The Purity Myth and Catholicism
I have heard countless analogies explaining how a woman is impure once she has had sex. There’s the conceptualization of one’s virginity as a flower and each time you have sex it is held by a different man, each taking a petal or even caring for it nicely, it is bound to be less desirable the more men hold it. Or that a woman is like a piece of gum, and who would want a piece of gum that has already been chewed?
Comparing women’s bodies as objects is a trend we will encounter at every turn in analyzing the myth of purity. Whether women are a flower or gum, they are owned and used by the man who they have sex with. I say man very intentionally, because the myth of purity also relies on the idea that there are two genders, one sexuality, and that every woman’s end goal is marriage. Or rather, that it should be. These ideas of women are prevalent in our society, but I believe they can be traced back to one very specific place: Catholicism.
In Catholicism, gender is a defining characteristic directly tied to one’s duty, strengths and weaknesses, type of intuition, reaction to conflict, and, most relevantly, one’s place in a marriage. No matter what theological text you read, gender will always be discussed in terms of marriage.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines marriage in Article 7 as "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament." In other words, marriage is naturally defined as being between a man and a woman, is necessary for the individuals to live good lives, and that procreation is, at least in part, necessary.
Being informed by feminist thinking allows us to disregard this teaching as anti-woman, but it is a foundating principle of the idea of women and their purity. Their purpose is to have children with a man, so the man defines what they should be and how they should be treated.
Not only are women defined by men, they are also possessed by men under this thinking. Reducing a person's value to what biological functions they can perform is not only dehumanizing, but an aspect of Catholicism that is rooted in the idea that men own women, since men can have purposes other than their relationship to women.
St. Paul writes, "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church… This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:25, 32). Thus, Catholicism suggests that marriage is the human reflection of God’s love for the people of the church who are His creations.
Saint John Paul II writes in Love and Responsibility that “The rights of the Creator over the creature are very extensive: [creation] is in its entirety the property of the Creator.” Gift and Communion: John Paul II's Theology of the Body by Jaroslaw Kupczak analysis this, saying “The philosophical justification of this “property” of the Creator in relation to man consists in the concept of the inalienability and uniqueness of every human person” (pg 99-100)
Though these two teachings are not juxtaposed in the original texts, they are often understood in conjunction. In order for a man to love a woman as Christ loves the church, he must hold certain rights over her. The excerpt from Love and Responsibility goes so far as to refer to creation and by extension wives as property.
Earlier on page 99 of Gift and Communion: John Paul II's Theology of the Body Kupczak writes “As presented in Love and Responsibility, spousal love is the most complete and radical form of love, because it consists in giving oneself to the beloved and making ‘one’s inalienable and non-transferable ‘I’ someone else’s property.’”
This extremely coded language seems to be asking for both the man and woman in a marriage to give themselves to each other. However, taking into consideration the time in which it was written and the times in which it was translated, we can analyze the excerpts as they were understood at the founding of the United States.
That is, that women can not and should not own property, and thus men cannot and should not give themselves as property to their wives. No matter how reciprocal modern interpretations of these teachings try to seem, they are always within the context that men own their wives as God owns creation as St. Paul wrote about in the earlier quote.
Not only does this place women distinctly below men, it adds a foundational principle of why. Why are women the property of men? Because God created them to be, because God established them as such in marriage, and because men are to women as God is to creation. The train of thought that follows this reasoning is simple: If men can look to God as an example, and he is all knowing, all powerful, and can control anything he pleases, so then can any man. Taking this logic one step further we can finally see how men understand women in particular to be their property. After all, that was God’s intention.
To understand how this concept of gender ties into the myth of purity, we need to go a bit deeper into its application to sex. Specifically, into the virgin/whore complex. The dichotomy of the virgin and the whore comes from examinations of women in the Bible. Eve Rebecca Parker describes this deeply and succinctly in her article The Virgin and the Whore – An Interreligious Challenge for Our Times.
“Polarized perceptions of women as pure or impure, chaste or unchaste, virgin or slut, Madonna or whore have been used to humiliate, shame, and control the bodies of women throughout the centuries. Such dichotomous thinking is embedded within religious ideologies where holy scriptures have been used to create the sociological frameworks that enable women’s identities to be manipulated into patriarchal constructions of womanhood. This is most visible in the idealization of the Virgin Mary and the demonization of the “original sinner” and “temptress,” Eve. Patriarchal theologizing has determined that these female figures become the biblical foundation on which the church can embed a fear in the sexuality and independence of women, maintaining that if a woman is not to remain a virgin then she must be married, domesticated, and subject to her husband.” (World Council of Churches, pg 693)
The virgin as the ideal woman, one who is pure and self-sacrificing for men, is set up as the goal for all women. The Virgin Mary, for example, is understood to be without sin and therefore the pinnacle of purity because of her dedication to Christ as his mother. In essence, she is the only human who did not sin because of her service to a man. Such service is expected not only of wives but of young women who are just learning what femininity and womanhood means. They are taught that because sin is bad they should look to the Virgin Mary as a role model, as a woman without sin who can show them how to live holy lives as women. She is the ideal woman, one who can serve as wife and mother without losing the virginity men hold so dear. Mary is used an example because she never says no to God, but that does not lead to impurity. When a catholic girl or woman doesn’t say no to a man asking for sex, they are considered impure despite being taught that saying no is also unholy and not in line with their duties and purpose as women.
Women are bound to the idea of virginity as purity and as proper womanhood. When that virginity is lost, by choice, by force, or in social perception, a woman is cast as a whore and consequently outcast from any social standing she may have gained. Once a woman is seen as a whore, as impure instead of the pious virgin, she is essentially no longer a woman. A woman’s purpose is reproduction and marriage, both of which she is unfit for when she is in a state of sin such as no longer being a virgin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the inherent connection of virginity and Christian marriage in this way. “Esteem of virginity for the sake of the kingdom and the Christian understanding of marriage are inseparable, and they reinforce each other.” Virginity is integral to marriage, and marriage is integral to womanhood. Without virginity, respect that is granted to a woman by obligation does not need to be granted to a whore.
Historically, virginity has also been tied to the hymen. Once the hymen is broken, which happens when vaginal sex is experienced for the first time, a woman is no longer a virgin. Right? Well, no. The hymen can break from anything. Riding a bike and washing in the shower are two common examples I have heard. The hymen is no more tied to virginity as breaking a bone is to skydiving. Sure, it could and does happen in the specific instance, but it also happens in a million other ways. The myth of purity is so interwoven with virginity that we have historically looked for any physical representation we could find, no matter how unrelated they are. The hymen’s relationship to virginity is as mythical as purity itself.
Regardless, the generally accepted idea is that any sex equates to a loss of virginity and therefore a loss of purity. So, purity as a concept is purely based on five basic ideas. That women should serve men, that they should hold marriage and children as their main goals in life, that their worth is based in their ability to serve men/be married/have children, that sex is impure, and that impurity affects their ability to serve men/be married/have children. Unless you believe all of these things to be true, your belief in purity as a concept is baseless.
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