NY Times Magazine: Students of Virginity

Posted by Kendall Harmon

There was a time when not having sex consumed a very small part of Janie Fredell’s life, but that, of course, was back in Colorado Springs. It seemed to Fredell that almost no one had sex in Colorado Springs. Her hometown was extremely conservative, and as a good Catholic girl, she was annoyed by all the fundamentalist Christians who would get in her face and demand, as she put it to me recently, “You have to think all of these things that we think.” They seemed not to know that she thought many of those things already. At her public high school, everyone, “literally everyone,” wore chastity rings, Fredell recalled, but she thought the practice ridiculous. Why was it necessary, she wondered, to signify you’re not doing something that nobody is doing?

And then Fredell arrived at Harvard. Sitting in a Cambridge restaurant not long ago, she told me that people back home called it “godless, liberal Harvard.” Some discouraged her from going, but Fredell went anyway, arriving in the fall of 2005. She wanted to study government, she said, maybe become a lawyer, and she knew that “people take you more seriously as a Harvard student.”

From the start, she told me, she was awed by the diversity of the place, by the intensity, by the constant buzz of ideas. There were so many different kinds of people at Harvard, most of them trying to change the world, and everyone trying to figure out what they thought of everyone else. “Harvard really puts pressure on you to define who you are,” Fredell said, and she loved everything about Harvard, except the sex.

Sex, as she put it, was not even “anything I’d ever thought about” when, as a freshman, she was educated in safe-sex practices. What she was told was the sort of thing found in a Harvard pamphlet called “Empowering You”: “put the condom on before the penis touches the vagina, mouth, or anus. . . . Use a new condom if you want to have sex again or if you want to have a different type of sex.”

Fredell began to understand she was in “a culture that says sex is totally O.K.” When a new boyfriend came to her, expressing desire, she managed to “stick to my guns,” she said, but there were “uncouth and socially inept” men, as she considered them, all around, and observing the rituals of her new classmates, Fredell couldn’t help being alarmed. “The hookup culture is so absolutely all-encompassing,” she said. “It’s shocking! It’s everywhere!”

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchEducationSexualityYoung Adults* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

23 Comments
Posted March 31, 2008 at 12:50 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Katherine wrote:

This is exactly what my daughters report, and not from Harvard, either.  The hookup culture is everywhere, and girls who don’t go along are treated as being really odd.

March 31, 12:58 pm | [comment link]
2. paxetbonum wrote:

I sort of find it ironic and sad that the children of the “Boom generation” are doing exactly what their parents were doing in the late 60s. (Free love, man! - Let’s hookup, yo!) My generation was beset with the fear of the AIDS virus. I guess the campaigns against AIDS are a bit passe these days.

March 31, 1:10 pm | [comment link]
3. Phil wrote:

I can already imagine the outrage, but I’m going to go there, anyway.  Episcopalianism is encouraging this kind of behavior.  That may not be the intent, but, look - to normalize one behavior, they’ve gone after all the guardrails indiscriminately.  Societal norms, religious tradition, Scriptural admonitions - they’ve all been systematically undercut in the name of “justice.”

What revisionists don’t seem to understand, or don’t want to admit, is that the same reasoning lends itself to normalizing almost any frowned-on behavior.  They’re relying on the non-existent good will of society to restrain itself, while Christianity understands nobody, ultimately, can be relied on for good intent, save God.  And so we rely on His revelation, and not our own.

March 31, 2:25 pm | [comment link]
4. libraryjim wrote:

That’s one of the reasons my daughter fought to get OUT of her sorority (evidentally like TEC it’s easier to get in than out) - she was tired of being 1) pressured to drink (she only just turned 19, so she was 18 at the time) and 2) pressured to have sex. 

