True Love Waits . . . and Waits . . . and Waits

In an era of delayed marriage and open sexuality, how does advice to “wait until marriage” still make sense?

I have a confession to make: I am a twenty-seven (and a half) year-old virgin.

No, I was not homeschooled. I was raised in a fairly normal household. I attended a public high school and a private liberal arts college. I like to drink red wine and tequila. I love Jesus, but sometimes I cuss a little bit. I’m not sure where I stand on gay marriage. I voted for Obama in 2008. I lived with my parents after the economy tanked the year I graduated from college. But fought my way back into the working world with a little bit of luck and some family connections.

I’m pretty much your typical Evangelical Millennial.

Except, according to a December 2009 study by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, I’m in a minority of people: those who have kept their virginity, even among those who claim to be religious.

I’m a product of the True Love Waits movement. And maybe one of its most successful stories.

True Love Waits was founded in 1993 by the by Southern Baptist Convention as a campaign to promote abstinence before marriage by having teenagers sign a pledge: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” But in the experience of my Christian friends and I, True Love Waits was more than an abstinence pledge — it was a whole culture against sexuality. It was a movement, an obsession, a cult of sexual purity — and one that didn’t know how to handle sexuality.

I still remember the day my parents gave me my purity ring and we talked about saving sex for marriage. It was the morning of my thirteenth birthday. My mom, dad, and I went to breakfast, and the awkwardness was palpable. I remember feeling a little bit nervous but excited that I was officially a teenager.

My parents gave me a small wrapped box and I excitedly opened it up. Staring up at me was a beautiful oval sapphire ring with diamonds flanking either side. My first reaction was to ask if it was real. My parents both chuckled and confirmed it was. They explained to me that this was a reminder to keep myself pure until my wedding night. After their brief expression of meaningful sentiments, I changed the subject and ate my bagel in peace.

True Love Waits was a really big deal to me and my friends at the time. Evangelical Christian culture was touting the benefits of bringing back courtship and the mass signing of abstinence pledges became the cool thing to do. We had books, songs, movies, and jewelry to promote our cause. We were in this together! We were saving sex for our wedding nights! We were all virgins!

But then we began to grow up.

We became hormonally charged sixteen year olds going to prom for the first time. We had a car and freedom to make out with our boyfriends without the watchful eyes of our parents nearby. We started to push physical boundaries, but for the most part kept our vow of No Sex Before Marriage.

But then we went away to college.

Our Christian culture bubble was popped. No longer was remaining a virgin expected and normal. Some people we met thought we were crazy upon hearing we were virgins. Bets were placed at parties on who would crack first. Many of us either gave it up or went underground.

For those who gave it up, we had nowhere to turn.  Our churches didn’t feel like a safe place because “True Love Waits” was the whole conversation about sex. We were afraid to tell our youth leaders or mentors because of the shame and guilt surrounding our failure. We didn’t think they would know how to answer us when we asked questions about our sexuality in our early twenties, which was so different from sexuality in our teenage years. We were afraid of hearing the same refrain: “True Love Waits! You gave away your precious gift, but you can recommit! True Love can start waiting again!”

And then there was the other side of the group.

We made it through high school and college and into our twenties with our virginity intact, though we quickly learned to stop advertising that we were virgins — even among our Christian friends. We felt ashamed and like maybe there was something wrong with us that we weren’t able to seal the deal. My first kiss wasn’t until I was twenty-five years old. When I told him I had never been kissed, he was completely freaked out. In fact, before he kissed me, we had to talk about it for almost thirty minutes. Then we kept waiting even though we weren’t sure why we were waiting.

Perpetual virginity became one of the most infuriating things about being a Millennial in the church. Here I was, well into my twenties, and still the only message available for me was: “True Love Waits!” And the main reason was: “Because God said so!” The message worked when I was sixteen, mostly because the idea of being a teen mother was so terrifying to me that it wasn’t even an option. But in the years since college graduation, I’ve fallen into this category of people the church is not equipped to deal with: young, never married, functional adults who have good careers, great community, and a deep hunger for chasing hard after Jesus.

We struggle with things the church has never had to address before this generation, at least not on a mass scale. We need help navigating singleness in our twenties and thirties. We need help understanding the reasons for saving sex for marriage, reasons beyond “True Love Waits!” Because at twenty-seven (and a half), being a single mother is a lot less terrifying than it was at seventeen. (Don’t worry Dad, it’s still terrifying.)

As I’ve entered a new dating relationship recently, I have started to examine what role purity should play in my life now. My counselor and I have spent a good chunk of time talking about the why’s of purity, and he has fine-tuned my understanding of emotional and physical intimacy. He said: “Rachel, a lasting relationship is built on emotional intimacy. That is the only thing that will carry you through life. That is the most important part of a relationship to cultivate. Physical intimacy should always be an expression of emotional intimacy. If you let the physical get further than the emotional, you put the very relationship in danger. Sex is the ultimate expression of emotional intimacy.”

