Cindy is small and pretty, soft-spoken yet animated. She arrived at Penn to study Education and Linguistics two years ago, and very quickly she met Mark*, a fellow graduate student, through the Penn Graduate Christian Fellowship. Within three weeks the two were dating.
"We both knew we were attracted to each other right away," Cindy says. But for Cindy a relationship doesn't "start with you having sex and realizing you want to start dating. It starts with a little talk, when you decide together that this would be a good thing to pursue."
Even after she and Mark agreed that they wanted to commit to each other, certain terms had to be set. How much time to spend together? How much time to spend apart? Should they cancel plans with other friends in order to do things with each other?
But for Cindy and Mark, these questions were just the beginning.
There were time boundaries, but also physical boundaries," Cindy says. "We talked about that right away too."
Cindy, a devout Christian from a Mennonite background, had been taught from childhood that people should remain sexually abstinent before marriage.
"My training has been that, yeah, men and females remain separate," Cindy explains. "But then we also talked about when you start dating someone, when do you draw the line? I was always told it's very important -- you must discuss these issues first, and make sure both of you know where the boundaries are. Basically, abstinence means not having sex before you're married, and so different couples draw the line at different places."
The two talked about these issues at the beginning of their relationship, and then at Cindy's urging, they talked some more.
"I told him right away that I wanted to go very slow on physical things," Cindy says. "So then he asked me later how do I define that ----- what does slow mean ---- and he asked me if he could hold my hand. I said, 'Ok, I guess you can hold my hand.' And so that was a new thing for me, of course, but it was just very special."
After three months, Cindy let Mark kiss her.
It was her first kiss.
Cindy was 25.
"That kiss was very, very special," she says.
* * *
Sex is everywhere.
It's central to the television shows we watch, the movies we rent, often even the clothing we buy, and abstinence is not a term that crops up very often in today's mainstream cultural lexicon. Sure, if you go to the Office of Health Education's website, abstinence is listed among methods of available contraception. Click on the link and you can find a University of Pittsburgh site called "101 Ways to Make Love Without Doing It" that includes tips like "color in a coloring book," "play twister together," "feed each other chocolate" and "visit the campus book center."
For most students in secular colleges, the conception is that everyone is having sex, and that most people are having a lot of it.
In fact, students at Penn aren't having as much of it as the media -- or a night spent frat-hopping -- might lead one to believe. Last April, the OHE conducted a study into the sexual habits of University students using the National College Health Assessment web-based survey. According to Susan Villari, the director of the OHE, the results weren't shocking from the perspective of a college health educator. In fact, compared to similar schools, Penn was pretty much on "target."
The results compared to students' conceptions, is another story. The study was sent out to a group of 5000 students, and there were 853 respondents, split fairly evenly between undergraduate and graduate students. The target number of responses desired for a school of 20,000 is 900, and Penn's 853, Villari explains, was close enough to be representative. Only 6.5% of the students surveyed had four or more sexual partners last school year. 26.4% said they had had no sexual partners within the year. This included not only vaginal sex, but oral and anal as well. Of the students surveyed, 23.9% had never engaged in oral sex, ever. 31.1% had never had vaginal sex.
The total number of sexual partners the average surveyed student at Penn had last year?
The total number of sexual partners those surveyed thought the typical Penn student had last year?
Still, as long as the conception is that everyone is having sex -- and as long as the media portrays college as such -- abstinent students face the added challenge of feeling less a part of their peer group.
For students who are abstinent for religious reasons, though they often have the support of similarly-minded companions by way of their religious affiliations, mainstream college life has many added pitfalls. Though most say that they don't think about their decision to remain abstinent on a daily basis it does affect many of the choices they make in terms of how they lead their lives.
