A Virgin over the Marriage Threshold
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
There's no doubt that the culture wars are intense, especially regarding sex. Commentator Caroline Langston says she doesn't take sides, but she would like to share this story about why she chose to abstain from sex until she got married.
CAROLINE LANGSTON reporting:
I was a virgin on my wedding night. It was a day full of sensual details that could have come from a novel, ripe gardenias, the jeweled crowns of our Greek Orthodox service, the cold champagne everyone drank in the hot July sun. You hear a lot these days about wedding receptions that go on and on because the bride and groom are in no hurry to leave, but we were out the door in record time after partying for less than two hours.
But this was not a wedding taking place on, say, Long Island in the 1950s between two teenagers. Our wedding was just six years ago and I was the 31-year-old virgin. The total weirdness of this strikes me sometimes, now that I'm a suburban mom with friends who, for the most part, had much wilder college years than I. Virginity has been big in the news again during the last couple of years, partly because of the Bush administration's support of abstinence-only sex education and partly because of the movie THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN. The central thrust of that movie seemed to be amazement that anyone could arrive at that age in that state in the first place.
The iconic virgin in American culture is, of course, the naïve and ridiculed Janet in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW before she succumbs to the salacious embraces of Dr. Frank N. Furter. Most people don't understand how somebody could remain celibate until marriage and they have no idea why either. In my case, there was no external motivation to stay virginal.
I was religious, but then so are a lot of people. I attended a progressive boarding school where contraception was freely available from the school clinic from a nurse with too much lipstick and a Louis Viton handbag, who was famous for making girls practice inserting their diaphragms over and over again.
Sex was expected, it was unemotional and it was no big deal, but the pressure to just give it up did not match what I wanted in my heart. The big complaint about abstinence from the public health community is that it ignores the statistical reality that some 80 percent of young people are sexually active by age 20 and that only about 20 percent of women will be virgins at marriage.
But research also shows that some vulnerable young women can suffer mightily from the consequences of casual sex. I fit the profile exactly. My father was dead, my mother was preoccupied and distant. Nobody was out there to keep tabs on what I was doing. The anxious misery of my youth would have been magnified exponentially if I had been sleeping with the boys I dated. It did not seem to make the lives of my girlfriends all that much happier, which is not to say that I did not have my own fun or make my own mistakes in judgment. I may not have slept with anybody, but I fooled around with dozens of men, including a college professor on a lacrosse field when I was 16.
More than once, I found myself at a payphone in the middle of the night, trying to call a cab to take me home from an overzealous date. I danced, I drank, I cried in my room late at night while listening to The Smiths. Along the way, though, I received dozens of roses, wrote passionate letters, discovered the erotic charge of intense conversation, experience that's served me well since my husband and I walked out of the reception that hot afternoon.
Maybe it's the word abstinence itself that's the problem, its pinched tones of puritan self-denial. For me, in the end, it is an argument as much about beauty as it is about morality. We grant the value of discipline, waiting and hope in the creation of art, then why not as well in that realm where the physical intersects with the infinite?
BLOCK: Caroline Langston is a writer who lives in Cheverly, Maryland. She also works in NPR's development office.