Yvonne Orji is perhaps as famous for her role as “the sexually liberated Molly on HBO’s ‘Insecure’” as she is for being distinctly the opposite of that character off-screen.
In February Orji, who is 33, spoke for TEDx about growing up religious and holding on to one of her religious teachings in particular: celibacy.
In her TED talk, Orji opens with an impression of her Nigerian father telling her “You cannot date until you get married.”
She discussed her planned rebellion as a teenager, deciding that she would date, and have sex, once she turned 18; “but just short of her 18th birthday, Orji said she was ‘bamboozled by Jesus.” She accepted Christ while at college in Washington, D.C., and is committed to remaining abstinent until marriage.”
In her talk she discussed the power of “the wait,” and the discipline it requires as well as how it “keeps the main thing, the main thing.”
She has discussed her decision in various interviews as well and being so public about her personal choice has, inevitably, led to backlash.
This debate is rife with complex implications. Some online seemed to find Orji immature for choosing sexual inexperience while others note that her decision and public discussion of it bring up what is known as the “Madonna-whore” or “virgin-whore” complex or dichotomy.
“In sexual politics the view of women as either Madonnas or whores limits women’s sexual expression, offering two mutually exclusive ways to construct sexual identity.”
While promoting virginity is problematic because of its patriarchal implications, shaming someone for personal decisions is also problematic because of its patronization.
Some internet commentators were quick to bring this up, as well, in the face of those shaming Orji: “I think we can let Yvonne Orji live her best virgin life and also discuss how virginity and chastity are constructs made up by men,” one tweeted.
Religiously mandated virginity is especially connected with patriarchal implications. “Since women were (and sometimes still are) considered property, when they got married, they were passed on to their husbands from their fathers.” This is the tradition behind the father walking the bride down the aisle and “giving her away.”
Because marriage was a trade—the husband gives the father a bunch of cows or whatever for his daughter—it became important that that commodity, the woman, was not “damaged” or “used” and therefore less valuable. “A woman’s sexual purity became very important because of this. Her virginity was seen as one of the most important things about her.”
In a capitalistic economy, where men own the property and pass it along to their offspring, virginity and sex only within the context of marriage was a way to ensure that the property-owning man was passing on that property to his legitimate heirs.
When Orji discusses her celibacy and even her more sexually active character, she doesn’t seem to shame those who are having sex or have had sex. Her discussion is very much about her personal decision and making her first experience special for herself and her partner. While the argument can be made that practice could help make it even more special, that’s not what she wants to do.
Just like shaming someone for being sexually explicit or active needs to be a no-no, shaming someone for making the opposite decision should be a no-no, too. Especially since she isn’t overtly using her personal decision to place herself on some pedestal of superiority over those who happen to have made different ones.
When Orji discusses the sex scenes she participates in, she praises BET for their safe sex campaign and talks about having to practice for certain elements she hasn’t experienced, like any other acting experience. The fact that she is willing to play a character who is sexually active shows that she does not condemn those who have made different decisions with their lives.
As long as she’s not preaching that all women should make sure they are shiny, perfect objects for their future husbands to exclusively enjoy, then it’s cool to let her decision be her decision. Speaking publicly about it is clearly important to her because it is a part of her identity, upbringing, and cultural connection; there are many people who likely gain a feeling of confidence, reassurance and belonging because someone like Orji is publicly willing to admit a decision that isn’t necessarily popular or modern-seeming in the industry she works in or oin mainstream internet and media communities. Telling her and those people relating to her that they can’t make the decision they’re making is almost just as bad as telling women they have to belong exclusively to one man. It’s fine, as the twitter user quoted above said, to acknowledge why the concepts are problematic without shaming her, or anyone, for making a conscious, cognizant decision for their own lives.