Mythbusters: Abstinence Edition

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Several images flash before our eyes, like a strobe light of coolness: two girls in black dresses dancing together; four guys playing beer pong and laughing about how cool they look; one guy queuing up another song by Fetty Wap. Red SOLO cups litter the floor and fill every hand. The night wears on, and soon people inevitably pair off, leading each other upstairs or out of the hallway into a suggestively darkened room.

Doors close and  socks hang on the doorknobs (as if people won’t know what’s going on in there otherwise). Maybe there’s still one couple left making out on the gross-looking couch. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Hollywood’s portrayal of literally any frat house on a Friday night.

For the most part, Hollywood didn’t lie—any frat house could easily be the set of the next college-themed hit. And what’s a good college movie without sex? As depicted in the movies, the hookup culture in college is much more pervasive than in high school.

Sex is all around us as young adults, and our generation has learned to embrace a growing climate of sex positivity. While past generations encouraged each other not to talk about sex, we millennials created a safe space to proclaim sex as a fun subject not to avoid. In other words, having sex isn’t considered scandalous anymore.

Upon entering college, I worried that I’d be surrounded by people who would judge me for a decision I made in high school—to remain abstinent until marriage. And some people definitely did, but in the end, both the judgers and the supporters helped me realize that the choice not to have sex is an equally valid and important part of the sex positivity movement.

I’ve been a student at GW for three years now, and in that time I’ve noticed some myths about sexual abstinence floating around campus.

Abstinence is always “a religious thing.”

The term “sexual abstinence” refers to a complex amount of choices and circumstances—not just mine. Essentially, someone who is sexually abstinent “abstains” from sex; they choose not to partake in some or all sexual activity. They might choose abstinence for religious, medical, emotional or legal reasons. They might want to focus more on their education, recover from an illness, take time to grieve for the loss of a loved one, etc. There are plenty of non-religious reasons why someone might choose to abstain from sex, and all are equally valid.

Abstinence and asexuality are the same.

Sometimes I’ll mention that I’m abstinent and the response is, “Oh, so you don’t like sex,” or “Oh, so you’re asexual.” Not only is the instigator assuming I’m not having sex because I don’t like it, but they’re also invalidating asexuality by assuming it’s a choice. Asexuality is a sexual orientation; abstinence is a choice not to have sex. Someone who is asexual has little-to-no desire for sex; someone who is abstinent might enjoy and desire sex, but choose not to engage in it for personal reasons. Both involve not engaging in some or all kinds of sexual activity, but are very different from each other.

Abstinence and virginity are measured equally.

Say it with me everyone: virginity is a social construct. Say it a little louder; the people in the back didn’t hear you. You don’t go through some kind of sudden metamorphosis when you have sex for the first time. You don’t become “tainted” when you start having sex nor do you become “more mature.” Our culture is full of opinions about how much sex to have, when to have it, how many people to have it with, etc. Be confident in having your own opinions about sex. As always—your body, your rules.

People will be happy to explain why they’re abstinent when you ask.

I usually don’t bring up the fact that I’m abstinent unless someone directly asks about my sexual activity. But some people might choose not to have sex for extremely personal reasons and feel uncomfortable talking about it, which is completely valid. The most supportive thing a sexually active friend has ever said to me was when we were dying each other’s hair in her bathroom. She was telling me stories from high school and asked how old I was when I first had sex. I told her I was abstinent and she paused, surprised.

“Oh! Can I ask why?”

So I explained my religious background and how that fit into my views on physical intimacy. I was working purple dye into her hair while I spoke, and when I stopped and looked up, I realized she’d been staring at me in the mirror.

“What?” I asked, blushing despite myself.

She swung around to look me in the eye. “When you get married,” she said quietly, never breaking eye contact, “I’m going out and buying a giant sheet cake that reads: Congratulations on the f–king. And then I’m going to go into your hotel room and fill it with every sex toy in the world. And you and your partner will eat cake and have the best sex anyone has ever had.”

Even though college is surrounded by talk of sex, I’ve been able to have sex-positive conversations with supportive friends about the choice not to have sex. Abstinence doesn’t necessarily mean that I think sex is sinful or bad. On the contrary, I love sex. And that’s why I’ve chosen not to have it for awhile. Until then, I’ll still go on dates, go to parties and live my life. And sex will be part of that eventually, but not for right now.

So yes, I am a college student. Yes, I am abstinent. And yes, I’m doing just fine.

Caroline is a junior at GW who wears too much flannel and drinks too much coffee. She looks up every movie before she watches it because she needs to know if the dog dies. She currently studies English with a minor in Human Services.

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