I would not consider my upbringing to be particularly 'sex-positive' — that is, celebrating the wonder of sex. The overall message was clear: any form of sexual conduct prior to marriage is intrinsically sinful, but really what that also communicated was that sex was somehow something to be ashamed of. I didn't feel a 'victim' to this, though, ever really. It made sense to me. If God said I shouldn't then I shouldn't.
A major influence on this discourse was, of course, my religious environment. I grew up in a Charismatic Christian ministry, and my dad was a Pastor under the Bishop in South Africa. I was close to all the Bishop's kids, and they were held to a very high standard. I remember some pretty harsh consequences for falling out of line on these principles. Even then, I don't think sex was explicitly discussed much, which is strange because the sheer thought of it terrified me. I had lots of questions, but asking any of them felt wrong.
Besides the occasional "the bed is sanctified" talk (which I realized later was an excuse to do some weird crap in bed) and the 'radical' viewpoint that having sex effectively was marriage, sex was never positively talked about… but maybe that was also because women were present. I'm sure different conversations were being had among just men. It's hard to explain the levels of toxicity, even now, all these years later.
Outside of my background in 'the ministry,' I wouldn't consider the cultural environment I was immersed in to be specifically positive either. Much of my childhood and all of my teen years have been in the United States. Sex education here is equivalent to two hours of video programming in the fourth and fifth grade so girls don't totally freak out when one of them get their period. Abstinence-only education is king. Contraception is not talked about in any constructive way.
This combination of religious sub-culture and geographic sub-culture created a toxic ball of fear and shame, even considering I had no tangible reason to feel this way. I wasn't sexually active (obviously). I wasn't confident enough in myself to even think of myself in any light related to this. I didn't feel I was allowed to think about it (for fear the devil would coax me into temptation).
It's not until many, many years later that I'm rethinking the doctrine that shaped my attitudes toward sexual activity early on in my life. This discourse, which by no means is a solution or some sort of declaration, is not derived from a string of legitimate sexual encounters that I'm trying to justify in any way. It's something that has been lain on my heart directly from scripture.
The Question of Virginity
What does it mean to be a virgin? This is a question I've pondered for a while, and have naturally asked a lot of people in my short lifetime. For some, it means no sexual contact whatsoever (that includes the modern advent of sexting and even masturbation) while others claim it's limited to penetrative sex (because LGBTQ+ relationships are apparently not part of this understanding). In any case, it's become a modern symbol of purity for both men and women.
I should say that the title of this article is referring to the moral pretenses we place on virginity. Virginity, in a historic sense, though, had very little to do with morality. This is what makes the concept of virginity that had embedded itself so deeply into our society is bullcrap. I remember someone trying to explain this to me when I was much younger and thinking it was a ridiculous argument, but it actually makes a lot of sense.
Conversations in the Hebrew Bible about virginity are exclusively about women, never men. Men, in fact, are even able to have fully legal polygamous relationships and sleep with prostitutes without ANY moral tainting [Genesis 38; Deuteronomy 12:15; Judges 16:1]. Women, on the other hand, are threatened with stoning if they sleep with another man (if they are married) and are valued in relation to their purity [Deuteronomy 22:22–26]. The higher the 'value' (not having interacted with men) the more expensive the wife, subsequently the more profit made by the Father who effectively owns the daughter and pimps her out (okay, that might be a little much, but it's an important comment!). Marriage in the Bible (after Eden) is entirely transactional. There is only one — let me repeat that — one, named woman in the entire Hebrew Bible who is explicitly cited to 'love her husband': King David's wife, Michal (and things didn't work out too hot for her) [1 Samuel 18:20].
The primary way for a man to get condemned for sexual misconduct is by sleeping with another man's wife (aka assaulting someone else's property) [Exodus 20:14]. So let's be very clear: adultery is not above 'love' or 'promises' in the Torah. It's about economics and horniness.
Two possible ways to justify these dynamics: women were just considered property and virginity was a 'special feature' (also it meant she was probably pretty young, meaning she had more baby-making years) or the laws 'got it wrong' and failed to discuss male virginity. Both of these speak to the 'constructive' nature of a 'physical' virginity in order to be 'lost' or 'taken.' Each belittles the 'moral' nature of virginity and erodes the sex before marriage embargo. It also calls into question the spiritual nature of the text itself. Are they meant to tell us how to live a moral life or one limited in conflict? It seems all very practical, not very spiritual.
What about sex within marriage? Is there any 'reward' for that? I was definitely taught in the ministry that waiting until marriage would lead to better, perhaps, mind-blowing, sex. And yes, there's definitely verbiage in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that says that sex within marriage is especially pure, but again, this is not a straight-out denial of polygamy or sex outside the bonds of marriage, nor does it have a superstitious claim about better sex in exchange for waited time.
It's also important to note that with each year of shame and fear being impressed upon young modern girls, more time is needed to wipe that shame off and 'perform' when the time comes. In other words, women are expected to be innocent until their wedding night, then radically sexy, then innocent again after becoming mothers. The horror stories I've heard from the mouths of Bishops and Pastors boasting their sex lives astound me juxtaposed to the shame they continually impress upon young people (especially women).
