“Students of Virginity”

In last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, there’s an interesting feature story on a new movement among students on Ivy League university campuses to embrace chastity. It highlights in particular an abstinence club at Harvard called True Love Revolution. Now, not at all surprisingly, the story has some flaws. At one point, for example, the author, Randall Patterson, mentions the 2004 Waxman Report, which, he states, “found that 11 of 13 abstinence curriculums that his government-reform committee examined were rife with scientific errors and false and misleading information about the risks of sexual activity”. He says nothing further about the Waxman Report—and he certainly doesn’t refer to its thorough critiques, which show that the Waxman Report itself is full of errors and false and misleading information. On the whole, though, the article is quite good, and portrays the courageous students who are boldly proclaiming the value of chastity in a favorable light. The article focuses a great deal on one member of True Love Revolution, Janie Fredell, who has a gift for articulating a range of arguments for why living chastely is a common sense lifestyle choice:

“It’s an odd thing to see one’s lifestyle essentially attacked in The Crimson,” Fredell said. She began to feel a need to stand up for her beliefs, and what she believed in more than anything at Harvard was the value of not having premarital sex. In an essay she wrote for The Crimson, she asserted that “virginity is extremely alluring,” though its “mysterious allure . . . is not rooted in an image of innocence and purity, but rather in the notion of strength.” As she told me later, “It takes a strong woman to be abstinent, and that’s the sort of woman I want to be.”

During the club’s first year, they made a lot of enemies:

…True Love Revolution was also assailed as “ridiculous, bogus, probably judgmental, almost certainly backward and putting forth bad, irrational, pointless arguments that didn’t belong in a university culture.” It was a long year.

But they definitely didn’t give up:

“People just don’t get it,” Fredell said. “Everyone thinks we’re trying to promote this idea of the meek little virgin female.” She said she was doing no such thing. “I care deeply for women’s rights,” she said. Fredell was studying not just religion but also gender politics — and was reading Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” alongside John Stuart Mill’s “Subjection of Women.” She had awakened to the wage gap, to forced sterilization and female genital mutilation — to the different ways that men have, she said, of controlling women. One of these was sexual. Fredell had seen it often in her own life — men pushing for sex, she said, just to “have something to say in the locker room,” women feeling pressured to have sex in order to maintain a relationship. The more she studied and learned, the more Fredell came to realize that women suffer from having premarital sex, “due to a cultural double standard,” she said, “which devalues women for their sexual pasts and glorifies men for theirs.” She said she read in Mill that women are subordinated in relationships as a result of “socially constructed norms.” If men are commonly more promiscuous than women, it is only because the culture allows it, she said. Fredell was here to turn society around. “It’s extremely countercultural,” she said, for a woman to assert control over her own body. It is, in fact, a feminist notion. Conventional feminism, she explained, teaches that control of your body means the freedom to have sex without consequences — sex like a man. “I am an unconventional feminist,” Fredell said, in the sense that she asserts control by choosing not to have sex — by telling men, no, absolutely not. While Fredell framed her own abstinence in a feminist perspective, she was careful to say that women were not the only ones to benefit. “It’s not all about protecting women,” she said. “It’s about protecting people.” To prove her point, she said the membership of True Love Revolution was equally divided between women and men.

Fredell also beautifully explained how chastity is freeing:

Her girlfriends are surprised that she can maintain a relationship without having sex, she said, but her boyfriend, at Georgetown, “knew from the get-go what he was getting into.” Fredell does not make sexual demands of him nor does he make demands of her. “So I’m free!” she said. “I’m free to experience the emotional and intellectual and spiritual intimacy of another person.” By closing herself off to sex, she claims to have found the humanity in her boyfriend and to have opened herself to an experience of love. “I’ll share this with you,” Fredell confided. “He said conversations with me were more enjoyable than sex would be with anyone else.” Every woman, she said, should have this “incredibly moving experience” of being appreciated for who she really is.

Read the whole thing here.

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