I had been expecting Randall Patterson’s New York Times piece “Students of Virginity.” (Patterson had also extensively interviewed myself and some others associated with the Anscombe Society here at Princeton for his piece.)
What I had not expected was to find a gossip column instead of a fair journalism piece. While some people (perhaps even the author himself) may see this piece as breaking the story on the ironic sexual struggles of abstinence leaders at Harvard, most readers will surely discern the liberty the author took in relaying the details he gathered.
Take, for example, Patterson’s portrayal of Leo Keliher, one of the co-presidents of Harvard’s abstinence group, True Love Revolution (TLR). It is hard to believe that a Harvard student who has publicly committed himself to advocating abstinence (and who already has media experience) would divulge his temptations and desires to a New York Times reporter. When asked about the comments published about him, Keliher clarified that Patterson took many of his observations of society at large, and of men specifically, and inaccurately applied those general observations to Keliher’s own personal life.
This is not to say that Keliher, and other men (and women) committed to chastity, are immune from temptation and desire. Patterson certainly makes a point of conveying that. But in his excitement over the fact that even chaste people have libidos, Patterson fails to recognize the real news he has uncovered – namely, the constructive and healthy ways chaste people approach their sexual desires.
TLR’s other co-president, Janie Fredell, speaks of the allure of virginity as rooted not so much in “innocence and purity” as in “the notion of strength”. Certainly by this she means strength of will. Fredell’s conception of feminism reaffirms this. While “conventional feminists” teach “that control of your body means the freedom to have sex without consequences – sex like a man,” the “unconventional” feminism with which Fredell identifies encourages women to have the strength and will to control her body, but to control it “by choosing not to have sex”, at least not until marriage.
What the article leaves unsaid here is that the “unconventional feminism” Fredell describes is fundamentally better for women. Even women who have chosen the hook-up lifestyle have admitted that there is nothing liberating for women in this way of life. There is no such thing as “sex without consequences” for women, whose bodies are made to bond with the men they have sex with. What Fredell is ultimately suggesting is a better way for women to respond to their sexual desires. Rather than allowing their desires and impulses to control them (whether they are in a casual hook-up with an acquaintance or in a serious premarital relationship), women should be encouraged and supported in choosing to abstain from sex, especially out of consideration for their emotional, physical, and psychological health and well-being.
As Fredell says, “It takes a strong woman to be abstinent.” I, for one, think the world could do with more strong women like this. And we can certainly do with more strong, respectful men as well. Keliher himself is one person who has learned to “love women out of strength and not out of need.” Just as self-control reflects a strong woman, Keliher states, “To have that kind of self-control [being able to deny yourself for the sake of the woman] is really what it means to be a man.” Unfortunately, these more constructive and intelligent statements are overshadowed by Patterson’s excitement over the more “juicy” details that were communicated to him.
I cannot help but doubt the picture Patterson paints of his intimate conversations with these students, especially with Leo Keliher. However, even if Keliher did actually say everything Patterson reveals, why should it be so surprising that a young man, even one convinced of the benefits of chastity, would experience sexual desires, physical temptations, and lustful thoughts? We live in a hyper-sexualized environment – just consider the majority of advertisements and entertainment out there. Undoubtedly, college campuses are even more sexualized. With so much sex around us, we’d be hard-pressed to find a young adult completely unaffected by it.
Too bad for Patterson, he has missed the real story after months of research. The real story behind “Students of Virginity” is not that these virgins are cognizant of sexual desire, but rather that they have learned how to direct that desire toward a better goal. Despite common stereotypes, we are not talking about students who are meek, repressed, and scared of sex and sin. Rather, these are young men and women who value sex so much they find the strength and the will to save it for the man or woman they are willing to share the rest of their lives with – their spouse.