you understand the angle Rachel is coming from.
I'll close with this: What Rachel is describing -- what she calls "holiness," in contrast to virginity or purity -- already has a term in the Catholic Church, which is chastity. Chastity is not the same as virginity; it's a kind of sexual ethic that applies whether you're married or not. You can disagree (and I do) that a healthy sexual ethic necessarily includes waiting for marriage to have sex, but the concept of chastity addresses Libby Anne's concern that these ideas about holiness and self-control deal only with what you do before marriage.
Here is the explanation of chastity from Catholic.net:
Chastity is a virtue that directs all our sexual desires, emotions, and attractions toward the dignity of the person and the real meaning of love.That is a sexual ethic I can get behind.
That means that all of our sexual desires, emotions, and attractions to others are supposed to be at the service of the dignity of the other person and the real meaning of love -- not at the service of what we want! Chastity is a deep respect and admiration for the person AND for the gifts of our sexuality and sex.