Column: Fear and shame are harmful methods for enforcing virginity

Even those who don’t hold religious ideologies deny sexual pleasure under the premise that desire is shameful.

I was walking on campus recently and saw a “Virginity Rocks” T-shirt pass me by.

I thought for a second that maybe it would be nice to be that in control of your own impulses and desires, to be confident enough to declare your ideology on a T-shirt. The accomplishment one might feel to be sex-free amidst all outside influences must surely reaffirm the authority of the religious or moral framework that guides them. It was a dorky shirt, but who cares, more power to them.

There are notions — propelled vaguely by our popular culture and strongly by proponents of open sexuality — that sex can be an outlet for self-actualization, for heightened bodily awareness and empowerment. I tend to support these ideas, but I would never tell someone sex was required for such a maturation process. The belief that bodily empowerment must come when naked and around another person is somewhat unfair and de-emphasizes the necessity of individual worth.

But I can’t help but feel like virginity pledges manifest exactly in things like “Virginity Rocks” T-shirts, drawing attention to the exterior declaration of self-control, the optimistic reassurance that “Everything’s fine!” when one must surely be feeling and denying human urges. Does virginity “rock?” Is it a kickin’, fun party, or is that a sales pitch?

In an episode of “Strangers with Candy,” Jerri takes part in her high school’s chastity crusade by wearing a pin to declare her virginity. The pin was a ribbon with two red cherries dangling beneath, a kind of wink at the over-the-top ceremony and contradiction of purity-ring rituals and virginity campaigns.

Jerri’s struggle with and eventual breaking of her virginity pledge, while acted out in a humorous, fictional script, rings true for what many feel when taking on a commitment that does not allow for deviation from rules or moral guidelines. Even those who seem most in control and willing to police the sex lives of others — Ted Haggard, for example — end up buying meth from a gay prostitute.

Declaring virginity doesn’t mean you must be living a double life, but it does seem to be a difficult standard to uphold, certainly one enforced by moral authority. There is clearly a justified premise that many nowadays feel pressured to have sex, but it seems social pressure, if not fear and manipulation, can equally be levered to demand virginity and invoke shame.

Abstinence educator Pam Stenzel, at a controversial and widely publicized talk at a West Virginia high school this month, claimed condoms were unsafe and women on birth control would be “10 times more likely to contract a disease … or end up sterile or dead.” She also claimed mothers did not love their children if they provided them birth control.

Stenzel is transparent about her Christian theology, but her scare tactics raise the question: Why are some so driven to control something we can recognize as generally harmless and, by definition, not our business?

What’s unfortunate about religious devices whose aim is to control sex is that they can succeed, often with people who aren’t even religious. New York Magazine last week profiled a growing group of men who abstain from masturbation as a means of finding personal health, an emotional center uninterrupted by deviant urges and an eventual reclamation of manhood.

NoFappers, as they’re called on Reddit, pose the renunciation of masturbation as a challenge whose metric of success is determined by the number of days they’ve tallied since going cold turkey. It’s a competition, a test of will and yet another external declaration of control. While some find success in their prohibition, it’s no surprise others attest to “anxiety” and “frustration.”

The influences that compel us to deny personal urges and see masturbation as destructive are, of course, historical; the 18th century tract Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, for example, declared masturbation was a sin “that perverts and extinguishes nature: he who is guilty of it, is laboring at the Destruction of his Kind.” This reads as antiquated and obviously extreme, but the notion that our bodies are shameful and require the prohibition of autoeroticism and extramarital sex indeed comes from archaic theologies.

Clearly, there are many who can benefit from curtailing some unhealthy sexual habits, but not under the premise that all urges are deviant or that abstinence is the key to moral and personal fortitude. We can all recognize the tortured logic behind “pray the gay away” methods, but I see campaigns that pressure people into disavowing sex to be similarly stifling and manipulative.

Even when we distrust Christian theology as a guide for sexual topics, we can succumb to its shaming tactics and demands for purity. If the goal of our regulation is indeed emotional balance, finding healthier methods for regulating our behavior, not just full-out denial and abstinence, is key.

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