Sex and sensibility: Why abstinence is the wrong focus
By Stephen Lapointe / February 14, 2008
Waiting is devotion. And devotion is love.
Canned spinach or chocolate cake? That’s how singles today are made to see the choice between premarital sexual abstinence and conventional sexualized dating. Popular culture screams: “Take the cake.” Abstinence advocates preach: “Eat your vegetables.”
But it is a false choice.
Premarital sex is the stale, half-eaten Twinkie. It too often goes hand in hand with much unhappiness: emotional distress, lackluster school performance, diverted dreams, career stagnation, and misguided marriage choices.
But when you’re head over heels in love, something called “abstinence” doesn’t exactly make the heart sing. I’ll pass on the canned spinach, thank you. Is that the only vegetable you have today? What about those perfectly sweet heirloom tomatoes?
There is a third way, however, one that bypasses the Hollywood illusions and the finger-wagging didactics. That way involves replacing the concept of sexual abstinence with the more positive vision of innocent courtship.
The term “abstinence” actually puts the focus on sex as this alluringly forbidden object. It would have young couples spend as much time thinking about what they won’t do on a date, as on what they will do. When interpreted literally, it leaves room for sexual practices that are inconsistent with the spirit of purity. Is it any wonder then that, focusing on abstinence, the result is often frustration, boredom, or guilt?
These are the distortions that make abstinence such an easy target for the entertainment media. Virginity is a curse, an object of ridicule, as in the 2005 movie “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Abstinence, if it ever comes up, is the position of cardboard stiffs, such as the religious broadcaster named James on the BBC comedy “Coupling.” And abstinence education may unwittingly prop up those stereotypes by teaching singles that abstinence is a cross they can be helped to bear.
But chaste romance needn’t be seen as an exercise in self-denial. No, a focus on what really constitutes true love should leave singles free to explore the sweetness and satisfaction of courtship based on innocent affection. Then the boundaries in physical relationships get drawn less with pent-up frustration and more with grace and lightness of heart. This progressive type of courtship strengthens each partner’s life purpose and enables informed decisionmaking about marriage compatibility.
There is evidence that singles are craving the delight of such innocent courtship. Consider the tremendous public interest in Jane Austen, as evidenced by the frequent adaptations of her novels for film and television. Think about the love between Anne and Frederick in Persuasion. Is there any room for sensuality in the sweetness and steadfastness represented in that courtship? Are Jane Austen’s stories not a beacon for the many singles who are seeking a new model for relationships, courtship, and marriage?
These stories teach their own lessons about premarital sexual abstinence, without ever using such terms or engaging in any didactics. Certainly there are aspects of Jane Austen’s world not worth reviving, such as the rigid class and gender roles. But the lasting lessons of the courtship experiences represented in her stories offer a new-old courtship model, one that today’s teens and singles are ready to embrace. Some young visionaries have already posted their favorite Darcy/Elizabeth moments from “Pride and Prejudice” on YouTube. Are you watching?
Today, few of us will find ourselves galloping off to Bath to court the love of our life, as Frederick eventually does in “Persuasion.” But when Frederick finally pours out his heart to Anne, after more than eight years of constancy, the feelings race at light speed through the centuries.
I’ve been there, Frederick. All who’ve rediscovered such passionate purity have been there. Its story is written in the lives of so many couples in today’s resurgent courtship movement. Perhaps after a cozy night baking cookies while sharing our inmost thoughts, or after a cold night serving together in a local soup kitchen. Lingering on an apartment doorstep, we smile at the surprising sweetness of saying good night when it’s hard to say good night. We find our joy together in the here and now. And we see that waiting is not about canned spinach. Waiting is devotion. And devotion is love.
Old-fashioned love can still thrive in this newfangled world. Heartfelt courtship, with all its delight and devotion, is a feast from which no one need abstain.
Historically, there has been a swing from the sexually free end of the Industrial Revolution to the chaste values of the early Victorian period. This was then followed by a new puritanism from the late Victorian era to the mid-1900s. This important transformation often colors discussion of sexual behavior in the later 20th century. World War I began a return to sexual freedom and indulgence, but more often than not, the appearance of conforming to the earlier moral values of abstinence before marriage was retained. With the conclusion of World War II, the societal importance of abstinence declined swiftly. The advent of the first oral contraceptive pill and widely available antibiotics suppressed many consequences of wide and free sexual behavior, while social morals were also changing. By the 1970s, abandonment of premarital chastity was no longer taboo in the majority of western societies; perhaps even the reverse: that members of both sexes would have experienced a number of sexual partners before marriage was considered normal. Some cultural groups continued to place a value on the moral purity of an abstainer, but abstinence was caught up in a wider reevaluation of moral values.
How to Practice Abstinence
1. Stay focused. See the big picture of your life. Don’t tell yourself you are just living for the day, but at the same time take it day by day. Plan your life, have dreams and set goals. Those goals will be your motivation. Focus on your future. Taking casual sex risks can detour you from your intended destination. Stay focused.
2. Choose your friends wisely. Always make sure that you are around people that share the same values as you do. It will only slow you down if you hang around people who are engaging in things you are trying to avoid. If you are going to date, do it in a group; this will protect you from unnecessary pressure and ideas to get physical. Peer pressure is VERY real. Without even realizing it, the people around us influence the choices we make.
3. Remind yourself of the advantages you have. Having sex exposes you to a lot of risks that you would not otherwise have faced. You do not want to be a teen dropping out of school and having a baby, or with an STD. Some teens also experience intense regret which may led to depression and increase the risk of suicide. Sex has physical, psychological, emotional and social implications. There are over 25 STD’s today, and many of them have symptoms which do not show all the time. You do not know who has what. By practicing abstinence, you are not at risk for hardly any of these!
4. Don’t tempt yourself. Getting into situations where you can just go a “little bit” farther can lead to too much. It depends on your independent and combined willpower and ability to resist, but a general good rule is to not be alone for extended periods of time, or have a set time when you have to be back home so you can’t detour.
5. Be proud. Love your purity! Some see purity as a beautiful thing and many books will tell you so. Read books that idolize purity and treasure it, such as Les Miserables.
6. Be Healthy. Remember that even though you are not having sex with others, men still need to release semen once in a while due to buildup. Imagine if you decided to stop going to the restroom, there will be a ton of backup, and it will come out at some point whether you like it or not. If you don’t release it, you will have nocturnal emissions (wet dreams). Remember that although abstinence is a perfectly acceptable and wise decision for someone to make, you still need to be aware that if sperm isn’t released, nocturnal emissions will occur about once a month. Do not be alarmed, it is perfectly normal to have wet dreams. Nothing more needs to be done.
7. Have reasons. Reasons are very important, but the fact that you don’t want to have sex should be enough for your partner. Wanting to save yourself for marriage and risks such as pregnancy and STDs are two very common reasons for not wanting to have sex. Don’t simply say “because I said so”, as this can be easily deconstructed by a partner who wants you.
8. If your partner can respect your wishes, the relationship can continue. However, if your partner doesn’t respect your wishes, it may be best to find a new partner that does. (And you will find one, don’t worry).
NB: Flirting helps a marriage. Betrayal ruins it. ‘Cause to me, having sex with someone it is considered to be the ultimate intimacy two people can possibly reach. In no other situation, you can achieve that level of confidence. Except, making love. So therefor, sex IS serious! Not a sport and definitely, not a therapy.