Content warning: discussion on sex and Christianity, mention of rape
Two days ago, a Christian blogger, Lori Alexander of The Transformed Wife, posted a piece claiming that “Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins Without Tattoos.” While many people have come out thinking this must be satire and assuming people don’t really think this way, I can attest that this is how I was raised and continued to be advised at different times well into adulthood. It’s real and pervasive in certain parts of the church. It may not be official protocol or belief within a congregation, but there are plenty of people who talk like this behind closed doors, from the rural midwest to the bustle of Los Angeles.
The post makes its primary claims in the opening:
Do you know how much more attractive debt-free virgins (without tattoos) are to young men? Unfortunately, there are so few of these types of young women anymore because of the high costs of college (debt) and sexual promiscuity even within those in the church. As believers in Jesus Christ, we need to live in a way that is pleasing to Him because His ways are the best. He calls debt a burden and urges us to live lives of sexual purity.
The problem with this claim, “men prefer debt-free virgins without tattoos,” is that it’s misleading on several accounts. It assumes a singular interpretation of the Bible and enforces one type of performativity. It’s not actually referring to debt but about women’s education. And it has nothing to do with what men (as if they are a monolith) prefer.
This is about shaming women for making choices about what to do with their brains, their skin, and their genitals. None of which is anyone’s business but theirs (and God’s, if they believe); it’s certainly not the concern of a blogging moralist.
- The Bible shows us that there is nothing wrong with “independent, loud, and immodest” women.
A short list:
Esther: ruled a kingdom and influenced her husband for the sake of her people. (And while we are at it, let’s remember that Vashti was cast aside because she defied her husband who tried to force her to display herself in front of other men.)
Rahab: was a prostitute who lied to the king of Jericho to help the Israelites take over the city. She is supposed to be part of Jesus’ family line.
Jael: killed a man with a tent peg.
Phoebe: a woman with no known ties to a man was a deacon in the early church.
Mary (and other women): she/they (depending on the Gospel) were the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus.
In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible is replete with examples of women of various backgrounds and means, habits and beliefs, education and status were used just as they were to enact change and/or impact their communities.
The post says that “most girls have not read the Bible with their father or husband to explain it to them.” What the list above exemplifies is that women did not need a man to interpret God to them. Implying that a woman is unable to think, to act, to have an individual relationship with God, and to interpret what God is saying to them is possibly blasphemous under Christian theology. At the very least, it undermines the presumed power of the Christian God and denies his word, which is supposed to be infallible and perfect according to evangelicals.
- What we consider to be virginity/purity is a fallacy that hurts more than it helps.
Virginity/purity is an imagined value placed on a person’s body (more often a woman). It is a commodity that only exists under certain circumstances and can only be given under certain circumstances, or else it is “lost”.
What constitutes as sexual practice varies by person: “How far is too far? Do you lose your virginity when you masturbate and think about sex? Is oral or anal sex…sex? Are you still a virgin if you are gay and never had vaginal intercourse?” Such questions worry many teens in pro-abstinence youth groups and church camps. Despite centuries of misinformation, modern medicine teaches us that nothing physical happens for most people when they do start being sexually active with others: vaginas are elastic and return to normal, hymens often break for non-sexual reasons, and beginning to have sex does not mean a person becomes instantly and magically insatiable. Again, these are all tall tales that are meant to scare and feed the anxieties of abstinent youth.
Prizing purity over the realities of life not only denies the natural workings of pubescent and post-pubescent bodies, it also ostracizes women who have been raped or those who have been “redeemed.”
Sadly, we know that somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetimes, and abstinent women are not immuned from this fate. (This is my story. I was abstinent by all definitions until I was 28, when a man decided to ignore when I said “no.”) Women within communities with these beliefs who were victims of rape or molestation often bear shame that should be saved for their assailants, and the messages spread by women such as the author of the post perpetuate these issues.
