Taking the Morality out of Abstinence

Mangala Kanayson, Resident Blogger (’15, Emory University School of Law)

In our quest to destroy the virgin/whore dichotomy by de-vilifying those who do not conform to or believe in the idea that abstinence equates with inherent moral worth, we may inadvertently alienate those who do happen to conform to (but not necessarily believe in) this ideal. This presents the danger of continuing to play into the dichotomy while simply switching the moral values assigned to each role instead of destroying both roles completely and allowing women to assign moral worth to themselves on their own terms.

Perhaps because abstinence is so often considered an ineffectual waiting period rather than a tool (like a condom or an HPV vaccine) that one uses to acquire and maintain a level of security while achieving one’s goals, it is easily glossed over in conversations about sexual health and as a result is presented as a non-option for “normal” and “sexually healthy” individuals.

One harsh result of this inadvertent oversight is that aside from reiterating the media’s insistence that having sex must be our primary concern (billboards in a major city or ten minutes watching television will confirm this), it teaches those who have ever had a previous sexual encounter, whether consensual or not, that continued sexual activity is always the healthy course of action moving forward. Reclaiming one’s sexuality in the case of rape or other sexual trauma takes various forms as unique as the individual doing the reclaiming, but here the dismissal of abstinence as a valid and affirming decision actually limits the choices of survivors.

As much as we want to be sex-positive, we must not forget to affirm the importance of choice. The type of birth control a person chooses to use should not define her worth as a person, and the decision not to have sex should be just as validated as the decision to be sexually active. It’s high time we stopped aiming for extremes and began focusing on aligning in the center, away from competing notions of sexual liberation versus sexual repression. Let’s take the morality out of abstinence.