However, for those Penn students who’ve yet to do the deed virginity carries some serious weight. From the religious to the personal, they take agency in their abstinence. They’re unpopped on purpose.
“We had been hanging out and she went to a different school, so we stayed up all night talking to each other and I didn’t make a move and she asked me if I was going to make a move. And—”
“You didn’t even kiss?” I interrupt.
“No,” he replies. “And then I said I was a virgin and she got weird about it and said she didn’t want to do anything then… But she was wanting to do something before I said it so it was like, clearly a weird thing.” Rob* later lost his virginity during the first semester of his junior year. He was 20 and felt as if no one was interested in him.
“If you’re a virgin at a certain age it’s almost embarrassing, and then you develop anxiety about performance issues, and,” Rob hesitates, “and it’s that desire to be honest with someone. I wouldn’t want to pretend to be not a virgin, then have sex with someone and then reveal it.”
Rob is right in feeling like an outlier. The Kinsey Institute places the national average for males to lose their virginities at around sixteen years of age (about seventeen for females). By nineteen, 69% of males claim to have had sexual intercourse. In our co–ed college culture of raves and Round–Ups, where are the virgins?
When Blair* revealed to a random guy she took home from Blarney that she was a virgin, he abruptly left, telling her it was better they not “hook up.” A friend advised her, “‘You’re not supposed to tell people that [you’re a virgin]. It’s embarrassing and you are supposed to feel embarrassed.’”
Both Blair and Rob expressed anxiety surrounding their virginities. The tension between a desire to be honest and another to hide was confusing, Blair explained. She confided in me that prior to her friend’s advice, “I wasn’t a victim as a virgin, but I very much felt that way.” Later she elaborated, “It felt like this identity that everyone was giving to me so I felt okay sharing that with people in a way.” Her friend’s comment changed her desire to share her sexual status, but under the imposition of abstinence, she experienced conflict between no longer wanting to be a virgin and wanting to cherish her “purity.”
She couldn’t just lose it to anyone, could she?
As a male, Rob’s anxieties took on the same tone and similar language, but there was another component at play. Rob noted, “When you’re not dating someone, and I wasn’t hooking up with people, people would assume that, like, my friends and I were... gay... for someone to imply your sexuality based on an absence of sexuality is problematic.”
The easiest place to find virgins at Penn is in religious groups. There, the anxieties of virginity meet religious conviction. Identity, entangled in questions of faith and practice, serves as a source of individual inquiry and guides these students’ sexualities. Alongside peers, assumptions about those who choose abstinence fall away and real college students navigating the same confusing curricula come alive. Unfortunately, the sample of students who responded to interview requests was limited both in number and in diversity. Everyone expressed fears about speaking for his or her community as a whole, insisting that each experience is unique.
My inquiry into religious abstinence began with Rabbi Josh Bolton at Hillel. He explained the Jewish principle, shomer negiah, which isn’t as much about abstaining from sex — it literally translates to “guarding the touch.” This “elevation of holiness of ‘the touch’” manifests itself primarily in the Orthodox Community at Penn (OCP) by males and females not having sex, kissing, hugging or even high–fiving or shaking hands.
Rivka* describes her practice of shomer negiah as a struggle where she “everyday must reaffirm her decisions.” She is “shomer negiah everyday, all of the time” and says, “by now my close non–Jewish guy friends know better than to try to high–five me.” Her convictions guide her. Rivka describes herself as “disconnected,” and “not interested in being a part of Penn’s mainstream culture, whatever that is.” For Rivka, shomer negiah is one of the ways she defines herself as a good Jew. “God wants me to be shomer negiah. It’s freeing because it doesn’t confuse relationships,” she says.
Among Christian practitioners of abstinence, similar sentiments of conviction resonate. Matt Pershe, a junior urban studies major, practices abstinence. He speaks eloquently about Christian principles of adultery and loving one another as one loves oneself and Christ. These ideas guide him in his relations with women and give space for respect and friendship in the same way Rivka’s practice of shomer negiah does. He rationalizes his abstinence by saying, “I would feel bad sleeping with a woman who would not end up marrying me. That’s not showing her a lot of love, because that’s giving her as much as I can possibly give her without any kind of commitment..."
But Matt struggles, too. Lust dogs him as it does any guy in college. His ideas on lust sounded unfamiliar, yet not irrational. “It’s not like I don’t look at girls and lust after them… If it’s not the number one thing that Christian guys on this campus screw up with, I don’t know what is.” To combat lust, there are what Matt calls “accountability partners.” These are informal pairings in which both Christian men and women in Penn Cru (the Penn chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ) and other organizations take part to help each other avoid sinning. “I’ve got an accountability partner, he even tracks my web browser if I’m looking in the right places,” he says, referring to pornography.
