On Mary’s Virginity and the How the Purity Myth Harms Women
While I understood why theft or murder was wrong, this aspect didn’t make sense to me. What did sex and my body have to do with God?
By the time I was twelve, I’d lived in the United States for five years. In that time, I’d attended church weekly, Vacation Bible School, post-service potlucks, and summer Bible camp. I felt that I generally understood the rules of Christianity. You read the Bible, you prayed, you were good to other people, and forgave them when they weren’t good to you. Above all, you loved Jesus.
These rules changed when I hit puberty, when I discovered that defending my sexual purity with zealous fury was apparently an even bigger part of being a Christian than all the rest. At first, this made little sense to me. As boys and girls were separated at church camp—boys being delivered lectures on the evils of pornography and girls being told sternly not to wear spaghetti straps lest we tempted boys to hell—I didn’t understand just how my bare shoulders had anything to do with sin.
I had been told what sex was at a very young age by my mother. She reiterated countless times that I should not believe the Hollywood fantasy, that sex was an animal thing, almost grotesque. I was taught that masturbation was just one of many tactics to feel good or fall asleep faster. Body parts like breasts or vaginas were sources of mildly skittish curiosity. So, while I understood why theft or murder was wrong, this aspect didn’t make sense to me. What did sex and my body have to do with God?
I remained confused, if not ambivalent, until I noticed the rings. They were silver, minimal but expensive looking, glinting on the hands of two girls I desperately wanted to befriend. I was still the new girl, the nerd, the weirdo with heavy bangs and frameless glasses. I was lonely, and had glommed onto these two girls, particularly because I knew they went to church. In my simple child-logic, this meant that the Christian principles of charity and kindness were in play, not to mention I was certain that they’d have to befriend me if I proved I was as Christian as they were.
I tried to remain nonchalant while grilling them on the playground about their rings: Who gave them to them? How did they choose them? How long were they going to wear them? (The answers: their fathers; at the mall; until they were married, of course.) I became obsessed with the purity rings and all that they symbolized—perfection and acceptance.
When we’re told to be like the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is the Virgin that we are made to hear the loudest.
Eventually, I asked my father for one. Though he was initially confused, I remember clearly, with retrospective shame and alarm, standing next to him in front of a glass jewelry case, picking out a silver chain of plumerias to link around my right-hand ring finger.
No one is held up as a paragon of purity so often as Mary, mother of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, she is first mentioned not by name, but instead as a “virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph.” (Luke 1:27) From the very start, we are alerted to the fact that it is her virginity that is key to her story, her that is virginity is notable, not her self.
Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her not to be afraid, and that God will make her pregnant with a son named Jesus, whose “kingdom will never end.” Mary asks the angel, “How will this be . . . since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) The angel offers her an answer (she’ll conceive by the Holy Spirit) and Mary acquiesces, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word be fulfilled.” She goes on to marry Joseph (who still takes her in despite the mysterious pregnancy, thanks to the angel’s intervention), and later gives birth to Jesus in a Bethlehem manger.
In this story, Mary exists solely as a submissive, untarnished vessel in perpetuity. Her praise-worthiness seems to dwell solely in the status of her untouched womb, that which it can carry, and her assured, lily-white virginal body.
Recently, I was at a Catholic wedding where a priest brought up this episode in a homily, and encouraged all the women to follow Mary’s example. According to him, she was the ideal woman that we all ought to aspire to. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, be like Mary being what I considered standard priest prattle.
Later, at the gleaming oaken curve of a suburban country club bar, I stood with a friend who was angrily alternating between swigging iced coffee and chardonnay. “Aspire to Mary!” she fumed. “He’s telling us to be pregnant virgins! It’s definitionally impossible!”
I was struck by what she said, reading new meaning into the priest’s previous statement. Of course, it made sense. Christian religious cultures laud purity, and if you are a woman, there is little else of higher value than your virginity. Was this not simply a variation of what I’d heard all my life, that women, if we are to be Good in the Christian view, must aspire to purity? When we’re told to be like the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is the Virgin that we are made to hear the loudest.