I know that seems like the most obvious statement in the world, and it may be the driving rationale behind something like True Love Waits. But that wasn’t the message my friends and I got from our sex-averse True Love Waits culture. All we heard was: wait.

In an era of delayed marriage, church leaders need to speak bluntly about all forms of intimacy and how they intersect. In a sex-obsessed culture, church leaders need to invite us into more — and more complex — conversations about sex. Engage with us in the conversation. Ask us questions. Share your stories of failure or success. Allow us a safe place to process. Some of us have been waiting a long time and we continue to wait… and wait… and wait. We need to know what’s worth waiting for, and why.

Rachel Mueller
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  • Diana Jones

    You are so fabulous!!! Incredible post!!!
    You make my heart smile! You are beautiful!

  • DaveandAnnie Stevens

    Thanks for sharing your heart about this Rachel. Being an “old-timer” I can assure you with loud shouts from the roof top that true love does wait because of the kind of minds we have that become the tool that the enemy uses against us. God knew this when He created us. Our minds are VERY impressionable. From scary movies to sexual thoughts, our minds can run away with us into pits of depression and guilt because our mind has this wonderful ability to replay our mistakes over and over again in full color for us to see. Can you imagine having random sexual relationships only to have those enter your mind when you get bored with your future husband and then you feel guilty because, well maybe….you actually enjoyed the fantasies?

    This is only but one of the reasons that God would like all of us to keep our minds and bodies pure. No competition in the mind. There’s an old saying that bank tellers don’t look at counterfeit money all day long to recognize the real money. They look at authentic money all day long and when the counterfeit bill comes in, BINGO, they can spot it and deal with it. You keep your mind pure by only looking at only the good movies, reading the good books, and be with good friends, when that counterfeit comes along, there will be no question to get away from it and move on. Read Philippians 4:8 to get the complete list of what God wants us to think on.

    After being married and then going through a terrible divorce, when I met my now husband, Dave, we had to sort out a lot of baggage that interrupted the first years of our marriage. I always wondered why God didn’t introduce us to each other in our teen years so that we could now boast of a 30 year plus marriage. We are very happy and help each other now to build trust and intimacy and have a wonderful marriage that honors God, but it would have been so much easier if either of us hadn’t messed it up like we did before we met. Sure there’s grace, but grace doesn’t feel as good as a pure heart. I’m sure others out there can add to the list, but take it from me, keeping your mind, body and spirit pure is definitely worth the wait.

    • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

      Sex is not some scary unknown force that will taint your mind, body, or spirit. Not having sex doesn’t make you more pure.

  • John Morgan

    Rachel – There are at least three huge things churches have gotten wrong with regard to singleness and marriage. First, they assume that marriage is for everyone and the earlier the better because there is less chance of fornication. Nowhere in the Bible does it state that everyone is owed a spouse. And following after the world, they believe we will burn to ashes if we don’t have all the desires of our hearts and hormones met. Churches idolize marriage and family. That’s the only thing they’re comfortable with. It’s politically correct. Second, abstinence programs will fail when approached only from the aspect of marriage and family. When approached without the balanced view of both singleness and celibacy, they will not be able to engage the conversation or answer questions accurately. For example, True Love Waits . . . for what? For those called to marriage, it waits for a spouse. For those called to celibacy, it waits for the ultimate marriage in heaven. But should we expect a group of married preachers and youth leaders to talk about that? I don’t think so. Third, most churches are still singing the Old Testament chorus of “be fruitful and multiply” and have not been upgraded with the New Testament (esp 1 Cor 7), Christ’s death on the cross, or the rent in the vail of the Holy of Holies that allowed everybody access to God. Fourth, few churches have preachers with the character or fortitude to talk about sexual issues because of questions they may have to answer about their own histories. They have not come to the realization that everyone has a story to tell. Unfortunately, the predominant testimony today is the one of sexual mistakes and forgiveness. You don’t hear too much from single adults who have lived lives of purity (other than celebrities) and with the proper perspective of what role purity should play in their lives. Fifth, stereotype older never marrieds as being gay or to have something wrong with them. Preachers spend too much time following the news of the day and not reading the Bible. They have instructed their flock to circle the wagons tightly around their families with little regard for anybody else. I have a confession to make. I’m 53 and still a virgin. Bringing about change within churches is not easy. I’ve been working on it for a long time, especially the SBC. This is an excellent article. Do you have any suggestions on what else I can do?