She reported that at one party, she saw one ‘sister’ sneak off with another’s boyfriend, and come back with her dress inside out. She heard the girlfriend say “Well, let’s see how SHE likes it” as she went off with the other girls boyfriend.  :-(

She was not happy, and is now being shunned by all the former ‘sisters’ at the university, but has found a new set of friends in the honor’s students (when she moved out of the ‘house’ the only dorm space was in the honor’s dorm.  Which improved her grades, which made her eligible to STAY in the honor’s dorm. which is where she is now).

March 31, 2:30 pm | [comment link]
5. Br. Michael wrote:

We seem to be adrift in a sea of sex.  Phil is absolutely right.

March 31, 3:22 pm | [comment link]
6. Katherine wrote:

Phil, this is one of the reasons I’ve been upset about the same-sex agenda, besides the obvious.  What does it tell the 98% of young people who are interested in the opposite sex when the Church leadership busies itself with excusing and encouraging same-sex involvement?

libraryjim, my daughter declined to pledge to a sorority for the same reasons.  She had friends who were totally changed by the system.

March 31, 3:39 pm | [comment link]
7. Jim the Puritan wrote:

My son didn’t end up going to a “top-rated” college, like I did.  Yet when I see all this sex stuff coming out of Harvard and the other supposedly “best” colleges in the country, I really don’t see the point of spending $40-$50K every year for an “education” like this.  I remember how depressed one of my friends was when he went to visit his son at Princeton one weekend a couple of years ago.  He said all that the students did from Thursday evening through Sunday was drink themselves blind drunk; he couldn’t believe it.

I have to say, in support of my son’s “non-selective” college, they really have cracked down on underage drinking (I would suspect largely because of liability concerns), and I as a parent am happy they are doing it.

I give a lot of credit and respect to women like Janie Fredell and Wendy Shalit (who went to my college and was probably the first who made a real issue out of what the elite colleges were not only tolerating but encouraging).  I hope they will find that there are still men out there that honor them for their integrity.

March 31, 3:41 pm | [comment link]
8. Phil wrote:

libraryjim and Katherine, as the parent of a very young daughter, those are the kinds of things that frighten me.  In a real sense, I think the odds are heavily stacked against even parents who do everything right (and what parent can pull that off, anyway?) if the surrounding culture is saturated with bad influences.  I feel I need to be able to rely on the Church (and everything else I can get, for that matter) to backstop what I’m teaching my children.  For that reason alone, I wouldn’t put my children within a mile of an Episcopal church.

March 31, 4:04 pm | [comment link]
9. Branford wrote:

Don’t forget Dawn Eden’s great book, “The Thrill of the Chaste,” which does a very good job of explaining why chastity until marriage is so important (although the book is more geared towards women who have been sexually active and are trying to break that cycle than girls who have never been sexually active).

March 31, 4:52 pm | [comment link]
10. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

This article is one of many signs of the uphill battle that being a Christian involves in an increasingly de-Christianized culture.  I have two children, both of whom went to an elite evangelical college (Wheaton), which strongly discourages pre-marital sex.  But in a sex-obsessed culture like ours, temptation abounds and is inescapable.  Still, I’m happy that both our 28-year old son and our 26-year old daughter have honored the virginity rings we gave them in high school.  Our son has been married for five years, but our daughter is still single and waiting expectantly for the right guy to come along.  Both are chaste and both are fervent, on-fire Christians.  There is hope.

But there is no question that our culture makes it hard to be sexually pure.  It’s like swimming upstream against a powerful current.  But salmon do it, and so do many people.

Part of the problem is not the mere immorality itself.  It is the trivialization of sex, the cheapening of it that is so sick a characteristic of our society.  It’s apparent in our shameless advertsing as well as out Top 40 Hits, not to mention MTV and so many movies etc.  It is part of the genius of Christianity, especially in the Catholic tradition, to view sex in sacramental terms, investing it with tremendous symbolic significance.  To empty it of all such deep meaning and treat it in the usual hedonistic way our mass media does is to commit a sacrilege.  It’s not merely immoral and unhealthy and so on; it’s blasphemous.