Converts come to Christianity from all ages and walks of life, and there are a number of unmarried men and women who are sexually active when they find Jesus. According to Christian theology, they are free from any previous transgressions. But by having the false notions of purity, communities hold on to biases and assumptions that degrade a person to an object that is used, dirty, and broken.
For communities to actually follow the commands they purport to believe, they need to cast aside these practices of ruling by fear and gossip and assumption and begin practicing what they preach about love and understanding.
- Women can’t be leaders in the church and home if they aren’t learned and independent
The subject of women as leaders in the church is touchy, with varying opinions largely rooted in a few passages buried in Paul’s letters. From a “red letter only” perspective, women were chosen equally to follow as men. Jesus made special trips to see Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdelene was listed as an apostle. And as mentioned above, it was women who were the first to see a risen Jesus.
Paul came to the table far later, and contextually he had his own issues with women. He said: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 (NIV). Additionally it’s important to remember the social structures at the time which influenced the writing. Paul’s letters were always specific to his audience. He was NOT writing to American women in 2018! It seems short-sighted to base an entire church structure on only one person’s writings when there were several authors of the New Testament, and none of the passages in question were attributed to Jesus.
The brunt of the blogger’s argument against women’s education is the cost of an education. But as one reads, her issue is not just with cost but with content. She wrote, “Secular universities teach against the God of the Bible and His ways. It’s far from what God calls women to be and do: it teaches them to be independent, loud, and immodest instead of having meek and quiet spirits.” The alternative for this problem, of course, is Christian universities. But considering Christian universities over secular ones when also weighing the cost analysis makes the former unreasonable.
The cost of attending Liberty University is around $92,000. Bob Jones University is around $69,000. Compare that to world-renowned secular public schools: UCLA $53,000 and University of Virginia $54,000. (All are estimates of 2018-19 tuition only, in state numbers multiplied by 4.) Additionally, many of us were able to graduate with our bachelor’s degrees with minimal, if any, debt. Attending community college and transferring and working through school can greatly minimize the debt burden of school (Taking the current numbers from my almae matres, 2 years of community college and 2 years at my state school would be about $17,500—less than a new car–and one of those years, I had completely funded). Not to mention scholarships, work study, and other funding opportunities. We all find ways to be able to do it. To assume an education always means debt is to be very unimaginative and naive about the options.
The author also asserts that “Young women learn nothing about biblical womanhood or what it takes to run a home when they go to college. They don’t learn to serve others either. They learn the ways of the world instead.” Again, this is a non-issue under their own worldview. Several Christian universities offer what we colloquially call “Mrs.” degrees, or degrees that prepare women to be wives while affording them the opportunity to meet eligible bachelors (hopefully pastors) at school. (I have my criticism of these degrees, but my point here is to point out hypocrisy, not the failings of these programs.) Even secular universities offer courses in home economics. I took a course my junior year on personal finance and investment for non-finance majors. Universities are replete with extracurricular cooking classes. And many a college student learns to cook simply because they like to entertain friends *raises hand along with several of my colleagues*.
So this anxiety that took up so much space on her post seems to be borne of nothing. If anything is an indictment on her generation, for people don’t learn how to keep home in college; they learn with their parents and grandparents. If a person can’t take care of themselves as adults, it has nothing to do with college and everything to do with family.
Another unfounded anxiety is this: “[A college-educated woman] will start having babies later in life. That is if they can still conceive naturally.” College-educated women have babies at all ages. Some women have babies first then attend college. Some are pregnant while in class. Some do wait a few years. There is little difference in the fertility and health of a woman between being 18 and 25. And we are seeing more women in their late-30s and 40s having healthy pregnancies. Studies have shown that being older parents tends to be beneficial in raising academically strong kids, being more emotionally prepared for parenting, and financial stability. I’m not sure what she meant by the latter part of the claim, but it is extremely tone deaf to the struggles of many women of all ages who deal with infertility. Again, age isn’t really the primary factor anymore in terms of ability to conceive. So this jab is unfairly and callously toward infertile women.
