Millions of teenagers nationwide, including male university students, have chosen to remain virgins until marriage. In doing so they unflinchingly clash head on with a modern day culture that implicitly condones free love.1
A friend of mine was once riding the subway late at night when the doors opened and in stepped two couples returning from a night out on the town. They laughed and carried on until one of the ladies noticed a poster promoting abstinence on the wall behind them. She read it out loud for the others. “Virgin: it’s not a dirty word,” it said. Then half jokingly, but with a voice that portrayed guilt and disappointment, she added: “Why didn’t they tell us that when we were 15?” The nervous laughter that followed this remark quickly degenerated into a pensive silence and a marked note of frustration.2
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This young lady had obviously gone down a wrong path in life and briefly lamented not having been offered a different option.3
It would appear that America is the last place on earth where a person who wants to maintain his virginity would find other options. Hollywood hardly misses an opportunity to glamorize impure lifestyles which corrupt our young people at home and project an incomplete image of America abroad. Freedom is supposed to be our motto, in all things, including love.4
There is, however, a whole subculture in America that openly rejects impure lifestyles and immodest fashions. Members of this subculture fight to safeguard virginity and reject what they see as destructive trends and fashions. Young people across America are promising to remain pure until marriage and by doing so proclaim loud and clear that “virginity” as the sign said “is not a dirty word.” It is yet another “only in America” paradox.5
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Abstinence programs are a huge element in this trend. Over a billion dollars has been given by the federal government in the last ten years to programs that teach young people the value of remaining chaste until marriage. Millions more were allocated to bring this message to our nation’s classrooms. More striking still was the $167 million given last year alone to a specific type of abstinence program which carries a stipulation. To get the money you are not allowed to teach about the supposed benefits of condoms, but only how they fail.\The significance of such funding can only be truly measured when we consider the mania for public opinion polls. These polls have become the politician’s way of gauging what his constituents want. It is safe to say that what the public often gets is reflected in such polls.6
The conclusion we could draw from this reasoning is that a certain sector of the American public wants to preserve virginity and have voiced their opinions loud enough to get public funding. The money is not going into a vacuum but is currently being used by over 200 abstinence groups nationwide. Many of these groups promote seminars that culminate in purity pledges by teens.7
The Silver Ring Thing
The first time I began to take notice of such programs was when I saw a news item about a 15 year-old girl named Lydia Playfoot in West Sussex England. She received international attention when authorities at the Millais All Girls School told her to remove her purity ring. They said it was a transgression of the school’s uniform policy. Her parents were upset because of the double standard this represented; practicing Muslims wearing headscarves and Sikhs using Kara bracelets in the same school went unmolested.
The mention of an English girl in an “only in America” column might seem out of place. It is not. Lydia received her ring during a program presented by an American group called The Silver Ring Thing founded in the 1996 by Denny Pattyn of Yuma, Arizona. His educational program aims at showing young people the physical, emotional and spiritual problems resulting from an impure lifestyle. “The only way to reverse the moral decay of any youth culture” he points out, “is to inspire a change in the conduct and behavior from those within the culture.”
Mr. Pattyn’s group was formed in the shadow of another organization called True Love Waits founded by Jimmy Hester in the early 90’s.
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“We began to hear from students,” Mr. Hester said, “that they did not have a way to express themselves about abstinence until marriage.” In other words, they wanted to avoid taking a wrong path, but did not see another option. “True Love Waits,” he said, “grew out of that desire.”
The commitment to remain pure originally entailed signing a pledge card which students carried in their pockets. Later on, the pledge card was replaced by a more visible and powerfully symbolic purity ring — a constant reminder of the promise made.
Purity rings are sometimes given by the father to the daughter who will then give it to her future husband should she decide to marry. We are able to fully appreciate the beauty of this gesture when we consider the symbolism of brides wearing white to the altar. Queen Victoria was the first woman in the modern era to do so but brides across Europe and America quickly followed the royal lead. The color white, formally symbolic of royal mourning, thus became more commonly the symbol of purity of heart, innocence of childhood and later virginity.
Seeing so many young people wear such a visible sign of their chastity shatters the modern day myth that no one is interested in remaining pure. Mr. Hester told an amusing story of one high school girl who evidently believed this myth. After taking the pledge, she stood up in her classroom and courageously affirmed, even if inaccurately, that she was the only virgin in the school. She was pleasantly surprised when several others corrected her, “You are not the only one, I am also.” In the last ten years, over two million young people have taken the same pledge.
It might appear from what has been said so far that those interested in such a concept are exclusively women. Virginity, after all, has more commonly been associated with woman, while true manhood has been distorted by false archetypes. Men with piety are often presented as genderless beings a young man would never want to imitate. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the equally distorted concept of men who are macho. Such men see the loss of virginity as not only an acceptable but even a necessary step towards their deformed image of manhood.
Sherif Girgis would be the first to disagree with these equally false options. “I personally found this intense struggle [to remain pure]” he said, “and the subsequent tranquility in having conquered self, to be eminently masculine.”
He just happens to be a 19-year-old philosophy major at Princeton University and co-founder of the Anscombe Society which, among other things, promotes abstinence. The society is named after Elizabeth Anscombe, a Cambridge philosopher and staunch Roman Catholic who defended the Church’s unpopular teaching on sexual ethics. A high point in her struggle came in 1968 when the Church reaffirmed its condemnation of contraception. While the intellectuals around her reacted with shock and rage, the Anscombe family toasted the decision with champagne.
