Why Do Feminists Find Abstinence Intolerable?

June 23, 2009


“Instead of fulfilling the promise of infinite orgasmic bliss, sex in the America of the feminine mystique is becoming a strangely joyless national compulsion, if not a contemptuous mockery.”

Betty Friedan

US feminist (1921 – 2006)

Many young women feel guilty and unsuccessful when they are unable to embrace a steady diet of casual sex. Perceiving hooking up as the norm, as well as the only viable path to a relationship, they try repeatedly to enjoy themselves in a sexual encounter with someone they barely know. Instead they are often left feeling emotionally (not to mention sexually) frustrated and rejected. Unfortunately, they tend to blame themselves when hookups fizzle. They feel that they have fallen short in some way, that a different girl would have achieved a better result. As parents and friends, we encourage young women to hang in there—“You are beautiful, smart, special. You will meet someone who is right for you.”  Understandably, though, most women don’t want to go on an extended hiatus. They don’t want to suspend their sexuality. They are caught in a vicious cycle of attraction, sex, and disappointment.

So I was quite surprised when Carmel de Amicis, the sex columnist at UC Berkeley’s Daily Californian, wrote a piece called Atheists and Abstinence defending her decision to abstain from sex. Some excerpts:

“In America, much of our debate about sexuality stems from two poles: the ethical, conservative side that condemns premarital exploration, and the liberal, rational side that considers premarital sex to be a God-given right! …As a result, the decision to abstain or pursue sex becomes less about the sex and more about an individual’s identity….I’ve found myself thinking about this lately because I’ve been grappling with a relevant conflict: I haven’t wanted to have sex. Disconcerting, especially considering the fact that I’m supposed to be the campus symbol for free love and sex all around. After the abrupt ending of a serious relationship, I was thrust into the hook-up culture on campus, where casual sexual encounters are frequent and exalted. For the first time since I started having sex, I was forced to make the decision on a regular basis: yes or no? Overwhelmingly, my emotions were against it and they would annoyingly shout at me as I eyed the boy at the bar (Stop! No! Don’t do it!).

But my rational thoughts begged to differ, whispering in my other ear, “As a woman, you SHOULD be allowed to have sex whenever/wherever/with whomever!” This led to a few dry, hollow encounters that made me realize something key: even if I should feel comfortable having sex, that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to.

I know. Shocking. It’s total blasphemy to admit this in a column that’s only supposed to titillate you. But it’s true, I am not so sex-crazed that casual sex appeals to me. It took me a while to realize this because I was caught in the implications that accompany the choice to abstain. I was confused by my general sense that people only abstain because they think sex is wrong or dirty, God will judge them, or they’re prudish. Otherwise, the general thinking goes that sex is so fucking awesome, of COURSE you will want to have it as much as possible. It’s a vicious feedback loop with little way out for the rational mind.

Which brings me to my big point. Why is it that we need a reason to justify our sexual choices? We have built up a whole army of ideology and belief systems to solidify and support either end of our yes/no sex decision. Instead of listening to our intuitions, we rely on outside affiliations and ethical/logical explanations to make our decisions.

Especially in the college hook-up culture, ‘yes’ has become the default setting for us and any other decision would require a justification. It’s supported by such ingrained beliefs about freedom, progress and rights that people fall into bed together left and right without actively making the choice. Sex is expected and when you consider not having it you are fighting a whole host of other factors. Somehow, we have swung the pendulum back the other way, such that sex is a bit like the new abstinence: it feels like a betrayal to our values and ideals to say no.”

Ms. de Amicis is a brave young woman. The progress, values and ideals that she speaks of relate to feminism, of course. She may not realize it, but she’s just taken on a potent army of sex-positive feminists. Sex-positive feminism, which dominates the feminist agenda today, arose as a response against the previous generation of feminists who campaigned against pornography and the sexual objectification of women. The new population of feminists has little tolerance for abstinence as a choice. If you’re not into a whole extensive menu of sexual practices, you’ve been oppressed by the patriarchy. You’re not legit.

Feminists are dismissive of hookup culture, frequently claiming that it doesn’t exist, that it’s just the overreactive imagining of old fogies and right wing nuts who don’t want young people having sex before marriage. Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com writes:

“I actually don’t believe that hook [sic] culture exists. What I do think is cause for worry is the way that conservative and anti-women organizations, writers, and media makers are using this myth of a hook up culture to promote regressive values surrounding gender and to roll back women’s rights.”

