Equally a source of bellyache laughter, fascination, and sincere belief, the brand of premarital sexual purity hawked by evangelicals has made headlines for decades. Everyone from Justin Timberlake-era Britney Spears with her purported virginity to right-wing Christian writers like I Kissed Dating Goodbye Joshua Harris, cashed in on pooh-poohing pre-knot-tying nookie. But what were you supposed to do if you weren’t married but had already gotten laid? Just how screwed were you?
Enter Bristol Palin. About a year ago, the young Alaskan claimed that sexual abstinence was not at all realistic for teens. Last month she announced an about-face. The former vice-presidential hopeful’s daughter said in a January 2010 interview with “In Touch” that she has now decided to be sexually abstinent before marriage: ”I can guarantee it.” Challenged later on her statement by Oprah Winfrey who asked her if she was setting herself up to fail, Bristol was adamant, “It’s a realistic goal for myself.”
Danielle Bean in the National Catholic Register reacted angrily to Oprah’s questioning:
I’ll bet Bristol had big plans and dreams for her life that did not include becoming a mother at the age of 19. Seeing premarital sex as risky behavior with potentially devastating consequences shows maturity, not naïveté. Every one of us should applaud and encourage a young woman like Bristol Palin who dares to put chastity and life-long goals ahead of her hormones.
Lashing out at cultural liberals, Bean commented:
Apparently… the advice anti-abstinence types would offer young women like her is: Dream big! As long as those dreams don’t include anything unrealistic like waiting until you are married to have sex.
That isn’t so much the point though. Bristol has had sex and what she is attempting is what evangelical “purity culture” calls “born-again virginity” and what researchers call “secondary virginity”. To qualify, you renounce your sexual past and swear off additional intercourse until marriage. ”Secondary virgins” consider themselves absolved of their sexual history in a lump deal, closely linked to the Christian concept of absolute forgiveness/salvation that renders the forgiven spotless in the grander cosmic sense.
The concept of born-again virginity has taken a lot of heat, even for basic sexual health reasons. A study by the American Journal of Public Health, titled "Reborn a Virgin: Adolescents’ Retracting of Virginity Pledges and Sexual Histories," found that adolescents that (often out of religious conviction) take virginity pledges until marriage “recant” their sexual pasts, basically seeing themselves as having never had sex. The past is gone and forgiven and they are now pure. The study notes that this is a dangerous tendency as adolescents that take this approach “may incorrectly assess the sexually transmitted disease risks associated with their prepledge sexual behavior.”
On the other side of the debate are people like Donna Freitas, author of “Sex and the Soul” and a religion professor at Boston University. She is all for born-again virginity. In a Christianity Today interview, Freitas says of college students that claim the term: “They’re not denying that they were sexually active, but they’re owning it. . . . I think it is a way out of hookup culture.”
Revirginization is not powered solely by evangelical thought, it can be seen as consistent with American culture. Laura M. Carter wrote the book Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. She claims that the idea of “revirginization” is consistent with elements of the American psyche: “In America there is the idea of the remade person… We are all in an endless state of becoming. You can remake yourself. That has been deeply ingrained in the culture for a long time. So why not virginity? Why not sexuality?”
And so we return to the Bristol makeover. There may be more than just purity points in store for Bristol if she can successfully revirginize. Double X’s Jessica Grose points out that Bristol may be cashing in on brand recognition as a spokesperson for pro-abstinence organizations. She is already teen ambassador of the conservative Candie’s Foundation (although she apparently does not receive a paycheck from them). Grose points out that Bristol has also formed her own company, BSMP LLC, a handy arrangement that Rachel Maddow says can allow her to be paid from multiple directions as a freelancer. Grose also makes the point that a rehabilitated Bristol would be a great asset in a possible 2012 run for president for her mom.
But let’s not get too cynical. If there is one thing America loves more than seeing famous people fall, it’s seeing them reinvent themselves. It’s Bristol’s turn.
A graduate of Andrews University, Bjorn Karlman blogs at Culture Mutt.