On Not Having Sex At Harvard
From the New York Times:
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.