It’s never too late to be a virgin
With three months to go before her wedding, Nicole Ratliff, 24, is deep into her prenuptial regime. She exercises with a personal trainer so her arms will look buffed in a strapless gown. She works on her tan to get rid of the swimsuit lines across her shoulders. She exfoliates her face and guzzles 124 ounces of water daily to hydrate her skin. And since July 26, three months to the day before she will say, “I do,” she has been abstaining from sex with her live-in fiancé, David Crawford, and plans to continue until after they are married.
“No more showers together,” said Ms. Ratliff, a pharmaceuticals sales representative in Charlotte, N.C. “No sleeping in the nude. We’ll kiss, and that’s it.”
Ms. Ratliff said she hopes that a period of abstinence will ensure that sparks fly during her honeymoon in the Fiji Islands, and help clear her conscience about having strayed from the expectations that her church and family hold about premarital sex. “The closer you get to the wedding, and you’re looking for a preacher and a church, you start to feel guilty,” she said of no longer being a virgin.
These days, a period of “secondary virginity,” as it is sometimes called, is increasingly the norm for many brides-to-be across the South, an accommodation to the modern reality of premarital sex and the traditional disapproval of it in the Bible Belt.
Whether fresh out of college or older, Southern women say the decision of when and how long to stop having sex — as little as a month or as much as a year — has become standard girl talk at sorority houses and bridal showers. “My daughter has said to me that all her friends do this,” said Cynthia Goodwin, a former schoolteacher in her 50’s who lives in Monroe, N.C. “Twenty-five years ago, it may have happened, but we didn’t talk about it.”
Kim Burgess, 38, a medical staff supervisor in Newnan, Ga., who married in May after abstaining for a month, said: “It’s nothing your mother teaches you, because you’re not supposed to be having sex. The holding out makes you feel like you’ve been a good girl.”
The practice seems to have gained momentum over the past 5 to 10 years as an outgrowth of the abstinence movements in sex education and evangelical Christian churches. Delaying sex until marriage is the only sex-education practice taught in 55 percent of school districts in the South, according to a 1999 study, compared with 20 percent of districts, for example, in the Northeast. “True Love Waits,” a campaign begun by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1993, encourages teenagers and college students to sign abstinence pledges, and it says that more than a million have done so.
“The campaign has carried over to influence dating and courtship behavior of Southern couples,” said Bradford Wilcox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on the influence of religion on marriage and cohabitation. “It has had success in delaying the onset of sex among teenagers. It has also had an effect on people trying to rededicate themselves to this kind of idea. When these couples go for premarital counseling, the pastor suggests they do this.”
Many conservative Christian clergy members are asking couples to abstain. “More than not, there’s a sexual relationship,” said Luke Witte, an evangelical Presbyterian minister at Forest Hill Church in Charlotte. “I will ask them to cease and desist until they’re married. I won’t marry a couple who is sexually active.”
“There are biblical reasons,” he continued. “We’re asked not to fornicate.”
But not every clergyman takes Mr. Witte’s approach. As the Rev. Chuck Williamson, the minister at another Charlotte church, Steele Creek Presbyterian, put it: “I assume that most every couple who comes to me is sexually active. I don’t advise them about sex — more marriage problems are due to money. I’ll talk about the importance of communication. If they are sexually active, it doesn’t have any moral standing to `revirgin’ themselves.”
Sexual abstinence is nothing new, of course: it is prescribed for Muslims from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, Roman Catholics during Lent and Orthodox Jews during a woman’s menstrual period. As a subject of popular culture, it dates to the Aristophanes play “Lysistrata,” in which the women of Athens go on a sex strike to protest the Peloponnesian War, and it continues today, in the recent movie “40 Days and 40 Nights,” starring Josh Hartnett.
But a period of “secondary virginity” for engaged couples seems to have caught on primarily in the South. “The reason why these practices are more common in the South is that Christianity is so strong in Southern culture,” said Dr. R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “Abstinence has permeated beyond those in church life. It is not really class-based, but is regionally emphasized where there are more conservative Christians.”
