Back to the future of sex: The return of abstinence

Newsflash! All-out uninhibited, unrestricted sexual freedom is so last decade. A recent Slate article, “Why Is a Former Sex Blogger ‘Rethinking Virginity’?,” reported a drop in young women’s self-exposure on social networking sites. A survey of women bloggers who were previously in the “show more and tell all” school of thought (such as Lena Chen of the “Sex and the Ivy” blog) indicates they have now pulled the blinds down on the blog windows into their sexual lives.
The author of the Slate article, Jessica Grose, writes, “This new circumspection – on the part of both chastened twenty-somethings and some forward-looking teens – may in part be a bow to their professional futures.” Grose also notes an unusual pattern taking place among young women: “it’s as if young women are going through the cycle of rebellion and regret much faster than other generations – because it’s all being publicly chronicled as it unfolds.” Such findings raise the question of the foundational cause of this sexual revolution, part deux. Does it come from an internal place leading people to return to an original haven of chastity and virginity, or is it caused simply by fear and obedience to their future bosses of the older generations? Even if it is not fear and shame from an older generation, Grose addresses the worst fear of all, perhaps even greater than public speaking: scorn from fellow peers. “This judgmental attitude is typical of a group I’ve called ‘generation scold.’ If you behave with abandon – either on the Web or in the bedroom – they believe you only have yourself to blame.”

It appears that fear of other people and social “damage control” are the leading motivations for many young adults who are removing questionable posts and pictures of party nights from the internet. However, a conversation about shifting attitudes of self- exposure stimulates a deeper layer of thought, pointing to a re-emergence of the practice of abstinence. This layer was explored in depth by a group at Harvard College in May 2010, at a conference entitled “Rethinking Virginity.”

The sexual revolution of the 1960’s and ‘70’s essentially replaced the idea of abstinence in sexuality with the notion of absolute sexual freedom. This replacement was done through a campaign that portrayed abstinence as a restraint on individuality and tied to an old-world understanding of religion that was also being questioned at that time. Embedded in that framework was the concept of choice, highlighted with the emergence of “the pill.” In truth, that choice was masked by an attitude that pointed to only one route: an unbound expression of sexuality. To do or think otherwise meant an unyielding attachment to oppressive ideologies.

Today, there are strong indications that the definition of “oppressive” has shifted or evolved. There is always an oppressive regime in place somewhere, whether governmental or social, and then there is a movement to counter that. We must take a moment to think about what oppressive mechanisms are operating in this contemporary society. One suggestion is the culture of instant gratification via consumerism. This is now a society built on the pillars of immediacy and urgency. The technological “powers that be” have demonstrated the ability to cater to the psychological urge of NOW. In fact, NOW is so important that people, despite having the freedom of choice, are settling for something less than their ideals because they are enslaved by NOW.

Against this invisible dictatorship of instant gratification has begun the counter-culture movements to bring abstinence back to the mainstream. One example is a new dating website strictly for virgins,, where the creators proclaim, “We offer a comfortable place where abstinence is nothing to be ashamed of and can be discussed safely and with freedom.” The website’s style of marketing relies upon the existence of a negative stigma around abstinence (“shame”), which it is therefore strategically countering with positive connotations (“safety,” “freedom”). Where at one time virginity and chastity were ideals to be cherished and followed unwaveringly, we have somehow reached the point where guarding these virtues has become a social taboo. Now society has circled back to restoring a value to abstinence and its empowerment potential.

(Photo: cobalt123)
Shazia Kamal is a community activist in interested in social justice issues living in Los Angeles, California.


  • edabdalghafur says:


    I think the groups that you’ve mentioned represent one small response to the aftermath of sexual liberation.  there seems to be a small but growing contingent of people who are rethinking the consequences of sexual liberation (Wendy Shalit also, A return to modesty), and have realized that in the course of things, something important has been lost and the gains weren’t what were imagined.  We shouldn’t however imagine that this will become mainstream.  That seems unlikely, without some other massive changes.  But I think as Muslims, we should be keen to hear the critiques offered by such groups as we navigate the perils of integration.

  • sria says:

    @edabalghafur—you may be right that this may not become mainstream, but I think the author makes a good point, and that this shift might be catching on to a slightly larger group than you may imagine. I say this b/c of the Twilight craze—the popular movie series based on the popular novels written by a devout Mormon who laced the message of abstinence throughout her vampire, werewolf, and human love triangle series.  If this message can continue to be promoted in pop culture it can have a great impact on our youth. Dorky, ‘churchy,’ Ned Flanderish websites and campaigns promoting the same message could, however, have the reverse effect.

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