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Campus Watch: Harvard ‘Virgins’ Make Headlines

What is bigger news than the sex habits of elite Ivy League students? Apparently it is Harvard students who have chosen to abstain until marriage. This was the premise, at least, of a March 30th New York Times Magazine article entitled “Students of Virginity.”

Treating the members of the student club called True Love Revolution as strange relics of a bygone era, the article takes the reader on an investigative tour of the thoughts, habits, actions and psyches of a handful of men and women who think it is perfectly OK not to join the campus hook-up culture. The writer, Randall Patterson, cannot suppress the literary equivalent of a condescending snicker as he questions the self-proclaimed virgins about impure thoughts, masturbation, hand-holding and going too far. The unstated premise is that there cannot possibly be a reason for abstinence beyond strict religion or psychological suppression.

Janie Fredell, the leader of the Harvard abstinence group, who was featured in the story, was disappointed by the portrayal of True Love Revolution. In an e-mail exchange with Healthy Respect, she said, “I especially disliked the way that the organization was portrayed as a religious organization masquerading as a secular one to ‘seek credibility within the University at large.’ And I disliked the fact that Mr. Patterson made us sound as though we were ‘going to war’ against popular culture. I thought the militant diction made us sound a bit absurd, and functioned to paint us as extremists, rather than people genuinely interested in sharing our message in order to help everyone -- in an inclusive way -- to live well.”

The New York Times article also recycled some questionable studies on abstinence, in particular a 2004 report by the highly partisan Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, who sought to discredit funding for abstinence programs by studying the curricula of 13 programs nationwide. Rep. Waxman concluded that 11 of the 13 curricula contained scientific errors or false or misleading information, yet a number of government medical experts discounted the study as politically motivated. These experts pointed out that the Waxman study focused on a handful of errors in a small sampling of abstinence curricula, without considering their context or seriousness, or without even conducting a similar study on comprehensive sex-ed curricula to see, by comparison, how many errors these better-funded programs contained.

Despite a bias against abstinence, the New York Times article did bring out a number of truths. Ms. Fredell is quoted in the article: “It takes a strong woman to be abstinent, and that’s the sort of woman I want to be.” She talks about supporting woman’s rights and calls abstinence a way toward personal freedom. Ms. Fredell also talks about making decisions based on long-term goals rather than short-term pleasure, which is the opposite of how she sees the prevalent sexual hook-up culture.

Regarding her relationship with her boyfriend, the article states, “Fredell does not make sexual demands of him nor does he make demands of her. ‘So I’m free!’ she said. ‘I’m free to experience the emotional and intellectual and spiritual intimacy of another person’…Every woman, she said, should have this ‘incredibly moving experience’ of being appreciated for who she really is.”

Commenting on the article, Healthy Respect’s CEO John P. Margand, Esq., said, “We applaud the counter-cultural group of students at Harvard who are not afraid to stand up for virtue and healthy choices. This underlines the fact that the abstinence for marriage mindset is important even beyond high school. It has particular importance in the college years, as young adults begin to enter the job market, set their lifetime direction and seek a spouse for marriage.

“The chances of entering adulthood healthy and well-prepared for the challenges and commitments ahead are much greater for those who save sex for marriage than for those engaged in risky sexual behavior,” Mr. Margand concluded.

True Love Revolution at Harvard can be contacted through the Web site: http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/tlr/.