On top of that there is the influence of the age-old myth of demure Southern womanhood, personified by Melanie Hamilton in “Gone With the Wind.”
“There has been this tradition of putting a white woman on a pedestal,” said Walter Edgar, a professor of Southern studies at the University of South Carolina. “She was supposed to be chaste and pure and worshiped from afar. Long before the 20th century, this symbol justified the double standard, with the man straying outside the marriage to slaves or prostitutes so he didn’t inflict his bestial desires on the Southern holy woman. The irony is, it used to be totally abstinence until marriage. Now, this self-rejuvenating virgin is an open admission that this isn’t how the real world operates.”
“I find the mental gymnastics incredible,” he added. “The horse is already out of the gate. You’re either a virgin, or you’re not.”
In June, as part of a wedding celebration in Monroe, N.C., a Saturday luncheon was held for the bridesmaids and out-of-town guests. Over fried chicken, biscuits and iced tea, the conversation turned to temporary abstinence. “It’s about being prim and proper and perfect,” said Lauren Ward, 23, the party’s hostess, who works as a nanny and is single. “It’s an ideal we live up to. I’ve grown up thinking that you’re not supposed to sleep together, but since everyone does, you stop when you get engaged for two to three months before the wedding. I’ll probably do it. Just for the tease.”
“It’s about guilt,” countered the bridegroom’s sister, 24, who — like the bridal couple and their families — did not want to be identified to protect her privacy. “What I think is so funny is that all these guys go along with it. It fulfills their fantasy of marrying a Southern belle.”
The bridegroom’s mother, a Pilates instructor in her 50’s, said she thought it was ridiculous for a bride to demand a period of abstinence. “Who ever had sex and then stops?” she said. “The brides are cutting themselves off, too. It’s presuming that women don’t enjoy sex. It’s not a service they’re providing for income. If I were a guy giving a girl a diamond ring, and then it took a year to plan the wedding and there was no sex, I’d take back the ring. It’s a power trip, but who gains anything?”
Women seeking secondary virginity try to avoid temptation by doing things like giving up their nighttime teddies for frumpy sweats, ordering boyfriends to sleep on the couch and temporarily moving back in with Mom and Dad. Rhonda Webb Carroll, 33, a stay-at-home mother in Newnan, Ga., said no to sex with her fiancé — a widower, 35, with twin girls — for seven months before their marriage last summer, even though they were living together, sharing the same bed and raising his two daughters. She refused to do anything more than kiss, and stopped undressing in front of him.
To hear most of the men tell it, they don’t mind. “It was a mutual decision,” said a medical student in Birmingham, Ala., who didn’t want his name used because he didn’t want his parents to know he and his wife had ever had premarital sex. “We decided it would be better to hold off till the wedding night so it would be new and exciting. We originally planned for eight weeks and then decided it was too long, so we did it for four weeks. The wedding night and honeymoon were definitely better.”
But he added that there was temptation along the way, especially after he and his fiancée went out to dinner and had a few drinks.
One recent bridegroom, an Army officer and graduate student in Atlanta, was the one who suggested that he and his fiancée stop sleeping together six months before their wedding last year. “With all the past relationships I had, sex always seemed to be, in the end, this big focus,” he said. “I thought it would be a positive thing to try. There was a religious aspect to it. We didn’t just view the wedding ceremony as a social gathering, but a promise we’d made to each other before God.”
“Our wedding night was really magical,” said his bride, a medical student, who, like her husband, insisted on anonymity. “All the good stuff about being intimate with someone for the first time, with all the security of having a lifetime commitment, made sex the way your parents said it should be.”
Daye Walker, 28, a pharmaceuticals sales representative in McKinney, Tex., who was married two years ago, said that three months of chastity did more than just spice up her wedding night. Married in Jamaica, she and her husband honeymooned at a resort, spending time at a nude beach. “We would never have done that had we not abstained,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been as risqué. We got pregnant on the honeymoon. So the three-month lag worked. God works in mysterious ways.” Autor: Elizabeth Hayt