I don’t agree with everything John Paul the Great says in his famous speeches collected under the title “The Theology of the Body.”  And I don’t agree with all Christopher West’s interpretations of those luminous, if somewhat opague, declarations of the profound depths of meaning attached to our sexuality.  But I welcome the remarkable revolution in the whole tone of Catholic teaching about sex that J-P II inaugurated.  It is very positive and refreshingly wholesome.

On the other hand, TEC is like a fountain spewing forth filth and lies about sex, as it does about so much else.  Back in the 1960s we seem to have made a fateful decision, sort of like so many colleges today:  “Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

David Handy+

March 31, 7:09 pm | [comment link]
11. Sidney wrote:

As somebody who is usually at odds with conservatives on this blog, I have to say that I have been very discouraged by the (few) women I’ve met and dated in the Episcopal Church over the years.  Their loose attitudes about sex are saddening and frustrating.

Two other comments about the article: it fails to note that *women* tend to disrespect men who are virgins.  (I know, from my own experience.)  They need to be held accountable for that.

Second, masturbation is briefly mentioned (negatively) in the article.  This is absurd.  Masturbation needs neither demonization nor promotion.  Although there is nothing holy about it, I think attaching moral content to it is a stretch.  For me, it has always been the best tool I’ve ever had to blow off steam quickly and get my mind onto higher things.

March 31, 7:40 pm | [comment link]
12. vulcanhammer wrote:

The sad truth (as I note here) is that this kind of pressure has been going on for a lot longer than many of us care to admit.

And yes, #6, the same-sex agenda and this are very strongly connected, as I observed here.  This issue is just getting started in my own church, and the time I’ve spent keeping up with the Anglican/Episcopal world is paying off.

March 31, 8:27 pm | [comment link]
13. Katherine wrote:

Phil, all you can do is teach them they way they should go and pray.  Both of my daughters are okay.  They accepted having little or no social life in high school and college because of the expectations.  And Sidney is right; it’s women as well as men who disrespect virginity.

April 1, 2:00 am | [comment link]
14. RichardKew wrote:

During the Sixties when I was a seminarian, I remember Michael Green (who taught us New Testament) coming back from leading a university mission at either Oxford or Cambridge, and one of the things he said as a result of that week of intense interaction with students was to the effect that it wouldn’t be long before it would only be the Christian men and women who abstained from premarital sex. He was right, and it has to be said that not all of them have managed to maintain their chastity.

Sexual liberation in those days was considered very counter-culture, today it is clear that it is chastity that is the really counter-culture way to live. Having lived in the environment of various colleges and universities when we were in the States, and now back in England and living in Cambridge, I would say that things are not very different between the two countries.

April 1, 5:41 am | [comment link]
15. John316 wrote:

A many years ago
When I was young and charming
As some of you may know
I practiced baby-farming.  -Gilbert and Sullivan, HMS Pinafore, 1878

I actually got interested in this subject through a study of Gilbert and Sullivan.  It seems promiscuity became a problem with the Industrial Revolution when men and women began to live in close proximity.  The automobile only made things worse.

April 1, 11:26 am | [comment link]
16. paxetbonum wrote:

I am bemused to hear the Episcopal Church being drug through the mud in the comments about this article. The article doesn’t mention TEC once.

As to TEC and teaching about human sexuality, while we do not have one articulated teaching on human sexuality, I have NOT heard leaders advocate free love and anything goes. Instead, I have heard leaders advocate that homosexuals in the church (who have been there long before +Gene Robinson) to be faithful, monogamous, committed, and in long term relationships. It would likely be easier if we did have teaching about human sexuality.

Having worked in ordained ministry with the age group described in the article, I can tell you specifically that I was disturbed during the shift from Gen Xers to Millennials. I heard much more talk about sex in general and about promiscuity and group sex from the millennials. Of course this may have something to do with the fact that when these 18 year olds were 8, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and talk of “oral sex” was in the media 24/7.

