After speaking at a youth conference some time ago, a young man asked me how old I was when I lost my virginity. I explained that when I got married, I did not “lose my virginity” like one loses their keys, but rather, gave my virginity as a gift to my wife.
On the flight back home, I remembered the time I went to a Theology of the Body course taught by Katrina Zeno. On that course, Katrina unpacked the meaning of virginity in a way that was challenging, yet fresh and new. I want to share some of what I learnt from her here.
In our culture, we have a basic meaning of virginity; one who has not had sex. However, virginity, as Katrina explains, refers to one’s capacity for bodily and spiritual union, how able one is to give and receive the gift of love to another.
Sadly, many young Catholics I meet today are not saving sex for marriage. They either do not value saving sex for marriage or, through their own weakness, are unable to adhere to their own purity boundaries and give away more of themselves than they intended.
But rather than saying they are “losing their virginity”, I prefer to say they have weakened, wounded, and damaged their virginity (capacity for union). Sexual union speaks the language of free, total, faithful and fruitful love. It speaks the language of permanence and exclusivity. We were never meant to engage in the sexual act with a person unless we had vowed to love until death. This is why when someone breaks up with a person they have slept with, they will recognise that that person is walking away with something that never belonged to them. They almost feel robbed, like something valuable was taken from them. We know this instinctively.
But it is not only sex outside of marriage that wounds our virginity, but all forms of sexual activity, be it alone or with another. Actions like masturbation, pornography, intimate touching and passionate kissing all wound our ability to give and receive love from our future spouse.
When I married Madeleine at twenty-five years of age, although I was a virgin, in the strict sense of the term, my virginity – capacity for union – had been damaged by lustful looks, impure thoughts and an addiction to masturbation and pornography. If a person brings habits of masturbation or pornography into their marriage, every time they come together in a sexual embrace, their capacity to form a loving and pure union with their spouse is weakening, even if they married as a virgin. This is a new way of looking at the concept of virginity. If it is challenging for you, know that it is challenging for me too!
After Madeleine and I exchanged vows at the altar, we consummated our marriage through the sexual embrace. The sexual act is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. We spoke the same truth on the marriage bed, that we did just hours before on the altar. How beautiful! But it would be at this very moment, that we would normally understand that I “lost my virginity.” However, if we understand virginity as one’s capacity for union, I did not “lose” my virginity, I fulfilled it! I gave myself and my fullest capacity for union as a gift to my beloved bride.
You see, virginity – capacity for union – is not something that simply disappears after your first sexual encounter. It is a gift that will either weaken with lust or expand with love over time. With frequent reception of God’s mercy through the Sacrament of Confession and the grace of ongoing healing and redemption, we can all continue to grow in how we live out the virtue of chastity, thus expanding the gift of our virginity – capacity for union.
On the opposite side of the discussion, if a person is not a virgin on their wedding day, although they cannot give the gift of their virginity, it does not mean that they have no gift at all to give. They still have the gift of themselves and a “capacity for union”, wounded though it may be, to give to their spouse. I am a big believer in people renewing their commitment to chastity after giving their virginity to someone other than their spouse. It is a beautiful thing when a person recognises their need to repent and preserve the gift of their body and sexuality from now until they get married.
This is not to say that a person who is not a virgin can have their “virginity” restored completely through confession or simply by growing in the virtue of chastity. No. This would devalue the sacredness of authentic virginity in a dangerous way! St Paul says in 1 Cor 6:16, “Do you not know that he who lies with a prostitute becomes one flesh with her?” There is something very sacred about the first time we give the gift of ourselves in the sexual act to someone. In God’s design, the person we give ourselves to in the sexual embrace is the person we become “one flesh with”. This is a very serious language. There is a union that takes place that was meant to remain forever, because the sexual act speaks a language of permanence and exclusivity.
This is why it is so important that we realise how sacred the gift of virginity truly is. How precious the sexual embrace is. It is something that we must have the highest value for and preserve to the death for your future spouse. Sex has a sacred and powerful meaning inside the marriage covenant. It is harmful outside of it.
If you are a virgin, and are preserving and expanding your capacity for union for your future spouse, that is a beautiful thing and I urge you to commit to remaining a virgin until your wedding night. I would however, encourage you to look at any other sins against chastity that may be harming your virginity – capacity for union – and damage your ability to fulfill the gift of your virginity with your spouse on your wedding night.
If you are not a virgin and have given the gift of yourself in the sexual embrace with someone who is not your spouse (even if you plan on marrying that person), I would encourage you to repent of this sin against chastity and take seriously the need to preserve the gift of your sexuality and your body until your wedding night from here on. Do not despair. Just because you are not a virgin, does mean that you still don’t have a beautiful gift of yourself to give, and you are of infinite value and worth!
Let us close by turning to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her Virginity meant that she was available for perfect union with God. May we preserve the gift of our sexuality in a way that reminds us that ultimately, our virginity – capacity for union – is meant to be fulfilled by becoming one flesh with Jesus Christ when we hope to unite with Him in a loving embrace forever in heaven.