Celibate at Harvard

By KARA BASKIN  |  October 25, 2007

“— Obviously, if you’re having sex for the first time, like, on your honeymoon, it’s not going to be, like, mind blowing,” Janie interjects, making me feel less silly.

Marriage, it seems, is the brass ring, and it’s a subject dear to Leo’s heart, especially. While Janie’s parents are married, Leo’s parents are divorced — something he says informed his decision to abstain. “ I really wish that I’d had a good, stable father as a kid. That’s why I kind of abhor men who treat women so lightly — not only my dad, but my stepfather also, treated my mom very lightly and they left. That really marked me, how valuable commitment, responsibility, is. My stepfather, that was his attitude: ‘Oh, I think there’s someone out there who can give me more pleasure.’ There was emotion involved — but think about what was already there.”

What was “already there” was a sexual attraction to another woman. From a cynical perspective, it’s this threat of the unknown, and its twin demon, instant gratification, that seems to begat TLR’s driving conclusion: what you don’t know can’t hurt you, or threaten your relationship. Ideologically, this runs counter to the liberal, anti-individualist Cantabrigian bent. Why should sex exist in a bubble?

Leo chortles and shakes his head. “It doesn’t exist in a bubble. It exists in the context of a relationship where you completely value the other person . . . I mean, people use the analogy, you need to ride a bike before you buy it. Yeah, well, people aren’t bikes. You can’t try them out, because, the sexual act has to be this expression of the whole person, and outside of marriage, you’re not doing that. You’re basically saying, ‘I need to test your body to see if it’s going to give me pleasure.’ ” I flash to my car inspection and cross my legs.

Justin, via phone, echoes Leo’s sentiments. “We cannot pretend that those earlier sexual choices aren’t something that don’t affect your marriage — that’s baggage you bring with you — memories that you’re comparing your spouse against,” he warns. “Experiencing that level of intimacy is something that could make dynamics of that [earlier] relationship present with you in marriage.” He doesn’t go into statistics. And why should he? Much like love, it seems, the drive for abstinence is in some ways blind and transcends empirical justification.

All fine and good, in the abstract. But what about real life? What happens when you’ve had a few beers and restraint goes out the window? I decide to turn my attentions to coupled Janie, who is surely acquainted with the dark underbelly of self-control.

“There is so much more that we do,” she laughs. “I mean, it’s so small. The physical aspect of our relationship is an aspect, definitely, but there are so many other things; it’s not even something we really think about.”

Walking home, I started to feel sort of sorry for Janie and Leo. Here they are, barely into adulthood, groping to define something they’ve never experienced! Depriving themselves due to fear masquerading as self-respect! I wanted to play the wise, jaded aunt. I wanted tell them that their self-worth didn’t hang by such a delicate thread; that they were, in fact, selling themselves short by considering it so, whether they chose to have sex or not.

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