Alison* is an Orthodox Jew. She was not raised in an observant family, though even before becoming more committed religiously she made a pact in seventh grade that she would refrain from having sex before she was married. Still, for some observant Jews, being shomeret negiah, literally translated as "observing the laws of touching," can mean absolutely no physical contact with members of the opposite sex before marriage at all. No kissing once in a relationship, no brushing a girlfriend's hair, no shaking the hand of a platonic friend or acquaintance (though if a hand is offered most people accept so as to save the other person from embarrassment). Alison admits that her choice to be shomeret is not an easy one.
"I'd be lying if I said it was," she says. "But it doesn't mean that you can't do it. You have to be smart about situations you put yourself in. You're not going to walk around by yourself at three in the morning in West Philadelphia, just like you're not going to be alone in a boy's room at three in the morning."
Being abstinent can be really hard work.
Just ask Justin Mills, a 21-year old senior in the school of engineering. He and his girlfriend, Kate Williams, have been dating for just over a year and a half. Sitting outside of Cosi on a warm autumn day, the two are close together, elbows just touching on the metal table. When asked whether the pervasive attitude that sex is everywhere makes a commitment to abstinence more difficult, Justin suppresses a small laugh as Kate shakes her head and says that it isn't really that bad.
"I guess I just feel sad, because it's even hard for me, sometimes, to remember that this is something I've committed to because I want to do it," Kate says. "I definitely think it makes me sad how society has gotten so complacent to profanity."
After Kate finishes, Justin jumps right in.
"She can say what she wants, but it definitely makes it hard on me," he says, smiling. "We're different in that way, I know, because I'm a guy, and to go to movies that always have sex scenes, it makes it hard. Appetite -- sexual appetite -- is driven by indulgence, even in the smallest forms. So if we were able to not tempt ourselves or test ourselves in that way then it would be fine; it would be smooth sailing. But the fact that this world is so charged with sexual innuendo ---- movies are pretty revealing, and even the way people dress ---- makes it hard on me, because I have all these cues and temptations all around me. It's like everything around us is saying that it's okay to have sex, it's okay to indulge in your desires, when I think, like Kate said, it's very sad. But it's sad too that it makes it very hard on me, as a guy, to deal with all that."
Justin and Kate met during their freshman year. Both were members of Campus Crusade for Christ, and they quickly struck up a friendship. Each decided before they started dating that they wanted to be sexually abstinent, though unlike Cindy, both went to public high schools and had been in previous relationships.
"I didn't really decide until freshman year in college -- I don't say that I really lived a Christian life before then," Kate explains. Though raised nominally Christian, it was only halfway through her first semester that Christianity became a focal point for her. Still, she wasn't really thinking about abstinence then, because she "wasn't in a relationship at that time," but by the time she and Justin started dating, it was something she was positive she wanted to do.
Kate lets Justin explain the development of their relationship.
"You know more about the progression than I do," she says, giggling.
Both came into college getting over prior significant others, and so neither really considered dating that first year.
"Beginning of sophomore [year] was when I was basically free from those and had healed from them, I guess you could say, though I still had some things to go through, and some things to learn, before I was ready for another one." Justin says. "So that was sophomore year, and that's when I basically, well, I had met [Kate] before, but I started to like her then. And we had what in Christian circles is called a DTR -- "define the relationship" [talk] -- about three or four times throughout the sophomore year, so it was basically like, instead of me being like 'Oh, I have a crush on her,' and her being like 'Oh, I have a crush on him,' we'd just get together and we'd just say -- it's basically whenever two Christians of opposite gender get together and start spending a lot of time together you have to be like 'Ok, we're doing this for friendly reasons only,' just so you get out there, upfront, 'I'm not flirting with you, I just want to be an encouragement to you, I want to know what's going on in your life, but I'm not doing any of this in the sense that I'm looking towards dating.'"
Still, by April of their sophomore year, despite all of the DTRs, Justin finally let Kate know that he was interested in a serious relationship, and by the end of that summer, they were a couple.