In high school, I lost my purity ring. Not because I’d had sex, but rather because somewhere between gym class and the locker room, I’d taken off the ring and misplaced it. I searched everywhere, agonizing over the silver band. When I couldn’t find it, I hid my hand at home so my parents wouldn’t see its removal and think I’d had sex. Though I’d long since become embarrassed of the ring and stopped telling people what it was about, I’d also internalized all of the increasingly fervent messages from my church and youth group I was receiving about sex.
To further complicate things, I wasn’t an ambivalent, nonchalant twelve year old anymore. Instead, I was just a regular horny teenager, confused and worn out from constantly telling her body it was sinful and wrong. Not to mention, there were strange exceptions to the rules I kept seeing.
While I was being told that my woman-body, if not virginal, would be a dirty, discarded thing, certain boys in my youth group continued to be lauded as pillars of our Christian young adult community, despite their well known sexual activity. (Some of which was most certainly nonconsensual, and later, I’d learn to call rape.) Purity weighed on me, the expectation of virginity growing treacherous, barbed and twisted.
Eventually, two things happened in strange succession. First, I bought a cheap tin replacement ring that I clamped together so tightly around my finger that it became impossible to take off. (Almost a decade later I’d learn you could visit fire departments to get rings cut off your hands for free, causing me to visit my local fire station immediately.) Then, I went to college and had sex for the first time with my then boyfriend.
It was quick and over-planned. I laughed nervously all the way through. Nothing fit, everything was unwieldy, and, to top it all off, though I’d ostensibly told myself I no longer cared, I was wracked with guilt for weeks afterward, certain I was nothing if not a virgin. I broke down in sobs standing at the top of my college parking garage, wondering if my body had completely ruined my life.
I felt far away from the childish friend-wanting that was my introduction to purity culture. Instead, I had fully accepted virginity as a crucial marker of my worthiness in the eyes of others. Now that I no longer was a virgin, was I worthless? Would my family be ashamed, forsaking me? Had I ruined my shot at future love?
Self-love was impossible. But even more so, in the depths of my fear, I was certain that I’d never be loved by another person, dirty and contaminated as I’d become. Eventually, I broke up with that boyfriend, overwhelmed by my anxiety and terror.
What saved me from all this sorrow was my mother.
One day, home for winter break, I went with her to the super H-Mart. It was a normal Chicago winter day, the sky painted a muted slate. At H-Mart we picked our way through the produce aisle, choosing sandy-skinned Asian pears. My mother added a twenty pack of Shin Ramyun to the cart; I browsed the frozen food section for red-bean buns to steam in the microwave. We checked out without incident, and after paying, my mother suggested we stop in Miga Walnut Muffin, an adjoining stall where tiny hot cakes of sweet dough were pressed in an iron around walnut and sweet bean.
I followed her into the restaurant and sat across from her, picking at a hodugwaja, barley tea steaming on the table. I’m not sure what came over me in this moment, why I felt I wanted to confess my non-virginity to her. And yet, somehow, suddenly, lulled into a feeling of safety by the warmth of tea and cake, I began to cry.
“What is it?” my mom asked me, alarmed.
“I . . . I . . .” I hiccuped, trying to swallow a piece of walnut, “I had sex.”
God bless my mother, who in this moment, did not scold me, did not look at me with judgement, did not tear up. God bless my mother who burst into roiling, free-wheeling laughter.
“That’s it?” she exclaimed, still laughing. I blinked the tears away from my eyes, confused. Didn’t having sex mean I was a broken woman, sullied and unfit?
“That’s normal!” she exclaimed, sipping her tea.
My mother didn’t attempt to give me a pep talk or calm me down. She said nothing of her own faith or of the faith of others, didn’t attempt to logic away my fear. She just continued to flood me with her merriment, which slowly loosened something tight and coiled in my chest. Shame began to dissipate under the ruffled weight of her giggling. In her laughter, my mother gave me permission to put down the burden of purity, to start to untie it from my value as a human woman.
