January 16, 2011

Promiscuity vs. Abstinence; Science vs. Religion: Two Issues, One Fight

I'd had a few requests for my paper, so I'm going to post it. I plan on following it with a discussion on what I actually agree with from it. It should also be noted that I'm not sure why I'm doing this, as the paper was not, overall, that readable, and while I'm glad I've finished writing it, I'm still not sure I actually like it.


Modern technology has rendered virgin brides obsolete. It used to be that abstaining from sex until marriage prevented spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but this is not so in a world where condoms are commonplace. It used to be that a virginal bride was the only guarantee that a man’s child was his own, but this is not so in a time where technology can evaluate parentage. It is no longer even true the virginity is identifiable; if one wishes to practice deceit, surgeries can restore the hymen to all of its former glory. For hundreds of years, if not more, there has existed a paradigm in which women are expected to remain chaste until marriage. This “is a tenet of nearly all religions” (Stephey), but this particular sort of ideology had an altogether practical purpose: keeping bloodlines clean, preventing disease, and insuring that children had two parents. Technological development, though, has virtually eliminated these issues. In modern-day America, virginity is unnecessary.

However, in this same country, the abstinence movement is growing in strength. This group advocates for a complete lack of sex—and often sexual activity—prior to marriage. Members of the movement preach that a woman who has consensual premarital sex is a “broken victim” (Valenti 44) whose sexuality has become a metaphorical “poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker” (41). Never mind that this woman is likely left with few physical marks—her chastity has been destroyed, and she now lacks her nascent goodness. By proclaiming that “sexual purity” is a “substitute … for real morality” (39), the virginity movement perpetuates the idea that a virgin bride is a necessity; no man should wish to marry an immoral woman, and, in the eyes of the movement, sex is all that it takes. Modern members of the virginity movement also fight for abstinence-only sex education, which avoids any teaching of contraceptives, and often include false scientific information. These programs typically “have a background in or connection to Christian organizations” (Kanabus). This exclusion of science in a religion-based discussion of sexuality is indicative of the degree to which modern Christianity pushes back against science. The abstinence movement has become not just a moral issue, but a microcosm of the constant battle between religious rule and scientific progress.

This fight is one that is believed to have begun “when Christianity began to obtain political power,” and it exists with “the expansive force of human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other” (Draper). This struggle manifests itself in many ways, but it had a particularly strong presence during the 16th century, when the Catholic Church “was under considerable threat … [from] the Protestant Reformation” (Jordan). Fearful of allowing anything to subvert their power, church leaders executed Giordano Bruno, burning him at the stake for attempting to popularize the Copernican model of the universe, which placed the sun, rather than Earth, at the center of our solar system—a theory “contrary to Holy Scripture” (de Santillana 313). Galileo, the man who found proof for this idea, was eventually forced to swear to “abandon the false opinion that the Sun is the center of the world and is immovable” (312). Religion, in an attempt to maintain political control, stood directly against the cause of science. The philosophy of Young Earth Creationism has followed a similar—albeit somewhat less dramatic—path, with the belief that God created earth some 6000 years ago in conflict with confirmed scientific findings (“Biblical”). The pattern occurs with relatively high frequency; something from scripture is questioned and there is a split as to what is believed. Invariably, the religious take up arms against the science just as the science gathers enough strength to discount some portion of traditional theology.

It seems somewhat illogical, though, that this is the same issue at the root of the abstinence movement. The members of the movement, however, seem to have no difficulty accepting this idea. There is a considerable Christian history of lashing out against technological developments perceived as creating a benefit to sexual activity. It was the push against premarital sex that gave Gardasil, a vaccine against the sexually transmitted Human Papilloma Virus, the nickname the Promiscuity Vaccine, as it was believed by many that young women “may see [the vaccine] as a license to engage in premarital sex” (Gibbs). This fear has been versed again and again, about “introducing anesthesia during childbirth, or using penicillin to treat syphilis” (Gibbs). It was the belief of staunch Christians that sinners ought to suffer for their sins—regardless of the fact that the definition of fornication as a sin may have originated because of the associated health benefits in a pre-technology society. This makes it quite clear that, from the side of the Abstinence Movement, modern technology is a threat.

