Dozens of college students gathered in early February in a Harvard University auditorium to participate in the Love & Fidelity Network's Rethinking Sex conference. Their keynote speaker, however, was unable to join them. Though Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons had been tapped to discuss his work as the director of the Institute for Marital Healing, he is best known for his scientifically dubious views on homosexuality -- namely, that it is a treatable "disorder." True Love Revolution, Harvard's abstinence-only group and the conference co-sponsor, has fielded near-constant condemnation from campus progressives since its founding four years ago, largely in response to controversial speakers and a platform explicitly rejecting same-sex unions. However, an impending blizzard, not criticism, kept Fitzgibbons away.
Though debates over the efficacy of abstinence-only education dominates public discourse, the abstinence movement's efforts go beyond sex ed. In recent years, social conservatives have raged over everything from college "hook up" culture to the decline of marriage; pre-marital sex between consenting adults is considered as dangerous as binge drinking. Meanwhile, student-run abstinence groups have cropped up on college campuses across the country, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Providence College, and Brigham Young University. While premarital chastity is marketed to students as the "true feminist" ideal, the campus abstinence movement roots its advocacy in concern for "traditional" marriage and publicly opposes same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, much like the national organizations that support it.
Cassandra Hough, former president of Princeton's abstinence-only Anscombe Society, started the Love & Fidelity Network in 2007 to coordinate similar college groups. The five member chapters have developed a central database of resources and literature, facilitated the founding of new student groups, and planned conferences to preach the ideal of sanctified marriage between a man and woman. They sell their message with a "you go, girl!" attitude, furthering the argument made in books like The Thrill of The Chaste and Girls Gone Mild that chastity is counterrevolutionary. To give in to sex is to invite depression, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and -- worst of all -- future marital dissatisfaction. Preserving one's virginity, they claim, is the only way to reverse the trend of failing marriages.
But while the campus movement champions individual decision when it comes to "staying pure," it condemns choice when it goes against their ideal. Hough says she invited Fitzgibbons to speak because of his background in marital counseling. Yet she also admits, "To be quite honest, the primary focus isn't just sexual abstinence. The three-prong area that we are concerned with is getting this fuller picture of chastity and the institution of marriage and the special role of the family. We know from experience that is really hard to talk about any one of these issues without addressing the others."
Hough stresses the Love & Fidelity Network is inclusive of queer students who want to maintain chaste lifestyles, but these clubs have few members who identify as queer and are staunchly opposed by LGBT student alliances. "There is no reason why students who agree with the group on some issues while disagreeing or questioning on other issues cannot take part in discussions and events, and the support they offer," she says. Both True Love Revolution and the Anscombe Society state in their identical platforms that "Scientific evidence … [has] shown that any deviation from this norm is harmful. … It is still more harmful when this variation challenges the institution of marriage itself, as in the cases of same-sex unions and casual divorce." As long as marriage is portrayed as an endangered institution, then any divergence from the heterosexual norm is as much a threat as a bride donning a beige dress.
These views reflect the alarm raised by the pro-family groups who have shaped the political course of sex-education policy and same-sex marriage over the last decade. The Love & Fidelity Network, though not officially affiliated with national abstinence organizations, draws from the resources of its more established counterparts and frequently uses movement leaders as speakers. Its advisory board counts among its members Patrick F. Fagan of the lobbying group Family Research Council and Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the leading proponent behind California's Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to exclude same-sex marriage.
NOM has also launched its own college initiative that emphasizes the "importance of man-woman marriage" and fosters "pro-life, pro-family" student groups. "The social climate on campus really encourages indiscriminate sexual activity, and to some extent, even promiscuity and pornography. We're just coming out of Sex Week at Yale, which is a celebration of unrestrained sexuality," says Dr. Jennifer R. Morse, who heads NOM's Ruth Institute. "If you live the hook-up lifestyle, and you live that way for 10 or 15 years and then decide you want to get married, you have 10 or 15 years worth of stuff you have to unlearn."
Psychology professor Linda Malone-Colon, who gave the closing presentation at the Rethinking Sex conference, openly laments what she sees as the politicization of marriage. "There's a tendency of the media to change the conversation to same-sex marriage and not to the general trend in marriage. We don't want to make people feel bad," she insists. "We want everyone to feel empowered."
Malone-Colon admits that there are plenty of exceptions to her ideal of "traditional" marriage. She points out that her own son is a single father. But for her, the inclusion of gay couples and other exceptions in the discussion only detracts from the ability to improve marriage for the mainstream. According to Malone-Colon's research, more Americans today are suffering from separation, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and unhappy marriages, all because of poor intimacy skills. She counts increasing rates of cohabitation as one sign that marriage is in crisis.
During the Rethinking Sex conference, an audience member asked how she could convince her friends to "hook in" instead of "hook up," before they doom their marital futures. The conference attendees share an unquestioned belief that marriage is important, something to be salvaged. Even the term "premarital sex" suggests that marriage is an inevitability for all. In framing their arguments for chastity in this manner, abstinence proponents treat marriage as a goal that everyone should hold out for, all the while excluding queer sexuality from the equation. But if the state of marriage is as bleak as they make it seem, then is virginity really the traditional family's savior?