  • Stefatropolis

    As an Atheist, my question to you would be this; since the national average of divorces among Christians and non-Christians is roughly the same, 50%, (a statistic which fails to include, and I think is very important, what percent REMAIN married, though UNHAPPILY, because of a Christian sense of duty) what possible reason do you think God would have for having one of His faithful followers wait until, say, their late twenties or even their thirties and beyond to be married and have sex, only to then divorce sometime later? As I’m sure you know, many marriages fail not because both give up on it, but because just one does, as in the instance of infidelity. What reason would God have to cause the faithful one to wait ten, even twenty, years to have sex with their spouse only to be divorced to that person several years later? When you consider a divorce rate of 50% among Christians, this means in a full HALF of the instances where one, or the other, or BOTH Christians partners have “saved” themselves for marriage, they end up going their separate ways. What sense would “waiting” make if your “destined” partner will also be your ex-partner 50% of the time? As a former Christian myself, and one who waited to lose his virginity until age 21 (after not being a Christian any longer), I can tell you that sex is NOT the sole point of sex, nor what it’s intended for. Secondly, sexual chemistry has EVERYTHING to do with what makes a romantic relationship work. Lastly, loving someone does not correlate with sexual chemistry. (I don’t expect you to believe me, but someday I suspect you will.)

    • Stefatropolis

      (I meant to say above, “LOVE is not the sole point of sex”. Said that wrong.)

  • Stefatropolis

    My first girlfriend and I met in eighth grade and dated until our first year of college. We were Christians and we never had sex. We talked about it, and I was more inclined to go ahead and do it, but she wanted to wait, so I respected that completely and never pressured her or tried to weaken her resolve. The two of us broke up (after being inseparable for five years and literally growing up together) because she literally vanished from my life. One day she told me she needed space and for me to not try and contact her. I was devastated, but because I loved her so much I honored her request and almost never spoke to her in nearly three years. To say the incident scarred me would be an understatement. We finally met for coffee nearly TWENTY YEARS later and she explained WHY she broke up with me; I never knew in all that time.
    It turns out she didn’t have sex until she was thirty-two years old. She finally met a man at that age, they got married, and then she finally lost her virginity. She is a devoted Christian, has a young son and is doing well. During that same conversation over coffee she said “I don’t know why I insisted on waiting. We should’ve just had sex.” She also said during that same conversation that she sometimes says to her husband, “Are you even in love with me?”
    I honestly couldn’t tell you why on earth God thought it was in her best interests to save herself for so long for such a relationship. Maybe you can, and doubtless many people who read this will have an explanation. To me, however, it just doesn’t make sense. Life is short, sex is beautiful. It’s playful, passionate, tender, sweet, intense, and magnificent. Often it involves laughter, cuddling, whispers, incredible openness, trust, joy, bliss, and on and on. And this all happens, quite regularly and consistently in a non-married context. Its not cold, detached, lusty, crude or awful at all. I hope that some people reading this can realize this. If not, go ahead and make a sacrifice of all of it; your bodies, your youth, and a world of loving sexuality. I hope many of you won’t.

  • LukeB

    Nice to read the your perspective as one who waited to marriage. I too was public school educated, played a little college football (women everywhere), and waited until marriage. I was 26. I wasn’t a product of the “True Love Waits” though. I am a Russian Orthodox Christian and I did it because God said to do it. If it’s for any other reason, the motivation to keep the pants on will not be strong enough. In Orthodoxy we stress not “getting the victory”, but rather engaging in a bloody struggle against the “passions” until we die. “He who endures to the end will be saved”. So for me maintaining virginity was a battle to fight, but one worth fighting for the Lord. After a divorce (being a virgin on the wedding night doesn’t guarantee a succesfull marriage) I am now single and 32 years old living in NYC, I am engaging in this bloody struggle everyday. However I do it, not for the here and now, but for eternity and the Judgement. That is the impetus. The joy and peace received even now in the midst of the struggle makes it all worth it!

    I think in Protestant circles they have totally missed the rich history of sexual purity as John commented on below. Marriage is idolized and expected. What is missing in evangelicalism is the Monastic Tradition that is so rich in the history of the Christian Faith. There have always been monastics since the time of John the Baptist. The Church teaching tell us how sexual purity is rewarded on Judgement Day. If that isn’t motivation enough to remain pure, then perhaps Christ just isn’t worth it to us.

  • Daniel King

    My wife and I were both virgins on our wedding night. She was 30 (we married on her 30th B-day). I was 28. We both kissed for the first time when we got engaged. Now we have been married for seven years and have two wonderful little kids. I’m so glad neither of us had a lot of sexual baggage to drag into our marriage. The “True Love Waits” is still good for today’s generation. God knows what He is doing. Sex is best savored in the marriage bed. But Rachel, don’t wait too much longer. Get married and give your opal sapphire ring (and your virginity) to the man of your dreams.

  • Benjamin Pearson

    Thanks for sharing this! You’re not alone. I’m a twenty six year old virgin still waiting. I think that part of the problem is that “True Love Waits” approaches the issue from a legalistic approach to abstinence. It tells teenagers to say no to sex without ever teaching them the why. Its as if they get cart before the horse. We should be concerned with living our lives for God’s glory, and that should motivate us to life a holy life in all areas including sexually.