This is likely because the original practical purposes of abstinence have been buried beneath a sea of religious doctrine as a result of attempts to make people actually abstain. From the time that Christianity was first codified into the Bible, the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians has been included (Pitre). This book contains direct statements against premarital sex, warning the faithful to “[f]lee fornication” (6:18), as “fornicators”—those who engage in premarital sex—are among those who “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9). These words and others, after a considerable quantity of time had passed, governed life in Puritan America. This is the setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and purity from sin is a state that most of the novel's characters try and fail to reach. Closely related as purity and virginity frequently are, virginity is only explicitly discussed once, in reference to the young virgins who flock to the minister. These women are “victims of a passion so imbued with religious sentiment that they imagin[e] it to be all religion, and br[ing] it openly, in their white bosoms, as their most acceptable sacrifice before the alter” (118-9). There is the “white” of purity linked with the more sexual “bosoms,” but, more importantly, there is the conflation of religion and sexuality; “passion” applies equally well to religious fervor and sexual acts. For virgins, Christianity is this passion, because religion, like virginity, is good. It is unclear whether Hawthorne considers this the truth of the matter—the passion is “imagined … to be all religion” rather than simply being so, but it does proclaim that passion is something to be “sacrifice[d] before the alter”—to succeed religiously, sexuality must be surrendered, and, prior to marriage, virginity is the way to assure this. Religion promulgates the desire for abstinence, replacing the initial practicality of abstinence with something much less earthly, lacking the more rational reasoning that may have driven the creation of the original laws.

Just how important virginity became can be seen in Tess of the D'ubervilles. Tess, the heroine of the novel, is raped by a nobleman and eventually gives birth to a sickly child who soon dies. She keeps the identity of the father a secret, as well as her own unwillingness, so it is difficult to determine if the magnitude of the villagers' opprobrium would have differed had they known the truth. Tess eventually marries Angel, who is the son of a minister but elected not to enter the clergy. When Angel speaks with his father about what the woman he marries ought to be like, it exemplifies the link between goodness and chastity and shows that these views were present in the late Victorian era. Angel's father suggests “a pure and saintly woman,” and Angel agrees with the parallel “good and devout” (200), clearly connecting purity with both “goodness” and, in general, any “truly Christian woman” (199). When Angel goes on to reject Tess because of her previous defilement, his name adds a quantity of religious sanctity to his actions—a religious stamp on the idea that the loss of virginity is all that it takes to become undesirable, even is this loss is the result of rape. Angel's behavior is indicative of the oversimplification of women's morality that Valenti points out in modern America: virgins are good and sexually active unmarried women the opposite. The book also demonstrates that the ideal of pureness had somewhat overtaken its religious basis; although Angel was willing to forgive Tess' lack of intellectual knowledge of religion, it took many years for him to forgive a sin that she did not bring down upon herself. It should be noted, again, that it was neither the child nor any particular risk of disease that bothered Angel; it was the fact that his Tess was not the “pure” Christian woman he believed her to be.

The idea that abstinence is driven primarily by religion and associated religious morality is one that exists strongly in modern America, centuries after Tess' story took place and an ocean away. Organizations within the abstinence movement make no secret of the fact that their commitment to religion comes before all else. True Love Waits, for example, is an abstinence organization that, as of 2004, had received 400,000 pledge cards. Signing a pledge on the internet or in person involves making five commitments, to “god,” “yourself,” “family,” “friends,” and “future mate and children.” Each commitment is explained using a quote from the Bible, because even after all these years, Christian doctrine is still considered the primary motivator for premarital abstinence. Religious educators do their best to get the ideas across early—Souther Baptist churches teach youth that “[s]ex is dirty” from before they even know what sex is (Baines). At the same time, scientific progress is denied and misinformation is spread in the name of sexual education (Connolly). Organizations fighting HIV must regularly struggle with the fact that, because “according to church teaching … sex before marriage is wrong” (Rochman), many people—including Pope Benedict XVI (Butt)—do not support providing condoms to stop the spread of HIV, as this would be tacit acceptance of premarital sex.

