Earlier this week, a young female blogger who is an undergrad at Harvard — and who used to blog about her sex life — put together a one-day conference about current sexual practices. Called "Rethinking Virginity," it consisted of panels on topics like "The Feminist Response to Slut-Shaming and Scare Tactics" and "Toward a Sex-Positive View of Abstinence." A Slate staffer who attended the gathering responded by writing a piece called "Why Is a Former Sex Blogger 'Rethinking Virginity?': Sex-positive young women reconsider abstinence." Her piece ends with a discussion of the abstinence panel. During it, she notes, "The panelists all concurred that abstinence should be taught to high schoolers as part of an arsenal of ways to prevent pregnancy and STDs." Then she says: "That abstinence was even being considered as a solution to the young adult sexual minefield is a surprisingly conservative shift."
But is solution the right word? She herself said abstinence was "part of an arsenal" of approaches — not THE solution but one part of it.
Now, it's been a long time since I've been an under-under-grad — and I went to a Catholic all-girls school where sex was not discussed at all by our nun teachers because they assumed we were all being abstinent — so I don't know what's going on in high school these days. But I agree with at least one of the panelists, Therese Shechter, who wrote in to Slate to voice her displeasure with the article, and to emphasize that abstinence should be presented to high school kids as one of many options. Shechter, a filmmaker who is working on a documentary about attitudes toward virginity in the 21st century, commented thusly:
"As a panelist both on the 'Slut-Shaming' and 'Sex-Positive Abstinence' panel, I was one of the most vocal in asking for a nonjudgmental safe space for people who had not yet become sexually active. ... My work on [my] film ... brings me into contact with people in their 20s and older who are not yet sexually active, either because they don't feel ready or because they haven't met the right partner. Many feel uncomfortable and even ashamed of their status ... .[But] being abstinent is merely one choice to honor among many, and it certainly won't prevent you from having unhealthy relationships or broken hearts. In fact, I spoke out against the pseudo-scientific scare tactics of the abstinence-until-marriage movement who warn that premarital sex will harm you and keep you from forming lasting bonds. That's the kind of BS we can do without and why we devoted an entire panel to finding a way to discuss abstinence divorced from its current moralistic and shaming associations. Finally, one of the most important takeaways of the conference, in my opinion, was the message that PEOPLE SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO WHATEVER THEY WANT SEXUALLY, FREE FROM JUDGMENT AND SHAME, AS LONG AS THERE IS MUTUAL CONSENT AND APPROPRIATE SAFER SEX PRACTICES." (Emphasis mine)
I am, for the most part, with Ms. Shechter here. People should be able to do whatever they want sexually, without judgment and shame, as long as there is mutual consent and the people involved are doing everything within reason to protect themselves and each other from harm. If they want to abstain, that's cool too — although I'm not sure that having a home ec teacher say abstinence is just fine will take away any of the shame or weirdness abstainers might feel.
The one part of Ms. Shechter's note that gives me pause is the part about people older than their 20s who are not yet sexually active. Is being a virgin at, say, 30 psychologically healthy? It's one thing to wait until you feel absolute trust in and comfort with a partner — you'll get no argument from me if you do that. But as someone who waited till I was 28 to have sex, I do wonder if abstinence AFTER A POINT (or a certain age) actually turns into (or is a reflection of) something like a mental illness — one that psychologists call sexual anorexia.I now think my "choice" to wait that long was, in all honesty, a result of how psychologically damaged I was after a deeply unhappy childhood, full of the disappearances (and psychological illnesses) of parental figures. I was so terrified of needing anyone else to help me do anything — even simply needing someone to have sex, I guess — that I put this huge barrier in place.
All this leaves a lot of questions for you nice people to respond to.
(1) Do you think abstinence should be taught in high school, as ONE option to consider?
(2) Do you think if kids are taught about abstinence, they should also be learning about sexual anorexia?
(3) Do you think many kids of today — in high school and college — feel ashamed or weird about it if they are "still" virgins at a point when most of their friends aren't? Or do you think the bigger problem is that adults are trying to push abstinence down kids' necks — when they'd be better off letting kids know they should feel free to talk about their sexual fears and conundrums?
(4) Do you think even adults in these post-Sex and the City days often feel sexually inadequate — thanks to all the oversharing (and perhaps misrepresenting) about sex that goes on in the blogosphere and elsewhere? If so, how do we respond to or address that?
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