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Lauren Winner (laurenwinner.net) is an unlikely poster girl for abstinence before marriage. Forget images of nuns, scolds, and dowdy politicians. She wears cat's-eye glasses, sparkly tights, and a charming smile. As we chat, our camaraderie is surprising; after all, her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity argues that the only good, honest, and moral sex is between a man and woman married to each other. Somehow, despite our differences, I'm at ease with Winner and can listen openly.
When I start to say "But I'm a feminist," she interrupts me: "I'm a feminist too." For her, sex within marriage is sacred, but she also takes the church to task for its sexist teachings and simplistic abstinence campaigns. Winner writes, "In insisting that premarital sex will make you feel bad, the church is misstating the nature of sin. The plain, sad fact is that we do not always feel bad after we do something wrong. To acknowledge that premarital sex might feel good is not to say that premarital sex is good." Other lies Winner blasts the church about: Women lack libido, bodies are gross and disgusting. "Just say no" doesn't work, for sex or drugs, unless you're giving people a better alternative.
Winner grew up Jewish, converted to Christianity, and now says she is still "unlearning many of the false lessons I learned through years of premarital sex." What does that mean exactly? Winner, who had only been married for three months when she finished the book (her marriage is now in its second year), believes that sex has been overly hyped. "Premarital sex has no normal qualities. It is based on mutual desire and dispenses with the ordinary rhythms of marital sex, trading them for a seemingly thrilling but ultimately false story," Winner says, treating sex with reverence instead of disgust. "The twisted lesson premarital sex teaches is that sex is exciting. In fact, the opposite is true: The dramas of married sex are smaller and more intimate."
I find myself agreeing with much of what Winner says. My own history tells me that sexual freedom does not equal a wonderful life, in or out of the bedroom. Neither casual sex nor married sex is the Holy Grail. If you're waiting for the loss of your virginity to transform your life from pathetic to perfect, you're in for a rude awakening. Taking sex down from its pedestal and lifting it out of the gutter are vital for a realistic perspective.
Winner is not the only young woman waving her chastity belt around. The pseudonymous Anna Broadway recently landed a book deal (for a "memoir of reluctant chastity") with Random House, based on her blog, Sexless in the City (annabroadway.blogspot.com), which chronicles her life and dating (mis)adventures. Broadway holds an M.A. in religious studies and found early on that casual sex wasn't for her. Her first New York date offered her cunnilingus. "Right away I knew orgasms could never be part of even my most casual dating," she says. She set her own boundaries: She doesn't masturbate or fool around with guys, but she's not sitting at home knitting either. This "chaste party girl" digs burlesque, dances on bars, and has a belly ring. She's certainly not cloistered, and while her views largely mirror traditional arguments for chastity, they're tweaked with her vibrant personality.
While it seems I should disagree with everything Winner and Broadway stand for, I can't for several reasons. Both are smart, well-read, powerful writers. They know what works for them. Furthermore, I don't get the impression they're attacking me personally, as I do with others such as A Return to Modesty author Wendy Shalit (whose website, modestyzone.com bills itself as "for good girls in hiding, everywhere") or Dawn Eden.
I acknowledge that our era of sexual freedom hasn't offered women a consequence-free utopia. What I admire about these women is that they grapple with the issues instead of making blanket judgments. I find compassion, empathy, and complexity in Winner's and Broadway's visions. Sex isn't simple or easy and can conjure a mix of emotions; we may be elated the day after a promising new hookup and in tears when it all falls apart. I believe strongly in sexual autonomy, but having sex for its own sake isn't automatically a social, or personal, good. It depends entirely on the circumstances, and rather than leaping headfirst into a potentially fraught bedroom scenario, these women are waiting until the time is right.
Yet these views can have a downside. In response to my last column, a 54-year-old lifelong virgin told me she's better off because sex "causes more problems than it solves." In her words, "I never have to worry about falling in or out of love with the person, whether they're lying about their marital status, or a broken condom." This extreme variation on the chastity theme strikes me as sad; sex can certainly cause problems, but sometimes the rewards are worth the risk. Figuring out when to say yes is part of becoming a true adult.
Neither Winner nor Broadway is full of fire and brimstone. Their core, religion-based belief exalts sex within the confines of the marital bed. Rather than focus on blaming teens and young adults for promiscuity, they offer hope, pleasure, and passion to those who hold out. I applaud their efforts to make sex more important, more valued, and more cherished. Sex isn't a cut-and-dried, zero-to-60, win-at-all-costs game where we must rack up the most points on some scale of sexual adventure to succeed. We could all stand to assess what sex means to us and what we want to get out of it, even if we discover all we want is a quivering orgasm. As for me, I'm seeking a hard-to-find trio of love, fun, and erotic fireworks, and because of that, Broadway's logic is too seductive to totally discount: "[B]eing a woman can be this tremendous chance to be a kind of enigmato indulge our capacity for mystery. That's one reason I like the subtlety of semi-sheer layers or lace. It's why seamed stockings are better than fishnets (though I wear both), real sex better than masturbation. You've got to leave room for surprise. Without it I'm not sure true ecstasy exists."
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