I mentioned earlier that according to a study published by the Guttmacher Institute nearly half (48%) of never-married women who go to church every week are sexually active. When we consider the decline of purity as a normative standard we also need to consider the response of the non-active pew mates.
For even secret behaviours aren't absolutely secret. If seventeen-year-old Madeleine who has remained chaste until now begins to fool around with her boyfriend we need to think about how Madeleine's best girlfriend Sophie responds to the news. Sophie, you see, is also a regular churchgoer but, unlike Madeleine, is determined to remain chaste and that means no sexual activity of any sort outside of marriage. At some level she doesn't approve of what Madeleine is doing.
But at what level and how does she act on this disapproval? The answer to that is tremendously important but it can't be measured by studies like the one I wrote about earlier today from the Guttmacher Institute. This calls for something more like a novelists touch.
For starters, what does Madeleine tell Sophie? She has to tell her something because best girlfriends always notice when a girl starts going off alone with a boyfriend for a while.
Suppose Madeleine is a little ashamed and suppose Sophie confronts her about it. There is a whole range of possible responses. Let's imagine that Madeleine shrugs her shoulders and smiles, a little knowingly because she hopes to recruit Sophie to her side and says, "Well, you know." She hasn't been specific but she has said enough that Sophie knows that they are doing more than just staring into one another's eyes and occasionally kissing and holding hands.
Sophie's responses might run across a spectrum. One one end she might express disapproval and tell Madeleine that what she is doing is wrong and that she must stop. On the other end, she might say, "it's between you and your conscience."
But even if Sophie takes the hard line her responses are open to nuance. She might terminate her friendship over this. Or she might go even further and terminate her friendship and mention her concerns to her mother who might speak to Madeleine's mother. Alternatively she might make it clear that she disapproves but say that she still loves Madeleine and that she will always be her friend.
I could go on spinning out responses and degrees of responses all day but the point here is that even if Sophie takes the hard line, the nuances noted above will play a huge role in determining the normative power of moral teaching about sexuality in that religious community.
If, like me, you are a part of a religious community, you can probably make a pretty good guess about what really happens in these encounters. Add this to the large number of never-married women from the community having sex and you can see that the normative community that Michael J New so wants just doesn't exist any more.