Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Of virgins and vixens [and those of us in between]

The New York Times Magazine picked up something downright fascinating going on at Harvard, and to some extent, dorm rooms across the country. March 30, the Magazine ran a story on Harvard's abstinence club True Love Revolution and what seems to be its polar opposite, the infamous blog chronicling the sexploits of Lena Chen a rising Harvard senior.

According to the article [read it here] True Love Revolution, started in 2006, and its former co-presidents Janie Fredell and Leo Keliher are all about abstinence because "they're worth the wait." They believe that abstaining from premarital sex will make their marriages stronger, will save them from the confusion that sex causes, and keep them from worrying about STDs and pregnancy. Both Fredell and Keliher are Catholics, (Keliher is planning to become a priest), though True Love Revolution [TRL] presents itself as a secular group. And while the group professes not to outline what does and doesn't constitute abstinence--always a sticky situation, pun intended--it points to the danger of that sneaky chemical in the brain oxytocin released during orgasm and breastfeeding that causes bonding.

On the other side you have Lena Chen and her blog [Sex and the Ivy]. The wildly popular--and reviled--blog gives details of Chen's adventures that would make even Anais Nin blush and all the armchair philosophy that comes with them. It's raunchy, entertaining, and it made Chen "famous on the Internet for all the wrong reasons." She then started a new blog called The Chicktionary to take a break from the sex-soaked stories that got her attention she didn't want.

I read both the article in the Times Magazine and the one in The Improper Bostonian that takes another look at TLR and it really hit home, and not because I'm patiently waiting for my Prince Charming to pluck my virginal flower. Let me start here so you know where I'm coming: I am not a virgin, and I'm OK with that. I had sex for the first time in the context of a loving, healthy, monogamous relationship with 11 months of dating and 4 years of friendship under my belt, HIV testing, three months of birth control pills, and one brand-spanking new Trojan condom. The relationship ended 8 months after we first had sex and while it was tough breakup, I'm. Just. Fine.

But TLR would have us believe that I'm not fine and that's the biggest problem here: TLR and Fredell's comments in the Time article make it seem as though if you've had sex you're scarred and you're doomed to an unhappy marriage, during which you our your spouse will probably cheat. The abstinence club and Fredell's part in it comes from her arriving at Harvard and being immersed in "the hookup culture", where people take more people to bed than they take credits per semester. No one can deny that that's true, especially in high school and college, but abstinence as a reaction to the hookup is a bit extreme, especially when there's a happy medium. It's insulting for Fredell to imply that people who have premarital sex are victims--victims at the mercy of their overactive hormones heading straight for unhappy relationships. And if you're not a victim, you're a drone caught up in the casual hook up machine. No matter what, the group seems to say, if you've had sex, you're lessening your value. She seems to believe that a deep emotional connection is necessarily hindered by sexual contact but I disagree on two levels. First, I've had a really interesting conversation about God immediately after fooling around with my current boyfriend, which is the emotional and physical thing coming together very clearly. Plus, as a person in a long-term relationship herself, it seems Fredell should have acknowledged that there's a whole mess of stuff that can go wrong with a relationship besides sex, though admittedly sex does change everything and sometimes for the worse.

Citing oxytocin again, Fredell drew on her own personal experience to say that she bounced right back from breakups, thanks to keeping her goodies under lock and key. It seems, though, that if you were really invested in a relationship it would hurt like hell if it ended. Here we get another point in favor of smart premarital sex: we have about 80 years of life, and in that time most people will love more than one person in more than one way. It does the relationship a huge disservice not to fully explore it and yes, sex is part of that exploration. If I love a person and feel he loves me too, I see no reason not to have sex with him, and even if the relationship ends, you choose carefully so as to not have regrets later on.

Also, Fredell sees sex only in the context of marriage as something that brings sexuality full-circle, but what self-professed feminist ties her definition of sexuality--a part of her identity--to a single person? Doesn't this rely on the archaic Disney Princess version of sex? How do you define yourself by going based on one person? It's really difficult to know all about yourself as a sexual being with just one person. And for someone like Janie here who does not so much as masturbate, I find it damn hard to believe that on her honeymoon she's going to strike orgasmic gold. Healthy attitudes toward sex aren't something that can be turned on and off. And let's not forget that the high *value* of virginity til marriage comes from a time when marriages were essentially financial agreements and the best contraception and paternity test were scaring women shitless about being considered whores so men knew for sure their wives' children were theirs. In this new age where we generally marry for love, we owe it to ourselves to do everything we can to make sure we pick the right partner.

Fredell says that when she feels the need to do something sexual she goes for a long run. This is her way of asserting her power and self-respect. Her randy runs go hand in hand with TRLs belief that abstinence is the way to go to showing self-respect when it comes to sex and that seems a little one-sided. Yes, feeling confident enough to tell a partner what will and won't fly and stick to it is something that everyone should know how to do, even if they don't plan to wait to say "I do" before they do the do. We should all know our boundaries. But self-respect can certainly be manifested in having complete control over when, where, and to whom you decide to have sex with.

This isn't to say Lena Chen and people in her camp have all the answers, either. Sex and the Ivy talks about some activities that are making public health officials everywhere nervous. And while the hookup culture is really pervasive, I think it's only a matter of time before people realize that more than anything it makes them miserable. I've heard from guys and girls alike that casual sex 1) isn't casual and 2) can be awkward at best and terrible when it gets down to it.

Bottom line is abstinence can work for a time but it's somewhat unrealistic that everyone's going to make it to the marriage bed, maidenhead intact, whether they say they will or not. Abstinence pledges have been shown to prolong first-time sexual intercourse for about only 18 months, and when those people do have sex they often feel really ashamed. And though the TLR website wants to warn us that contraceptives and birth control aren't what they've cracked up to be for our bodies or minds, the best barrier method against herpes and heartache is accurate information and good judgment.

Responses from Times readers about the article

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