Despite what Catholic high schools’ administrations may wish you to believe, among the student body chastity isn’t always equated with coolness.
But when notable Christian chastity apologist Jason Evert spoke to our class the spring of freshmen year, the hallmarks of coolness suddenly switched from teenage rebellion to purity pledges and a life of self-restraint.
Evert’s message opened by telling of the afflicted past of his wife, Crystalina, who was left feeling damaged and depressed after losing her virginity at 15. The story unraveled as a highly romanticized narrative rooted in the notion of strength: the couple met, immediately fell in love and vowed a lifestyle of chastity by pledging their virginities to one another.
Armed with a playful sense of humor and a ‘cool-dad’ vibe that sweetened the bitter taste of confrontational subjects such as sex, virginity and pornography, Evert managed to convince an auditorium of high school freshmen that a chaste lifestyle was the path to true freedom.
Chivalrous ideals of romance woven with the virtues of modesty and pure womanhood left several girls in the audience teary-eyed and overcome with emotion. Whispers echoed throughout the auditorium about the girls in our class who were known to have compromised their gifts of innocence.
In contrast to the austere abstinence-only education typical of religious institutions,
Evert’s message was framed with rhetoric that on the surface had a sheen of optimistic empowerment and renewal, but in reality was an agenda promoting shame and traditional gender roles.
I still have “Pure Love,” Evert’s pocketbook literature that was distributed to us the day of his talk. Answering the question “How do I stay pure?” Evert posits: “Some people justify their enjoyment of (meaningless sex) by saying they’re not affected. This is like skipping through a field of tar, while wearing white. If you are serious about love, get rid of (this).”
Evert’s message resounded with me that day because I identified as the beacon of purity in his metaphor. I also distinctly remember feeling a sense of self-righteousness and superiority over the two girls in our grade who had already lost their virginities – feelings that had previously never surfaced in my mind.
The reaction of superiority among the sexually chaste is a poignant illustration of the dichotomy between chastity and impurity constructed by the modern chastity movement.
Prolific contemporary feminist author and Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti’s 2010 book “The Purity Myth,” which talks about the societal construction of virginity as purity and how this affects women negatively, is reproachful of the ideas Evert is trying to promote.
Valenti dissects the “making abstinence cool” strategy adopted by the purity movement and says: “Whether they’re pledges … or Virginity Vouchers, the messages are clearly regressive. But virginity proponents are doing one heck of a job marketing them as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘empowering’. Appropriating feminist rhetoric to reinforce traditional gender roles is nothing if not brilliant.”
The reinforcement of chauvinist ideology is a ubiquitous yet thinly veiled motif in Evert’s seminars — that in order to be viewed as attractive in a man’s eye, a woman must “heal” herself of her sexual past and be made anew.
The bottom line is that Evert and the chastity movement at large paint women as a bastion of virginity. This reverse objectification conflates women’s self-worth with their sexuality.
Instead of reducing women to the extent of their sexual agency or passivity, we should be teaching young women that their value lies not in their bodies, but rather in their abilities to be kind, intelligent and selfless human beings.
One of the various chastity paraphernalia given to us that day was a “Pure Love Promise” commitment card to carry in our wallets a reminder of our promise to “glorify God with [our] body and pursue a life of purity.”
Glancing at my pledge card, I feel both relief that I no longer have to subscribe to Evert’s mythologies, but also a vague sadness.
For in my signature– scrawled in black permanent marker, no less – I am reminded not of my deviance or adherence to the pledge, but of the lasting impacts of a toxic culture of oppression.
Anna Soldner is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.