This led to an intense flurry of Internet posts and commentary on the value of abstinence-only sex education. Critics such as Calah Alexander focused on the fear-mongering aspects of abstinence-only programs, which sometimes compared a girl who had lost her virginity to a dirty glass of water or a chewed-up piece of gum. But perhaps a more helpful line of inquiry would have centered on the value of virginity itself and its relationship to the value of a human person.
Suggesting that virginity, or the loss of virginity, is an arbitrary line (as one post did) does not contribute meaningfully to the conversation. Instinctively, most women would sense it's more than that, even if such an attitude is not particularly hip or progressive. So what is virginity according to Catholic thought? In his book Love and Responsibility ("L&R"), Pope John Paul II defined physical virginity of either a man or a woman as a state of being "untouched by another, sexually intact." Then he made the obvious point that sexual intactness "finds its expression even in the physiological constitution of a woman." Virginity is a physical reality, and the loss of it causes a permanent change to a woman's body.
John Paul II's Theology of the Body teaches us that the body is a sign, a sacramental sign. The body means something. The way that God made our bodies means something. Clearly, virginity means something. But what?
John Paul II in L&R stated that physical virginity (or bodily intactness) "is an exterior expression of the fact that the person belongs only to himself and to the Creator." When you belong to yourself, you are free to give yourself. Persons who retain their physical virginity have the freedom to give all of themselves -- their persons, their lives, and their intact bodies -- to someone else, either to a spouse through a vow of marriage or to God through a vow of chastity. If someone forcibly takes that freedom from a woman, like they took it from Elizabeth Smart, she has lost something.
But she has not lost everything. She still retains her value as a human person and as a woman. In a sense, she has even retained her purity. John Paul II in the Theology of the Body stated that Christ radically opposed a tendency to view moral or sexual purity in an exclusively external and material way. In the context of sexual abuse, the former pope's words take on particular poignancy:
Nothing makes a man unclean "from the outside"; no "material" dirtiness makes a man impure in the moral sense. ... Moral purity has its wellspring exclusively in man's interior: it comes from the heart.Rape or abuse cannot make a person unclean or impure; it cannot destroy their intrinsic value.
Similarly, whether a person is still physically virgin does not determine whether their life has value, according to Catholic thought. Pope John Paul in L&R stressed that "we should not think that the essence of virginity lies merely in bodily intactness." Virginity reflects an interior disposition of wanting to belong to God. Through the desire of the heart, "what was the state of nature [bodily intactness] becomes an object of the will, an object of a conscious choice and decision." Victims like Elizabeth Smart did not consciously choose what happened to them. The idea that unwanted sexual abuse can turn a person into a valueless object, like a chewed-up piece of gum or dirty glass of water, is not a Catholic idea at all.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2356) condemns rape in the strongest terms. It blames the perpetrator and not the victim:
Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act.It is the rapist, not the victim, who commits the evil. But the victim must live with the wounds inflicted by that evil.
This problem extends far beyond Elizabeth Smart. Catholic therapist Dr. Phil Mango has encountered staggering numbers of devout Catholic adults who experienced sexual abuse in their youth. Many times the victims will refuse to talk about their past experiences, even with their spouse. They suppress unacknowledged feelings of rage against their perpetrators, and their marriages suffer as a result of these unhealed wounds. But healing is possible.
In the next post on this topic, I'll talk about healing through forgiveness, and how those who lost their virginity voluntarily (and their spouses) need healing as well.