Remember, in Biblical times (and even as recent at the early 20th century) children (13–16 years old) were being married off in these arrangements to (often) men much older than them. There wasn't much time to 'restrict' themselves anyways; as soon as they were capable of producing children, they were sold off. Now the average age of marriage for women in the United States is 27.1 years. Is that even a healthy span of time to wait to become sexually active?
Also — can we talk about the fact the authors/compilers of the Bible would probably be horrified if they witnessed modern dating practices? I'm not talking about one-night-stand or pre-marital sex. I'm talking about the idea of getting to know the person you want to marry in a non-committed 'try-out' for months, perhaps years (more on try-outs when I talk about Esther)! It would likely be considered unnatural, immoral, and wrong. If you want to be strictly Biblical without room for interpretation, you meet and get married pretty much instantly.
To tie up this section on gendered sexual inequality, I'll say this: I'm glad that men were called to the same standard as us women growing up in the ministry. Fairness is cool. But on the other hand, let's not pretend it's strictly Biblical in the sense that it follows the text directly. Strictly Biblically speaking, young men are able to sleep with whoever they want so long as they agree to marry them or pay them without any moral tainting.
I obviously disagree with this standpoint and think the text needs to be reconsidered in a broader light (which I discuss at the end of my piece). However, if we are to look just at the text, yeah, that is what it says. Modern theologians are readjusting what the Bible literally discusses in its first books to work with their modern preference for sexual abstinence, proliferated by the Purity movement of the late 20th century (but that's a whole other story). It's another step taken to ensure control.
Sexy Women in the Bible
Okay, so virginity is bullshit and sex is an economic construct in the Hebrew Bible. Cool. What do I do with that?
In reflecting on all of these concepts, I was also able to reflect on some pretty key biblical figures in the Hebrew Bible that were in actuality very sex-positive (at least in the sense that the Bible did not shame them for using sex for their own personal aims). Let's explore these three seemingly incomparable uses of sex by key figures and what they're able to teach us.
You remember Jael? She's the one responsible for ramming a tent peg into Sisera's temple in the book of Judges. Yeah, that Jael. Let's ponder the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) translation of Judges 5:17–22:
17 However, Sisra ran on foot to the tent of Ya'el the wife of Hever the Keini, because there was peace between Yavin the king of Hatzor and the family of Hever the Keini. 18 Ya'el went out to meet Sisra and said to him, "Come in, my lord; stay here with me; and don't be afraid." So he went into her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. 19 He said to her, "Please give me a little water to drink — I'm thirsty." She opened a goatskin of milk, gave him some to drink, and covered him up again. 20 He said to her, "Stand at the entrance to the tent; and if anyone asks you if somebody is here, say, 'No.'" 21 But when he was deeply asleep, Ya'el the wife of Hever took a tent peg and a hammer in her hand, crept in to him quietly and drove the tent peg into his temple, right through to the ground; so that he died without waking up. 22 So here is Barak pursuing Sisra, and Ya'el steps out to meet him and says, "Come, I will show you the man you are looking for." He goes into her tent; and there is Sisra, lying dead with the tent peg through his temple.
What do we know about Jael? She's not a Hebrew, but rather a Kenite. Also, she's married. Her character becomes quite interesting reflecting on her relationship with Sisera, Israel's enemy.
Jael approaches Sisera, not the other way around. She invites him to come into 'her tent' alone. He's literally 'in her sheets,' drinks some milk and is so tuckered out that he falls asleep.
There's a good reason why Jewish rabbinical examination has interpreted this event as sexual. In one Midrash, Jael is written to have sexual intercourse with Sisera seven times in an attempt to tire him out enough to kill him. In this case, yes, the Midrash still considers the event a sin but a sin with cause. It is because of this sin, that Israel prevails over Sisera who, according also to a Midrash, defeated every nation he encountered.
Esther: the beloved, pious Queen of the Persian empire who stood up for what was right and saved her people! A tale of beauty pageants, love, and valor. Oh? That's not actually how the story goes? That's right, how could I forget.
In the real story, Esther is hand-selected due to her physical attractiveness to join a slew of other women in sexual try-outs with the King. Apparently she is the best in bed, and she is instated as Queen [Esther 2:3]. Let's not forget that the King was pretty kinky already, with the whole story of divorcing his previous wife because she wouldn't parade naked in front of his friends at a party [Esther 1:11]. We can just imagine what Esther was up to (including eating lots of non-kosher delicacies, lest we forget).
"A search should be made for young, good-looking virgins. 3 The king should appoint officials in all the provinces of the kingdom to gather all the young, good-looking virgins to the house for the harem, in Shushan the capital. They should be put under the care of Hegai the king's officer in charge of the women, and he should give them the cosmetics they require. 4 Then, the girl who seems best to the king should become queen instead of Vashti." Ester 2:2–4 CJB
There's a debate about whether or not she knew she was even Jewish, or if she observed Jewish customs. There's no mention of her taking the Sabbath, for example. Even more peculiar, God is not directly referenced at all in the book. We're left with vague references that imply God's oversight but not direct, explicit involvement in the course of events.