Consider Mary asking the question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
If you think closely about it, it’s a startling moment, Mary interrupting Gabriel. She does not simply take the greeting of the angel at face value, but talks back. She asks a crucial question that signifies knowledge of her body—it is impossible for her to be pregnant, as she’s never had sex.
Mary doesn’t allow the angel to keep blathering on about his good tidings, but rather reminds him of her self, the reality of her flesh, and her intimate knowledge of it. If we let this question interrupt the narrative of Mary as Blessed Virgin in the same way that she interrupts a divine creature, what happens?
What I mean is, the orthodox understanding of Mary as Good, Admirable, Blessed and Beatified is tied directly to her purity. It’s her virginity that allows her to be the Mother of God—it had to be a virgin birth, after all—and so it is her virginity that is privileged above all else. But in using her question as an invitation to interrupt this logic, I wonder if we might not think of Mary as Good not because she is a virgin, but because she simply is.
In the same way that my mother’s laughter unbounded my worth from my virginity, making room for a plethora of other things (I like to feed my friends! I am kind to animals! I am really good at giving out book recommendations!), I wonder if we can’t use this question to instead consider Mary’s worth in totality and complexity. Said another way, she’s wholly worthy because she exists. There’s no one single thing that makes her worthy, instead there are a multitude of them.
Ultimately, it’s this multiplicity that has driven all of my examinations of Biblical women, not just Mary. In trying to shift the narrative, bringing these complex women to the forefront, unbinding them from a patriarchal church’s misogynist caricatures, I am trying to paint them as whole.
In trying to shift the narrative . . . unbinding them from a patriarchal church’s misogynist caricatures, I am trying to paint them as whole.
If we focus on Esther’s anger instead of the male-gaze appraising her beauty, what might we learn? If we honor Delilah’s drive to survive a foreign invader in her home, what changes about her widely accepted role as temptress and seducer? Who is Mary if she is not reduced to her virginity?
I want to think carefully about these women, meditate on their lives, to focus on their agency, choices, the material reality of their existence. I am asking you, begging you, challenging you to think of these women as actual fully realized people. And then, to wonder to yourself: What changes when you do?
Six years have passed since my mother’s laughter. I am learning to value my worth creatively, to reject the correlation between purity and goodness.
It turns out, not being a virgin didn’t ruin me. Having sex, knowing pleasure, communicating consent and respect in and around physical intimacy has not tarnished me. If anything, it has deepened the shine. I have deep, meaningful friendships full of laughter, wit and rapid-fire group texts. I try everyday to be my most honest, authentic self with my loved ones. I work to interrupt the reductionist, misogynist narratives around me, whether they be in the Church or the occasional echo of a ghost in my head. I have known great grace, and abundant love, from my partner, my friends, my family, even myself.
And I continue to try to see these Biblical women in a new light. A few months ago, I was in Japan with my mother at a bathhouse. We were there for an early morning bath and so the place was empty, just me and her in a large, shallow slate tub. The walls of this particular bathhouse were tapered together like a cathedral, which got us talking along the lines of church, faith, the Bible. Though I was several installments away from writing this essay about Mary, I brought it up to her, fretting.
How could I fight the dominant, pervasive image of Mary as Virgin and only virgin? Was it complete folly to try to illustrate Mary as anything but an emblem of sexual purity?
“Oh no,” my mother replied, completely sure of herself, weak blueish sunlight filtering in from a notched window momentarily illuminating her face. “I like to imagine Mary as the boss of a biker gang.”
I spluttered, asked her to explain herself.
My mother continued, “Yes, I imagine Mary on a motorcycle in the desert. She’s the kind of woman who could be the Mother of God, after all. Can’t you see it?”
And though at first the idea seemed ludicrous, I found that after a while, I could. Mary in her typical blue and white garb, straddling a bright red Yamazaki bike, reflective black aviators perched on her nose. I imagined the spray of sand, fanning out from under her well tread wheel, rising in a granular split-second halo. She sped past dunes, virgin status irrelevant, her headscarf whipping behind her in a buffeting wind.
Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, currently living in Chicago, IL. Her writing has appeared in EATER, The Collapsar, and RHINO Poetry among other places. Her debut chapbook haircut poems was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017.