In the sunset days of high school, during the last week of my senior year, a few of my friends wanted to give me their parting words of wisdom.
In the midst of encouragements to sleep more and explore New York City, one of my guy friends pulled me aside and said, “You know, you gotta let go of this whole ‘staying-a-virgin-until-you’re-married’ thing. Abstinence is just not realistic. Just saying this cause I care.” I knew that he was telling me this out of genuine concern, but that didn’t keep me from thinking it was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard.
I made the decision to be abstinent when I was 12 years old, just around the time I learned what sex even was. While I was studying very detailed diagrams of sexual organs in health class at school, my mom encouraged me to do a Bible study course about the beauty and sacredness of sex. Honestly, all this new information was a lot for sixth-grade me to process, but I knew one thing for certain: Sex is a complicated and precious thing that will be most meaningful to me within the context of a loving marriage. I made my vow of abstinence and felt confident about my decision all throughout middle school and high school—I still do now.
But my friend’s advice points to a deeper, tangential insecurity I’ve been wrestling with in the meantime, particularly in college: How can I approach physical intimacy, in all of its conceptions, when it is often toxically equated to sex?
Physical intimacy and sex are not the same thing. While sex is a form of physical intimacy, the latter encompasses an entire range of activities that are mutually desired, and hopefully enjoyed by all parties involved—for example, holding hands, kissing, cuddling, etc. The relationship between physical intimacy and sex can be likened to that between a rectangle and a square. If we heard someone say that a rectangle is a square, we’d probably all cringe. Yet, the same logical fallacy is committed when physical intimacy and sex are used interchangeably in our discourse on campus.
Equating physical intimacy and sex is more than just annoyingly false; it’s dangerously exclusivist and condescending. By centering our discussions of physical intimacy around sex, we risk excluding people who choose abstinence, rendering the navigation of physical intimacy even more inaccessible for them.
When I do try to talk about my choice to abstain, more often than not, my friends reply with something like, “You know, you’re really missing out, but you’ll understand someday.” Though I’m sure my friends mean well when they say things like this, it minimizes my experience.
Not only that, it’s patronizing. Usually, my friends put a lot of emphasis on the importance of personal choice and respecting others’ personal choices. We tend to function on a “you do you, boo” basis as long as whatever choice is being made won’t harm anyone. No judgment, just support. But for some reason, that seems to disappear when we talk about physical intimacy. It’s as if, for them, my understanding of intimacy is somehow less than, as if whatever agency I have in the rest of my life doesn’t apply here.
As a result, a part of me is tempted to just avoid physical intimacy entirely. If my understanding of it is as inadequate as my friends imply, then am I really equipped to navigate any kind of physical intimacy on this campus? I have to be intentional in remembering that my experience with abstinence is just as valuable as my friends’ experience with sex. But this should not be something I need to tell myself. Rather, it should be a given within the context of our community. We all have different perspectives, and we all make different choices, all of which are completely and equally valid.
I still blush at the thought of holding someone’s hand romantically—and that’s physical intimacy in a gentle way. But I’m okay with only beginning to understand physical intimacy within the context of a committed relationship. I understand that my relationship to physical intimacy is different from a lot of people’s, but I think it’s important that we acknowledge the limits of hookup culture and that it isn’t the only way to experience intimacy in college.
The author is a sophomore at Columbia College studying comparative literature and neuroscience and behavior. She is an associate editorial page editor for Spectator.
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