Matt speaks about the implications of pornography in daily interactions with women. “The way you view women and the way you think about women will shape your interactions with them, it will shape the way you feel about them," he explains. "You can become disrespectful towards women just because of what you’re allowing your thoughts about women to look like.”
Matt and Rivka’s convictions provide them with a sense of assuredness. In college, that can be hard to find. With morals and guides to abide by, their religions seems to furnish them with spirituality and principles that might be helpful in navigating Penn. Their communities and the shared beliefs among students in those communities give them comfort of the home away from home. Matt in particular talks about coming to college and the pressure not only to transition into new social and academic worlds, but to find himself religiously away from his parents, too. The Christian community at Penn welcomed him right away.
However, the intersection of religion and sexuality does not always translate immediately to conviction and self–assuredness. For two other girls, Sarah* and Maggie,* sexuality acts as a point of transformation in their religious identities. Not only has their time at Penn served as a point for individual growth and discovery, but it has also become grounds for religious questioning and development. Sarah (who is also in the OCP) and Maggie found that their boyfriends challenged their religious ideals. Neither of them say that their boyfriends pressured them into sex or any unwanted interaction; rather, despite the difference in the Jewish principle of shomer negiah and traditional Christian practices of abstinence, both girls found that their relationships prompted them to examine the role of physicality in relationships. Both believe that dating should be directed: they seek an orientation towards marriage that Penn’s “mainstream” lacks.
Sarah prefers to talk about OCP in general. She revealed that, rather than a “hook–up culture,” the catch–all that has come to signify the sexual landscape in college, OCP maintains a dating culture. “[Students] tailor dating practices around it [shomer negiah]. If you’re dating someone for a really long time and are trying to practice shomer negiah, it’s really hard. So some people will then stop being shomer negiah. Then, other protective buffers kind of set in,” Sarah says. Another orthodox rule, ‘yichud,’ mandates that an unmarried man and woman are not allowed to be alone and in an isolated place. On the subject of her own religious development, she explains, “As you... discover things that matter to you [like being Jewish], the priorities, or the way that they manifest themselves in college, sort of shift around or get redefined.”
In talking to Sarah, it became evident that college can pose a challenge to religious identity. Students must take ownership of their own practices as they learn to live on their own. For Sarah, the struggle of shomer negiah appears as she mulls over the place of “the touch” in relationships. “[The] element of friendship or touch that isn’t just sexual comes up a lot. That, you know, that touch is a mode of communicating caring. You might want to hug your guy friend or your girl friend, that pops up also, and I think sometimes people’s convictions to be observing Jewish law strictly seems to waver.”
When Maggie entered Penn abstinent, her relationship with her boyfriend inspired her to reconsider her mores and her place in the Penn Christian community. She describes herself as having gone through a transition before her junior year where she decided to take more control over her religious identity. “I made the decision to stop letting other people tell me what to believe,” she says. Previously, she was involved in a Christian group that she felt regulated her conversations and public beliefs. She realized she could depend on herself and her own “very liberal interpretations of the Bible.” Despite her move away from abstinence, Maggie says, “if it got to that point where I was 100% sure I would not marry him, I wouldn’t be in the relationship anymore.” While she now has a group of Christian girl friends she can talk about sex toys and crushes with openly, she still fears being judged among other Christians. She has reconsidered the way sex functions in her personal life, but she seems to have found herself in a space where sex is heavily regulated and the lack of sex is socially normalized.
Both Blair and Rob have now lost their virginities and both are happy with their decisions. Rob says he is in a healthy monogamous relationship, which he describes as “A+.” For Blair, the anxiety around her sexual identity has compelled an opposite vein of thinking to Sarah and Maggie’s questioning of the need for the physical in the emotional relationship. Blair sought to remove the emotional from the physical and describes the ability to do so as “empowering.”
But not all stories of virginity follow religion's lines: take Emma’s*, for example. Emma's family's immigrant status drives her decision to abstain. Her parents are from Lebanon, and Emma claims virginity out of a desire to please them and respect her culture and tradition. Though she continually uses the word “struggle” to describe this choice, she admits that it’s in jest. For her, virginity is not difficult. In response to her roommate’s drunken stories and sexcapades she says, “I’m so glad I’m not you. I couldn’t handle that emotional stress.”
Although virginity on campus inhabits many forms and communities, the thread that connects them seems to be intention. Individuals who chose to abstain grapple constantly with the significance of physicality, virginity and of upholding one’s own definitions of what is right. For many Penn students, the decision to abstain serves as a point of change and transformation in attempting to understand what and who defines them. For these individuals, virginity was and is a choice, a choice that can be empowering.
-Alexa Nicolas is a senior from New York, NY, majoring in molecular biology. She is a former columnist at the Daily Pennsylvanian and former Backpage editor of 34th Street Magazine.