It was the end of my first year at Harvard, and I was fed up with my love life. A series of romantic mishaps had left me spiraling: I scribbled hundreds of words in my diary when I should have been focusing on my final papers. Over dinner in Annenberg, I told my friends that I was done. I donated my skin-tight party dresses. I deleted my screenshots of text threads. I read, and then reread, Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” A few weeks later, on my private Instagram story, I announced that I was embarking on an Abstinent Girl Summer.
Although my vow of celibacy was mostly unserious, there was a time when the pursuit of chastity had captivated the Harvard student body, —and I’m not referring to the school’s Puritan past. In 2006 — the year of low-rise jeans and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” — student couple Justin S. Murray ’07 and Sarah M. Kinsella ’07 founded True Love Revolution, a club dedicated to promoting abstinence on campus. By 2007, the group had 90 members on its Facebook page, and it drew about half that number to in-person events.
On Valentine’s Day, 2007, the club sent candy hearts to every girl in the freshman class, along with pink greeting cards that read: “Celebrate love, celebrate life, celebrate you. Why wait? Because you’re worth it.”
Their public programming garnered national attention, and Murray and Kinsella appeared in NBC News, Newsweek, The New York Times, and other outlets. The pair presented the club as an alternative to Harvard’s undergraduate hookup culture, describing the campus as “saturated with casual sex” in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
On campus, though, True Love Revolution faced backlash for their unconventional outreach strategies. In an op-ed for The Crimson, Rachel M. Singh ’10 wrote that “by targeting women with their cards and didactic message,” True Love Revolution perpetuates “an age-old values system in which the worth of a young woman is measured by her virginity.”
Like Singh, I think the Valentine’s Day stunt is saturated with sexism. Given that, I was surprised to see how some True Love Revolution members marketed the group as a defender of women’s rights.
In an interview for The New York Times, Janie M. Fredell ’09, a former president of True Love Revolution, contended that “It’s extremely countercultural for a woman to assert control over her own body. It is, in fact, a feminist notion.” Fredell found a sense of control by abstaining from sex —“by telling men, no, absolutely not.”
Fredell’s argument felt familiar to me. Some of my closest female friends from high school are vocally committed to chastity. For them, abstinence is an exercise in agency — an enriching act of self-restraint. One friend explained her choice to me over FaceTime. Weaving her logic between our usual bits of boy-gossip, I started to see abstinence’s allure. There is something romantic in imagining yourself as a pure, sacred thing. The value that the doctrine of abstinence places in the body can seem comforting in the face of a sexual culture that leaves many young women feeling used.
At the same time, I find it difficult to believe that True Love Revolution’s promotion of abstinence advances a feminist agenda. In a statement on their now-defunct website, the club affirms their support for what they call “true feminism,” which is premised on the belief that there are “inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women.”
In addition to its blatant exclusion of trans women, I am troubled by how this line of thinking binds women to their biology. According to this statement, sex assigned at birth brings with it a series of insurmountable differences, all of which prevent women from acting on the same terms as men. Abstinent ideologies may imbue bodies with preciousness, but they trap women within those bodies in the process.
This essentialist form of feminism serves as the basis for many traditional abstinence narratives. These narratives imply that men are wired to seek out sex, while women are more naturally chaste. This puts women in the position of gatekeeping sex from men. As Singh pointed out, True Love Revolution sent their cautionary Valentine’s Day cards to freshmen girls — not freshmen boys.
It is difficult for me to fully articulate the harms of this dynamic. For one, it denies the force of female sexuality. It also reduces men’s behavior down to their base instincts. Perhaps worst of all, it places the blame on female victims of sexual violence: Women are made to feel that they’ve failed to protect their purity, while men are absolved of responsibility for their abusive actions.
These ideologies would not concern me as much if they were confined to a long-departed campus club. In 2012, True Love Revolution was renamed the Harvard College Anscombe Society, after the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. In the years that followed, the club continued to advocate for sexual abstinence and “true feminism.” Eventually, activity fizzled out, with the last post on the club’s website published in 2019. Murray declined to speak with me for this article, and Kinsella did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Unfortunately, harmful ideas about gender and sexuality continue to flourish on a systemic level — especially in the South, where I grew up. The school district that introduced me to my chaste close friends also practiced abstinence-only sex education. In my eighth-grade health class, our singular sex-ed lecture was conducted by an elderly doctor who ran a local family practice.
For almost an hour, he showed us slide after slide of wart-encrusted penises and rashy vulvas, implying that the only way to avoid the same fate was to save sex until marriage.
My failed sex-ed is largely a joke that I now recount to my college friends. I tell them about how I believed, well into my teenage years, that condoms had to be prescribed by a doctor. Nevertheless, studies published in the “Journal of Adolescent Health” have illustrated the dangers of abstinence-only sex education: It does nothing to prevent unplanned pregnancies, it withholds accurate medical information, and it promotes harmful gender stereotypes.
On a personal level, I also found that focusing on abstinence led to sexual shame. Even though I wasn’t that serious about Abstinent Girl Summer, looking back, I find it odd that my first reaction to romantic strife was to double down on my sexual purity. For all of my feminist beliefs, I still find myself affected by the pro-abstinence teachings that I grew up with.
If the story of True Love Revolution proves anything, it’s that these sexist doctrines can spring up anywhere — whether that’s in a Southern public school or on a purportedly liberal campus like Harvard.
I do not mean to discredit abstinence completely — sex is a deeply personal topic, and I am in no place to dictate someone else’s sexual decisions. Instead, I want to imagine a world without the stigma that surrounds female sexuality — a world where a woman’s value is uncoupled from her sexual choices.
To me, that would be something truly revolutionary.
— Magazine writer Yasmeen A. Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @yazzywriting