I found the recent study that said that people in their early twenties, because of brain development, engage in the highest amount of risk taking behavior of any point in their lives. You combine this biology with the sociological reality of people getting married later in life (late 20s to early 30s), and you are bound to have a culture where pre-marital sex is the norm.

Coincidentally, the church in general has an awfully poor model for getting 20 somethings through the door. When Baby-boomers were growing up, the model was, “If they don’t go to church during college, no big deal… we’ll bring them back into the church when they get married or baptize their first child.” Then the age of marriage gets pushed back and we are left twiddling our thumbs because we don’t know how to get single twenty-somethings through our doors and then what to do with them when they get there.

April 1, 2:00 pm | [comment link]
17. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

paxetbonum (#16),

The kind of defeatism (as I would call it) represented by your post (which you may well consider merely “realism”) is exactly the kind of reason why TEC has been dragged up in this thread.  That is, your viewpoint, that it’s just inevitable that pre-marital sex will be the norm when people marry as late in life as they do today is all too typical of how most leaders in TEC think.  I submit that the kind of roll over and play dead defeatism your attitude seems to me to represent is one of the key reasons why we are in this big mess over sexual ethics, as well as biblical authority in general.

Let me harken back (for the umpteenth time) to one of my persistent themes in so many of my posts, i.e., that the real challenge we face is coming to terms with living in a radically de-Christianized, pluralistic, morally relativistic culture and our need to adopt a wholly new, Post-Christendom, sectarian, Christ-AGAINST-culture mindset.  For us Anglicans, with our state church heritage, that is about as radical and revolutionary a change as it’s possible to conceive of.

The great text that haunts me so much of the time is the familiar challenge from the end of the Sermon on the Mount:  “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is BROAD and the way is EASY that leads to….”
well to what?  social harmony?  inclusiveness?  peace etc?
No!, on the authority of our Lord himself, it leads to DESTRUCTION, as in eternal destruction in the fires of hell.

“But the gate is NARROW and the way is HARD that leads to life, and those who find it are (alas) few.”  (Matthew 7:14-15).

I’m sure you can readily see why this text is so hard for us “mainline” types to take seriously.  And especially us Anglicans.  Because the Master here calls what is BROAD bad, and what is NARROW good.  And it is quite clear that a huge number of people will in the end fail to receive eternal life and be excluded from the bliss of heaven, not by some inscrutable eternally predestined decree of God, but by their own choice of the easy and popular way over God’s narrow and hard way.

Let me illustrate this with a personal testimony.  I’ve been ordained a priest for over 20 years now (since 1985).  I had a disastrous experience doing my very first wedding.  A very young (too young!) couple (he was 19, she 18) asked me to do their wedding, as his mother attended our church occasionally and he’d been baptized and c onfirmed in the parish.  OK.  I asked them to start attending services, so the community could get to know them and help support them as they entered this new stage in their lives.  I also asked them to come to five pre-marital counseling sessions.  They agreed.  So far, so good.  All was fine until about time for the 3rd or 4th counseling sessions, I called his apartment to try to reschedule our next session.  And his former roommate said, “Oh, he’s not here anymore.  Didn’t you know? He moved in with her.”  Now it was only something like a month before the wedding.

I was furious.  The couple couldn’t believe I was upset.  What was the big deal?  So I told them, “Look.  You’ve sent out the invitations, plopped down a big hunk of change for the reception etc.  Let’s make a deal.  I’ll still marry you guys.  But I want you two to stop living together until the wedding.  If you’re not willing, then here’s what will happen.  I still want you to come to church, but I won’t give you communion as long as you’re living in sin.”

I’ll bet you can guess the outcome.  They did come to church for the next month, but since they were still living together I did deny them communion.  We went through with the ceremony, and…niether they nor the groom’s mother ever darkened the door of the church again.  They felt judged and abused.  I felt manipulated and used.  No one was happy.  A disaster all around.

