From Real Housewife To Born-Again Virgin: The Problem With Secondary VirginityS

With Bristol Palin and now Real Housewife Danielle Staub, the born-again virgin is having a moment. But is "secondary" virginity any less upsetting than abstinence pledges?

In Staub's case, maybe. At 45, she's less likely to be caving to parental pressure than Bristol or other teenagers. And given her slot on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, her promise that "I am saving myself for marriage" — and her goal of finding a husband — may be at least in part a publicity ploy. Still, Staub's newfound celibacy — she says, "Abstinence means you refrain from any sex - thinking about it, doing it - even to yourself!" — has some upsetting aspects. For instance, it seems to go hand in hand with regressive Rules-girl passivity: of her future husband, Staub says, "I will never find him, he'll find me. I think the right one will see me. I want old-fashioned courting."

In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti writes,

What I find interesting about secondary virginity is that while it might seem like an easy out, with its emphasis on spiritual and emotional purity, it actually takes a hardline approach to chastity and has the effect of increasing the obstacles of being pure. After all, to be a virgin, all you have to do is not have sex. But to fully embrace your secondary virginity, you must abstain not only from intercourse, but also from masturbation or even thinking about sex. And there's no more of this "anything but" nonsense either — Love Matters, a teen abstinence program, tells those considering being secondary virgins to "avoid intense hugging," and that "anything beyond a brief, simple kiss can quickly become dangerous."

Sexuality is personal, and people like Staub who choose to eliminate sexuality from their lives don't deserve criticism. The problem comes when they insist that others should do so, or that not doing so is inherently "dangerous." Writes Valenti,

On the website for A Pregnancy Resource Center of Northeast Ohio, an article titled "Take2" asks, "Have you already unwrapped the priceless gift of virginity and given it away? Do you now feel like 'second-hand goods' and no longer worthy to be cherished? Do you ever wish you could re-wrap it and give it only to your future husband or wife?"

But not to worry, there's an answer! "Guess what? You can be abstinent again! You can't change the past, but you can change the future. You can decide today to commit to abstinence, wrapping a brand-new gift of virginity to present to your husband or wife on your wedding night.

As Valenti points out, this conception of virginity as a commodity is unsettling, especially since "as with most things in the virginity movement, there's a lot of lip service when it comes to young men and secondary or born-again virginity, but the focus remains on women." No matter how liberal their upbringing, girls still frequently receive the message that their sexuality is a depreciating asset, something that is worth less the more people they "give" it to. The solution to this isn't to tell them to wrap that asset back up and not give it away anymore — it's to help them make sexual decisions based on what they actually want, and not on other people's attempts to belittle them.

Staub doesn't seem to be exhorting teens to follow her example, and in the fight against abstinence-only education and misogynist notions of sex, she's not really the enemy. But her comments about waiting for the right man to "find" her do illustrate a connection between born-again virginity and other attitudes that are bad for women. Like many abstinence-only programs, Staub's brand of secondary virginity appears to come complete with restrictive gender roles. Of course, there are all kinds of reason to abstain from sex, and it's not entirely clear what Staub's are. But if they have to do with re-wrapping your gift — as Staub's comments about her husband-to-be suggests they may — then they reveal how anti-woman much "born-again virginity" really is.

Real Housewives‘ Danielle Staub: ‘I'm A Born-Again Virgin' [People]

Related: The Purity Myth [Google Books]