Virgin Nation: An Interview with Sara Moslener

Samira K. Mehta

Sara Moslener. Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

On July 1, Oxford University Press released Sara Moslener's Virgin Nation.

SKM: Professor Sara Moslener, I am glad to have gotten a chance to read Virgin Nation, though as I think I told you, I was worried about the ramifications of reading it on airplanes! How did you come up with the title?
SJM:I was also hesitant about using the word virgin because it has such a fetish factor. And I don’t really discuss the concept of virginity as much as purity and these are not always the same thing.  So it felt a bit disingenuous.  The subtitle was already in place and I knew I wanted to indicate the connections between of the nation-state and adolescent, sexual purity.  In the end, it was a matter of economy--I knew I needed a title that was succinct, yet communicated a lot. And Virgin Nation does that.

SKM: As someone who also uses both history and ethnography, I was particularly interested in your use of both methods. Can you talk a bit about your use of those two methods? What were the advantages and challenges?

SJM: When I first started this project as my dissertation, ethnography among U.S. religious historians had become a bit of a fad and somehow I became convinced that being trained as a historian I could also do ethnography. At that time my focus was on the contemporary movement which required attending events and interviewing people involved. At that point I was interested in how young people participated in the movement and how they articulated what it meant to them, especially in regard to their religious beliefs and practices. However, it became clear that getting permission to talk to people under 18 about this topic would be impossible. I was also very uncomfortable because I was aware of and shared a lot of the criticisms of the movement. I feel strongly that when you do ethnographic work you need to develop a good faith relationship with the people you were working with, and that was going to be difficult for me. I also had no interest in assessing the content and value of people’s sexual choices. I was more interested in the teachings and assumptions that were influencing young people to make this decision.

The two groups I studied, True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing, promote the idea that this is a movement for young people by young people. And had my primary work been ethnographic, this would have been my own conclusion and that would have been misleading. By adding the historical dimension, which I did in the process of editing my dissertation into a book, I was able to situate the contemporary movement within a much longer trajectory of evangelicals using fears about sexuality to gain political influence.

SKM: One element that the history certainly contributes is the feminist heritage of purity movements, which must often strike contemporary readers as counterintuitive. How does the contemporary purity movement have its origins in early American feminism?
SJM: The gender roles that many evangelical Christians claim are biblical, are based on 19th century constructions of gender. One of the most valued feminine virtues for Victorians was sexual purity, a trait, which they believed, was naturally bestowed upon white women. The work of first-wave feminists wasn’t to deny this God-given attribute, but to use it to assert their moral authority in an effort to expand their political influence.  And they weren’t just being opportunistic, Victorian women reformers, like Frances Willard, believed that women were morally superior to men because they were less controlled by their sexual desire. The 19th century purity movement sought to end prostitution and hold men to the same standard of sexual purity as women.

SKM: So this was initially about women attempting to control men, rather than men controlling women?
Yes, that’s exactly what it was.  It was a way for white women to demonstrate that they were capable of full citizenry by eradicating social ills such as alcohol, prostitution, and venereal diseases--all things that threatened the family and by extension the future of the human race. Feminist reformers believed they were called to a “special race work”, and in part this meant holding men accountable for behaviors that threatened the well-being of future generations. On the one hand they failed miserably. Prohibition was a disaster. On the other hand, they achieved women’s suffrage. This was the work of sexual purity in the 19th century.

SKM: So, how does it flip back to be about controlling women? Is it a reversion to the older narrative of women as Eve or is it something else?

There were a couple of shifts already under way.  19th century purity reformers were Protestant evangelicals of the post-millenialist sort--their work was for the betterment of American civilization. They had a high anthropology--that is, they believed human beings were capable of great things and women’s sexual purity was just one example of how that goodness could contribute to a better civilization. Opponents of liberal Protestantism, who would eventually be known as Fundamentalists, did not share this optimism. Likewise, they reverted to the traditional views of women as spiritually and morally inferior to men, which still had strong cultural and theological resonance as it was the dominant ideology since the early Church. This more long-standing tradition would become the standard trope of 20th century fundamentalism.

SKM: As you know, my own work focuses on Religion and the American family and so I am particularly interested in the intersections between sexual purity, particularly adolescent sexual purity, and family values. How do you see the relationship between the two movements?
Sexual purity is very much part of the family values project. Its particular contribution was the creation a youth-based movement that didn’t just use the concept of youth as a rhetorical move. Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell both deployed tropes of vulnerable childhood to rouse anti-gay and anti-feminist sentiment. However, the purity movement actually made youth political actors and seemingly gave them a political voice. This was supposed to be a grass-roots attempt, a concern that rose up from the young people themselves. You see this a lot in the way that young people in the movement appropriate counter-cultural language of resistance, especially from the gay rights and feminist movements.  But this politicization of evangelical youth was highly orchestrated by clergy with close ties to the Republican Party.
The purity movement didn’t really get underway until after the Moral Majority folded in that late 1980s. At that point, evangelicals shifted their attention to more grass roots and local organizing, especially given that President Clinton was not interested in promoting their cause. This meant working in local churches, school districts, and local elections to insert the ideology of sexual purity into the institutions that adolescents frequented (public schools, in particular.) Sexual purity--which in more secular language came to be known as abstinence-only sex education---functioned as one arm of the family values agenda and situated adolescent evangelicals, themselves, on the front-lines of the culture wars.