Science, however, marches on. The development of the internet makes it harder for abstinence education programs to spread misinformation. Contraceptives are being developed for the opposite gender (Schieszer), and Pope Benedict actually changed his mind on the role of condoms in disease prevention (Randall). At the same time, however, the ever more present media has enabled sexualization of younger individuals (Durham); it seems that there is more to protecting youth than merely preserving their virginity. By shutting abstinence so thoroughly out of the purview of secular logic, it has become that much more difficult for those creating new developments to insure that people are protecting themselves and their partners. As it stands now, the only true way to escape the stigma that is attached to sexuality—a stigma that is only the echo of that in Puritan America and Victorian England—is to follow in the path of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Orlando becomes sexually involved with a number of individuals, and lives by the motto “Life! A Lover!” (244), finding each within the other. Orlando is able to be relatively promiscuous without being scorned because of her complete disregard for gender norms—this is a character who literally changes characters halfway through the text—and her immortality, which allows her to exist as someone somewhat separate from the cultural rules of her era. In today's actual America, however, the battle continues; the religious man the battlements in defense of ideology that is has lost its purpose when under the fire of development.

Works Cited
Baines, Steven. “Sex and the Church --- Teaching Abstinence in a World Awash with Sex.” General Board of Church & Society of The United Methodist Church. 19 Dec. 2010. Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

The Bible. King James Vers. Project Gutenberg. Literary Archive Foundation, 1 Aug. 1989. Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

“Biblical Young Earth Creationism.” Northwest Creation Network. Web. 7 Jan. 2011.

Connolly, Ceci. “Some Abstinence Programs Mislead Teens, Report Says.” Washington Post 2 Dec. 2004: A01. Web. 7 Jan. 2011.

Draper, John William. Preface. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. By Draper. Comp. Charles Keller and David Widger. Project Gutenberg. Literary Archive Foundation, 21 Aug. 2008. Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

Durham, M. Gigi. The Lolita Effect. Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press, 2008. Print.

Gibbs, Nancy. “Defusing the War Over the 'Promiscuity' Vaccine.” Time 21 Jun. 2006. Web. 5 Dec. 2010.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D'ubervilles. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2009. Print.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2009. Print.

Jordan, Robin. “Galileo Galilei vs the Church: Incompatibility of Science and Religion.” Florida Atlantic University, Fort Lauderdale. FAU Science Courses. Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

Kanabus, Annabel, et al. “Abstinence and Sex Education.” Avert. 2011. Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

Pitre, Brant. Outline. “The Origin of the Bible.” Catholic Productions. Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

Randall, David and Roberts, Genevieve. “Pope Signals Historic Leap in Fight Against Aids.” The Independent 21 Nov. 2010. Web. 7 Jan. 2011.

Rochman, Sue. “Sex, Abstinence, and the Church.” HIVPlus Mag Feb. 2004: Web. 6 Jan. 2011.
de Santillana, Giorgio. The Crime of Galileo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, pp. 312-313.

Schieszer, John. “Male Birth Control Pill Soon a Reality.” MSNBC 1 Oct. 2010. Web. 7 Jan 2011.

Stephey, M. J. “A Brief History of: Abstinence.” Time 19 Feb. 2009: Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

“True Love Waits.” Lifeway. 2007. Web. 5 Dec. 2010

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1973. Print.


Julie said...

Interesting that you present a black-and-white dichotomy between promiscuity and abstinence in your title, when it appears as though your paper tries to establish that there isn't a dichotomy. Or is there still one?

Tea said...

If my paper legitimately established that, I'd be rather thrilled, though it's not something I set out to do. I'd say that there still exists a dichotomy--it's not something I consider a good thing, but I'm inclined to say that it exists.