09 April 2008
Ivy League Abstinence Clubs
So, this is totally a paper I wrote for Psych of Gender, but I think it's relevant. Enjoy!
A recent issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine featured an article that I found a little disturbing, although not altogether surprising given the current administration’s anti-sex policies. According to Randall Patterson, virginity clubs are rising in popularity at Ivy League universities. His article, “Students of Virginity”, focuses primarily on True Love Revolution, Harvard’s own pro-abstinence organization. Lead by president Janie Fredell, these celibate men and women are “pushing, for reasons entirely secular, the cause of premarital sexual abstinence.” Fredell states that she is disgusted with the “hook up culture” saturating not only college campuses but also mainstream society at large. She describes the sentiments of the majority of her peers as “men pushing for sex, just to have something to say in the locker room, [and] women feeling pressured to have sex in order to maintain a relationship.” Although Fredell believes that all women should abstain until marriage, she argues that her position is a feminist one. She believes that men use sex to control women and their bodies:
“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. . .
[Fredell] 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.
In other words, Fredell is describing the cultural double standard that encourages sexual promiscuity in men, yet discourages it in women. Too many people still believe in the age-old virgin-whore dichotomy when it comes to sexually active women. Yet Fredell chooses to reinforce said dichotomy, rather than fighting the stereotypes that feed it.
Fredell traces the difference in male and female sexual behavior to psychological make-up. More specifically, they point to a greater presence in women of oxitocin, the hormone released during both sex and breast-feeding. According to Patterson:
True Love Revolution gives it the utmost significance, claiming on its Web site that the hormone’s “powerful bonding” effect can be “a cause of joy and marital harmony” but that outside of marriage it can create “serious problems.” Released arbitrarily, it can blur “the distinction between infatuation and lasting love,” the Web site cautions, making rational mating decisions difficult.
As I mentioned briefly, I am disturbed by Janie Fredell’s insistence on reinforcing the virgin-whore dichotomy. Mustn’t there be a healthy middle ground? I refuse to believe that the issue of women’s sexuality is so strictly black or white. I first read about “Students of Virginity” on Feministing.com, a feminist news blog. In response to this story, blogger Jessica Valenti, who identifies the “abstinence-only, modesty, chastity, or whatever they're calling it at the moment” movement as “bad for women”, has what I believe to be a healthier view. In a blog post entitled “Ivy League Hymens: Why Glorifying Virginity is Bad for Women”, Valenti states: “isn't the problem the double standard - not the sex? If we don't like that women ‘suffer’ from sexual double standards, how is not having sex fighting back?”
Wanting to hear more about Valenti’s ideas concerning how women can have a healthy sex life without glorifying their virginity, I turned to her book Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters. I found that Fredell and Valenti agree on how the current climate regarding sex can enable men in controlling women’s bodies: “We’re all trapped by the limiting version of sexuality that’s put out there- a sexuality that caters almost exclusively to men” (Valenti 42). The founding mother of Feministing.com, Valenti has a masters degree in women’s and gender studies from Rutgers University and has worked with both global and national women’s organizations, including NARAL Pro-Choice America. As a reproductive rights activist, Valenti works to promote safer sex practices, as well as a more empowered female sexuality than the restrictive one demanded by Janie Fredell.
In her book, Valenti also sufficiently describes how the old negative double standard affects the modern women. “If we don’t approve of the porn culture that tells us our only value is in our ability to be sexy, we’re prudes. If we accept it and embrace it, we’re sluts” (Valenti 43). However, Valenti fails to describe what a healthier middle ground would look like. Yet where she falters, journalist Ariel Levy steps in.
In her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Levy critiques “the new brand of ‘empowered woman’ who. . . embraces raunch culture wherever she finds it.” Simply put, today’s sexually ‘empowered women’ makes a sex object out herself and other women. This is what Janie Fredell and True Love Revolution describe as “hook-up culture.” Yet Levy manages to have an empowered sex life without abstaining:
If we are really going to be sexually liberated, we need to make room for a desire of options as wide as the variety of human desire. We need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture holds up to us as sexy. . .
If we believed that we were sexy and funny and competent and smart, we would not need to be like strippers or like men or like anyone other than our own specific, individual selves. That won’t be easy, but ultimately it would be no more difficult than the kind of contortions FCPs are constantly performing. . . More importantly, the rewards would be the very things Female Chauvinist Pigs want so desperately, the things women deserve: freedom and power (Levy 200).
