March 30, 2008
Students of Virginity
By RANDALL PATTERSON
There was a time when not having sex consumed a very small part of Janie Fredell’s life, but that, of course, was back in Colorado Springs. It seemed to Fredell that almost no one had sex in Colorado Springs. Her hometown was extremely conservative, and as a good Catholic girl, she was annoyed by all the fundamentalist Christians who would get in her face and demand, as she put it to me recently, “You have to think all of these things that we think.” They seemed not to know that she thought many of those things already. At her public high school, everyone, “literally everyone,” wore chastity rings, Fredell recalled, but she thought the practice ridiculous. Why was it necessary, she wondered, to signify you’re not doing something that nobody is doing?
And then Fredell arrived at Harvard. Sitting in a Cambridge restaurant not long ago, she told me that people back home called it “godless, liberal Harvard.” Some discouraged her from going, but Fredell went anyway, arriving in the fall of 2005. She wanted to study government, she said, maybe become a lawyer, and she knew that “people take you more seriously as a Harvard student.”
From the start, she told me, she was awed by the diversity of the place, by the intensity, by the constant buzz of ideas. There were so many different kinds of people at Harvard, most of them trying to change the world, and everyone trying to figure out what they thought of everyone else. “Harvard really puts pressure on you to define who you are,” Fredell said, and she loved everything about Harvard, except the sex.
Sex, as she put it, was not even “anything I’d ever thought about” when, as a freshman, she was educated in safe-sex practices. What she was told was the sort of thing found in a Harvard pamphlet called “Empowering You”: “put the condom on before the penis touches the vagina, mouth, or anus. . . . Use a new condom if you want to have sex again or if you want to have a different type of sex.”
Fredell began to understand she was in “a culture that says sex is totally O.K.” When a new boyfriend came to her, expressing desire, she managed to “stick to my guns,” she said, but there were “uncouth and socially inept” men, as she considered them, all around, and observing the rituals of her new classmates, Fredell couldn’t help being alarmed. “The hookup culture is so absolutely all-encompassing,” she said. “It’s shocking! It’s everywhere!”
She did nothing about it until her sophomore year. Then she began to read in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, about a new student group on campus — a band of celibates, men and women, calling themselves True Love Revolution. They were pushing, for reasons entirely secular, the cause of premarital sexual abstinence, and Fredell, by this time, was utterly committed to abstinence. She could hardly bear to see it ridiculed in The Crimson. An article about the group’s ice cream social appeared under the headline “Not Tonight, Honey, I Have a Brain Freeze.” A columnist who wrote about the group joked of getting “very, very aroused” just thinking about virgins and wondered if such people might be available for “dry humping.”
“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.”
After the essay appeared a year ago, Fredell was immediately aware of a loss of privacy, of having entered “whatever it is, the public sphere.” As students began responding on The Crimson Web site, she understood that she had defined herself at Harvard. “Everything became very clear to me,” she recalled when we met. She would join True Love Revolution. “I realized it was bigger than me, more important.”
UNTIL RECENTLY, organized efforts at abstinence have been mainly a high-school thing. Christy Gardner, an assistant professor at Wheaton College who is writing a book about evangelical sexual-abstinence programs, said that high-school chastity clubs took off in the early 1990s as evangelical Christians got fed up first with music videos, condom distributions, teen pregnancy and then with President Clinton’s dalliances. It seemed to them that a hypersexualized culture was instructing young people to have sex, Gardner says, and they created the clubs to push from the other direction. Millions of teenagers have since pledged to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, mainly on the grounds that premarital sex is sin.
At the same time, Congress and the Bush administration have directed hundreds of millions of dollars toward abstinence-only education in the public middle schools and high schools — classes that have been roundly criticized for blurring the line between science and religion. A 2004 report issued by Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, 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. Many states are now rejecting federal financing for such classes, on evidence that they fail to limit sexual behavior or reduce teen pregnancy.
