Virgins with Pregnancy Scares: Feminist Reflections on the Annunciation by Lauren D. Sawyer


There I was in the bathroom, peeing on a stick. “It’s a rite of passage,” my friend Kelsey told me. She was the one wishing me luck from the other side of the door; she was the one who brought me the pregnancy test—and a pound of chocolate—after my panicked tears suggested I could not buy one on my own.

I came from a world of virgins with pregnancy scares. Growing up a girl in a conservative evangelical church, I was taught that all sexual sins—from kissing in the dark, to “petting” (whatever that was), to oral sex, to intercourse—were equally bad, were just as likely to risk my salvation. So many of us began imagining that the consequences were all the same too, that we might become pregnant by unconventional means. Lying naked together. Making out.

Of course, this was a fear only us girls had to bear. Somehow getting a girl pregnant did not have the same moral consequences as being the one to get pregnant. As a girl growing up in the church, an awful lot of responsibility was placed on me to keep boys from touching me. Yet no one was asking whether I wanted to touch—or to be touched.

Sitting in my bathroom, waiting on the three-minute pregnancy test to make its annunciation, those adolescent fears came rushing back. I have since learned how pregnancy works—thank God. I have learned how to take ownership of my body, to make choices that are right for me, not just for the boys I was expected to protect. But in the panic of the moment, the fear and the baggage it bore came back to me. I caught myself thinking, if I get pregnant, then it must be God’s will.

My pregnancy scare came a few weeks before Advent, a season where my evangelical friends find an out-of-wedlock pregnancy glorious, full of hope. At an Advent service last week, I could hear the panic in Mary’s voice, the same as mine on the phone with the nurse practitioner. “How can this be, since I have an IUD!” Of course my Advent miracle was not a virgin birth but one line, not two, appearing on my pregnancy test.

In my evangelical church, Mary’s choice in bearing the Christ child was a given. Rape was not a thing that God did, even though it might have seemed like it. (Read your Bibles, my pastor would suggest, just not too critically.) There’s good reason to be skeptical of Mary’s ability to freely consent to her pregnancy. Delores Williams, for example, questions how Mary could have possibly said no to an archangel. Margaret Kamitsuka suggests that Mary was confused by the whole “overshadowing” matter until she confided in her cousin Elizabeth. Only then did she sing the Magnificant.

But for those who must believe that Mary had freely consented, I wonder if they can still bear the complexity of her choice. When Mary finally understood the weight of what she was agreeing to—perhaps much later as Kamitsuka has shown—did she cry? Did she make a pro/con list or consider Joseph’s involvement? Did she have to convince herself, like I had to, that only she knows what’s best for her body? And of course, if we imagine her as having a choice like this, we must also imagine her saying no. I wonder how my evangelical friends might handle that.

Decisions are hard to make when you are not taught to use your moral agency for you, rather than in service to the boys. I wonder how my own pregnancy scare might have been different if I had believed for so much longer that my body was my own to take care of, which included learning if, how, who, and by whom I liked to touch and be touched. If anything, I hope it would have made me brave enough to drive with Kelsey to CVS and buy my own pregnancy test—and chocolate—knowing that whatever decision I would have to make, it would be the one right for me.

Lauren D. Sawyer is pursuing her Ph.D. in Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School. Her work engages youth and young adult sexual ethics and the development of moral agency, through a feminist theological lens. She pays special attention to sexual harm perpetuated by spiritual leaders (and their problematic theology), especially within evangelical purity culture. As a creative writer and bookworm, she is additionally interested in how literature can be engaged as an ethical framework. Between paper-writing and impressive amounts of coffee, she works as submissions editor for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. You can read her work at laurendsawyer.com.

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Categories: Consent, Embodiment, Feminism and Religion, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. When I was a girl I read in girls’ and women’s magazines that the penis only had to be near the vagina for pregnancy to occur. By the way I am not sure I knew what a vagina was, except of course, that it was “down there.” I believed what I read. Sighhhhh

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  2. yes to this experience, and not only for a girl growing up in a church, just growing up in christianised culture: “… an awful lot of responsibility was placed on me to keep boys from touching me. Yet no one was asking whether I wanted to touch—or to be touched….”. This is the core of it, as you say, the lack of agency. And at the country dances I went to every weekend I was told I could not refuse a boy/man who asked me to dance … I sometimes left them in the middle of the dance floor, when I couldn’t bare it. It was really difficult when I began to take the initiative in sexual matters … and what dangers for a woman/girl to venture into that territory in the raging androcentric culture … not too many guides for that (in my time at least). Sighhhh … as Carol says.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brilliant timely, timeless post! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The day, at the age of nineteen, that I filled my first prescription for birth control pills, was the day that I launched into my own sexual agency. I was giddy with the freedom and personal power that was opening before me. At the age of 67 I can remember that rush. Looking back I see that the power of my goddess just filled every atom of my being. I must have been throwing off sparks!

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  5. Wow! What a powerful post…Thank you for addressing the question of whether Mary might have objected to being impregnated by an angel. I am no longer a Christian but that question never occurred to me until I read your essay tonight… I have to think about this for a while to let the implications sink in…

    I particularly love these words of yours:

    “Decisions are hard to make when you are not taught to use your moral agency for you, rather than in service to the boys. I wonder how my own pregnancy scare might have been different if I had believed for so much longer that my body was my own to take care of, which included learning if, how, who, and by whom I liked to touch and be touched.”

    How can we make any healthy decision when we are not self directed? I certainly couldn’t.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The angel was the messenger, Mary was impregnated by God. Shades of Zeus and Danae. And of the miraculous births to barren or old women in the Hebrew Bible. While the father is not necessarily God (though it could be) in the Hebrew stories, God, to use Aristotle’s terms, is the final even if not the proximate cause.

      Speaking of his new translation of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Altman argues that Sarah did not “laugh” at the thought of conceiving in her old age: rather she opined that she would be “laughed at” and made a “laughing stock.” In other words, she was not well-pleased. And by implication it was not her “choice” to bear Abraham (and have to watch his father try to sacrifice him to his God).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very powerful post , thanks for sharing.

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  7. I read the title and was like wait… what??
    I am so glad I went on to read the blog, my childhood and environment was very relaxed and religion free, so I have definitely learned something today. :)

    Like

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  1. The Handmaid’s Tale: Revisiting Mary In Advent – diaryofahereticcatholic

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