Feminism and abstinence

Feminism and abstinence 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. 

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  • Absolutely right! Thanks for pointing this out! I have three small examples:

    1) Guy Sebastian. The winner of “Australian Idol” who was loud and proud about being a virgin. This was pointed out over and over as something “strange” about him – but given his other popularity no-one ever dared to say out loud that it made him less “manly”. I’m sure they thought so though.

    2) In high school and early college I was a “late bloomer” and therefore not interested in boys. I was social and had lots of friends (including male friends) but there was no “spark”. People tried to tell me this meant I was a lesbian. I went along to a few meetings of the lesbian club at my college, but there was no “spark” there either. I was then very concerned that there was something wrong with me! There seemed to be no third option.

    3) I later met someone who was “happy with his own company”. I made the same mistake others had made with me – I assumed he was gay and just still in the closet. He continues to be happy with his own company, has lots of friends of all sexes and doesn’t seem to want to sleep with any of them. I know a lot of people still think he is gay, but no-one seems to want to accept that he just might not be choosing to have sex for reasons of his own. He needs to be accepted as having chosen the third option!

  • I loved this post so much, mainly because I grew up in the same kind of culture. I wish I would have heard these sorts of things earlier in life.

  • Something I’d add to this list is that feminism affirms a person as asexual if that’s how he or she self-identifies.

  • I’ve met a couple people who claim an “asexual” sexual identity. They get no end of trouble from almost everybody: gay, straight, feminist, antifeminist, theist, atheist. It took a LOT of inner work to accept their asexual orientation, including stages of self-hatred and self-imposed therapy to try to change their orientation, before they finally accepted themselves as they are. I think more thinking along the lines of what you’re talking about here can only help such folks and society at large.

    • yes! this.

    • I agree with this website http://www.asexuality.org/home/overview.html that asexuality is different than abstinence or celibacy. The latter are choices where the former seems to be more of an orientation. I also find it somewhat amusing that I have never seen an “A” in the various GLBTQS references to sexual orientations. I think it indicates how indoctrinated we have been into assuming that no sex means dysfunction. I can see how liberating asexuality can be. It would allow people regardless of gender to form deep, loving, transparent, intimate relationships without feeling obligated, or at risk of the pressures of physical intimacy. Loving unconditionally, it seems to me, is a lot easier when we remove the hidden agendas, the ulterior motives, the expectation of sexual reward. Deeply loving asexual relationships seem more like the ones Christ had for all of his followers and possibly more deeply rewarding for all involved.

      • Yes, good points! I have seen an “A” for asexual a few times and it made me hopeful.

        • I think one reason you rarely see the “A” for asexual is because others may think that asexual people don’t face any discrimination or recriminations. After all, no asexual person got beaten up for walking hand in hand with his boyfriend.

          It’s a mistake to think that, but it’s not a surprising mistake. After all, being thought of as “defective” all your life can’t be easy. Being assured “you’ll meet the right man/woman eventually” has got to be frustrating.

          And human society is set up for married couples. Family comes first, for almost everyone (and especially in the law). This leaves asexual people in a somewhat vulnerable position, long-term.

          But all of this is subtle, small, and chronic, not obvious and acute, so people don’t see it. They should, but too often they don’t.

          • Jim Fisher

            That is a great observation, Tim. If one in a hundred people in the U. S. are asexual (as one study determined), a lot of people could be in this vulnerable “I-want-to-be-normal” depressive state when they could be celebrated as being more like Christ. What a crazy world this would be if the ones who were lucky enough to be born with no interest in sex where esteemed and valued above all others.

          • I’d say that prior to the Reformation, this kind of sentiment was common. Celibate priests, nuns, monks, and friars (and saints from their ranks) were admired, and even in the early church, St. Paul seemed to imply that it was better not to marry.

            I actually agree with the Reformation idea of rejecting enforced celibacy for all ministers (priests, etc), but I think they threw the baby out with the bathwater.

            The call to celibacy may not correlate 100% with the call to ministry, but I truly believe the call to celibacy still exists.

            For some, it is a call to mortify their sexual desires in the service of a greater calling. But I believe it’s frequently more inborn (lacking sexual desires in the first place). I think that, for a Christian, an asexual orientation can BE a calling of a sort.

  • I agree with this- especially “you don’t owe anyone your body.” Personally, I plan to not have sex before marriage, and I have reasons for that, and they aren’t “because it will RUIN YOUR LIFE and you’ll be WORTHLESS and no boy will EVER RESPECT YOU” and all that fear and shame that is used to promote abstinence.

    I think if something is a good idea, then it can speak for itself and people can make an informed decision. It makes no sense that fear and shame and lies are used to get people to “be pure.”

  • Katie

    Thank you SO MUCH for this post! I don’t want to have sex until I’m in a committed relationship with someone I love- I would get no pleasure from any other kind of sex. I know that’s not the case for most people, but while it bothers me that I’m not in a relationship, it only bothers me that I haven’t had sex because society considers it weird for someone my age (28).

    People have different sex drives. People have different reasons for having sex. No one “should” have sex for any reason other than they and their sexual partner wanting to. And there is nothing, nothing, NOTHING wrong with waiting, whether it’s for love, as I am, or for marriage.

    My body is mine, it’s personal, and I’m only going to share it when I am ready. Until then, I have a vibrator, and I’m perfectly fie with that.

  • Great post! I have to say, every time I hear “save yourself for marriage because your virginity is a gift for your future spouse” it’s like fingernails on a blackboard – and I waited until marriage.

    I love my wife., and I don’t want to minimize that at all, but my decision to wait was mostly based on my relationship with God, at that moment, not a woman that I hadn’t even met yet. That, to me, is the real reason for sexual purity – to help build up the relationship with God.

    Sex and boys/girls/men/women is only one of many worldly concerns that can come between us and God. It’s not the only one. And virginity doesn’t necessarily equal sexual purity (Jesus said a few things about lustful minds. I’m not proud to say that those words have convicted me on more than one occasion).

    I think sexual purity is a practice of faith, a spiritual discipline akin to rejecting of consumerism or refusing to “chase the dollar.” And someone who isn’t a virgin can still practice sexual purity just like someone who bought a 52″ plasma TV last month can turn around and decide to try to reject consumerism this month.

    This hyper-focus on virginity itself is just a left-over from patriarchal pre-modern cultures and their obsession with paternity.

  • Interesting article/extract and good points.

    A couple of questions about >>”It would reject any claim that women dressing immodestly gives men a right to look at them.”

    1: What is a feminist definition of “immodest?”

    The word itself is defined in terms of social mores: “not conforming to the sexual mores of a particular time or place.”

    Maybe I’m wrong or out of date, but on these issues, isn’t feminism, in part, about rejecting the sexual mores of our particular time and place? Isn’t use of the very concept of “dressing immodestly” then an embrace of those mores?

    2: Why would one dress “immodestly” if one were not seeking to be looked at? Especially if dressing “immodestly” involves the types of highly engineered undergarments which I am told are usually painful. What am I missing? At what point, if any, does choosing to dress immodestly become choosing to be a tease?