Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Abstinence at Harvard

Today’s New York Times Magazine had an interesting article entitled “Students of Virginity”. The dankprofessor found the headline to be a misnomer since I thought the article would deal with persons who study virginity, but my professorial instinct was wrong since the article dealt with college students who had made a commitment to remain abstinent until marriage. But at the risk of being too severe on the NY Times, the article was not really about students or college students involvement in the abstinence movement; rather it was primarily about Harvard students who had made an abstinence commitment, or at least a couple of Harvard students who had made such a commitment.

OK, enough for the caveats.The article focused on Harvard student Janie Fredell and how she made a transition from conservative Colorado Springs to Cambridge; how she made the transition form a culture of chastity to a culture of free sexuality.

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.”

Of course, the name of the abstinence group, True Love Revolution, is somewhat presumptuous. Sex and love can be separate, but to presume that sex trumps true love would appear to me to represent fringe thinking. The article indicated that the group did 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.””

What other interpretation of this outreach slogan could be given other than preserving virginity was equivalent to preserving ones worth?

Within a short period of time Fredell became Harvard’s most public student in advocacy of abstinence. Such did not represent any easy task since Harvard did not represent an abstinence friendly environment. Friedell saw her situation in these terms-

“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.”

The Times goes into depth with Fredell in terms of her difficulties relating to others in the context of her abstinence commitment, including the difficulties in relating to her boyfriend who had made the same commitment.

To provide a sexual balance for the Harvard scene, the Times interviewed Harvard student Lena Chen who has come to be seen as representing sexual freedom via her blogging. The Times reported-

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!”

Ultimately, Chen and Fredell come together in dramatic form in a debate on sexual freedom vs. sexual abstinence-

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.

What ended up happy was not so happy for Chen. For both women, becoming a public figure in terms of sexual issues was no easy task. But, I gather to Chen’s surprise, her openness in regards to her sexuality was dealt with by many with hostility and sexual name calling. The after effects of the debate led to Chen putting her blog on suspension. However, Lena did do a blog entry today describing how she has been coping with her public notoriety and her reaction to the NY Times piece. I urge dankprofessor blog readers to read Lena’s most recent blog entry. As for the part of her post on the NY Times article, here it is-

Another thing: I have a slight bone to pick with the New York Times for their description of me as a “small Asian woman in a miniskirt and stilettos”. For starters, I was wearing a Cynthia Rowley dress that day and those who know the designer would agree that she hardly makes anything that could be mistaken for a miniskirt. My heels were also far less precarious and more conservative than stilettos (I remember because it was raining and even I wouldn’t have attempted such ambitious footwear on Cambridge’s brick-lined roads). Also, was it really relevant to add “Asian” to the description when my ethnic background had no bearing on the story and my last name already made it evident? And “small”? Really? Is it necessary to couple that with “Asian”? Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but the whole eight-word description makes me cringe. It reduces me to a New England dragon lady, which is totally inaccurate from the truth but totally suitable for the purposes of portraying me as Janie Fredell’s polar opposite. Maybe that works for the Times‘ purposes but one-dimensional characters don’t make up real life.

The dankprofessor loves Lena’s last line. Yes, one-dimensional characters don’t make up real life, but they do generally populate news life, or if you will, public life. Of course, many of us feed off one-dimensionality. How can we change our complex selves so we eagerly reject one-dimensionality and eagerly embrace multi-dimensionality? One place we can look for multi-dimensionality, might be on Lena’s sexandtheivy blog. Hopefully her post today will not be her last post.

—–
If you wish, you can write to me directly at dankprofessor@msn.com
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration
to the same email address.

Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessorTM
© Copyright 2008

March 30, 2008 Posted by | abstinence, dating, ethics, Harvard University, higher education, love, sex, sexual politics | Leave a comment

   

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