That left such a bad taste in my mouth that I swore that I’d never be caught in that trap again.  And so for the last 20 years I’ve kept a strict policy and I’ve NEEVER again married a couple that was living together (OK, not that I knew about anyway!).  I simply refuse to do the wedding of any couple living together, and I tell them up front that if they start living together before the wedding, I will refuse to do their ceremony.  And I’ve kept to that unusually strict policy for 20 years.

I imagine there are very few priests in TEC, even among the conservative wing, that are that ultra strict about it.  I know it strikes many people as being harsh and legalistic and Pharisaical etc.  And maybe it is.  But I’ve never regretted it.

David Handy+

April 1, 2:46 pm | [comment link]
18. vulcanhammer wrote:

#17: Good for you!  I hope that other ministers of all kinds will take heed to your policy.  The amount of cohabitation that’s going on is depressing.

April 1, 3:01 pm | [comment link]
19. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Vulcanhammer (#18),

Thanks.  I appreciate the encouragement.  Yes, alas, co-habitation has become the norm rather than the exception in many places.  And that is despite repeated sociological studies that have PROVEN over and over that couples that live together before marriage have a HIGHER divorce rate than those who don’t (contrary to the conventional wisdom that living together is a useful “trial” or probationary period to test out compatibility).

Sorry, everybody, for all the typo’s in my #17.  It was a sign of writing hastily, in a sort of fever of strong emotion.  And I didn’t take the time to proofread it as carefully as I should.  It’s a sign of how passionately I feel about the subject.

I don’t hesitate to say it.  Cohabitation is the biggest threat to marriage in our culture today.  It’s high time that we took that threat as seriously as it deserves.  Recall Hebrews 13:4, a typical biblical text.  “Let marriage be held in honor by all.  And let the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge the immoral…”

David Handy+

April 1, 3:18 pm | [comment link]
20. paxetbonum wrote:

David Handy+

Methinks you ascribe to much to my position. I was simply naming
the sociology. I am not saying that I capitulate to that position and thereby somehow teach something different than no sex apart from marriage.

Richard Kew wrote: “Sexual liberation in those days was considered very counter-culture, today it is clear that it is chastity that is the really counter-culture way to live.”

I was trying to point out that part of the reason we are where we are culturally has to do with sociology (when people get married now) and biology (brain development).

Now where does this smack of dead defeatism? I did not advocate a position of how the church ought to respond to the situation.
As you point out, there are other reasons as well, including the post-christendom state we live in. The thing I would caution against here is that we sometimes like to portray the good old days as more sexually chaste. One only has to look as far back as the 1940s to know that our GIs were in no way chaste, or the roaring 20s, etc., etc., etc.

The Christ against culture model is the one some Christians have used for a long time. Historically, monasticism has operated with this mode of being, withdrawing from the culture. Christianity under communism operated this way. To me this sounds reactionary and counter-dependant.  Would it not make sense for the church to at times learn from the culture - to be in dialog with the culture? Shouldn’t we learn from all of Niebuhr’s five models rather than pigeon hole the church into one only?

The case in point here would be slavery. You and I both know that slavery is a SIN. In some cases, the church had to learn from the changing culture that it was wrong. The church, at least in some places, advocated that there was nothing wrong with slavery. Ultimately, they learned from the culture that they were wrong. That, I think, is why the Southern Baptist Church apologized for slavery in 1995 (about 100 years too late in my opinion.)

David+, finally to your final point - counseling a couple - you got me.right on this one. It makes more sense to me (generally) to move co-habiting couples toward the altar and keep them connected to the church, than to limit whose wedding at which you will officiate, knowing that conversion happens gradually for many people over a period of years.

In response to the case you bring up, I grieve for the couple and for you. I pray that they have been restored to the church.

April 1, 4:55 pm | [comment link]
21. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

paxetbonum (#20),

I’m glad you responded.  You have raised a number of questions and issues, and I’ll try to respond to them as best I can in a short space (within the limits of the blog medium).

