It’s important to note that Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons and Antoinette Landor published the research we discussed yesterday at a public university.
At public universities/non-religious private institutions, the administration monitors sexual activity by promoting sexual safety: reducing sexual harassment, developing strategies to handle the staggering relationship between alcohol and sexual hookups, and preventing sexual assault. Religious private institutions are concerned with this too, no doubt; many, such as the one I attended, have a dual agenda of monitoring sexual activity by promoting sexual abstinence.
Religiously-informed sexual abstinence places teenagers and young adults (particularly women) in a physiological double bind. On the one hand, there’s the cognitive/emotional commitment to a virginity pledge that you’ve made with God, so that if it gets broken, you’ve “sinned” and God becomes disappointed with you. On the other hand, research shows that women experience higher rates of sexual fantasy and arousal while ovulating. The more likely that pregnancy is possible, the study suggests, the more likely a woman is to experience these fantasies. Adolescent and young adult women, as a rule, are incredibly fertile; women between the ages of 18-24 have a 90% chance of getting pregnant if they have routine unprotected sex over the course of a year.
Sexual abstinence promoters attempt to address this paradox by asking the question, “How far is too far?” For instance, one of my youth ministers attempted to establish a “neck and above” policy, which meant that I could pleasure my girlfriend at the time by kissing her lips and neck and playing with her hair, but touching her boobs or her butt was a “party foul”. (I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes, so I adhered to these rules regardless, but again, the response to pushing the boundaries established by our religious leaders was far less emotionally charged for guys than it was for girls.)
Lauren Winner, professor of Christian spirituality at Duke, addresses this issue in her 2005 book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity. My wife and I, both Christians with high levels of religious commitment, stumbled upon this book as we negotiated our way through sexual abstinence prior to our marriage. Winner encourages premarital couples interested in maintaining abstinence to “not do anything sexual that they wouldn’t be comfortable doing on public property” (p. 106). For instance, we can make out to our hearts content, but I know that we’d be uncomfortable making out on Boston Public Garden half-naked. Winner would suggest that’s our “too far” and to draw the line there.
This week, we’re thinking about the research of Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons and Antoinette Landor, who furthered prior studies that note the general failure of religiously-themed sexual abstinence programs. Simons and Landor added a wrinkle through their research: while a mere 35% of university students who took virginity pledges in high school identified themselves as 19-21 year-old virgins, 23% of these students reported not having oral sex. (Simons and Landor did not assess for anal sex and mutual masturbation, though I’d be curious if the amount of students who did not participate in those activities was lower than 35% as well) All of this begs the question, “What is sex?”
Forgive the big question here. Are we defining sex just as intercourse, or are we including other types of genital stimulation? Let’s say that I’m sexually aroused–a tingle down my neck, an erection–while making out with my girlfriend. Doesn’t that mean that I’m participating in the sexual process? A fair number of research participants believed that as long as penises weren’t inserting into vaginas, they didn’t go “too far” and could maintain their status as “virgin”.
The “how far is too far” component establishes several dangerous precedents for future sexual experiences. Note that in this conversation, I’m defining “sexual experience” as any kind of physical interaction that evokes sexual arousal.
1) Sexual communication focuses on what I don’t want, rather than what I do. If I hope to maintain my virginity pledge, my number one priority is establishing limits. Don’t touch me here. We can’t lie down together and make out. This assumes, of course, that the premarital abstinent couple has even had this conversation; if many couples in long-term committed relationships have challenges talking about sex, I can only presume few premarital couples establish explicit boundaries. Sexual boundary setting, as a rule, is incredibly important in the early going, especially as sex is a significant way couples establish trust. The BDSM community, participants in liberal, kinky sexual practices, establish safe words, stop signs that prevent the other from being hurt. However, many couples have a challenging time breaking out of this preventative script of “Don’t”. Healthy sexual communication involves couples freely exploring their bodies and physical sensations and asking what they want from their partner–how and where they want to be touched, what they want to hear, how they want to be visually aroused, etc. The transition from a script of “Don’t” to a script of “Do” is incredibly challenging on a practical level.
2) Sexual experiences are filled with anxiety. This may be a given, as most sexual relationships have some level of anxiety. Asking for vulnerable, sexual needs risks rejection–the other person may say no to your advances, setting off an anxiety-ridden process around initiating sex. Michael Kimmel and other researchers remind us in The Sexual Self: The Construction of Sexual Scripts that couples who experience higher levels of sexual anxiety are more likely to have rigid sexual interaction patterns, reducing their ability to explore new ways of engaging sexually. When couples therapists explore sexual scripts, they generally search for the interactional and behavioral process around sex. However, our bodies have visceral spasmic reactions when we perceive that our explicit/implicit physical boundaries are being crossed, sexual or otherwise. We prepare ourselves for a car collision or a sports tackle by tensing up certain muscles. Similarly, a diversity of musculature (including back and pelvic regions) tense up when we perceive our sexual boundaries are about to be pushed. (Most of the research exploring the physiology of pushing one’s sexual boundaries involves sexual abuse. I hypothesize that men and women who have high levels of religious commitment/desire to uphold virginity pledges experience similar muscle spasming if they perceive they are going “too far” sexually.) Sexual scripts remind us that our bodies have muscle memory. The physical representations of anxiety, such as muscle spasms, that occur if a premarital couple “goes too far” in exploring their sexuality tend to repeat themselves in future sexual interactions, including marital ones, where sex is supposed to be “sanctioned”.
3) Sexual experiences are filled with guilt. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not the person to describe experiences of guilt and shame around sexuality. Samantha Pugsley at XoJane and hundreds of other women and men attempting to escape the damaging implications of True Love Waits and other religiously-sanctioned abstinence programs speak to the pain far more successfully. “I went too far. I broke my virginity pledge. I let myself down. Worse, I let God down, disappointed Him. Who else will I let down because of my body?” seems to be a common internal process, particularly for those still highly committed to their faith. High amounts of guilt and shame generally correlate with low levels of assertiveness and higher levels of passiveness/passive-aggressiveness, resulting in the inability to actively express sexual needs and boundaries. If you’ve experienced the third precedent, the most dangerous one, in my mind, please don’t hesitate to ask for professional assistance. Many therapists (including myself) are trained to work with individuals and couples to remove guilty and shameful perceptions of self out of the relationship so that you can experience more connectedness and intimacy.
Simons and Landor consulted two groups of university students for their research: those who took virginity pledges in high school and have a high level of religious commitment in college, and those who took virginity pledges in high school but have a low level of religion commitment once they reach university. This blog post speaks to those who have high levels of religious commitment and hoped to maintain sexual abstinence until marriage. The next two blog posts speak to those who signed virginity pledges at one point but have lower levels of religious commitment in young adulthood.