Virginity at Harvard

Kathryn C. Reed and Jackie R Schechter

Q: Do you ever feel it's limiting to feel sexy because you're not sexual?

A: "At the beginning of the night, you look like everyone else. As the night progresses and people start hooking up I feel like my attractiveness starts going down, because it's not going to happen. So it's like, 'Oh she's so hot, but she won't sleep with me. She's not so hot anymore.' People aren't going to want to be with you because they know they're not going to get everything that they want from you. I guess so—I guess I feel less sexy."

“I think it’d be easy. I don’t think it’d be hard at all to lose my virginity to someone.”

Ann R. Winston* buries her chin in her scarf, hiding her grin. “I don’t know if that sounds conceited,” she says. “It probably sounds conceited but that’s not how it’s supposed to sound.” She readjusts herself on the wooden bench next to the Weld Boathouse, crossing her knees and pulling her back upright. She refuses to break eye contact with the river.

It would be easy to write off Winston’s abstinence as a consequence of her upbringing—raised in the South, she grew up in what she aptly calls a “Christian household.” Winston came to the Northeast for college while many of her high school friends stayed local. Though she still teaches Sunday school each week, Winston believes that being at Harvard has changed her views—now her faith actually has little to do with her decision to abstain. “It’s not necessarily abstinence until marriage,” she explains. “It’s about waiting for a stable relationship with someone I trust.”

“People don’t expect it at all because I’ve ‘hooked up’—‘hooked up’ being a relative term—with different people and they see me making out on the dance floor,” she laughs. Winston joined Kappa Alpha Theta sorority in the spring of her freshman year, where, she admits, she is one of few members who do not drink and choose to remain a virgin. In conjunction, she says, these decisions come as less of a shock. “It makes me innocent already, so then the innocence all kind of goes together,” Winston explains.

Winston’s virginity is not something that she shares with many people. She has told some of her friends and sorority sisters, but for the most part the subject doesn’t come up unless prompted, which, Winston believes, is common. While Harvard students tend not to showcase their sex lives, Harvard has a sexually active undergraduate body. In The Crimson’s 2012 senior survey, 68.3 percent of graduating senior women reported that they had had sex while 75.3 percent of graduating senior men reported the same, which is comparable to the national average.

Virginity, with all of its outdated tropes of purity and innocence, seems almost antithetical to the liberal culture of Harvard—a culture where actively partaking in premarital sexcapades is the statistical standard. That said, be it for reasons of God, love, choice, or bad luck, there are still those, like Winston, who remain chaste. At Harvard, virginity exists.

Going to New Mexico

“I have a friend who describes it as going to New Mexico,” says Eleanor A. Hunt*, squinting as sunbeams from the Science Center courtyard slide in through the window. “Some people are like, ‘I go to New Mexico all the time. It’s not a big deal.’ Other people want to save up their entire lives, and want their trip to New Mexico to be the best trip they’ve ever been on. And then some people are like, ‘Whatever, I’ll get there when the flights are right.’”

Before coming to Harvard, Hunt learned most of what she now knows about sex from watching television shows targeted at an older audience; her small private school in Missouri neither taught sexual education nor provided sexual counseling to students. “It wasn’t a condoms-in-the-bathroom, go-ask-the-nurse situation,” she says. Like Winston, Hunt’s conservative Christian upbringing informed her initial decision to remain abstinent, but coming to college has made her reason more personal. “It’s not because it’s important to God, it’s important to me,” she says. “Someday I’ll want to go to New Mexico, and I’ll trust it’s going to happen."

For Winston and Hunt, New Mexico is an auspicious state that they’ll reach eventually—no need to rush. “People get way too focused on the sexual part of the relationship and the rest gets neglected,” says Winston. “Virginity’s not something I’m willing to just hand over to anyone.”

Beth A. Owen*, on the other hand, has regularly made the trip to New Mexico in her time at Harvard. “Why not test drive the car before you buy it?” she chuckles, her shoulders rolling back. For Owen, virginity has always been unnecessarily over-romanticized. “I’m not one to make sex seem like a big momentous thing like, ‘Oh, my flower,’” she snickers.

Before she arrived at Harvard, Owen perceived virginity as shrouded by mystique. The daughter of Baptist parents, Owen grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended Catholic schools where sex education consisted of watching birthing videos every year and never mentioning the existence of contraception. Since leaving for college, Owen has embraced Harvard’s more liberal and liberating environment. “I’m more chill and relaxed now that I live in a hook-up culture. Now I’m down to try everything once.”

Marcus T. Quinn* has been just as involved in the hook-up culture as Owen, but he frames his sexual encounters less cynically. “If it’s meaningful—even if it’s not meaningful, at the first level it feels good—but I think it makes you closer to people,” he says. “You have to let your guard down a lot to have sex with somebody. And letting your guard down is how you get close to someone, and I think sex is the most extreme version of that. I think that in trying to craft a meaningful connection with someone it’s good to have sex.” Despite these sentiments, Quinn also reveals that in some social scenes at Harvard sex manifests itself in a less ginger and gentle context.

Tags