In a follow-up study to a 1995 national survey of close to 12,000 students in grades 7 through 12, two sociologists, Peter Bearman at Columbia University and Hannah Brückner at Yale, found that while those who took virginity pledges preserved their technical virginity about 18 months longer than teenagers who didn’t pledge, they were six times more likely to engage in oral sex than virgins who hadn’t taken a pledge. They were also much less likely to use condoms during their first sexual experience or to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Disease rates between those who pledged and those who didn’t were actually similar. The authors, who published their findings in 2005, concluded that the emphasis on premarital abstinence was insufficient to fend off disease and “collides with the realities of adolescents’ and young adults’ lives.”
Many college students today, however, grew up with abstinence classes and clubs in their communities, and so the movement has raised a generation of activists. Among prominent abstinence activists is Wendy Shalit, who wrote “Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good,” which came out last year. She says that talk of disease rates and the amount of sexual activity on campuses is beside the point. A sex-saturated popular culture creates certain expectations, she argues. “The key thing to remember,” Shalit wrote me recently in an e-mail message, “is that many young people involved in sexual activity feel pressured into it.” Many are uncomfortable with “the hookup scene,” she continued, and “college abstinence programs are growing out of this awareness that disconnected sex is not as pleasurable as the media (and sometimes college administrators) have led us to believe.” The awareness is especially acute in the highly politicized environment of the elite schools, where, according to Shalit, “there is just one lifestyle that doesn’t get recognition” — premarital abstinence.
The Ivy League’s abstinence clubs began emerging several years ago about the same time as student sex blogs, sex columns and, at Harvard and Yale, student sex magazines. Those involved, however, say that the most important catalyst was university-sponsored safe-sex education, which they saw as institutional encouragement of promiscuity. The founders of the Princeton club, the first to form in the Ivy League in 2005, wanted to offer an opposing view. Many were Catholic, but seeking credibility within the university at large, they decided not to present themselves as a religious organization and always to “shy away from arguments with religious premises,” says Kevin Joyce, a former president of the club. “Here at a university, we have to provide the intellectual basis” for abstinence, he told me. “Every position we take as a group can be confirmed by rational thought.”
Making a rational case against premarital sex was easier before reliable contraception. But to shore things up, the club has turned to Catholic thinkers like Elizabeth Anscombe, the philosopher and student of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Anscombe’s arguments against premarital sex are as impressive as they are difficult to summarize, and the students so admired her logic, they named their society after her. Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, is one of the Anscombe Society’s informal faculty advisers. Himself a Catholic thinker, George says that society members employ “philosophical-ethical arguments” to support their belief that promiscuity “deeply compromises human dignity,” and psychological and sociological rationale to justify the claim that casual sex leads to “personal unhappiness and social harm.” The students are some of Princeton’s most gifted, George says, and “even people who don’t accept their conclusions recognize that the arguments being advanced by the Anscombe students are serious and cannot be easily dismissed.”
The Anscombe Society at Princeton went on to embrace positions not just against premarital sex but also against homosexual sex and marriage. Founders have tried to spread its method to other schools, and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were the first to follow with another Anscombe Society. Bill Jacobs, the president, says it’s a loosely organized group. “People tend to be pretty busy with homework,” he says.
The Harvard abstinence club came next, in 2006. “We wanted to take it in a completely different direction,” Justin Murray, one club founder, told me. Murray and other members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Association admired Princeton’s effort to fit into the “intellectual discourse of a top school” — but didn’t want to make people at Harvard “dig deep into the philosophical catacombs,” as he puts it, just to understand why they should keep their clothes on. Harvard students are more emotionally involved in their causes, he told me. They’re more about getting things done, “making people happier, better and making society more just.” Murray didn’t think Anscombe’s “excessively abstract” logic would appeal to his classmates; nor, he added, would the Anscombe Society’s position against gays. “We wanted to make abstinence look fun, interesting,” he said.
