Rape Culture and the Construction of Virgin Saints

As most Catholic girls and women know, most of the women saints that have traditionally been presented to us as appropriate role models and patron saints have been virgins. This is generally presented as the most important thing about them, even if they were also martyred. The stories are often presented as stories of women who would rather die than give up their virginity; though usually “chastity” is the word that is used: they would rather die than give up their chastity. Often the stories involve the repudiation of a proposed marriage; the devout Christian maiden rejects a merely human marriage, defying pressure from her family, her intended spouse, and her society, pressure up to and including physical violence — because she has chosen Christ as her Bridegroom, and will take no other.

After the fifth, sixth, tenth, fifteenth one of these stories you run into while leafing through a book of saints, you start to roll your eyes and skip right past them — at least, I did. Virgin, virgin, virgin, virgin, — ah, here’s an apostle! Or a martyr, or a missionary, or a bishop, or a theologian: let’s read about him.

When I wrote about Thecla the other day, I went looking for liturgical texts about her with which to close the essay. I was surprised when the only texts I found had this Divine Bridegroom image in them, because there’s not even the tiniest hint of that idea in the second century document. I had noticed that Thecla mentions “preserving her chastity” several times during the episode in Antioch, but my first reaction had been to roll my eyes and skip over it as “there’s that overblown emphasis on chastity again.”

But I kept thinking about it, and something eventually dawned on me. Remember what happened here: Thecla’s walking down the street and is sexually assaulted by the magistrate; she refuses him, makes a scene, fights back, and makes him look ridiculous. He arrests her, she is convicted of sacrilege and sentenced to be thrown to the beasts. But this won’t happen right away, so in the meantime,

Thecla desired the favour of the governor, that her chastity might not be attacked, but preserved till she should be cast to the beasts. The governor then inquired, Who would entertain her; upon which a certain very rich widow, named Trifina, whose daughter was lately dead, desired that she might have the keeping of her.

Gee. After having been sexually assaulted by the magistrate and sentenced to death for refusing him, do you think, maybe, she just might have had a realistic fear that if she were put in prison, he would simply rape her there?

Suddenly this doesn’t look like an overblown emphasis on chastity anymore. Suddenly, it looks pretty darn reasonable.

I got to thinking about how the stories of women saints who refused to be married against their will were constructed as virgin saints, in a culture in which any woman who was not the property of one man was considered the property of all men, her body a public commodity. I got to thinking about the construction of virgin saints as a side effect of rape culture:

Rape culture is the objectification of women, which is part of a dehumanizing process that renders consent irrelevant. Rape culture is treating women’s bodies like public property. Rape culture is street harassment and groping on public transportation . . . Rape culture is blurred lines between persistence and coercion.

Reading these stories through a feminist lens, aware of the male gaze, it makes sense to me that these women’s stories were constructed in terms of having chosen Christ as their Divine Bridegroom: because this is the only way their stories made sense, the only terms in which their choice could even be perceived.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trashing chastity as a Christian virtue. But I do object to chastity, and specifically virginity, being treated as a gendered virtue, treated as if it is not just a woman’s greatest virtue, but a woman’s only meaningful virtue. She can be as loving or faithful or compassionate or giving or patient or kind or self-sacrificing as you can imagine, but that tends to be discounted as nothing special, because that’s a woman’s nature; but let her be a virgin, or a chaste and modest wife, and now she’s a virtuous woman, by God.

And then on the other hand, we give lip service to the idea that chastity is as important to men as it is to women, but if a man is not chaste, well, boys will be boys; and if he is a virgin after a certain age, well, one might wonder about his masculinity; but if he is loving or faithful or compassionate or giving or patient or kind or self-sacrificing, now that’s a virtuous man.

(…now what does this remind me of? I know.. it’s the way that some American Christians criticize Islam based on the way “they” “treat” “their” women. It doesn’t matter that Islam formally prescribes modest dress for both men and women: it’s the hijabi, the women wearing veils, that some Americans point to as “the kind of thing” “we” don’t want in “our” culture. Pot, meet kettle.)

I’m also not claiming that none of these women conceived of themselves as having chosen Christ as their Bridegroom. I’m sure some of them did — especially those who lived in cultures in which this imagery was valorized and romanticized.

But the thing is, every time I’ve read the actual story, especially the actual writings, of a woman who had previously been presented to me as a “virgin saint,” I’ve found so much more going on than virginity. Generally I hardly notice the virginity at all; instead, what I see is a strong woman of strong faith, living out her faith in private and in public. And I’m annoyed that these strong women have been veiled by the hyperfocus on virginity.

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9 Responses to Rape Culture and the Construction of Virgin Saints

  1. This is such a great post! Although I was raised in the LDS faith I often had similar reactions to all the talk of virginity. From a linguistic standpoint I find the use of that word to be particularly interesting because (as I understand it) in the era that many of these stories were written “virgin” simply meant an unmarried woman. Today it means someone who hasn’t had sex. There is definitely a subtle difference that changes how we think about a specific term.

    • Thanks! Interesting (and depressing…) that this sort of thing crosses denominational boundaries.

      Your point about virgin meaning simply unmarried woman is…. actually even more disturbing, the more I think about it. “Jane Doe was a saint!”
      “Really? What did she do?”
      “She didn’t get married.”

      One point I’ve been mostly ignoring in these posts is that the Acts of Paul and Thecla is clearly a document produced or redacted by the Christian gnostic movement that was later determined to be heretical, and it’s clear from other things in this document that this was the flavor of gnosticism that preached (what we would now describe as) abstinence as a cardinal virtue for all Christians, male or female, single or married. So I could imagine such gnostics determining that the simple act of not getting married (assuming one also refrained from sexual activity) might be saint-worthy. But I wouldn’t have expected that attitude to survive.

      I wonder if the use of “virgin” as a categorical description derives from an attempt to fit Christians into the categories from scripture or the very early church, in a world that had succumbed to patriarchal constructions of church offices.

  2. Thanks for shedding some light on this topic. I’m not as familiar with theology, but it really does seems like there is so much emphasis being placed on these saints virginity and the current meaning of “virgin” than what they did.

    • Yes, it does. I suppose the emphasis is supposed to be on how much they did in order to keep their virginity, which might translate into “in order to keep from sinning” for some of them, but not for those who were offered a respectable marriage.

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