The idea of abstaining from sex until marriage, which even one hundred years ago would likely have been accepted if not expected as a social convention, has become a far more uncommon and, on occasion, controversial notion in the modern world. This is not to say, however, that it has entirely lost its place in Western culture.
The practice of wearing chastity rings is a prime example of this. The custom in its current form originated in America in the 1990s, with the emergence of a variety of programmes that encourage teenagers and adolescents to take virginity pledges and to wear chastity rings, also known as purity rings or promise rings, as a sign of their decision. The most well-known of these is the Silver Ring Thing programme. Set up in Arizona in 1995, but reaching its most popular during the mid to late noughties, the Silver Ring Thing claims in its mission statement that it aims “to create a culture shift in America where abstinence becomes the norm again, rather than the exception”. Their trademark silver rings, given to anyone who takes their virginity pledge, are engraved with a verse from 1 Thessalonians 4: “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honour”.
For a time, the programme received a great deal of media attention; this was thanks in part to its celebrity endorsement, most famously by the band the Jonas Brothers. It was also the subject of a considerable amount of criticism, often connected with its links to the abstinence-only sex education movement in the United States, which many denounced for its argument that not educating teenagers about sex will prevent teenagers from having sex.
Similarly, in 2005, the US government came under attack by the American Civil Liberties Union for its funding of the Silver Ring Thing, which they claimed was in violation of the principle that state budget should not be used to promote religion. Whilst the movement remained comparatively small in the UK, in 2007, a student in West Sussex lost a case against her school when she was asked to remove her chastity ring, the High Court ruling that it wasn’t an essential part of the Christian faith.
Even outside of the issues caused by the Silver Ring Thing programme, the goal of no sex before marriage remains the subject of debate. For example, it raises questions about how marriage is defined in the modern world. Consider the case of two people who never married but have lived together for 20+ years, who have children together, a mortgage together, a life together, who are married in everything but name. Would that constitute as marriage? Or does the ceremony itself remain an integral part?
Given that the Silver Ring Thing programme and others like it have now all but vanished from public attention, it is possible to make the case that, for at least some of the teenagers who made the pledge, it was more of a trend than a serious issue of faith. Nevertheless, for others, it was and is an important life choice, often unrelated to any virginity pledge programme, and indeed separate from any religious affiliation. It is not, however, a choice people necessarily feel comfortable talking about, as they may feel uncertain about the reaction they will get.
Consequently, it is difficult to gauge exactly how many people share this belief. Are there more young people out there who have decided that they want to wait but donít know how to reconcile this with what they feel society expects of them, or is it indeed an unusual choice? In some ways, programmes like the Silver Ring Thing contribute more to compounding this problem than to solving it, given their unrelenting focus on encouraging as many people to take virginity pledges as possible. In reality, the decision to abstain from sex is a highly personal choice, and one which people do not necessarily have any wish to impose on others.
Our generation is often viewed in the light of a further step towards sexual liberation, but it remains important that the issue of liberation in relation to abstaining from sex, whether for religious reasons or otherwise, is not overlooked.