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Rethinking the "Rethinking Sex" Abstinence Conference

A couple of weeks ago, Trixie Films sent Aggie and Gwen to Boston to poke around at an Abstinence Conference hosted by Harvard for our documentary. Here's what they learned:

Saturday February 6. Cambridge, MA: My partner-in-video Gwen and I were on a Trixie mission – to shoot video, learn from, and speak with participants at a day-long conference called “Rethinking Sex: Building Healthy Relationships in a Hook-up World.” The conference was sponsored by the campus pro-abstinence group, True Love Revolution and its parent organization, The Love & Fidelity Network [we wrote about True Love Revolution in an earlier post].

They had scheduled lectures by three prominent figures in the pro-abstinence and pro-heterosexual-marriage movement, with a cherry on top: keynote speaker and leader in the “homosexual reform” movement (meaning to reform homosexuals), Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons.

Unfortunately, Dr. Fitzgibbons was snowbound in Philadelphia and could not attend, but his affiliation with this conference could not be easily ignored. Here's former Sex and the Ivy blogger and virginity expert Lena Chen at the conference in an interview we shot for “How to Lose Your Virginity.”

Back in normative heterosexuality land, Dr. John Van Epp gave a rather entertaining talk in which he presented findings (replete with citations) that marriage is a valuable social good and that people who have multiple sexual partners before marriage have a much harder time making their marriage work. He never defined marriage, but we could guess how he might if asked.

In an interesting twist, he did caution that while you should certainly wait to have sex and get married, don’t wait too long. “Studies have shown” (i.e. Lori Gottlieb, author of the new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough) that after a certain point (your thirties), the risk of divorce increases as your age at marriage increases.

So do wait, he said, and avoid falling for a jerk, but if you’re in your thirties, ask the jerk if there are some things you two can work on, because you know, neither of you are getting any younger. [The Harvard Dems did a lively live blog during his session that highlights the important moments of his talk.]

Though there was a great deal of talk about marriage and how to build the strongest marriages, some of the most glaring omissions (besides ignoring that the building itself looked like a giant vulva, above) were in that nobody explained why marriage is a social good nor how it can be such a good when it excludes every person who does not identify as heterosexual.

Lena Chen reviewed the conference for The American Prospect:

The conference attendees share an unquestioned belief that marriage is important, something to be salvaged. Even the term "premarital sex" suggests that marriage is an inevitability for all. In framing their arguments for chastity in this manner, abstinence proponents treat marriage as a goal that everyone should hold out for, all the while excluding queer sexuality from the equation.

In a more recent post on her blog the ch!cktionary, Lena called for a revision of our entire lexicon, starting with the wording of her own college thesis:

In a bit of a F-U to heteronormative cultural norms, I replace most instances of the term “premarital sex” in my thesis with “non-marital sex”. Because who the hell says that the sex my friends and I are having now is pre-anything?

So we asked the Vice President of Publicity for True Love Revolution, Rosemary Imms, her thoughts on why marriage is so darn attractive, and here is what she had to say:

While Rosemary’s party-line response did not help me to understand what political, economic, and institutional factors might account for this deep investment in (heterosexual) marriage, it did at least help me to understand why I’ve been so poor and depressed all my life: I was raised by only one incredibly resilient, unconditionally loving, and magnificently powerful woman. But if this woman could have just stayed with my neglectful and abusive father, I would have a much easier time paying my bills and getting rid of my acne.

So, yes, some of what I heard from TLR was hard to believe. Similarly, Gwen, my French shooting partner, brought a skeptical and sexually-open European sensibility to the event. Still she took away a this positive message from the conference:

"I wasn't too familiar with abstinence groups and I have always believed that groups such as True Love Revolution considered sex as something dirty and soul degrading, which would make me angry.

I am a young woman in my late twenties and I have been sexually active for the past ten years and I don't like the idea that some people would judge me ‘dirty’ because of it.

But after the first session, I understood that the message of True Love Revolution is not that sex is dirty or degrading but that it can emotionally hurt you if you don't know your partner very well. I could totally relate to it and with hindsight, it is true that if I had waited longer before sleeping with some ex-boyfriends, I would have had a clearer judgment on who they really were or if they were right for me.

I still believe that it is better to have had sex with the person you will marry as sex is an important aspect of a relationship and you and your partner need to get along, just as you need to get along about kids, education etc...But to my own surprise, that conference convinced me to wait longer before having sex with someone I am now dating."

I, like Gwen, found a hint of common ground in that I support TLR’s stated mission to help young people make informed, healthy, empowered and self-loving choices (in an accepting environment) to avoid the psychological or emotional turmoil that may attend sexual development in college.

But on the other hand, 1 in 5 college students experience sexual abuse at some point in college, abuse that may have nothing to do with making poor choices. And even if some of the choices are judged as poor by Laura Sessions Stepp, they are never deserving of the traumas inflicted upon women. More importantly, and least discussed, the poorest choices are those committed by the victimizers themselves. So rather than individualizing the pitfalls of sexual development, I wanted the conference to discuss what institutional, cultural and economic systems might be responsible for creating a culture in which bodies are controlled, objectified, and/or judged. And in so doing, teach us how we can change these systems so as to protect all genders and sexual orientations – and teach us how to treat one another with respect, in or outside of the bedroom.