The author also takes a jab at single mothers, saying “It greatly offends working mothers to teach women to be keepers at home.” This line makes a lot of unfair assumptions. First, a woman can have a career and keep a home; the two are not mutually exclusive. Second, it implies that being a working mother is a choice, which for working class people, dual incomes isn’t a choice but a necessity. Third, it assumes that the woman is eschewing the help and income of a man. It ignores the reality that some women don’t choose to be single and working moms, but that is the scenario they find themselves in.
This last point is important and an argument for women’s education. No one is guaranteed “till death do us part” nor are they guaranteed that “death” isn’t tomorrow. With divorce rates in the church being equal to the rest of the country, about half of Christian married couples will dissolve their union. And another percentage will lose their spouses to illness or accident. If they do not have education or skills, how will they support themselves or their children? Homemaking doesn’t pay the bills, and it is irresponsible to limit the resource that is women’s minds and hands. As Nicholas Kristof argues in his book Half the Sky, “the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential” and “the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population.” Moreover, if we truly believe in loving mankind, in caring for the “orphan and the widow” or the “least of these,” why are we limiting the potential of half the population?
- Is this how things work? Do men actually care?
The premise of the original post is to discuss how a woman should act under the auspices of snagging a Christian man. This realm of Christianity–often conservative evangelical Protestantism, though others fit the bill in some areas–creates a false narrative that godly women (read: virginal, quiet, undereducated but quality homemakers) will indeed be blessed with husbands.
And this is patently untrue. Take a look at any congregation, and you will see men chasing women of all looks and backgrounds and levels of belief. You will also see plenty of men and women who do precisely what they were told sitting completely alone. I watched some of the sweetest, rules-following people slip into their 40s and 50s alone while also watching a cadre of young Christian men prefer to “missionary date” (the practice of dating a non-Christian with the purpose of converting them then marrying them). The reality is that none of the actions or characteristics discussed in the original post guarantees to garner anyone’s attention, let alone an eligible bachelor.
- A note on submission and what the author could learn from the BDSM community.
The author writes, “most young Christian women wouldn’t listen to their husbands since they’ve not been taught to live in submission to their husbands.” By what definition of submission does she mean? In theory, these conversations usually define submission as complete deference to the male figure. But again in reality even submissive relationships have some give and take. Fully submissive relationships often also have signs of domestic, emotional, and/or psychological abuse.
The BDSM community that has spend a long time perfecting, defining, and redefining the concept of submission. And under such a relationship, the submissive holds the power. Submission is done by consent, willingly and after negotiation. Which shouldn’t be too unlike preparation for marriage. That consent can be taken back at any time for any reason. And in that way, even with performed submission, both parties maintain their rights to autonomy.
The problem with Christian submission is that it’s not honest about its goals, practices, and limits. This ambiguity has been dangerous–and sometimes deadly–for some women. For other women, this ambiguity has convinced them to (rightly so) reject the concept. If Christians want to reclaim the concept of submission, they need to figure out what it means first and maintain a humane definition of it.
- Christian writers like this harken to the fictional Serena Joy (The Handmaid’s Tale), and we should heed the warnings of her fate.
If we have learned anything from the imagined world of The Handmaid’s Tale, Serena Joy enjoyed her version of domesticity before the war BECAUSE she was (at least moderately) equal, independent, and educated. She suffers deeply under the fully restrictive patriarchal regime after the war–a scenario she not only wanted but fought for–because what she thought submissive domesticity to be was actually nothing more than a fantasy. The lesson we should learn from fiction and from reality is that society only benefits when women are treated equally, with freedom of choice and without shame for those choices.
- Attributing this narrative on womanhood to the Bible is antithetical to what the Bible actually says.
The author ends her post with a series of Bible verses, which supposedly substantiate her claims. It seems fitting to end my post looking at the Bible as well and considering the problems with her interpretations and application thereof.
