The Good Lessons I Learned From Abstinence Education

My church and my parents encouraged me to wait for sex until marriage. I'm glad they did.
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Outside religious circles, abstinence education gets praised about as often as Donald Trump's hairdo. Whether it's a public school curriculum or just the teachings of a church Sunday school class, encouraging youth to delay sex and choose a partner carefully usually gets branded as damaging or even sometimes "slut-shaming." Abstinence advocates are frequently accused of manipulative tactics or outright deception; discouraging use of birth control; and setting pre-marital virginity up as an ideal state apart from which women face "a kind of damnation," as Andy Kopsa noted in a recent piece on the reality show Preachers' Daughters.

Though plenty of abstinence education's critics raise fair concerns, I have not found the central aim to be harmful. My long, if often reluctant, season of chastity has actually made me more of a feminist and a better, more whole woman.

As with most polarizing terms, "abstinence education" means many things to many people. In this country, it encompasses a range of conversations, from those between parents and children to those within religious communities to some programs in public schools. Regardless of the setting, most apologists for abstinence encourage teens to delay sex—usually, but not always, until marriage.

My abstinence education occurred mainly at a medium-sized, non-denominational Bible church my family attended, when our junior high Sunday school class went through part of Josh McDowell's Why Wait materials. Though my memory of the sessions is sketchy, the gist was that Christians are called to submit all parts of our lives to God, including our relationships. Because the Bible presents sex as intended for marriage, I was taught that sexual abstinence before marriage was as an expectation similar to telling the truth or not stealing.

I don't remember much about what other, practical reasons may have been presented for waiting, but the teachers also encouraged each of us to think about concrete standards for ourselves—how far we would be willing to go on a first date, for instance. Regrettably, I don't recall any counsel on how to announce those boundaries or speak up when things got too far. (I naively planned to disclose my standards when a guy first called to ask me out.)

Perhaps because they knew what I was learning in Sunday school, my parents' sexual guidance was less didactic. Dad often discussed Proverbs with my siblings and me, especially the chapter warning against adultery. They never gave me an official sex talk, though, because by junior high, I'd learned about the mechanics of sex from romance novels. When my parents did discuss sexual ethics, it often came out in Dad's regrets that he'd had sex before marrying Mom, which they said hurt their relationship (he became a Christian when he was 19).

Later as a college student, I read or heard many more apologies for abstinence that introduced other arguments and justifications, many faulty and some perhaps even oppressive. Some books implied that God would provide marriage—and sex—only once you stopped looking for or wanting it ("it will happen when you least expect it!") or as reward for sexual obedience. Others thought abstinence would pay off in even better sex once you got married, like God gave virgins a special orgasmic boost for waiting patiently.

No matter how poorly people made the case, though, the underlying theme has continued to resonate with me. You don't owe your body to anyone. Be selective. Take your time. Wait for someone completely committed to you, who wants your well-being more than he wants your body.

For various reasons, I didn't really start dating until my 20s and, as it happened, most men who asked me out did not share my religious beliefs or commitment to saving sex until I was married. Because one's sexual values don't always come up in a first conversation, I usually managed one or two dates before the abstinence disclosure.

Men typically handled the news one of two ways: Some refused any sexual touch (not even kissing) as long as sex was off the table, while others tried to push as far as they could, perhaps in hopes I'd finally give in. I went along with this to a point—but always as a passive participant. However pleasant the experience proved, kissing or touching almost always started earlier in the acquaintance than I wanted it to. Often I would have been happiest sharing none of my body yet, a fact I usually ignored for fear of the awkwardness of saying, "I'm not comfortable with this."

One night I finally said, "That doesn't feel good." The truth was, I wasn't at all comfortable with what he was doing, but I'd never previously interrupted a date to tell him that. Since I didn't even like how things felt, though, critiquing technique seemed a safe first step to escaping before I more seriously compromised my standards. When I ran up to my room, alone, a few minutes later, I was shaken by how far and fast things had moved, but also proud of myself for finally speaking up.

After enough men had quit calling over my abstinence, I took a break from dating. As the months gave way to years, I found myself without even a man to dream about. And though I felt the inward, slowly intensifying drumbeat of fertile urgency, I was fine. I didn't need men's attention to be OK. In fact, all the headspace vacated by romantic daydreams left me more energy for things that brought me to life: music, cooking, reading, knitting, and other adventures.

Then one night my church hosted a salsa dance and a stranger asked me to dance. He was handsome and a decent dancer and before long we were chatting on the sidelines. After a while, he asked if I wanted some fresh air.

As we headed for the parking lot, I felt a sinking feeling inside. He's going to try to kiss me. I just know it.

Friends who know me would probably say I'm expressive. I'm notorious for my sighs, but also my utter lack of a poker face. When my boss told me he and his wife were having another baby, I jumped up and down. And when my housemates and I make up after a squabble, we usually hug. Touch provides a spontaneous language of empathy and affection in nearly all my close relationships.

Yet almost every time a man has kissed or touched me, the acquaintance has still been so new that I hardly feel anything for him except perhaps excitement and a little uncertainty. Sometimes such feelings might prompt me to drum my fingers on a table top or fuss with my hair style, but I have never sought to express excitement or uncertainty by kissing someone or grabbing his hand.

So when we walked out to the parking lot that night, and my salsa-dance partner moved closer and started caressing my neck, I uhmed and faltered, then finally said I wasn't ready to kiss him.

It was awkward. I felt like a loser and a kill-joy. But it was also the most honest I'd ever been about my comfort level. He asked for my number anyway, but I knew he wouldn't use it.

Driving home later, I felt the faint wrench of another chance for romance lost, but it was soon assuaged by something deeper: the satisfaction of finally keeping emotions and actions in sync. That night probably marks a personal feminist high point. It took chastity to get me there.

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Anna Broadway is a writer and editor based near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she is a regular contributor to Her.meneutics and Paste.

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