Abstinence isn’t really a hot topic among college students. And why should it be? One could roll out the list of benefits to having sex like a red carpet: stress release, intimacy, burning calories, improving sleep. Oh, and it feels pretty good, too. With the monopoly sex seems to hold over college culture, it can be easy to forget that not having sex is actually an option.
Jacob, a married University of Montana student, remained sexually abstinent through his entire college career. In fact, he was a virgin until his wedding night this January. He and his wife actively pursued abstinence together for the three years they dated because it was a fundamental part of their Christian faith.
While they were dating, abstaining from sex forced them to rely on their relationship as friends, Jacob said, and it helped them with communication and practicing self-control. Getting to experience sex for the first time in both of their lives on their wedding night was very rewarding, he said.
But religion is hardly the only reason a college student might be abstinent. Dr. Lindsey Doe is a Missoula-based clinical sexologist and sex educator. She runs the popular YouTube channel, Sexplanations, home to hundreds of four-minute explainers on sex-related topics from circumcision to menstruation.
Doe speaks at universities as part of her job, and YouTube’s analytical tools tell her that the majority of her online audience consists of college-age people. But despite the topic she covers, Doe does have sexually abstinent people watching her videos and attending her lectures.
Over the years, she’s found the primary reason some of her viewers are abstinent is because they’re asexual — a term that means someone is not attracted to sex.
Doe also named a variety of practical, intentional reasons one might abstain from sex. There’s the obvious: avoidance of STIs and unwanted pregnancy, as well as being highly selective in who one shares intimacy with. Some might also take that time to improve their own masturbation skills, sober up from a sex addiction or seek to gain a sense of belonging in a certain social group that values abstinence.
Hugues, who asked to be referred to only by his first name, is a UM student triple-majoring in genetics, neuroscience and anthropology. He doesn’t abstain from sex, but approaches it differently than many.
He has sex when the situation is right, but doesn’t ever pursue it, and certainly doesn’t view it as a means of experiencing pleasure.
“I never have this idea, ‘I want to have sex’,” Hugues said. “It’s not the primary goal. It’s more of a reward than a quest.”
Sex, he said, just like alcohol or other indulgences, gets in the way of his pursuit of intellectual and physical greatness. After losing his virginity early in college and opening himself up to natural sexual opportunities, Hugues noticed an increase in the quality of his social relationships, the primary reason why he continues to have sex today.
Nevertheless, sex is a tough thing to avoid, particularly in the residence halls. Cheyenne is a UM student and resident assistant. She said there’s a climate of sex over abstinence in the on-campus housing community, particularly in the freshmen class. But she noted that not all follow suit.
“There’s a lot of freshmen who are virgins and still are deciding, ‘You know what? No. My friends are having sex and I don’t want to be like that,’” Cheyenne said. “They’re here for school and it’s kind of cool to see them be more about school.”
For students who are having sex, resident assistants are encouraged by Residence Life to stock up on and hand out condoms to their residents, which Cheyenne does.
When university organizations are slinging condoms, it may seem like they’re encouraging sex. But the reality is, there’s nothing to hand out to encourage abstinence. Students who want to have sex are going to have it whether or not they get free condoms from their RAs.
Cathy Jo Finch is the former director of Care Net Pregnancy Support Center of Missoula, a non-profit, Christian-affiliated organization that provides support for women having babies they didn’t plan on. The organization offers free ultrasounds and STI testing, and encourages mothers-to-be not to abort.
But even having dealt with unwanted pregnancies on a daily basis, Finch didn’t advocate for abstinence.
“Learning how to take care of yourself in relationships is really important. It’s so much more than ‘is sex before marriage good or bad?’” Finch said.
Finch worked for Care Net for seven years, and mostly taught high school students “healthy relationship education,” not specifically abstinence education.
“Learning how to have a relationship and a healthy one — if we start there, in the end people are going to make smarter choices,” Finch said. “I never like to come at this Christian-or-not-Christian, what-do-you-believe-morally. That’s a whole other discussion.”