Abstinence: Close Your Eyes and Think of Gandhi

April 1, 2008

Sure, I’ll admit it. Sex Like Men has been out of commission. But that was before a spokesperson for the anti-sex campaign went and employed my phrase, in the goddamn New York Times Magazine (you’ll remember them from that classic piece, “The Kids Call It Hooking Up”). This most recent article features Harvard student and abstinence-crusader Janie Fredell, who argues that:

“Conventional feminism 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 abstinence-only programs are federally funded and touted by many of the nation’s leaders as the only moral choice, on a conventional college campus in the Northeast, the public decision to abstain from sex can be a lonely road. But Janie had coping mechanisms of her own: “To bolster herself, she often thought of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.”

Jill at Feministe sums up the issues here. But actually, Fredell is getting at a basic question of feminism. Does empowerment mean simply that women have the freedom to act like men? Or can they carve out another path, based on their own values, perhaps even in strict opposition to the male-imposed status quo? Rather than have sex just like men do, couldn’t women make an equally radical decision to not have sex at all? We’ve addressed this and other questions in this space, and there’s one thing we know for sure: what’s radical is the notion that women could make decisions about their sex lives without being judged, one way or another.

Fredell also misses something pretty basic about feminism. She discovers 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.” Exactly. The same culture that encourages men to carry their sexual encounters like trophies also instructs women in the meaning of virtue: save yourself, repress your desire, and wait for true love to imbue your (otherwise empty) life with meaning. Fredell correctly rejects the traditionally masculine approach of sexual exploitation but then, instead of dismantling the double standard, she retreats deeper into it.

Fredell cautions women against the risks of sexual pleasure, blaming it all on the oxytocin. But doesn’t that approach chain us to biology—just at the moment when we’re meant to overcome our physical urges? (The True Love Revolution recommends going for a long run until desire passes.) If we’re going to be honest, we’ll see that the danger in sex is not about the oxytocin. It’s about the possibility that, as the maligned campus sex blogger, Lena Chen, pointed out, it just might feel good.

Chen’s story strikes the journalist, Randall Patterson, as excruciatingly simple—she likes sex, she puts it out there (never mind the public risk she too is taking). Then there’s Fredell: “The more she studied and learned, the more Fredell came to realize that women suffer from having premarital sex.” Randall thought the sex blogger was a bimbo, but, boy, was he enamored of Fredell’s intellectual journey to this place.

He may have been intrigued by their competing claims to feminism, but he also couldn’t help but employ the most reductive and stereotypical standards when evaluating the two women singled out to represent college culture.

Chen and Fredell described the event to me later, when I met them separately for lunch. Chen was a small Asian woman in a miniskirt and stilettos who ate every crumb of everything, including a ginger cake with cream-cheese frosting and raspberry compote. Fredell, when the dessert menu came, paused at the prospect of a “chocolate explosion,” said, “I may as well — I mean, carpe diem, right?” And then reconsidered — she really wasn’t that hungry.

You’re right, Patterson. Women really are this simple. Sex, cake, it’s all pretty much a series of base desires that we either indulge with thoughtless, physical abandon, or, in the age-old tradition that equates a woman’s self-denial with her moral worth, we withhold.

In the end, Fredell speaks out of fear and confusion. Oral sex is “disgusting and disrespectful”? There’s a slight immaturity to her responses, a blinkered refusal to acknowledge that vast and fruitful part of human experience, sexuality. And that makes perfect sense to me–it’s a very reasonable reaction to have, if you’re not ready to have sex.

The thing is that even if you are ready to have sex, Fredell is right about one thing. The misogyny and misinformation indulged on college campuses, and throughout the world, is astounding, and hurtful. You have to be careful. You have to have a strong sense of self so as not to come out bruised. Of course, we might never get there–not with a madonna/whore story plastered across our national magazines, anyway.


2 Responses to “Abstinence: Close Your Eyes and Think of Gandhi”

  1. mehass Says:

    great post! I read the article recently too, and was struck by many of the things you mention. I came out partially admiring both Chen and Fredell (both of whom I’ve encountered in other contexts) for defending their strong if opposed feminist positions and emphasizing the similarities in their decisions (despite all this “eww oral sex” and “oxytocin bonds the wrong people together” bullshizz that Fredell falls back on). What dismayed me about the article was not only the oversimplified portrayal of the women, but also the focus on Fredell’s relationship with the co-president of True Love Revolution Leo Keliher which took on a sort of “he said/she said” format and casted Leo alternately as shy love interest and repressed pervert (given his family history of pedophilia and implicit desire for a “freshman” since he “can’t stop thinking about her glossy hair and beautiful skin”).

    Also, was I the only one who was creeped out by the sentence “By the time I met her in December, Janie Fredell had grown used to explaining to strange men why she won’t have sex”? I couldn’t help but thinking that Mr. Patterson’s apparent fascination with these young women (particularly Fredell) was a bit problematic.

  2. priyanka Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Margaret. I agree: Patterson has that same voyeuristic tone we see almost every time journalists write about young women and teenage sexuality. Plus, the weirdly erotic photo of Fredell accompanied by the caption, “Virginity can be extremely alluring”….I mean, come on!!!

    That painful section about Keliher and his crush on Fredell (whose reaction is “No no no no!”) didn’t really lend itself to a nuanced discussion of abstinence so much as a tacky emphasis on these kids’ personal lives. I tried not to go there in my post, so as not to replicate Patterson’s own unfairness, but I don’t mind pointing out Jezebel’s hilarious post on the subject: http://jezebel.com/374080/dear-ivy-league-virgins-did-you-ever-think-maybe-fucking-once-in-awhile-would-make-you-more-fun?mail2=true)

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