If we revisit the conversation of women being sexual objects to men, we can understand Esther's political role in this narrative as being pretty much sexual to start. Sex gets her in. Sex keeps her in long enough to intervene when the King signs Hamaan's decree to commit genocide against the Jews. It is even the idea of Hamaan possibly attempting to make an advance on Esther (the King's property) that ends up being his downfall.
This is a story full of sexual cases that would typically be used to antagonize the woman, but in this case, does the opposite. Because she gives in to her role as a sexual creature, she is able to save her people (and no, there really is no other way this could have worked out).
"For if you fail to speak up now, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from a different direction; but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows whether you didn't come into your royal position precisely for such a time as this." — Ester 4:14 CJB
The Woman of Song of Songs
Picture this. It's the 2nd Century AD. A group of Rabbis are sitting around a table, deciding how to compile a comprehensive Jewish canon. There's a lot of controversy about which texts to include and which ones not to include. Certain scrolls, like the Scroll on Enoch, get cut.
There's a question about the Solomon's Song of Songs (Shir-Hashirim): Is this book considered 'defiling'? A certain Rabbi Akiva famously responds:
"God forbid! […] For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies."
In other words, Song of Songs is pretty damn important.
In a sentence, the Song of Songs is about a man and woman (not married) who (sexually and emotionally) long for each other but can not quite meet.
There is plenty of debate within both Jewish and Christian circles about what exactly Song of Songs is even talking about. I would encourage you to read it again (it isn't very long) but let's pull out some eyebrow-raising verses:
"My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts." 1:13 NIV
"Night after night on my bed I looked for the man I love, I looked for him but I didn't find him." 3:1 CJB
"Let my darling enter his garden and eat its finest fruits." 4:16 CJB
"The man I love put his hand through the hole by the door-latch, and my heart bean pounding at the thought of him." 5:4 CJB
Pastors and Rabbis alike will jump at the chance to interpret the Song of Songs as an allegory for the way God loves his people and/or his church. But could it be that additionally, the book is also a celebration of what makes us human?
Song of Songs is often nestled with other wisdom literature including the Proverbs, Esther, and Ecclesiastes. These are pieces that are tailored to reflect on the human experience — how to reconcile the messages of the Bible and the world we actually occupy…an imperfect world.
Unlike the story of Jael, the Song of Songs does not need further interpretation or Midrash to explain why it is sexual in nature. It's overt. To see it any other way would take hard, deliberate work.
Song of Songs is also one of the very few books in both the Hebrew Bible and Holy Christian Bible that takes on a woman's perspective. In this narrative, not only do we get to understand the psyche of a woman (as we get with the story of Jael and Esther), but the woman is the narrator for large chunks of the text.
It is unlike any other book or scroll in the Bible, which is why I believe Rabbi Akiva was so adamant about including it in the Hebrew Biblical canon… it doesn't concern itself with intense ethical questioning about the nature of sex, or even the place of a woman. It's a reflection on what romantic love looks like at it's best; further, a mirror of how badly not possessing that love can be from a female perspective.
The woman of Song of Songs does not bear a name, just as her lover does not. I believe the purpose of this is to visualize ourselves in the story, one where there is room for both a male, female, and third party perspective. We imagine ourselves as these characters because we are them.
To say that the Bible does not value or revere sex is blatantly incorrect. Scripture cares a lot about it. Sex connects people, produces life, and builds community; something not to be trifled with. That's probably why it gets so specific about which sexual relationships are okay and which are not.
But to assert that the Bible is not supportive of sexual activity or does not see it as just one piece in a larger human experience is also wrong. The Bible provides clear examples (though perhaps they are few in number) of individuals using sex to advance God-ordained agendas, to express love, to receive love, to experience pleasure, to spin the narrative — to save lives of those dear. It is also clear that the sexual identity of an individual should not tell the whole story.
There is grace and celebration in love, so there is grace and celebration in sex.
The way religious community leaders use notions of sex and virginity to subjugate women (remember, men are entirely off the hook in most of these early narratives!) is morally inapprehensible. It breeds shame, guilt, and isolation — themes blatantly not present in books such as the Song of Songs. It's not a message of love. It's a message of control.
This is not a call to disregard sacred texts, but rather one to reevaluate what they mean to us. What are they really meant to teach us? To circle around to High School Language Arts classes — what was the author's intent and who was the audience?
How do we remain sexually responsible in the 21st century without compromising the message of writing that may be dated thousands of years in the past? We must also be honest and ask if this is a possible feat in general. What should the future of love look like? What kind of future does God want for his children?
I'll end with one of my favorite verses in the Hebrew Bible:
"For love is as strong as death, passion as cruel as Sh'ol…No amount of water can quench love, torrents cannot drown it." Song of Songs 8:6–7 CJB