Virginity: The new feminism?

Abstinence advocates are swapping religious rhetoric for feminist arguments.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
April 1, 2008 4:15AM (UTC)
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Thank you, New York Times Magazine, for once again making my brain bleed during an otherwise serene Sunday brunch reading the newspaper. The offending article introduced me to a crew of abstinence advocates who have found that preaching to their sullied sisters about the preciousness of their long lost virginity doesn't effectively inspire cross-legged sexual gatekeeping. So, reading from their modesty magic book, college-age abstinence enthusiasts are attempting a religious sleight of hand and special incantation -- "abracadabra, make feminism appear!" If executed properly, their moral disapproval -- poof! -- disappears before our eyes, replaced by earnest concern about young women's empowerment.

The article focuses on two Ivy League student abstinence groups: Princeton's predominantly Catholic Anscombe Society and Harvard's True Love Revolution. Both groups have sought "credibility within the university at large" by avoiding religion-based arguments. As the Times tells it, these groups have worked backward, building an intellectual case to support their religious verdict. True Love Revolution in particular turned to "peer-reviewed journals and government sources for research that supported the abstinence view" and then published their findings on the group's Web site. To summarize: Pre-marital abstinence makes for a healthier and happier marriages, safe sex isn't actually safe, and early sexual activity leads to depression, cheating and poverty. Woo-hoo, way to go abstinence, right?


Except, uh, sexual health educators disagree with those assertions. "What is disturbing is that this club is using inaccurate information and distorted data to sell that message," says Martha Kempner, spokeswoman for the Sexuality Information and Education Council. "They're completely baseless claims."

But maybe they're hoping we'll forgive a few baseless, religiously-biased claims -- after all, abstinence advocates like Janie Fredell, co-president of True Love Revolution, say they ultimately have a secular, feminist focus! As the Times notes, Fredell read Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" alongside John Stuart Mill's "Subjection of Women." She knows all about the wage gap, forced sterilization and female genital mutilation! And, as she told the Times, she cares "deeply for women's rights."

I don't actually doubt that she does and there's at least one feminist thread in her thinking: Female and male sinners are equally in need of rescue. But while she rejects the role of "the meek little virgin female," she argues for women to return to their post as strict sexual gatekeepers. The only difference being that Fredell believes the latter is an empowering act of rebellion. As the Times puts it, Fredell "asserts control by choosing not to have sex -- by telling men, no, absolutely not."


Shocking as this news may be to some, feminism has nothing to do with broadly asserting control against men; they aren't the enemy! Refusing sex only means something for a woman's personal power if she doesn't want to have sex. But Fredell doesn't care about women making their own decisions about whether or not to have sex before marriage, she simply wants them to make the same decision she has made. She defines female empowerment along her own very personal and religious terms. Fredell can call herself a feminist all she wants, but the only woman she's truly defending is herself.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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