Murray and his girlfriend, Sarah Kinsella, decided that their club would focus on the issue “most immediately relevant” to people on campus — premarital sexual abstinence — and would try to persuade people toward it with arguments less philosophical than scientific. “Many people on our campus were deprived of information,” Murray told me, and so he says he went looking through peer-reviewed journals and government sources for research that supported the abstinence view.
“We found a huge body of scholarship that suggested conclusions that nobody on our campus was making,” he says. They posted the conclusions on their Web site — the belief that “ ‘safe sex’ is not safe”; that even the most effective methods of birth control can fail; that early sexual activity is strongly associated with all manner of terrible outcomes, from increased risk of depression to greater likelihood of marital infidelity, divorce and maternal poverty. Premarital abstinence, on the other hand, is held up by True Love Revolution as improving health, promoting better relationships and, best of all, enabling “better sex in your future marriage.”
Plenty of critics dispute at least some of these claims. Martha Kempner, a spokeswoman for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which promotes sex education, agrees that True Love Revolution performs a service in providing abstinent students a place to gather for support. “What is disturbing,” she says, “is that this club is using inaccurate information and distorted data to sell that message.” She strongly rejects suggestions that premarital sex leads to poverty, an inability to bond or to increased likelihood of divorce. “There’s no legitimate research that says premarital sex has all of these harmful consequences,” she says. “They’re completely baseless claims.”
A voluntary online survey showed that students at Harvard were less sexually active than undergraduates elsewhere, says Dr. David Rosenthal, director of University Health Services, which conducted the survey. But perceiving a sexualized culture, members of True Love Revolution went to war. The group did not require an abstinence pledge, nor concern itself with drawing specific boundaries. Its one stated purpose was to discourage premarital intercourse, but by declining to endorse gay marriage, the group left gays, just as Princeton did, with no option but to abstain forever. Since True Love Revolution did not condemn gay marriage, Murray hoped no one would feel “personally attacked.” “We just wanted it to be kind of humorous and lighthearted,” he said.
True Love Revolution was denounced, however, after its first big outreach effort, on Valentine’s Day 2007. Members had sent out cards to the women of the freshmen class that read: “Why wait? Because you’re worth it.” Some interpreted the card to mean that those who didn’t wait until marriage to have sex would somehow be worth less. One writer for The Crimson concluded that “by targeting women with their cards and didactic message, they perpetuate an age-old values system in which the worth of a young woman is measured by her virginity.”
Murray remembers that over the course of the year, 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. As he and Kinsella left for law and medical school, they were “very, very, very happy,” he said, when Fredell took the reins.
By the time I met her in December, Janie Fredell had grown used to explaining to strange men why she won’t have sex. Only 21 years old, she had spoken with a number of reporters and been on CNN. “It’s such an incredible thing to have the power to influence people for the better,” she told me over her oatmeal in the grand dining hall of Eliot House, and “so much easier being affiliated with Harvard.”
On campus, True Love Revolution was still struggling to establish itself. It had a Facebook presence of some 200 presumed celibates but an active core of only about a dozen, most of them Catholics. They brought in abstinence speakers, and held small discussions on topics like “true love — do you think it exists?” For Valentine’s Day this year, members sent out the same abstinence message — “Why wait? Because you’re worth it” — but this time to the men of the freshman class as well as the women. People continued to accuse Fredell of being antifeminist and propagating gender stereotypes, but she was determined that True Love Revolution would go on “until the end of Harvard.” To bolster herself, she often thought of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
“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.
One man who was committed to abstinence was her boyfriend. He wasn’t talking, but I had talked to Leo Keliher, the 20-year-old co-president of True Love Revolution, in another Cambridge restaurant.
Keliher was an earnest man in dark clothes, unwrinkled and untouched, with the face of a subdued boy. Quite openly, he explained that his father was sent to prison for child molestation and that Keliher’s mother later married an electrician who eventually left her for a woman 20 years younger. So it was not hard to understand Keliher’s point of view. “I just have a huge amount of frustration with guys,” he told me. “They need to know that so much hurt can come from the lack of respect for women.”
