The XX Factor

A Different Take on “Rethinking Virginity”

If you Google “Lena Chen” and “abstinence, you find among the results the following: a column in the Harvard Crimson disputing the campus abstinence group’s claims to “true feminism ,” a post on Sex Really (the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy’s blog) dismissing the pseudoscientific justifications for abstinence-only education , and a video of me arguing in favor of a queer-inclusive approach to sexual discourse . So it was certainly news to me when I learned from Slate yesterday that I was a ” ‘sex positive’ woman reconsider[ing] abstinence,” simply because I had planned a conference entitled “Rethinking Virginity”.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against abstinence. Despite being a former (and prolific) sex blogger , I have always maintained that people’s individual sexual decisions ought to be left up to them. Who am I to tell a stranger what or who they should do? That sort of paternalistic mindset is exactly what rubbed me the wrong way about the rhetoric used in the mainstream abstinence movement. When looking at the discourse surrounding sexuality, much of it is limited to a strict binary in which promoting promiscuity is equated with being progressive and promoting abstinence is equated with being conservative. Both views are equally problematic, because they assume that there is a one-size-fits-all sexual script that works for everyone.,

Despite what Grose says about me being among “chastened twentysomethings” and “women sobering up [to] youthful indiscretions,” I’m hardly repentant for my sexual history or my online chronicle of it. She admits that I do not “apologize” for my blog, but lists instance of backlash after backlash and notes that I’m now writing “serious articles” and co-habitating with a long-term partner. If that doesn’t seem like regret, what does? The truth is that I stopped blogging about my personal life for a number of reasons, but not because I was concerned about employment prospects or because I had second thoughts about my liberal views toward sexuality. My recent focus on dissecting the elusive concept of virginity shouldn’t be mistaken for an endorsement of abstinence, but rather an acknowledgment of the need for a more inclusive sexual dialogue.

The Rethinking Virginity conference, hosted by the Harvard Queer Students & Allies, was designed to critically interrogate the socially constructed notion of virginity, which I had studied over the past year in writing my senior thesis in sociology. I determined, through a combination of life experience and scholarly research, that this virginity business was bunk. Planning a conference entitled “rethinking virginity” didn’t mean that I was going the “born-again” route, but it did mean talking about the need to discuss abstinence not in terms of black and white but in terms of its practical relevance toward teenagers, some of whom face pressure to say “yes” even when they’re not ready.

Besides debunking myths about the hymen and questioning virginity’s relevance in a society where marriages are no longer mere property contracts, Rethinking Virginity was an opportunity to incorporate into the discussion those who felt alienated by the heteronormative and moralistic discourse around abstinence. At Rethinking Virginity, an entire panel was devoted to discussing the need to include queer perspectives in a sex-positive discussion of abstinence, yet the words “queer,” “gay,” “lesbian”, “trans,” or “bisexual” do not appear once in Grose’s article. That’s a shame, because if there’s one group that isn’t considered in the public discourse about girls gone wild and virginity pledgers, it’s those who do not conform to normative sexual preferences .

If I-a self-identified sex-positive feminist-think that the public discourse ought to include a wider spectrum of voices (including those of virgins and queer people), does that make me part of the group of people Grose nicknamed “Generation Scold”? I don’t think so. If anything, I believe that rethinking virginity makes one much more radical than those who haven’t.