“Dear God, please don’t let my baby girl be a porn star.”
Such is the plea of Ken Coleman, evangelical Christian pastor and father of Taylor Coleman, one of the titular daughters on Lifetime’s new show Preacher’s Daughters. The show follows the romantic and sexual travails of the teenage daughters of three families, all headed by Christian religious leaders who share one thing in common: a firm insistence on abstinence from sex until marriage.
The appeal of the show is obvious. Americans love to talk about sex, and in particular, we love to talk about (losing) virginity. Two very different approaches dominate the discussion: on one side is the Dionysian world of American Pie and Superbad, of desperate yearnings and brazen attempts to achieve the capstone of teenage coming-of-age: losing one’s virginity, however awkwardly. The other side — the world of “purity” rings and pledges — is diametrically opposed to the former approach. Needless to say, the two sides see each other as mortal enemies in the pursuit of a fulfilling life.
But while Preacher’s Daughters can be understood as an explicit attempt to expose the folly and harm of the “purist” abstinence approach, such an interpretation fails to provide the nuanced view the reality human sexuality calls for. Of course, one shouldn’t expect a reality show to provide insightful commentary on life. But, notwithstanding the fakeness inherent in the genre, the anxiety, shame, confusion, and hostility experienced by Taylor, Kolby, and Olivia are very real effects of the abstinence movement, even if it’s practically a guarantee that the parents' actions and views are played up for the audience.
The harm created by pro-abstinence sexual education is well-documented and does not need explaining here. It is present in its usual forms in the show; for example, Kolby’s conflicting feelings lead her to have a topsy-turvy relationship with her romantic interest, and when her older sister Teryn reveals that she had premarital sex, Kolby is devastated. For her part, Teryn confides to the audience that she believes their mother’s interpretation of the Bible and sexuality is harmful. Taylor’s frustration with her father’s severely restrictive rules on dating, and even social activities lead her to rebel, and to (jokingly) fantasize about becoming an adult entertainer for the “freedom.”
All three pairs of parents appear to love their children and want the best for them. Tragically, their very approach to this makes their children justifiably unhappy (with Kolby's mom and Taylor's father's approaches being especially disturbing). Setting limits and establishing expectations in your child’s life is fine, but even a superficial examination of the abstinence approach shows that not only is it harmful, it doesn’t work (and this).
What will it take to achieve a healthier social attitude towards virginity?
Arguably the most important development consists of spreading the acceptance of two central beliefs: first, that there is no one way for all individuals to achieve (sexual) fulfillment, and second, in order for our young (or anyone) to learn and grow, they must expose themselves to risk, and it is OK to make mistakes.
Both of these are important to enable people to learn what truly makes them happy, respected, and fulfilled, instead of shaming and pressuring people into behavior they are not fully comfortable with. The first recognizes the reality of human nature, and the second enables us to act according to that nature. Of course, this is not to argue parents should let their children run wild; to the contrary, parents have a duty to ensure their children approach risk responsibly, and in this context means supplying information about health, protection, and the risks of sexual and romantic behavior and being available to listen and give advice, and to prevent truly unwise risky behavior.
I say “arguably” because there is another major obstacle in the way of developing such an alternative view, the belief that premarital sex is sinful, and that what is sinful is determined not by man, but by (infallible) God. If God, via the Bible, says premarital sex is sinful, then it is sinful, and there is little room for discussion. Persuading people to reject this thinking can be incredibly complex and difficult, but perhaps the best route is to encourage reflection on why God might declare something immoral. To its credit, much abstinence education does do this, although the reasoning may not be strong.
How can these three beliefs (that premarital sex is not immoral, that different people find fulfillment in different ways, and that experience is often the best teacher) and the recognition that both premarital sex and abstinence carry costs be implemented into a more complex, better view of virginity? That is, what will a view of virginity informed by these three ideas look like?
Clearly the “culture war” over virginity would diminish, but part of this might be a may be a paradoxical-seeming development where virginity is at once recognized as incredibly important but also unimportant. More specifically, because of a more developed awareness of its intensely personal nature, its “social” importance will be diminished.
The reasoning is that the common understanding that a) different people achieve fulfillment in different ways, and that b) knowledge about what fulfills us is oftentimes best gained through experience will weaken the idea that virginity and its loss can ever be a uniform phenomenon. For some, virginity is not a big deal; for others, losing it will remain a rite of passage; and yet others will find that waiting to meet Mr./Mrs. Right to lose it gives them the most fulfillment. Virginity and one’s views about it would be truly recognized as the intensely personal matter that it is, insofar as people will leave others to their own pursuit of happiness and refrain from the haranguing and rubbing-it-in-faces that so much of the “social view” of virginity entails.
Another positive development could be a change in the perception of virginity: instead of being like a door to a magical place, or a reward, it’s loss would be viewed as something more akin to a signpost, in that it helps the traveler trying to find his or her way through life, or more mundanely, simply a stage in a continual process of learning and growth.
Regardless of how, or if, our attitudes about virginity evolve, what’s certain is that the preacher’s daughters, along with everyone, will get hurt and make mistakes. Some will regret choosing to lose their virginity, and others will regret being abstinent. We will all experience uncertainty and anxiety about what we really want. In the midst of this uncertainty, the alternative view of virginity (and sexuality in general) advanced here will be one of the best means to cushion our blows, pick us up, and move us forward.