The society named in her honor has had similar struggles. Not long after they were formed, a certain group of people on campus, evidently not so enthusiastic about chastity, labeled them as homophobes. They might just have easily toasted with champagne. This did not deter them and it was not long before they had an email list with 150 names.
According to Sherif, a convert to Catholicism like Mrs. Anscombe, the Princeton group has a twofold purpose. It not only provides a social network for like-minded people but also provides intellectual arguments to help students grasp the importance of chastity in human development. The most important thing, however, is to present a powerful example, especially for young men who lack proper role models. Cassandra Debenedetto is the founder of Anscombe and the oldest in a family of four from Stow, Massachusetts. Her younger brothers appreciate the example given by students at Princeton. “Two of them plan to form an abstinence group at their high school,” she said, “while the other hopes to do the same at the university he attends.”
With the media coverage that followed their founding, the Anscombe Society was contacted by a similar group at Cornell University, said Cody May. He is a 19-year-old Philosophy major from Center, Texas and former officer of Anscombe. “Although [the Cornell group] did not get the same publicity we did,” he explained, “they just wanted to say ‘hey, we are with you and we are offering similar things here at Cornell.’”
Jonathan Butler, a 19-year-old Catholic student at the University of Colorado at Boulder is with them as well. Known to many as the “People’s Republic of Boulder,” the University of Colorado is the last place on earth you would expect to find “right-wing-fanatics” promoting chastity — especially if they are male. That didn’t stop Jonathan and his three friends from founding the College Coalition for Relationship Education. Such an innocuous title is understandable when you consider the ire liberals have for such groups promoting chastity. The organization currently has fifteen members and half are men.
There are similar clubs at the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University. Jonathan hopes to have help, after he graduates, from fellow students in taking this message to the younger crowds. “I would like to see members of my college,” he said, “visiting grade schools to teach them [about the abstinence message] also.”
Modesty as a Safeguard of Virginity
The subject of modesty unexpectedly came up while I was speaking with Cody May. Coming from a very hot Center, Texas he commented on the “unexpected blessing” of going to Princeton, with temperatures that actually oblige girls to dress decently. Cody is not the only one who thinks that way at Princeton. “More men than women would agree with me,” he said. “Men recognize the problem because if affects them so badly.” He understood that to maintain virginity without the virtue of modesty is difficult, if not impossible.
Cassandra Debenedetto would agree with him wholeheartedly. Besides being one of the founders of the Anscombe Society, she also has her own blog appropriately titled “Modestly yours.” In one of her entries she tells her experience of training high school girls and how impressed she was with their grasp of modesty. “The girls understood that modest dress did not mean wearing baggy or “frumpy” clothing… Rather they understood that one can dress fashionably and in a way that accents her femininity without dressing in a revealing or distracting way.”
This idea may be catching on. Teenage girls in Tucson, Arizona got so fed up with the indecent clothing which they were being offered at stores that they circulated a petition demanding more modest fashions. Over 4,000 students signed a petition that got the attention of Dillard’s which ended up holding a fashion show to spotlight more modest attire.
And then there is the case of Mrs. Rita Davidson who drove five hours from Ontario, Canada across the American border precisely because of the modesty issue. “I wanted to meet my pen pal from California who once commented that she always wears a dress.”
“This stance intrigued me” she said, “since it seemed so severe.” Upon meeting her American pen pal she was attracted by her very feminine manners and sincerity. “Her whole image struck me,” she continued, “and a seed was planted.” That seed later developed into a lay organization called Martyrs of Purity which is a crusade to save souls not only from impurity but immodesty as well. She was quickly forced to open a post office box in New York. “Ninety percent of our customers are American,” she said. “Catholic families in America take their faith more seriously.”
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There are those who will read this article and quickly question the longevity of the purity pledges made by over two million young people. Liberals will do so —backed by statistics— because they want to continue handing out contraception. Others will do so for a different reason. They will argue that the young people who take these pledges are doomed to fail because they have voluntarily immersed themselves in a promiscuous culture. They will equally question the integrity of university students who courageously defend their virginity on liberal campuses; even if it is sprinkled with a modesty message.
This article was not intended to portray America as a convent which it most certainly is not. It was to point out the paradoxical desire to remain virginally pure on the part of young people in a country and culture that, at least implicitly, condones free love.
This is the paradox which was so well expressed by that poor soul on the subway; “Why didn’t they tell us that when we were 15?” She had experienced the empty pleasures the world offers and was candid enough to raise a very prickly question; “Why wasn’t I offered another option?”
Hidden inside this question is a desire for something else and an affirmation that, if offered another option, “I might have taken it!” Was this subway lady aware of the millions, whose desire for virginity led them to make pledges to remain pure? Did she know that those same people unashamedly wear purity rings as an outward sign of that promise and often face ridicule for doing so? Did she know about female students, not much older than she, at an Ivy League school, that are proudly promoting modesty? What about the men attending the same school who appreciated these efforts? Or what about these same men who choose virginity and in doing so smash the false archetypes of wimpy or macho man, in the process?
She, like you, might have been totally unaware that such a paradox not only exists, but is alive and well — only in America.
- “Taking the pledge,” CBS News Ed Bradley Reports on Abstinence-Only programs for Teens
- Sarah Harris, “Wearing ‘Purity Rings’ is banned at Girls’ School,” Daily Mail, June 19, 2006
- Blue was formally more common because of its association with the Virgin Mary. http://www.answers.com/topic/white-wedding
- A Cornell Law School professor condemned such programs because he said they endorse a religious agenda. www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Nov00/Simson.sex.ed.html
- Scott Simonson, “Local Teens Score One for Modesty,” Arizona Daily Star, Sept.18, 2004.