Although it may not be common in college, I am abstinent. I want to hide when sex enters the conversation—it makes me feel excluded. The way my high school peers used to talk about it put an entire gender into a pool of unidentified bodies. There was no way I could crawl out of the sea and get them to hear me. Their sexual nonchalance made me an outcast, because I didn’t see them the way they saw me.
The sexual revolution made abstinence a thing of the past. To be part of the present, we are encouraged to sleep with who we want and expect others to do the same. Like fruitcake at a buffet, abstinence is regarded as inedible and even humorous.
I am glad the sexual revolution happened: it was time for women to be sexually liberated. But it seems that society has grown intolerant of other lifestyle choices.
To many, my relationships remain fanciful abstractions because I haven’t proven them physically. My love advice is no longer helpful when people realize I have no experience with sex. Relationships are full of wild complications of which sex does not play a part, but sex has become a prerequisite of the dating world.
The exclusion begins as early as high school. The most influential high schoolers determine social norms, and abstinence is not often listed among them. I had spent most of my high school career sheltering myself from unpleasant encounters and strange looks after it became known that I chose to be abstinent. I never had the desire to influence anyone, but I was always nervous the heteronormative establishment was changing people’s opinions against their will.
Leaving high school, I was hopeful. Southern prep could stay behind while I was introduced to an explosion of diverse perspectives. Instead, here at Penn, I was met with yet another round of intolerance.
The blatant rejection of abstinence as a possible lifestyle choice was evident from the first freshman sexual consent presentation. The presenters listed all the ways to be sexually active: heterosexual relationships, homosexual relationships, asexual relationships, and open relationships. Abstinence brought up the rear, the last option picked, and the first to be cast aside with peels of laughter. High school memories came back in vivid detail.
It’s easy to say high school ends and we move on. But the lasting desire to feel included only increases as we navigate the dating world and attempt to hold lasting relationships.
In my first few weeks at Penn, I tried to meet new people in the dining halls, figuring it was my best shot since introductions are daunting during freshman orientation. I noticed a friendly–looking group who seemed to be having a good time. I asked them if I could sit down, and they nodded, but continued to talk.
In less than five minutes, the Rice Purity Test came up, and they were asking about each other’s scores, describing in detail how they planned to improve them. I was trying to think of an appropriate way to react so I wouldn’t put a damper on the conversation. It’s hard not to look conspicuously quiet in a group of four, and I was frantically keeping my face neutral, even laughing occasionally to show I understood.
In college, we imagine people are having all the sex all the time, but in reality it is a false pretense. I don’t remember the joke that made me grip my seat so tightly at my first Mask and Wig show, but I remember wondering who else in the audience was feeling the same discomfort.
According to Rebecca Huxta—the Associate Director of Campus Health at Penn—a 2016 survey based on the National College Health Assessment II shows that approximately 73% percent of Penn students have had zero to one sexual partners in the past year. The majority of Penn students aren't having as much sex as people think. Many of us feel marginalized by the pressures of conversation and jokes to act more experienced than we are, or want to be.
The obvious conclusion people come to is that I stay abstinent for religious reasons—as in, I am irrationally following a set of codified laws which have brainwashed me and control my life. People choose abstinence for a host of reasons—some even to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Religion isn't the only explanation and it shouldn't be the assumed reason. My personal reasons for abstaining are not dramatic, but practical fulfillments that work for me.
Abstinence is not a removal of sex from life. On the contrary, it is of critical importance to talk about sex in a healthy manner from a young age without negating its importance. And while I agree that abstinence–only programs are not the answer, it should not be overshadowed as a viable option. The culture surrounding abstinence is one of guilt, silence, and cover–ups, and is largely ineffective at improving adolescent health. Removing abstinence from the sex conversation is polarizing, and limits potentially diverse conversations across genders and cultures.
Abstinence isn’t for everyone—but some of us do find fruitcakes delicious. We shouldn’t be made to feel like outsiders because of it.
Sarah Beth Gleeson is a freshman in Engineering.