Miller: A Fight Over Abstinence at Harvard

At Harvard, it's sounding a lot like the '70s again. Thanks to the provocations of True Love Revolution, the university's three-year-old pro-abstinence club, brainy women are defending their right to have sex with whomever they want, whenever and however they want. "To say that a consensual sexual act is degrading to you is the complete opposite of feminism," insisted Silpa Kovvali when I spoke with her last week. "For women to take control of the sex act can be an incredibly empowering experience." Kovvali, a computer-science major, was echoing an editorial she recently published in The Harvard Crimson. (Click here to follow Lisa Miller)

TLR, as it's called, has irked and unnerved campus progressives since its founding in 2006. On Valentine's Day 2007, TLR representatives put a chocolate in every freshwoman's mailbox with a heart-shaped card that read: "Why wait? Because you're worth it." Feminists on campus went wild, accusing TLR of promoting a retrograde view of sex and relationships. Recently the group has drawn fresh ire because it added to its mission statement, which had formerly supported sexual abstinence as a lifestyle choice, a platform that seemed calculated to ignite a culture war on campus. The new statement asserted that sex outside of marriage is "harmful to both parties"; it embraced "traditional marriage" (that is, not gay marriage); and it argued that choosing abstinence is "true feminism" in that "it recognizes the natural characteristics, strengths, and abilities of women and seeks to affirm them in this identity." The back and forth in the Crimson and on various university message boards continues to be acrimonious. TLR's claim to "true" feminism draws special fire because it raises questions about the goals of the sexual revolution: Does female liberation mean being able to say yes? Or does it mean saying no?

I went to college in the early 1980s, when feminist arguments like Kovvali's were as ordinary as air: I think True Love Revolution is on to something. Not its platform, seemingly cribbed from the Christian conservative playbook, but its articulation of students' dissatisfaction with sex and sex talk on campus. Although the actual amount of sex college students are having may not be as high as parents fear—nearly 80 percent of college students report having had one or no sexual partners in the past year—students say the hookup culture is dominant and oppressive. A new student Web site called Harvard FML (F--k My Life) reads like a Judd Apatow script, all horniness, nudity, vomit, and missed connections. (A G-rated example: "I am a conservative Christian. I am going mad with sexual desire. FML.") Who wouldn't welcome a vacation from that? Donna Freitas, a visiting scholar in religion at Boston University, studied attitudes about sex on seven college campuses and published her findings in her 2008 book, Sex and the Soul. She believes college students are not given an opportunity to tell the truth about what they want out of sex and relationships—desires that can include courtship, romance, and, yes, chocolates—without drawing the derision of their peers and even their professors. Their health service gives them condoms and lectures about sexually transmitted infections; their friends boast and complain endlessly about hookups real and imagined. "The average college student is miserable about sex. The idea of getting to step away from it is really appealing." Groups like TLR (and at Princeton and MIT, the Anscombe Society), are missing an opportunity if they don't invite a more nuanced conversation about sex.

True Love Revolution might do better, then, to leave aside the divisive and wrongheaded "one man, one woman" language and help guide students through this modern sexual wilderness. And though it is not a religious group, it has religious underpinnings, and it might look to religion for some of the most thoughtful (and, perhaps, useful) analyses of how liberated women and men can reasonably opt out of sex—or, at least, the kind of sex they don't want to have. Christine Firer Hinze, a theologian at Fordham University, believes that choosing abstinence can carry a strong countercultural message and a vision of personal fulfillment beyond immediate gratification. "A religious viewpoint can point you in a direction that says wholeness, integrity, enjoying life, even being a sensual person, can lead to a kind of fulfillment. Kids don't hear this anymore." Teaching kids that saying no can feel as good as saying yes—that's a revolution.