Levy argues that it is quite possible to have a healthy, empowered sex life without buying into popular culture’s message of what it means to be sexual. Women can “assert control over their own bodies” without giving up all forms of sexual pleasure. In doing so, we are tearing down the socially constructed norms that allow women to be routinely subordinated in relationships. Valenti asks “if we don't like that women ‘suffer’ from sexual double standards, how is not having sex fighting back?” and here Levy provides an eloquent answer.
So now we know how contemporary feminists respond to Fredell’s assertion that abstinence (and she does mean abstinence from all forms of sexual activity- when asked if she masturbated, Fredell replied “Oh, God, no!”) is the only path to sexual empowerment for women, I would like to scientifically address some of True Love Revolution’s beliefs. I simply do not believe that a majority of men see sexual activity as nothing more than “something to talk about in the locker room.” Similarly, I refuse to believe that a significant percentage of sexually active women engage in the behavior only because they feel pressured to maintain a relationship. In order to find data on how today’s young men and women feel about their sexuality, I turned to the book Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America (Strong, DeVault, Sayad, and Yarber, 2005). After doing some more research, I found that men and women are not as different in their sexual attitudes and behaviors as Fredell asserts.
According to Strong et. al., the moral standard of non-marital sexuality held by the majority of today’s students is known as “permissiveness with affection,” which “describes sex between [partners] who have a stable, loving relationship” (Strong 191). In other words, most college-age adults do not buy into the “hook-up” culture that Fredell believes is plaguing our campuses. They do have premarital sex, but tend to do so in the form of serial monogamy. According to research conducted by the authors, “Americans are largely exclusive.” The median number of sex partners for men and women since age eighteen is not very high, with six for men and two for women. Men do have a slightly larger lifetime median; perhaps this is simply because women still internalize the cultural message that it is not alright for women to assert their sexuality. Regardless of the reason, the difference itself is not very significant (Strong 191).
Strong et. al., also explore the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a survey of 13,601 high school students conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Pervention. The 2001 YRBS shed an interesting light on Fredell’s beliefs regarding the prevalence of hook-up culture. “Forty-six percent of students (forty-three percent of females and forty-nine percent of males) reported having had sexual intercourse during their lifetime,” yet only “fourteen percent of students (eleven percent of females and seventeen percent of males) report having had sexual intercourse with four or more partners during their lifetime” (Strong 57). While we do not know for sure how many of these teens were having sex within a relationship, we do know that most of them are being a little more discerning regarding partner selection. The statistical differences between male and female behaviors are not very high- never more than six percent, in the cases referenced.
The data gathered from Human Sexuality demonstrated that men and women may not be as different as Fredell suggested. Jessica Valenti and Ariel Levy argued that it is possible for women to find a healthy middle ground somewhere between the virgin-whore dichotomy. As a sexually active adult female, I believe that I myself fit this healthier middle ground. I share Fredell’s disgust over the hook-up culture that some of my peers perpetuate. However, I have still managed to have a healthy sex life. Since losing my virginity at age eighteen, I have had only a small number of partners (four). I’ve made informed choices about practicing safer sex, always using at least two forms of birth control and getting tested for infections regularly. I am also discerning about whom I sleep with; I have never randomly “hooked-up” or had a one night stand. I have only had sex within the confines of a stable, loving relationship (aka permissiveness with affection). I have never given into a partner’s sexual demands because I “felt pressured to save the relationship.” In fact, I have never felt pressured by a partner to have sex. Fredell’s assertion of the values driving men and women is grossly over simplified. It is quite possible for women- and men- to have a healthy, empowered sex life without giving up sexual activity altogether; I myself have been living proof for the last four years. I am not trying to say that my experiences are true for everyone. Rather, it would be impossible to find one prescription that fits for everybody. As Levy said, “we need to make room for a desire of options as wide as the variety of human desire. We need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex.” We are not automatically whores if we choose not to stay virgins. Both men and women need room to explore in order to determine their own healthy, empowered sexuality.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Free Press. New York, NY 2005.
Patterson, Randall. “Students of Virginity” New York Times Sunday Magazine. 30 March, 2008.
Strong, Brian, Christine DeVault, Barbara W. Sayad, and William J. Yarber. Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America. McGraw-Hill. New York, Ny 2005.
Valenti, Jessica. Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters. Seal Press. California, 2007.