Moslener on the March for Life
I recall this from my own experience growing up in an evangelical sub-culture. Every year my Christian school would send a busload of students down to the March for Life--an event that I organized and led my senior year. It was assumed that as young evangelicals we were activists for whatever causes fell under the umbrella of family values. And I embraced that fully, even to the point of criticizing other teen-agers who weren’t as political concerned. More specifically to the issues of sexual purity--I recall reading an article in our local paper about teaching sex education in the public schools. The educators claimed that teaching abstinence was not “realistic.” As a zealous young evangelical, this made me angry--I remember thinking this erased my experience and that of many others and that as a minority I needed to express my unpopular way of being in the world and demand others acknowledge and respect it. I was also very aware of becoming a political actor--a new and exciting identity for myself that made me feel that my experiences as an evangelical adolescent were relevant to national life. So I made a point of writing a letter to the editor and declaring that sexual abstinence was very much part of the lives of many teenagers--and I was one of them. I never had the chance to take a purity pledge or wear a ring, but I’d learned that it was important to make this declaration in a very public way, if nothing else, to demonstrate to the adults in my life that I was living out the ideals they had taught me.

SKM: We tend to connect the family values movement to the 1970s, but you demonstrate here that the roots of sexual purity concerns are much older. Is that true for other elements “family values?”
It’s evident that the same rhetoric of gender complementarians and sexual restraint animated both 19th century feminism and the rhetoric of family values. So in that sense, yes, the roots of family values extend back to that time. However, the set of fears in each time period are different. In the 19th century the main concerns were about racial advancement and the supremacy of Anglo-Saxons, much of which culminated around the need to curb prostitution. American social life and medical technology hadn’t advanced enough for same-sex marriage and abortion to be relevant, but race was. And that raises an important question--where did these concerns about race go? Did they just disappear? What if modern-day family values with its emphasis on sexual restraint and sexual responsibility is actually rooted in fears of interracial sex? This is the question I’ll be pursuing in my next project on the racial origins of sexual purity.

SKM: The sexual attitudes and habits of teenage girls do seem like they should not immediately connect to national security. Can you explain how the two became linked? 

In the contemporary context the need to control women’s sexual behavior is most evident in the work of George Gilder. Gilder is a conservative activist who founded the Discovery Institute and has written and advised on a broad range of topics including welfare, Israel, religion, immigration and environmentalism. He was especially influential during the Reagan administration. He wrote a book, originally called Sexual Suicide in the 1970s (the title was later changed to Men and Marriage.) He was called “America’s most prominent anti-feminist” by Gloria Steinem and did, indeed, write vehemently about the threat of feminism to American civilization. In Sexual Suicide, Gilder argues that complementary gender roles are necessary for the maintenance of social order. He claims that men are unfit for citizenship without the emotional and relational demands of marriage.  Women, though, have the ability to live cooperatively for the long term and the common good, but do not possess the competitive and aggressive nature required to obtain financial stability.

Like 19th century feminists, Gilder believes that social order is maintained when women wield their moral authority to refine men’s behavior according to the expectations of higher civilization. The sexual revolution and feminism that opened up new ways for women to express their sexuality and organize their relational lives alarmed Gilder because if women gave up their responsibilities for civilizing men, everything became tenuous.Controlling women’s sexuality and relational options is necessary according to Gilder, because if women don’t practice sexual restraint, they can’t possibly control men’s sexuality and the whole system breaks down. It should be noted that this argument of Gilder’s was greatly influential, to the point of being replicated in the writings of James Dobson of Focus on the Family, subsequently anointing Gilder’s ideology as “biblical”.

SKM: It sounds like you are building on Elaine Tyler May’s work in Homeward Bound. What happens when you add religion to her argument?

