In a New York Times Op-Ed piece today, Lauren F. Winner argues that if Christians, appalled by raging premarital sex, want to support young teens, they need to take another look at abstinence pledges. Clearly, for all the dictates from the church on sex, there's a lack of actual discussion. Hence the burgeoning collection of books discussing chastity in the Christian inspiration section of your local Barnes & Noble; Winner points to this as evidence that Christians are having to look outside the church for honest dialogue. (Among that vast collection, you are likely to find Winner's "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity.")
Winner makes a strong point in criticizing the ideology behind the pledges themselves. She cites the "True Love Waits" pledge: "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship." But, wait. As Winner points out, the New Testament does not require marriage or procreation. "Some Christians are called to lifelong celibacy," she says.
Winner also takes issue with the individualistic leaning of the pledges: "Perhaps we also need pledges made by the teenager's whole Christian community: we pledge to support you in this difficult, countercultural choice No retooled pledge will guarantee teenagers' chastity, but words of grace and communal commitment are perhaps a firmer basis for sexual ethics than simple assertions that true love waits." Surely the key is in offering support for teens who have made this brave, countercultural choice. But that all hinges on the assumption that they've been able to come to that conclusion without the vulturelike oversight of politically motivated parties.
Broadsheet reader Kathleen from California wrote in to complain that the article fails to explore whether virginity pledges can actually do harm. She suggested that, at the very least, virginity pledges neglect key emotional deliberation: "For all of the information that's put out about how to tell teens they're 'not ready' for sex, has any study ever been done addressing the issue of what 'readiness' really is? How will women figure out whether they're 'ready' if the only information they ever get is slanted to make them question their own readiness?" The same can be said for abstinence-only education; no one -- including the church -- is doing young girls any favors by imposing a political agenda on their bodies.
One thing that would seem to go without saying is that regardless of one's religious leaning, virginity pledges will not be effective when sex is held precariously over teens' heads as a wicked sin, especially when such thinking runs completely counter to every hormonal message they've received. Winner's argument would have been much more convincing had she more strongly opined for support in the decision-making process --meaning honest discussions about what it means to be ready for sex.
So often, as harrumphing Westerners, we estimate -- with mouths gaping wide -- the status and treatment of women in other cultures. (Indignities abound, yes, but relativism when criticizing our own culture will only cause us to stagnate.) Maybe it's time to Windex the ol' looking glass.