Feature 09.16.2021 5 minutes

Stumbling into Celibacy


In the wilds of campus culture, nature reasserts itself.

Remember “hook-up culture”?

It’s the label used to describe a set of behaviors long accepted as par for the course on college campuses: casual (and often debaucherous) sex. Hook-up culture was once an object of debate, especially as advanced technology made it easier and more normal to sleep around. Headlines like your teens are sexting; your teens are sending revenge porn; your teenage daughter’s lascivious other life at college; sex and the freshman girl were the bread and butter of almost every major publication.

Hook-up culture was framed with extreme skepticism by the world outside the university: our daughters were being sent to school to learn and instead being placed on a dating conveyer belt (or as the Manosphere framed it, much less generously and more crudely, the “cock carousel”). Girls were getting picked up, slept with, and discarded. Rinse and repeat.

At the peak of “hook-up culture,” a new term went mainstream: “rape culture.” Suddenly there was increased scrutiny of our expectations of women. Women are having more casual sex than ever, but how much of it is consensual? The focus shifted from promiscuity to consent.

But sometime before rape culture became the new media sensation, a funny thing started to happen on elite college campuses. Secular (and it’s worth noting, apolitical) abstinence clubs like True Love Revolution (now called the Anscombe Society) started popping up. Originally a mainstay of ’90s purity culture, they found new life at schools like Princeton, M.I.T., and Harvard. At M.I.T., club members sign a pledge: “I commit myself to make an effort to live a chaste lifestyle. A chaste lifestyle involves using the gift of my body honorably and respectably.”

As always, where there’s a trend, there are contrarians, for better and worse. Looking at prior coverage of these clubs, or even just going straight to the source via their blogs and websites, it’s hard to discern if they’re implicitly faithful, implicitly right-wing organizations, acting as tiny oases in mostly secular, mostly liberal, and often libertine environments. My knee-jerk assumption is that they’re something of a combination: a place of refuge for the religious in an environment that often turns its nose up at religion, and a secular place to defect from an oversaturation of sex for people who are just sick of it. Casual sex might be fine to this latter population, but there’s a time and a place for it, and they’re done with the BDSM workshops being advertised in broad daylight.

Here’s another possibility, though: what’s your natural reaction likely to be if every authority is telling you that sex, especially increasingly unconventional expressions of it, is at once “great” and “morally neutral”…but you’re not actually having any sex?

What if you’re not having it, not because of any political or religious convictions, but just because it hasn’t happened yet—either because you’ve tried and there were no takers, or because you just don’t find campus sex culture all that appealing? That is, what if you’re not against sex, exactly—you just aren’t over the moon about it? Put yourself in that position for a second and imagine the psychological implications of that.

In this situation, you’re presented with one of two choices: you can turn inward and fall into a pit of despair, or you can sacralize sex. That is to say, could it be that abstinence clubs also serve the purpose of re-imbuing meaning into something that’s not only been completely and utterly cheapened in your immediate environment, but is also completely inaccessible to you? Maybe it’s a blessing sex is inaccessible to you; maybe it shouldn’t be cheap, maybe it’s not a “morally neutral” act, maybe it means a great deal to share your body with someone else in that way. What if abstinence clubs are a way to reintroduce structure into students’ lives, and combat nihilism?

A 2009 article in the Harvard Crimson by Silpa Kovvali, revealingly titled “True Love Revision,” characterized the Anscombe Society (then still called True Love Revolution) as “a condemnation of moral relativism.” The society’s then-co-president Rachel Wagley gave a statement: “really what’s been TLR’s mission from the beginning is a front against relativism in culture, and a front against the idea that there is no objective right and there is no objective wrong.”

What Is Not Forbidden Is Compulsory

For Kovvali, the Crimson journalist covering the organization, Wagley’s statement against moral relativism was an immediate object of derision. But her counter-arguments were ironic. What was interesting was that Kovvali didn’t have a single argument against the notion that there is an “objective right and wrong.” She just thought it was indecorous to say so and commit to it.

“On an individual level, this means proselytizing, presuming to know what type of behavior would make Harvard students happiest,” she writes, as an example of “an incompatibility between the group’s purpose and ideology.” Kovvali went on: “while being dumped is less enjoyable than spending a Saturday night in Stillman [then the name of Harvard’s infirmary]…the underlying assumption is that engaging in sexual activity places a woman in a vulnerable and subservient position.”

Also ironic, of course, is that Wagley was simply saying the quiet part out loud; she’s putting into words precisely what those trying to bring awareness to “rape culture” were all those years ago. It’s just that her packaging wasn’t Harvard-approved.

One also has to ask, investigating old and current coverage of abstinence clubs: why the allergy to any moral framework at all? What is it about a group of students who are, together, learning and building a moral compass that’s so threatening? It seems to me that any time this happens, be it via religion or via a school club, people understand it as a threat to their own autonomy: if one person says they want a particular set of boundaries, sexual or otherwise, then perhaps my own will come under threat.

Even if they’re doing it on their own, for themselves, with others who choose to opt-in, it seems the leading campus mentality cannot abide abstinence. TLR members may have proselytized, but I’ve never seen any kind of proclamation that everyone on campus should adhere to their worldview. Perhaps unwittingly, sex-positive evangelists like Kovvali are more eager to police morality than the members of TLR and other celibacy clubs. Theirs is a moral relativism that brooks no dissent.

Maybe it’s just that celibacy strikes a chord; maybe writers like Kovvali secretly agree with people like Wagley. And as Kovvali wrote herself: Wagley’s arguments are “a hard pill to swallow.”

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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