The Bachelor just ended, and hi-ho the cherrio, the Born-Again Virgin gets a wife. The tabloids are still harping on how this season's beau, Sean Lowe, proclaimed to be "saving" himself for his wedding night, raising the question: How did a gorgeous young heterosexual American male manage to stay a virgin by 29?
Well, truth be told, he didn't. He's had sex before, but he's abstinent now. The media's not worried about the logistics, though. It's much more titillating to focus on Lowe as the born-again virgin, the golden boy who found God and therefore gets to reclaim his virginity and wear it like a heavyweight champion belt across that ripped Adonis torso of his.
The fascination with The Bachelor's virginity speaks to our cultural tendency to both ridicule and idolize virginity at the same time. Our view of said virginity also relates to a person's age and appearance. The 40 Year Old Virgin is cast as a nerd with a dead-end job at an electronics store who still plays with toys, and The Bachelor's born-again virgin is a 29-year-old hunk… who happens to have prior sexual experience, making him already a "real man."
With Lowe at the center of this show, ABC saw viewership for The Bachelorboost this season, as women from soap opera junkies to groups of sorority girls tuned in for the drama. I wonder if it is just a matter of time before Hollywood comes out with a new reality show where a group of gorgeous contestants live with a single virgin. Bet you can't guess the premise! It sounds a bit vulgar and crass, but really, today's programming is not far from it. Competing for someone's virginity can easily become both the adrenaline of pursuit and the prize to be won… provided they are the right kind of virgin.
We tune in for what our culture has deemed the desirable virgins. For the ladies, we picture an attractive woman between 18 and 30 (early 30s if she's especially "hot"), without any emotional baggage, sad back story, or religious zealotry. For the man, he has to be good-looking, so we know he's chosen to remain a virgin, unlike the unattractive male virgins who didn't have a say in the matter. Oh, and he has to be somewhat sexually experienced. We expect all adult men to have had sex, unless some sort of emotional, physical, or mental problem is keeping them from doing the deed. That "born-again" modifier is perfect. The lucky bride gets to have her cake and eat it too.
Unfortunately, the church can seem just as misguided in its understanding of sex and sexuality as TV viewers and the rest of society. Christians too have a conflicting and confusing relationship with sex. We idolize virginity to a certain extent. Age factors in to whether or not a woman is lauded for her willingness to wait or whether she becomes an open target to ridicule and concern. The bizarre notion of even being a "born again virgin" is actually quite common and accepted in many Christian communities.
Why does Sean, or any Christian for that matter, feel the need to reclaim his virginity? Is it a matter of being pure before God? Well, even those of us who believe that sex is best when shared within marriage can agree that no one is ever pure before God, virgin or not. Christians who have had sex before marriage and realize they want to practice abstinence need not rebrand themselves as "virgins." God's grace covers that for us. Our identity in Christ is enough to cleanse our pasts whatever they contain. The fact that people long after the virgin label, enough to reclaim it after they are no longer virgins, reflects a heavy, but ill-defined, indoctrination of purity in today's church.
In a piece for Relevant on the current Bachelor, Lisa Velthouse also pushes for a more biblical view of our sexuality. "The use of a phrase like 'born-again virgin' is misleading. It suggests that virginity, not purity, is the point; that there is worth in going back to an earlier, cleaner version of ourselves," she wrote. "But when it comes to our standing with God, the basic point is that what we are and what we were before is obsolete. Our own earned titles are not enough; what matters is Christ's. Our past, then, is overshadowed by his grace."
The problem and even the perception of sexual sin is nothing new, and for centuries, the church has restricted how even married couples participate in the beautiful act. For centuries the church regarded sex as merely a necessary evil for the procreation of children. Our human sexuality has long been associated with perfunctory obligation, wickedness, shame, and guilt. That past has damaged and limited the church's holy imagination around the gift of human sexuality. Wouldn't it be grand if the church could imagine human sexuality as a bit broader than what we do with our genitals? To see Christians thinking through the theology and praxis of how we can delight in creation as sexual beings on a daily and healthy basis?
As creatures made in the image of God our human sexuality should be celebrated, virgins or not. Maybe part of expanding our holy imagination is considering that perhaps embracing sexuality is also about how we engage the world and one another as beautiful, creative forces whether that creative force is birthing babies or birthing art. The point of faithful sexuality before God is not holding on to our own efforts of goodness. It is allowing God to determine and even expand what it means to celebrate our sexual selves in covenant relationship with God and with one another. I wish the church would talk about that more, too.