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Shelby Knox Headshot

Abstinence is the New Feminism (And Other Things I Learned at Harvard)

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The chastity movement has grown up and gone off to college, which is no wonder, really, since legislators recently decided to focus attention and federal money on keeping unmarried adults abstaining until at least their 29th birthday. The members of Harvard's True Love Revolution, a campus chastity club, are the newest crusaders on the celibacy bandwagon.

While they do not require a purity pledge for entry, True Love Revolution's ideology is closely aligned with the abstinence-only programs that have brought us, just this year, higher teen birth rates and the scary statistic that one in four teen girls have a sexually transmitted infection. The premise of Harvard's True Love Revolution group is the popular myth that discussing and promoting both abstinence and safer sex methods is squarely contradictory, and they employ some of the same misinformation and scare tactics as high school abstinence-only teachers to get that message across - including casting doubt on the effectiveness of condoms and contraception and overstating or inventing the dramatic, horrible consequences of having sex.

When I opened the New York Times Sunday magazine to read about "College Students Who Opt Out of Sex" my six years in the sexual health movement and my prior stint as a ring wearing, pledge taking virgin gave me a pretty good idea of the modus operandi of these groups. But what I didn't expect was Janie Fredell, the young woman who has both John Paul II and John Stuart Mills' Subjugation of Women on her reading list, and who claims abstinence is her version of "the personal is political."

Janie and I seem to have a lot in common. We are both 21 years of age, study government and are iffy about law school, and are both from hotbeds of evangelical fervor - Janie from Colorado Springs, CO and myself from Lubbock, TX. We have both spent an inordinate amount of time during college talking to reporters about sex. And I walked away from the abstinence-only movement for the same reason Janie says she gravitated toward it - in a word, feminism.

Janie Fredell claims she abstains from sex because women "suffer from premarital sex due to a double standard which devalues women for their sexual pasts and glorifies men for theirs." While most feminists would agree that such a double standard exists, and that it is based on gendered stereotypes that cast women as either passive or promiscuous and men as unerringly overly sexual, where Janie and I part ways is in what we can do about it.

The decision to remain abstinent is no less valid, or feminist, than the decision to have responsible, consensual sex - and abstinence in itself is an effective method of prevention against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy. What confounds is that although Janie rails against the stereotypes and sexual double standards imposed upon women, she aligns herself with a movement that not only accepts but also relies upon those stereotypes to convince young people to join up. In doing so, she is refusing to challenge the social constructs that plague relations between and among the genders and is instead attacking the act of sex itself - a time-tested tactic that has proven both impractical and ineffective, to say the least.

Sex is inevitable, even for those of us who pledged otherwise, so it seems far more proactive to challenge outdated and harmful notions about each gender's relationship to sex, not necessarily with sexual activity, but by educating both men and women toward positive, healthy expressions of sexuality that neither subjugate nor deny the humanity of either partner. The last thing anyone, male or female, needs on a college campus is a rancorous and harmful debate about the merits of sex or no sex. Instead, someone needs to start an open and honest discussion about sexual health and responsibility that encompasses everything from abstinence to contraception and personal fulfillment and pleasure. Janie Fredell, are you there with me?