Sex and Sensibility: Why Abstinence Is the Wrong Focus

By Lapointe, Stephen | The Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Sex and Sensibility: Why Abstinence Is the Wrong Focus


Lapointe, Stephen, The Christian Science Monitor


Canned spinach or chocolate cake? That's how singles today are made to see the choice between premarital sexual abstinence and conventional sexualized dating. Popular culture screams: "Take the cake." Abstinence advocates preach: "Eat your vegetables."

But it is a false choice.

Premarital sex is the stale, half-eaten Twinkie. It too often goes hand in hand with much unhappiness: emotional distress, lackluster school performance, diverted dreams, career stagnation, and misguided marriage choices.

But when you're head over heels in love, something called "abstinence" doesn't exactly make the heart sing. I'll pass on the canned spinach, thank you. Is that the only vegetable you have today? What about those perfectly sweet heirloom tomatoes?

There is a third way, however, one that bypasses the Hollywood illusions and the finger-wagging didactics. That way involves replacing the concept of sexual abstinence with the more positive vision of innocent courtship.

The term "abstinence" actually puts the focus on sex as this alluringly forbidden object. It would have young couples spend as much time thinking about what they won't do on a date, as on what they will do. When interpreted literally, it leaves room for sexual practices that are inconsistent with the spirit of purity. Is it any wonder then that, focusing on abstinence, the result is often frustration, boredom, or guilt?

These are the distortions that make abstinence such an easy target for the entertainment media. Virginity is a curse, an object of ridicule, as in the 2005 movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Abstinence, if it ever comes up, is the position of cardboard stiffs, such as the religious broadcaster named James on the BBC comedy "Coupling." And abstinence education may unwittingly prop up those stereotypes by teaching singles that abstinence is a cross they can be helped to bear.

But chaste romance needn't be seen as an exercise in self- denial. No, a focus on what really constitutes true love should leave singles free to explore the sweetness and satisfaction of courtship based on innocent affection. Then the boundaries in physical relationships get drawn less with pent-up frustration and more with grace and lightness of heart. This progressive type of courtship strengthens each partner's life purpose and enables informed decisionmaking about marriage compatibility.

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