After the departure of his stepfather, Keliher said he began shoplifting and wasting his potential. Searching for an honorable role model for her son, Keliher’s mother enrolled him in a Christian youth group. That’s when the shoplifting abruptly ceased and he began focusing on his studies, he said, and learning how to “love women out of strength and not out of need.” By the time he got to Harvard on full financial aid, he had subverted an early plan for wealth and power into a calming dream of priesthood. The Catholic Student Association embraced him and Justin Murray took him aside and spoke to him of True Love Revolution. Thus Keliher was there, in the fall of 2006, for an early skirmish. By distributing fliers — “10 Reasons to Wait” — outside of a freshman safe-sex seminar, he instantly gained “a public image” for abstinence, he said, which has helped him to remain chaste ever since.
He proved a stalwart soldier of True Love Revolution that year, but at the end, Fredell was uncertain about working with him as co-president. It was important to her “that people perceive this message as secular,” she said, and Keliher was even “more hard-line Catholic” than she. Over time, though, even as he began considering the monastery, she could see that he was just as committed to the club’s secular appearance as he was to its mission.
The one great difference between them seemed to be in their experience of abstinence. Fredell was unaware of that gap. Whenever sexual urges struck, she told me, she was able to manage them by going on a long run and assumed that everyone should be able to do the same. “The biological drive can be overcome,” she said. “It’s not like it reaches a peak, and you have to go out and have sex.”
And you don’t go down the street thinking you’d like to have sex with him, him, him and him?” I asked.
“No!” she said, abruptly. “Is that what men do?”
It seemed a good time to talk with her about what else Keliher had told me. He described the act he has never experienced as something “breathtakingly powerful” that “lights all of your body on fire.” He spoke of his lust as “this untamed beast.”
Fredell was incredulous: “Leo said that?”
He told me that he struggles constantly against “physical lustful temptation” — that he can be aroused just by a woman’s touch, by even a look at a woman or at a photo or sometimes by “thoughts that just come out of the blue — basically pornography in my head.” They come to him when he’s merely walking around campus, or even when he’s alone in the library — “like a fly buzzing around.”
To the matter of masturbation, he said, “This was really tough for me . . . because when you have a habit that’s so deeply ingrained, it’s hard to stop.”
Fredell, when asked about masturbation, just said, “Oh, God, no!”
Keliher quoted to me what an abstinence speaker said — that the real meaning of masculinity is “being able to deny yourself for the sake of the woman.” “To have that kind of self-control is really what it means to be a man,” Keliher had told me. When he finds himself aroused these days, he endures it and waits for it to pass. In this way, he said he has “matured out of that more infantile need for a woman into a recognition of self-sufficiency.” But some women, Keliher granted, continue to give him trouble.
One of these is a freshman — “a very gentle, caring soul,” he said, who “works with little kids and stuff.” Keliher can’t help thinking about her glossy hair and beautiful skin.
Another appears to be Janie Fredell. Keliher smiled and said he was “a little bit” attracted to her — “in very superficial ways,” he added. “It’s something we laugh about — if we dated.”
But Fredell did not laugh. “No!” she erupted, and with increasing volume, “No! No! No! I can’t emphasize enough that there is nothing between me and Leo! It’s just that we’re not compatible in that regard.”
PERHAPS NO ONE at Harvard represents the hookup culture better than Lena Chen, a student sex blogger, and few True Love Revolution events have drawn as much attention as Fredell’s debate with her last fall.
The women themselves saw their encounter as a meeting of two feminist positions, roughly encapsulated by a headline that appeared on another sex blog: “Harvard’s Jezebel Takes On Campus Virgin Mary.”
Chen and Fredell described the event to me later, when I met them separately for lunch. Chen was a small Asian woman in a miniskirt and stilettos who ate every crumb of everything, including a ginger cake with cream-cheese frosting and raspberry compote. Fredell, when the dessert menu came, paused at the prospect of a “chocolate explosion,” said, “I may as well — I mean, carpe diem, right?” And then reconsidered — she really wasn’t that hungry.