To some degree, but since my starting point is further back I’m able to raise questions about the relationship between sexual purity, or containment, to use Tyler May’s language, maintaining the color-line, and religion.(I can’t remember the degree to which Tyler May uses race.) By beginning in the 20th century, we don’t see the ways that white women used “biblically based” gender ideologies to promote their own racial superiority and we need to do that work. Sexual purity is never constructed in the absence of fears about racial mixing and it is inherently a theological ideal. So when it’s translated into “abstinence only education” and entered into U.S law as part of 1996 welfare reform, we need to start asking questions. To what degree is this “biblical ideal” motivated by racialized fears? In Virgin Nation I note that welfare reform was influenced by the fear of white racial decline (as outlined in Charles Murray’s infamous essay, “The Coming White Underclass” WSJ, 1995). One potential solution that was implemented was to create substantial funding sources for abstinence-only education (with specific requirements for what must be taught under that umbrella) the language of which echoed that of Murray and True Loves Waits, who that same year testified before a Senate Committee Hearing on Abstinence Education.

SKM: In closing, I want to ask you to put your work in conversation with some of the contemporary debates about gay rights. Do you think that gay marriage is a way of bringing same-sex desire in line with standards of purity? 
It’s interesting. One the one hand, I hear the same arguments about civilizational decline being made in regard to same-sex marriage--so there’s a more generalized rhetoric about sexual immorality and national security (and really sexual immorality can include whatever behaviors/activities that are currently challenging the status quo, so there’s no reason to think this line of reasoning is going anywhere anytime soon.) I mention above that purity activists have appropriated the language of gay rights. Heather White’s essay, Virgin Pride in the Ashgate Companion to Contemporary Religion and Sexuality demonstrate this very well. It’s fascinating to see how purity activists position themselves as sexual minorities and even encourage others to “come out of the closet.”

The fight for marriage equality is very conservative in that it’s not attempting to dismantle the traditional function of marriage, but rather to allow more people to participate in it. If we use Gilder’s metric, than same-sex marriage and sexual purity can never be compatible because a functional marriage requires complementary sex/gender roles (where sex and gender are one in that same, of course.) However, traditional gender roles are not the normative practice, even among heterosexual couples. So Gilder’s argument doesn’t even hold up for opposite-sex couples. If sexual purity, not complementary gender roles, is the metric for what makes a marriage a marriage, than it would seem anyone could make that commitment and view it as a prerequisite for marriage. However, I argue that sexual purity originated and remains an outgrowth of 19th century Victorian gender roles and therefore requires the active insistence that those roles are biblically based. Sexual purity is not about an individual or couple making a commitment to not have sex before marriage. Anyone can do that and call it whatever they want. It is an ideology that connects sexual behavior, traditional marriage and national security--it is always rooted in the belief that marriage must remain a pristine institution in order to allow for women and men to perform their God-given roles.

SKM: Professor Sara Moslener thank you for taking the time to discuss your work with us. I look forward to sharing some of Virgin Nation with my Gender and Sexuality in American Religion class this fall!
Sara Moslener is Assistant Professor of Religion at Central Michigan University and has just published her first book, Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence with Oxford University Press.  Her next project will examine the racial origins of sexual purity. She never did get around to taking a purity pledge.


professorjeffwilson at: July 7, 2015 at 7:24 AM said...

Excellent interview, and a very intriguing piece of research. This one is going on my syllabus for "Sex, Politics, and Religion in North America." Thanks!

Samira K. Mehta at: July 7, 2015 at 8:20 AM said...

Jeff, that is wonderful to hear and definitely my goal for this interview series--connecting people with the new research!

Tom Van Dyke at: July 9, 2015 at 3:25 AM said...

...especially given that President Clinton was not interested in promoting their cause [sexual purity].

Excellent observation.

The fight for marriage equality is very conservative in that it’s not attempting to dismantle the traditional function of marriage, but rather to allow more people to participate in it.

Interesting use of "very conservative."

The words "pregnancy," "motherhood" and "children" unfortunately do not appear here. "Same-sex" appears 4 times. That parents have historically attempted to "control" [temper, discourage, end] their daughters' non-marital heterosexual activity seems uncontroversial, and done with good reason.

As for Charles Murray's "infamous" essay [an unfortunate pejorative] “The Coming White Underclass” (WSJ, 1995), the essay itself should have in fairness been linked here for the reader to evaluate just how fair describing it as "infamous" is.

Sexual purity ideology that connects sexual behavior, traditional marriage and national security--it is always rooted in the belief that marriage must remain a pristine institution in order to allow for women and men to perform their God-given roles.

Is this a bad thing? Utilitarianism and sociology should have no empirical problem with this, surely, for any number of quantifiable reasons.

Otherwise, this essay is arguing a value judgment, an aesthetic one, that "purity" is inferior to its promiscuous alternative, which of course returns us to President Clinton and his manifest lack of support for sexual 'purity' in theory or in kind.

Tom Van Dyke at: July 10, 2015 at 11:02 PM said...

Merci for allowing my demurral through this blog's comment moderation mechanism, Ms. Mehta. I'll follow your future work with interest. ;-)

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