Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Virginity, Grief, and Healing

In my last post on Virginity, Rape, and Loss, I discussed the case of kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart, who lost her virginity through rape. The forcible taking of her virginity and of her body clearly harmed her. But what about people who choose to give up their virginity through engaging in premarital sex? Is anyone harmed then? Does anyone suffer a loss?

Let's return again to the idea of virginity as a sign of what God wants for us. In the last post, I talked about virginity as a sign that the person belongs only to himself (or herself) and God. A person who possesses himself is free to give himself. And, much more than a bodily act, sexual or conjugal union is meant to be a complete gift of self. John Paul II in his Letter to Families explained:
Every man and every woman fully realizes himself or herself through the sincere gift of self. For spouses, the moment of conjugal union constitutes a very particular expression of this. It is then that a man and woman, in the ‘truth’ of their masculinity and femininity, become a mutual gift to each other. All married life is a gift; but this becomes most evident when the spouses, in giving themselves to each other in love, bring about that encounter which makes them ‘one flesh’ (Gen 2:24).
This gift of self is a gift of body and soul, since we can't separate the two. Because human beings have more than a physical value, sex has more than a physical value. And because sex has more than a physical value, virginity has more than a physical value. As stated in John Paul II's Love and Responsibility, physical virginity or intactness "possesses a deeper meaning, not only physiological."
When [a man] gives himself to another person, when a woman gives herself to a man in conjugal intercourse, then this giving should have the full value of spousal love. A woman then ceases to be "virginal" in the bodily sense. And because the self-giving is reciprocal, then a man also ceases to be virginal.
The mutual loss of virginity when a man and a woman enter into sexual union for the first time is meant to occur within the context of reciprocal spousal love. More simply, when you lose your virginity to someone or when someone loses their virginity to you, this is a love that's meant to last forever, in sickness and in health, til death do you part.

Even if a woman (or man) purposefully gives their body to someone who does not reciprocate the gift through the life-long bond of marriage, at the very least there has been an unequal exchange. As Christopher West frequently states in his talks on the Theology of the Body, there is a reason why most of us feel uncomfortable around people with whom we've had premarital sexual experiences. These experiences should never have happened.

These experiences, even if they were voluntary at the time, can cause real grief. Some women struggle to forgive themselves for having chosen to have premarital sex; other women struggle to forgive their husbands for not having saved themselves for marriage.  I have read several blogs of engaged or recently married women, like this one here, and I can tell you that virginity still matters. Virginity has value.

Recognizing that virginity is valuable and good allows us to acknowledge its loss as a real loss. Only then can the real road to healing and forgiveness begin. As Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons has written, the first step of forgiveness is when people rationally determine that they have been unfairly treated. Before you can forgive, you have to admit that you have been hurt, you have been wronged. Only then can people willfully abandon the resentment to which they have a right. Only then can they let go of the grief and anger and begin to heal. "Forgiveness is a specialist in quelling that kind of anger that debilitates the injured or wounded individual," wrote Dr. Fitzgibbons and his colleague in their book Helping Clients Forgive.

In his talks on the Theology of the Body, Chris West offers an apology to the women in the audience: "On behalf of all the men who hurt you, I'm sorry." By standing in the shoes of the perpetrators, West offers what many people never receive -- an apology. And apologies aid us in the work of forgiveness.

But if two people willingly enter into premarital sex, don't they both hurt each other, even if they don't intend to at the time? Yes. But just because we hurt someone else (however unwillingly or unknowingly), that fact doesn't erase the hurt that has been done to us. We need to forgive the other person. And perhaps just as much, we need to allow ourselves to receive forgiveness as well.

This is where the Sacrament of Penance comes in. We are so blessed to have a Church that offers forgiveness of sins from Jesus himself through the words of a priest. There are few more consoling words to someone who approaches with true sorrow than "I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." And let us not forget the words of the Lord's Prayer in which we plead, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us."

To anyone who is grieving over these issues, on behalf of those who hurt you, I am sorry. May God's grace bring you healing and peace.


  1. "More simply, when you lose your virginity to someone or when someone loses their virginity to you, this is a love that's meant to last forever, in sickness and in health, til death do you part."

    This brings up an issue that is rarely addressed in virginity discussions:

    What if you do lose your virginity in a relationship that is based on this love that is meant to last forever—BUT you do it before the wedding?

    These situations don't completely fit either "narrative" about the problems of premarital sex or benefits of waiting for marriage.

    When premarital sex is discussed in terms of jealousy, awkwardness, and regret it doesn't really capture what is going on with these couples. It doesn't answer the question of "Why wait if you've found that special someone and you're engaged to be married?"

    The reason I mention this is because my wife and I had quite a bit of premarital experience with each other. We thought that the premarital sex "warnings" didn't apply to us, and many of them didn't. It still caused problems in our marriage, but not the ones most people usually talk about.

    1. One benefit of waiting until the marriage is that it trains you in self-control and increases the trust of your partner. By controlling your passion before the marriage, your partner will have greater trust and confidence that you can withstand sexual temptations within the marriage -- whether it's temptation to cheat on NFP, or to watch pornography, or to stray to someone else. Particularly if you "know" it's wrong and do it anyway, it undermines an ability to trust that you'll be able to make the "right" decisions in other circumstances.