Chen’s viewpoint, as she explained it to me, was not complicated. “For me, being a strong woman means not being ashamed that I like to have sex,” she said. And “to say that I have to care about every person I have sex with is an unreasonable expectation. It feels good! It feels good!”
The story Fredell told me was rather more involved. I caught her at a very interesting moment, she said. In making life decisions, she said she always tried to answer the question, How can I be happy in the future? and two internships had lately revealed that she might not be happy as a lawyer. Fredell was now considering a career in psychology, perhaps specializing in early childhood development. The hours were better, she thought, and would leave more time for the work she also wanted to do — that of a wife and mother.
“Finding true love for me is the point of life,” she said, and she went on to explain that sex would only complicate the pursuit. She began talking about oxytocin, the hormone released at birth, in breast-feeding and also during sex. 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. Fredell said oxytocin could also bond people who didn’t necessarily want to be bound, and “you can bond yourself to the wrong guy in the wrong situation.”
The True Love Revolution Web site warns that bonding hormones are released during any “sexual activity that culminates in an orgasm.” Fredell’s own relationships include a “physical component,” but she said it’s difficult to give “a set list of what’s O.K. and what’s not because there isn’t any.” She once told another reporter that oral sex, while “disgusting and disrespectful,” is not sex, but she now expresses clear approval only of kissing and hugging.
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.
There’s a chance that Fredell and her boyfriend will marry, but of course, she says, “it’s not for certain.” If they don’t, and she never finds true love, she says she believes she could spend her life alone. Fredell saw too many women compromise themselves in order to have a relationship. And she also saw those women when their men walked away. The Web site warned what happens then to the sexually active; that oxytocin, in such cases, can cause “a palpable sense of loss, betrayed trust and unwelcome memories. This is information that you will rarely hear from sexual-health groups,” because, the Web site says, “there is no condom for the heart.”
Fredell asked me, “Why bond yourself so intensely when you’re not sure you’re going to spend the rest of your life with this person?” She loved her boyfriend, she said, but “there’s nothing unbalanced or irrational about our relationship.” After her own breakups, she has always bounced right back and knows that if her boyfriend ever pushed her to a decision, she could walk away.
THE DEBATE between Fredell and Chen was described on Ivygate, a blog about Ivy League news and gossip. The blogger dutifully recorded that both women looked their parts — Fredell “modestly dressed in jeans” and Chen wearing “a miniskirt that left little to the imagination.” More than a hundred students crowded into a meeting room of Winthrop House, an undergraduate residence, and Fredell said that most of them just wanted “a huge cat fight.”
She and Chen had agreed beforehand, however, to focus on finding “common ground.” What they found, as Chen told me, was that both of them were “out there publicly declaring” who they are. They admitted that they were both, in their own ways, advertising sex appeal. The Crimson pointed out that “both have come under attack for their extreme attitudes toward sex,” and Fredell said they were able to bond over being attacked.
By underscoring their similarities and demonstrating mutual respect for each other, Fredell said she hoped to suggest to the audience that perhaps True Love Revolution was a friendly force at Harvard — and also deserving of a little respect. The Crimson, though, declared the whole event “boring!” and without open disagreement, the debate seems to have been resolved almost as a beauty contest. Two women sitting side by side, posing a silent question to the audience: which of us do you find more appealing?
Chen knew, as she told me later, that “the culture reacts differently when women make the same decisions men do.” Her own decisions were public knowledge, because she revealed them on her blog. Chen’s perspective on society, and Fredell’s, was borne out in the aftermath, as people wrote in to Ivygate, calling Lena Chen a “slut,” a “whore,” a “total whore,” a “whore whore slut.” And then someone by the screen name of Sex v. Marriage wrote in to say that “most guys out there would rather end up with a girl like Janie.”
Fredell was happy that the event had drawn a large crowd. She told me later that she considered it one of the revolution’s finest moments.
Randall Patterson, who lives in Houston, has written for New York magazine, Mother Jones and The Times Magazine.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company