From the Archives: Feminism and Abstinence

This post was originally published on October 13, 2012

bell hooks states in her book Feminist Theory, From Margin to Center:

One aspect of sexual norms that many people find oppressive is the assumption that one “should” be engaged in sexual activity. This “should” is one expression of sexual coercion…When…emphasis is placed on ending sexual oppression…it is possible to envision a society in which it is as much of an expression of sexual freedom to choose not to participate in sexual activity as it is to choose to participate.

Having grown up in what I’ll call the “purity culture”–where we made pledges not to have sex, wore silver rings declaring our virginity, and read Joshua Harris more than we read the Bible itself–this quote intrigued me. While I in no way support this mainstream, mostly evangelical “purity culture,” and while I definitely didn’t wait until marriage (and I’m cool with that), hooks’ quote made me wonder…

Is sexual liberation only for those who are having sex?

The typical feminist stance on abstinence that I’ve encountered has been a passive acceptance of it. Something along the lines of, “Okay, if that’s what you choose. It’s your life.” I’ve even encountered feminists who were hostile toward the idea of abstinence, talking about abstinent people as if they are somehow sexually dysfunctional.

I think we can do better than that. I think feminism can actually be empowering for individuals who choose not to have sex. And, I believe that when feminism empowers abstinent people, it empowers everyone. I believe that when feminism simply tolerates abstinent people, it undermines our own movement.

Here are a few ways that I believe feminism can empower those who choose to stay abstinent, and, in turn, empower the rest of us:

1. Feminism says that sex does not make you a man (or a woman): 

According to traditional gender roles, having sex is what makes men out of boys. This idea of going on a sexual conquest and returning victorious is almost a rite of passage for men in our culture (sometimes this idea is also imposed on women).

This idea devalues the personhood of both men and women. A feminist practice of abstinence would provide people  with one way to reject this idea of sex being the most important factor in establishing one’s own sense of value.  A feminist practice of abstinence would delve from normal practices of abstinence in that it would also reject the idea that marriage is the moment at which a man becomes a man.

A feminist practice of abstinence would be based in the idea that sex–whether you’ve had it or not–does not define one’s worth. By giving men the freedom to define their worth by means other than sexual conquest, it would also weaken the idea that “sexually conquering” a woman is a positive aspect of masculinity. Hopefully that would lead to a world where sex is no longer viewed as conquest. 

2. Feminism says that you don’t owe anyone your body:

As bell hooks stated in Feminist Theory, From Margin to Center, “coercion remains a central motivation for participation in sexual activity” for many teenagers. Girls, she states, “do it for the boy.” Boys (as we’ve already dicussed) “do it to prove to other boys that they are heterosexual and that they can exert masculine power over girls.”

Abstinence can be one way to fight society’s attempts to coerce us into sex before we’re ready. Being able to state “I am not having sex right now (or ever) and that is OKAY” can feel empowering.

A feminist practice of abstinence would differ from mainstream practices of abstinence in that it would assert bodily autonomy rather than promoting the idea that one’s body belongs to one’s future spouse and, therefore, must be kept in pristine condition. It would reject any claim that women dressing immodestly gives men a right to look at them. It would reject the idea that, after marriage, one’s spouse becomes the owner of one’s body.

A feminist practice of abstinence would reinforce the idea that, whether you have sex or not, your body is yours. No one has a right to it, no matter what you’re wearing, who you’re married to, or how far  you’ve already gone. The right to say “No” is always yours. 

3. Feminism affirms a person’s right to make informed choices

Some people are abstinent because it’s what’s expected of them. They had abstinence-only education in high school, their parents and church required a pledge of abstinence from them, and/or they were taught that God would punish them if they did not remain abstinent. This is not the kind of abstinence that a feminist practice of abstinence would support.

However, some people know the facts about sex and choose to remain abstinent anyway. Maybe they do this because of personal religious beliefs. Maybe they do it to avoid pregnancy or STIs. Maybe they are waiting for the right person or are not interested in sex at this point in their lives. It doesn’t matter what the reason is. Feminism affirms informed choice. Therefore, feminism should be actively working to inform, but never working to make a choice for someone.

A feminist practice of abstinence would support sex-education so that people’s choices are truly informed. It would condemn any efforts to coerce someone into abstinence. It would work to provide people with the protection or birth control needed to enjoy sex so that people who still choose to remain abstinence can truly call their choice informed. 

If you want to be abstinent, be abstinent! It’s not a choice that is incompatible with feminism. In fact, it can be an empowering choice for some people. Just remember, just as others don’t get to decide what you do with your body, you don’t get to decide what others do with theirs. And, please, for the love of God, stop with this stuff. 

  • Kristen Rosser

    Ultimately, I remained abstinent until marriage because I didn’t want to share that most intimate part of myself unless my partner had chosen to commit himself to me first. I wanted a man I could trust to respect my boundaries– and this was, as far as I could see, the hardest boundary for a man to respect in a woman. I came from a dysfunctional home where all kinds of other boundaries (thankfully, not this one!) were habitually violated. The fact that my fiance respected this boundary was a huge thing to me. Being a Christian gave me other reasons to remain abstinent, but I think I would have felt this way even if I hadn’t been one.


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