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Students Choosing to Abstain Struggle in a Sex-Obsessed World

AbstinanceLast term I was walking around the dive that is Ocean and, to my horror, saw a couple full on getting down and dirty up against the banister. Now I’m all for public displays of affection, but there’s a limit. Or is there?

It seems that people nowadays value sex differently. This could depend on their religion, the way they’ve been brought up, whether they’re in love or whether they think of it as part of a healthy functioning relationship.

A recent survey showed that sex is the most frequently thought about thing in society today. To be fair, it’s hard to get away from. There are magazines devoted to it, programmes interested in taking it to new levels, and fashions leaving little to the imagination. So, is it possible to remain chaste in a society captivated by sex? Although a person can be physically chaste, can they really be mentally chaste? It is probable that they will know as much about sexual positions and how best to satisfy as any sexually active person. To be mentally chaste then would mean controlling what goes into your mind in order to maintain a pure mindset. Among other things, this would involve the sacrifice of listening to your friends reading the ‘Ladies Confessions’ page in FHM (as entertaining as it is), and trying to avoid weekly magazines containing the ‘latest’ top ten sex tips (though how it changes weekly is mystifying). To be chaste is as much a mental decision as it is physical.

Abstinance 2Modern sexual stigmas go hand-in-hand with chastity, for example recent comedy hit ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’. And who invented the phrase ‘sweet sixteen and never been kissed’? If you reach the age of sixteen and are yet to be given a smacker on the lips are you a failure? So you’re sweet and sixteen and then you kiss someone. Maybe you go a little further, then maybe you go a lot further and, before you know it, you’re no longer the sweet and virginal figure of fairytale. But this seems unfair. Virginity is emphasised as something pure, decent and good. Whilst it can be, to give it the stigma of innocence and youth rather than conscious choice is surely misleading.

A rather ‘alternative’ way of being chaste is that of wearing a chastity belt which, with or without the participant’s consent, effectively makes them chaste. The reasoning behind this is that knowing sex is not an option forces the belt-wearer to concentrate on other matters. Although it may sound like the issue is that of sex and availability, in reality the knowledge that release is not possible enables the wearer to work on improving other aspects of the relationship, such as spending time with their partner, or focusing on work and other responsibilities.

Most religions believe in some form of chastity. Christianity is perhaps most well known for this. The New Testament explains how chastity benefits those who choose to remain a virgin until marriage. Apart from its statement that the body is a sacred temple for the Holy Spirit, which some may find a strange concept, practical reasons are also given. It states that sex is about ‘two becoming one’, but that it must be in the context of marriage, as “sexual drives are strong, but marriage is strong enough to contain them and provide for a balanced and fulfilling sexual life in a world of sexual disorder” (1 Corinthians). As Christianity looks more at sex within a marital relationship, it not only means the ‘two becoming one’ in physical terms but also in life, as marriage is a public statement and involves both people leaving their family and joining together as one instead. Sex therefore requires a high level of commitment lacking in one-night-stands and relationships where neither partner sees a future.

The difference between Judaism and Christianity’s viewpoint is that Judaism does not teach the virtue of chastity, but of ‘tsnius’, or modesty. Tsnius concerns restraint, good taste, privacy and dignity. According to the Torah, the body is sacred. Pre-marital sex is not permitted, and both women and men must cover up their body in order to achieve this wanted modesty.

For Ultra-Orthodox Jews, successful ‘chastity’ comes from a lack of physical contact pre-marriage, something that seems alien to much of society. According to Jewish law, once a girl reaches puberty, she becomes off-limits to men until the day of her marriage. This is where Judaism, at least the more observant sections, greatly differs from Christianity. By preventing touch, self-control can be retained. This idea relates to the Jewish belief that physical contact forges sexual bonds that have no sincere and long-term commitment in them. The glue of the relationship – sexual intimacy – should only be formed in marriage. However, it would be wrong to promote the belief that this need for tsnius means Jews believe sex is something sinful. Sexual desire is not treated as a necessary evil: sex for Jews is of immense significance, which is why it is only permitted in marriage. Though it is obviously not possible to re-virginise yourself, is it possible to go back to being chaste even after you’ve experienced a sexual relationship? You may not be as naïve as you once were, but that could make it all the more respectable as you know what you’re giving up. Chastity does appear to be determined by personal values, and is something that religious people and non-religious people cannot judge one another on. For example, non-Christians cannot be expected to remain chaste because the bible teaches that the body is a holy temple, as they may not believe this. Likewise, they cannot also be expected to abstain from sex in a relationship before marriage as loving someone may be commitment enough.

Maria [we have changed her name] is a first year Chemistry student who had a sexual relationship with her boyfriend before breaking up with him, but has now made the decision to be chaste in future relationships. When asked about her perception of sex, she responded that “it creates a huge emotional intensity to a relationship which isn’t necessarily right if you’re not going to end up with them. When you’re with someone so intimately and it doesn’t work out, it makes you so attached to that person, even after you’ve broken up.” However, surely this sexual relationship would not have added such emotional intensity had Maria not been in love with her boyfriend. If love is not a factor, it could be possible to go from one sexual relationship to another and remain emotionally detached. Viewed in this way, sex can be primarily a pleasurable activity with no strings or promises of commitment attached, so long as both people feel the same way about the situation.

 American abstinence programmes certainly believe that one can achieve a ‘second virginity’ by “starting over” with their programme, but is this realistic? Movements like the ‘Silver Ring Thing’ and ‘True Love Waits’ have expanded overseas to the UK in order to promote their belief that pre-marital sex is wrong. The former asks members to make a vow of abstinence and wear a silver ring promoting their chastity. ‘True Love Waits’ expects members to carry a card stating their decision to remain ‘pure’ until marriage in their wallet. The programmes use activities, mentoring and follow-up materials to help with any temptation members might feel to succumb to sexual urges.

However, there are many critics of these programmes who believe that merely teaching abstinence is not an effective way to prevent sex from taking place. Statistics do back this view up, with many of those taking the chastity oath still having sex, merely slightly later in life. Author Judith Levine thinks the programmes “make sex scarier and scarier and, at the same time, chastity sweeter.”

Sex, undoubtedly, is good. Students think so, or they wouldn’t be doing it. Easy Tiger thinks so, or he wouldn’t keep running wildly around with condoms every year. God thinks so, or he wouldn’t have created orgasms. What is in question here is the context in which it is used. To be chaste is a conscious decision, made due to personal preference. What appears to be pertinent is that the significance of sex changes from person to person. For some, it is about lust and arousal, for others, about love, and for others, it is not important at all. These beliefs therefore determine how you practice your sexuality and the impact it makes on you.

Abi Foulkes & Miriam Zendle

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