The Common Good

A New Kind of Virginity

In her first televised interview in more than a decade, Monica Lewinsky (who needs no introduction) says she was “a virgin to humiliation” at the time she made highly explicit world news about her White House trysts with then-President Bill Clinton.

Lewinsky may have coined a new term here in this National Geographic documentary on the 1990s. (And if she’s trying to change the subject for which she is so unfortunately known, this was not a good choice of words.)

The word virgin, in addition to its usual meaning, uses sexual inexperience as a metaphor for a state of being unviolated, untainted, innocent, clean. That association is damaging. It suggests that sex is bad, that it’s always a violation. I think most can agree that this is not true.

The concept of virgin birth — which occurs in more than one religion — does not argue for sex being a bad idea, though it can easily be taken that way; such an event can instead simply show that the child’s father is divine. In addition, Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception does not mean that the birth came about by a “cleaner” method than the usual biological one; this is instead a belief in Mary as a person born without sin.

It’s important to recognize that sex is not necessarily the occasion for one’s loss of innocence. I’m convinced that that loss comes with first experience of a matter close to the heart going terribly and irrevocably wrong. That’s the shattering moment when childhood is over and wariness sets in.

Yes, sex can bring that about. But surely sex also leads to joy, at least as often. It seems to me inarguable that erotic passion (and the means of making babies) does not always sully or make unclean or take a destructive course.

Lewinsky seemed to me something of an innocent at the time the news broke, whatever her previous sexual experience had been; she was young, hopeful, reckless, unhesitating. After the Starr report spilled the intimate details of her sexual contact with Clinton, she was no longer an innocent.

I don’t believe this was caused by the sexual activity itself. Instead, it was because something close to her heart went terribly destructively permanently wrong and there was no place in the world to escape that fact.

I have sympathy for Monica Lewinsky and it’s not because I have a particularly tolerant nature. I can’t think of anyone but onetime presidential candidate John Edwards who has paid more for a sexual indiscretion. To wear a scarlet letter is nothing compared with what those two have lost through their dalliances. Lewinsky in particular suffered on a public stage what she described as “violation after violation.”

I don’t believe sex caused loss of innocence in her life; it was the repeated and detailed worldwide exposure of her most intimate life and the damage that these violations of personal privacy did. I’m not interested here in blaming those who wrote about her or those who read about her private life. I’d just like to argue that sex does not deserve the blame.

Peggy Payne is the author of three novels on the intersection of sex and spirituality: Cobalt Blue, Revelation, and Sister India. Her website is www.peggypayne.com. Via RNS.

Photo: Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.com

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