First and foremost, the Bible is very clear not to judge a person for their actions. Judgement is reserved for God. Romans 14:4 (ESV) says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” And the very popular and oft memorized, Matthew 7:1-4 (ESV): “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” I’m sure the original poster knows of these.
The post is actively judging women who make free choices as being inferior, by way of alluding to their unattractiveness to men. This of course assumes that women are seeking the attention of men, rather than women or other genders. It assumes that all men agree with this viewpoint (they all certainly don’t). And it assumes that women want to attract the men who think this way.
In terms of debt, the Bible does make a commentary on debt, largely from a social standpoint. But the Bible was not written with modern capitalism in mind. The ability for anyone without Elon Musk’s wealth to have a car or home without incurring some form of debt at some point or without years of working and saving is almost nonexistent. The Transformed Wife never discusses these most common forms of debt, though. She only focuses on education. Not all education. Just women’s education.
The only place in the Bible that tattoos are specifically listed is Leviticus 19:28 (ESV) “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” This is from Old Testament law. Looking at discussions on tattooing as halacha, it’s a mixed bag. While some rabbis count all tattoos as forbidden, some only view a tattoo referencing another god as idolatry, and others view this part of the law to be historically specific and outdated. While tattoos are a matter of debate within Judaism, it should not be a matter of debate for Christians. Why? Because by Christianity’s own belief system, Jesus came to fulfill the law and to set believers free from the law: Romans 10:4 (ESV) “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” So why are The Transformed Wife and those who agree with her fixated on maintaining laws from which they purport to be freed by faith in Jesus?
Finally, the matter of abstinence–the way it is practiced today–is a construction of the current political moment. The church has had a very long history of favoring purity and virginity, but this narrative changed based on social and political climates. (An example is looking at the history of Mary Magdelene and how she transformed in character from a follower to a prostitute to a saint, very little of which, if any, is actually in the Bible.)
With the growing autonomy of women in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s, the push to hinder the independence of women grew. Coupled with the emerging pro-life movement and the “Moral Majority” in the 1970s, the modern abstinence movement redefined chastity to include all forms of sexual behavior, rather than the ambiguous historical definition that was generally concerned with heteronormative penis-in-vagina sex. For more on this history, read here and here.
Looking at what the Bible says, there continues to be ambiguity. Nowhere in the New Testament does it explicitly say “do not do ______ before you are married”. (Feel free to fill in the blank with any number of offenses often chastised as being equally sinful, including but not limited to dancing, holding hands, kissing, making out, cuddling, manual stimulation, oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex, etc.) Putting aside the Old Testament verses for the aforementioned reason, the New Testament references abstaining from “sexual immorality” in several places. But context is key. For example, Hebrews 13:4 is talking about adultery outside of marriage. Colossians 3:5 is referencing idolatry. Verses like 2 Peter 2:11 are often used, but it refers to “the flesh,” which hedonism is about far more than sex. In other words, sex should not be the assumed meaning, let alone premarital sex.
- I am proud to be an educated non-virgin with tattoos (and a piercing!)
I wrote this post because the original blog struck a cord in me.
I lived the life she described for years. Even after I was raped at 28, I remained abstinent until I was almost 32. I stayed as debt-free as possible until graduate school. I was active in the church on and off until I left completely due to non-belief at 30, a process that truly broke my heart. (I can’t really defend the tattoos. They are part of me. Deal with it.)
I’m asked often why I never married and why I chose a career over family. My answer has been the same: No one asked me to have a family. It didn’t matter that I was a debt-free virginal pastor’s daughter (with tattoos) who could feed an army. It wasn’t what people wanted of me, then or now. All I can do now is be who I am and build community with the people who like me for who I am.
To reiterate my original point, none of this has anything to do with what actually attracts men or pleases God (if God exists). This is a form of social control that benefits, really, no one. If this is a choice you want to make for yourself, great. But don’t force others into your paradigm. Don’t reimagine your holy books to meet your agenda. And don’t shame people for making their own choices and discovering who they are. It’s frankly, none of your business.