Better Sex Through Chastity

Premarital sex on college campuses is not something I know anything about. I went to BYU about 10 years ago, and while premarital sex existed there, it certainly wasn’t widespread enough to be conceived of as a marketplace. So when I read this Slate article reporting that the current market “price” for sex is currently very low, I was, well, shocked. Apparently single women in their twenties are having sex under conditions for which I wouldn’t have even been willing to hold hands. According to the article an unbelievable 30% of men’s sexual relationships involve no romance, wooing, dating, or anything. And 39% are having sex by the end of the first week of exclusivity. (After a only week, how can you call anything exclusive?) Not only are women easily agreeing to get in bed with a guy – they’re also highly accommodating once they’re there. The author’s research shows that “striking numbers of young women are participating in unwanted sex—either particular acts they dislike or more frequent intercourse than they’d prefer or mimicking porn.”

In contrast to what research and common sense say women want – sex in the context of love, romance, commitment, and marriage, they are instead having sex in the context of one-night stands. This trend was horrifically played out in the life of Duke undergraduate Karen Owen. Described by Caitlin Flanagan in the January 2011 issue of The Atlantic, Owen published an online PowerPoint “thesis” of her sexual encounters with 13 Duke athletes. In it, she unflinchingly describes her drunken hookups with boorish men – hookups she sought out. Because of her proactiveness (if you can call it that), she’s hailed in some quarters as a triumph over old, suppressive cultural expectations about female sexuality. From the Atlantic article:

“Penelope Trunk, the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, wrote on a CBS business Web site that she just loves Karen Owen:

‘I, for one, am fascinated that Owen has so much self-knowledge. I wish I had had Owen’s self-confidence, pluck, and earning power when I was her age. I wish I had been taking control of male tools when I was that young. I wish I had been so good at getting the guy.’”

and

“A young female student at Duke told a reporter for the Today show who asked her about the PowerPoint: ‘I guess, like, the inner feminist in me was pretty excited when I saw it. I was like, ‘Yeah, good for her—this is awesome.’”

Yet, as Flanagan writes, “[Owen] seems to have been invented by a committee of frat boys.” I’ll spare you the details of what that means. Suffice it to say she was happy to cater their whims. And what was in it for her? I certainly don’t know, but one can safely say it was not enjoyable sex. Take the example of her second “subject.” Writes Owen, “He was terrible, did not even bother to kiss me more than a few seconds, and finished in about five minutes, after which he simply walked out of the room and did not return.” She said “absolutely everything” about him was terrible, except that he was a successful athlete. After the encounter she forgot her favorite earrings from South Africa and when she texted him about them, he said he’d leave them outside the building for her. And there were eleven more “subjects” after that.

Karen Owen’s story is depressing. She said herself that she regretted it with all her heart. But it’s one thing for a college-age woman to seek for and to have sex, however hollow and depraved. It’s another for young teenage girls to be jumping on the bandwagon of easy sex at the pleasure of their male partners. In another article by Flanagan titled “Love, Actually: How girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture,” she writes of many girls who binge-drink and report, “quite candidly, that this kind of drinking is a necessary part of their preparation for sexual activity.” Unlike the girls of [Flanagan's] era, who looked forward to sex … as a way of becoming ever closer to [their] boyfriends, these girls are preparing themselves for acts and experiences that are frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. These girls aren’t embracing sex, all evidence to the contrary. They’re terrified of it.”

Indeed, a Sept 2005 report by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that a quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in oral sex, with more than half at age seventeen. And to state what is probably obvious, this is unilateral oral sex. There is an apparently growing phenomenon of teenage girls engaging in oral sex not just with their boyfriends, but with a series of boys with whom they have no relationship, sometimes in front of an audience (see this article). I have no idea how real or widespread this is, but the parent in me shudders at the thought of it.

What is happening in American culture? We’ve gone from a situation where premarital sex was culturally unacceptable (particularly for women) and women were not expected to have sexual desire, to one in which premarital sex and female desire are widely accepted but where many young women and girls are engaging in sex that leaves much to be desired. It’s a losing situation on both sides of the pendulum.

I, for one, have never been so grateful for the law of chastity. It seems terribly quaint in today’s culture to postpone sex until after marriage, and in practice it’s not at all easy to do. But it guarantees the romance of courtship and commitment. And (I think this is why the Twilight novels are so popular) there is nothing more sexy than anticipation.

A friend of mine did her dissertation on sexuality in Mormon women, and in her research the women who were most satisfied in their sex lives felt a sense of ownership about their sexuality. That it was a God-given gift, to be kept sacred before and within marriage, and that it should work for them. When she was a teacher in Young Women, she taught the girls that chastity gave them power. Not some kind of coy pseudo-power over male desire, but power to have their own desires for physical gratification, love, emotional intimacy, commitment, respect, and dignity met in the best possible way. These are things I want for myself and for eventually for my daughter, and I’m ever so grateful for a belief system that makes them possible.

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Balancing tradition with faith and scholarship: a Mormon application of Peter Enns

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