Abstinence is vilified, the dirtiest word in the English language. Referring to recently published books exploring and documenting the hookup culture, Tracy Clark-Flory writes in Salon.com:

“These books are just the latest result of the mounting abstinence movement, which, despite its religious roots, has recast its attack on “hookup” culture as secular, even feminist. Perhaps young women are putting feminist ideals of equality into sex by refusing shame and claiming the traditionally male side of the stud/slut double standard.”

It’s ironic, then, that young women today feel shame for NOT having casual sex. They’ve tried on the male side of sex, and have found it a poor fit. Feminists seem incapable of considering the choice to abstain from sex separately from abstinence-only sex education. They are infuriated by women who identify themselves as abstinent, and often cast suspicion on their sanity by portraying them as crazy evangelicals. I believe that a woman’s choice about whether to have sex is no one’s business but her own. And if she chooses to associate with other women making the same choice at a particular point in their lives, that is not subversive. That is community. Why should groups of abstinence-minded students at universities be ridiculed for fraternizing, while publicly funded week-long Sex Worker Shows are celebrated?

Tracy Clark-Flory voices strenuous objections to the student abstinence group at Harvard called True Love Revolution. Janie Fredell, who was co-President of the group, asserts that by refusing to have sex, she is asserting control of her own body. She argues that her stand is a feminist one: “It takes a strong woman to be abstinent, and that is the sort of woman I want to be.”

Clark-Flory isn’t buying it:

“But Fredell doesn’t care about women making their own decisions about whether or not to have sex before marriage, she simply wants them to make the same decision she has made. She defines female empowerment along her own very personal and religious terms. Fredell can call herself a feminist all she wants, but the only woman she’s truly defending is herself.”

Who are sex-positive feminists standing up for? Who do they represent and defend other than themselves?

Here are a few of the choices wholeheartedly embraced by sex-positive feminists:

Rape fantasies

BDSM (sadomasochism)


Polyamory, including triads, vees, double vees, etc.


Bukkake (usually involves a group of standing men ejaculating on a seated woman)

Careers in prostitution and stripping

Careers in porn, both acting and creating

In other words, the liberated modern woman is sexually omnivorous. While these practices are portrayed as “normal”, abstinence is considered a freak show. If you define normal as lying within the bell curve, I would argue that none of these acts qualify.

Penny Red is a self-described blogger of the young feminist left. Here are some of her rules for  “Fucking Like a Feminist”:

  • In bondage/kink/role-play situations, respect my desires and I’ll respect yours. Get me off and I’ll get you off.
  • The mainstream model of heteronormative sex is limited and outdated. Challenging received gender roles in the bedroom means more experimentation, more emotional risk-taking, and more fun for everyone.
  • Feminists sleep with men, women, or both. Feminists have sex both within and outside of long-term relationships. Some feminists are kinky, or polyamorous, or have rare fetishes. Some don’t, and that’s OK too.
  • Any sexual proclivity is feminist if it is approached with equal respect for both partners’ needs and desires.
  • Feminists are gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual, genderqueer, kinky, vanilla, radically romantic, in myriad changing combinations. Feminists are fun, in and out of bed, period.

Rachel Kramer Bussel, a sex writer and leader in the sex-positive movement, believes that casual sex is “under attack”:

“There’s a world of difference between being branded a sex object and choosing to be one…I may like to get spanked until I scream, but I still deserve to be treated as an intelligent human being… Feminists are just like any other women, and it’d be a shame for us to hold back in a misguided attempt to live up to the legacies of Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem.”

Ms. Bussel goes on to say:

“We can choose to be celibate, or to have someone come on our face. Having a full range of sexual options should be a high-priority feminist goal…Thankfully, many of us are exploring our kinks in all their flavors.”

How does what you do in the privacy of your own sex life have anything to do with the goals of feminism? If you do choose to be celibate, then how do you qualify as a sex-positive feminist? In reality, I believe we are talking about a miniscule but extremely vocal part of the adult female population when we consider women who are seeking group sex, not to mention sex that flirts with violence, domination and subjugation. These women are several standard deviations from the mean. They are so far outside the mainstream as to render their views interesting perhaps, but largely irrelevant to most of us.

No one has the right to make you feel guilty for having and enjoying sex. And no one has the right to make you feel guilty if you discover that you’re not cut out for casual sex. You are not alone. In fact, the overwhelming majority of women feel exactly the way that you do.

In 1969, at the height of the Sexual Revolution, the mantra at Woodstock was: “If it feels good, do it.” Amen. And if it starts feeling like crap, you have every right to stop without feeling like a pariah. That is equality for women.