Most people who have sex tend to assume that those who do not have sex are far worse off. Virgins, or even those poor people who can just never manage to get some, must a) have a religious reason for abstaining or b) have something seriously wrong with them, must be awkward, ugly, etc.-some quality that absolutely prevents them from pursuing the greatest pleasure in life. If they could have sex, they would. But what if they chose not to have sex, for some reason other than religion, because they plain did not want to? What then?
Generally speaking, virgins, or even those non-virgins who choose to stop having sex, are a lonely crowd at college. Never mind the obvious, practical reasons for which one might choose to abstain, e.g., risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, or the "Unabashedly Virgin" Facebook support group (whose members, by the way, are primarily from the Philolexian Society). When I bring this up with Judith Steinhart, the certified sexuality educator, counselor, and consultant who was beloved and revered during her time in the Go Ask Alice health promotion program at Columbia, she agrees. "There's a stigma about being a virgin or abstinent in college," Judith tells me. "There's tremendous pressure to have sex, frequent sex, meaningful sex, and experience. You're supposed to be sexually sophisticated and know everything there is to know."
Of course, there are a massive number of ways one could define virginity and abstinence. And there are important differences in both the meaning and significance of virginity for straight men, straight women, and queer people. According to Judith, "If you put 15 people [Columbia students] in a room-even if they were all heterosexual-they would each have different definitions of virginity and abstinence." Moreover, in Judith's experience, Columbia students have a range of reasons for choosing to abstain, including family influence, personal values, not having found an "appropriate" partner, discomfort, not feeling ready, fear of pain (mostly for women), concerns with being able to do it "right," and, most interestingly, the fear of losing the ability to say no in the future-that once you say yes to sex, you will never be able to say no to anything sexual again. Yet of all the wonderful Alice support groups, there is not a single one dedicated to the issue. According to Judith, students expressed interest in creating an abstinence support group a couple of years ago, then quickly let go of the project due to the perceived virgin and abstinence stigmas.
But sometimes, even-or maybe especially-when you have had or would like to have tons of sex, not having sex turns into a choice option. A good guy friend of mine simply prefers not to actively seek sexual partners-it's just not that a big a deal to him. Another went months without sex because he did not feel like having sex just for the sake of doing so whenever he brought someone home. Sex, whether it is just a hook-up or with a long-term lover, inevitably comes with drama.
Sex can get exceptionally messy when you are just out of a relationship. Many people immediately move to sleep with someone new, only to wake up and decide it was not their best decision, that they rushed into something they may not have meant to do so quickly. Others effectively lose their sex drives post-relationship. Myself included. It is not as though I don't have opportunities; hell, I make sure I have plenty of those. But somehow, much as I would like to, I can't make it past the drunken make-out without feeling lonely and sad and completely turned off. Not having sex becomes less of a choice and more like the only option. Sex, whenever it finally happens again, often means you've put a relationship behind you.
The broad assumption is that choosing not to have sex, rather than choosing to have sex, is the harder, more serious decision. Yet for many college students, perhaps more than we know, not having sex simply makes sense. The more sex you do have, the more sex you want; the more you want, the more you need; the more you need, the more you get caught up. The less sex you have, the longer you go without it, the less you want or need it. Having sex can be dangerously addictive.
This may not be true for all people who choose not have sex-I find it hard to believe that no one out there chooses not to have sex for poor and unhealthy reasons-but in many ways, waiting for sex or taking a break from having sex affords you the chance to figure out exactly what it means to you. Sometimes sex is fun and daring and bold. Sometimes it's the opposite. Perhaps the most dangerous side effect of the so-called virgin and abstinence stigmas is that they rob us of the chance to take one of the most important decisions of our lives-to have sex-with as much thoughtfulness and consideration as we might have otherwise.