"I sort of knew that he liked me, but there was a lot of -- he kept saying we're just doing this for friendly reasons, so I sort of thought, maybe he didn't like me. It was basically just a year where we weren't committed to each other, but I wasn't actively seeking out other guys," Kate says.
"We were courting," Justin says.
Both of them agree that when they started dating it was automatically assumed that they would remain abstinent, though boundaries were set early on.
"And it wasn't anywhere near [sex]," Kate says.
"Yeah, it was like, ok, so should we kiss?" Justin says.
Kate doesn't remember exactly how long it was between the start of their relationship and that first kiss.
"Four or five months?" she estimates. Justin knows for sure.
"Eight months," he says.
* * *
Abstinent individuals tend to feel that they -- and their relationships ---- benefit from their choices involving sexuality, though all make sure to affirm that they are doing this for God, and not for other reasons.
"It's not a set of rules," Justin explains. "It's not like rule number one of Christian dating is not to have sex. It's just something passed down. I think this is something that we both realize -- it's better, and we think that God wills it this way because it is better -- to not have sex before you're married, for reasons of growing in different areas."
"For the first few months of the relationship, when we weren't even kissing, in order to be close we would have more serious conversations, or we'd have to become closer in other ways instead of just physical. We really got to know each other in that time and got to know certain things that we struggle with: fears, hopes, things that we like to do, things that we didn't like to do," Kate explains.
"When we started kissing we had to step back and say, alright, we're not even talking to each other," Justin adds. This shored up their belief that their choice not to have sex had been a beneficial one.
"I think I probably know Kate better than most people who are in sexual relationships," Justin hazards. "It's just a guess, but from what I've experienced with physical stuff, I wouldn't know the person except on a physical level, and that's not really knowing them."
David*, a 19-year old student who, like Alison, is a shomer negiah observant Jew, thinks that the benefits of waiting until marriage may be even more concrete. He qualifies his statement by admitting that he cannot know for sure whether or not he's right -- he has never been in a non-shomer negiah relationship.
"Just by theorizing, it definitely helps a person soundly assess what kind of girl he's dealing with or he's meeting, because if you're in a physical relationship, you just kind of throw everything else to the wayside, because the kissing and the hugging and whatever else you're doing is great," David explains. "So you kind of ignore everything else that exists. Any major character flaws that she has, you wouldn't take such a good look at. But I think the real benefit will come down the line eventually when you do get married and you've saved it for the one person who you want to develop a lifelong relationship with, and it will be that much more meaningful."
For these students, abstinence also means never waking up after a night of potentially unsafe fun and worrying about having contracted AIDS or the clap.
"I never have to think, 'Oh, am I pregnant?'" Cindy jokes.
Still, as relationships get closer, the choice to be abstinent becomes more difficult.
Villari, along with directing the OHE, teaches a course called Nursing 503: Contemporary Issues in Human Sexuality. It is a nursing school course, but she explains that a lot of non-nursing seniors end up taking it for fun. In talking to abstinent students she's witnessed a lot of "personal stress" from individuals in committed, long-term abstinent relationships.
Cindy seconds that.
"We dated for a year and a half, and so it obviously got harder as the time went by, because we were getting closer as friends and closer emotionally, and we wanted to be closer physically," she says.
Still, despite the hardships, the pressures and the natural urges, it seems that most people find comfort in their sexual choice and their commitment to God.
"There are so many people that are probably like 'Why don't you just have fun with life, and go and enjoy it,' but, sex is a big thing -- the Bible says you leave your mother and father and become united in flesh -- and that's pretty huge, but sex is only a small part of that. So, we're working on the whole spectrum of things if [marriage] is what God has in store for us," Justin says.
A few moments later, he continues.
"I'm just guessing that a lot of people are going to look at this and be like 'What dorks,' ... but, I think it's the best thing for us. That's why I don't really mind putting my name out. Because it's like, we're not really ashamed of it. I don't think we should be"