First, as to why I took your earlier post (#16) to be “defeatist,” I was partly influenced by your statement that due to the biological and sociolgical factors you mentioned, “you are bound to have a culture where pre-marital sex is the norm.”  And I was partly led to make that conclusion by your statement about how we seem clueless in general in TEC about how to reach the twenty-somethings, i.e., in your phrase we’re often left “twiddling our thumbs.”

My point was simply that this kind of apparent despair over how to turn this situation around is unnecessary.  I know many chaste young Christians, and I know some churches that are doing a fantastic job ministering to that hard-to-reach “20-something” age group.  For example, my home church now, Eternity Anglican in Richmond is closely related to a non-denominational, evangelical congregation called simply Eternity Church (with whom we share the building and the staff).  And Eternity Church is predominantly made up of people in their 20s and 30s, about half married and half single.  Average Sunday attendance for Eternity Church is about 125.

More strikingly, the AMiA church my two children attend (and they are both in their 20s) is much larger and includes HUGE numbers of college students.  At the Easter Vigil, the place was packed with over 1000 people, and about half of them were in their 20s or 30s.

Now I’m not nostalgic about the past, but the Sexual Revolution of the 60s DID make a difference.  And to a significant degree that was fostered by the invention of the Pill, and then the decriminalization of abortion in 1973.  As a result of these and other influences and social trends, we have an unprecedented problem with children being born out of wedlock in this country.  The scale of this problem is genuinely new.  Even in the Roaring Twenties, for example, one-third of babies weren’t born out of wedlock (and it’s TWO-thirds born out of wedlock in the black community).  And STD’s are at an all-time high.  Finally, cohabitation has NEVER been as socially acceptable as it is today. 

So, you don’t need to idealize the past to be horrified by the current realities of the present.  I know you have been shocked by the casual attitude toward “hooking up” among the Millenial generation.  Well, I’ve been appalled, but not shocked.  It’s just what I’d expect given the kind of permissive culture we now live in.

Finally, as for Richard Niebuhr’s famous five models of how Christians have related to the surrounding culture, there are indeed strengths and weaknesses with all five models.  I am very familiar with that classic book (“Christ and Culture”).  But when Niebuhr wrote it back in the early 1950s, it was POSSIBLE for Christians to be “mainline” and to have a realistic chance of acting as leaders in the culture.  His favored model, “Christ the Transformer of Culture,” made sense in the heyday of the Protestant “mainline.”  But that was then…

Alas, those days are OVER.  Kiss them goodbye.  Grieve as long as you must.  And the reason is quite clear.  Our society has moved beyond the “separation” of church and state to an unofficial “divorce” between Christianity and the general culture.  Being transformers of the culture is no longer a realistic option, when we’ve been increasingly shoved to the margins and religion is forcefully relegated to the private sphere by the aggressive secularization of our culture by its opinion-shaping elites (in higher education, the mass media, and the government). 

Western culture is increasingly telling the Church, “I don’t love you anymore.  I want out of this relationship.”  In fact, the truth be told, our society has already taken a new lover, call it “secular humanism,” “pluralism” (as an ism, as an ideology), “inclusiveness” or whatever you prefer.

That’s only scratching the surface of some very deep matters, I admit.  If you want to know more, I’d be more than happy to expand on what I’ve just tried to say.  These are CRUCIAL matters.  I’m glad you raised them.

David Handy+

April 1, 5:44 pm | [comment link]
22. vulcanhammer wrote:

David Handy+: it would be great if you could encapsulate your thoughts on this subject in one article.  Visit my contact page and send me a message if you want to discuss that further.

April 1, 9:32 pm | [comment link]
23. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Vulcanhammer (#22),

Thanks once again.  I’m flattered by your suggestion.  I’ll contact you privately.

Gratefully,
David Handy+

April 2, 9:48 am | [comment link]
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