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Is Cake Better After Dinner?: Delayed Gratification in the “True Love Waits” Movement

True love, in the modern context, is the stuff of fairy tales and films like The Princess Bride. To many, it seems unachievable, but there is a strong movement among teens and young adults that contends that true love is common and achievable. However, a very strict path must be followed to reach that end. The modern Evangelical Christian culture stands firmly behind the argument that the only way to achieve happiness in a relationship (namely, marriage) is to remain sexually abstinent outside and before marriage. The arguments made by those advocating this lifestyle are based in a romanticized notion of what it means to be a virgin, as well as an idealized idea of sex and marriage.

The movement is characterized by an emphasis on the beauty of a sexual relationship within the context of marriage, and the excellence of the love implicit in the relationship. Many abstinence-centered youth organizations imply this in their names. There is True Love Waits, True Love Revolution, and the Pure Love Club. The rhetoric of these groups is that virginity is a gift from God, and that it shouldn’t be wasted. True Love Revolution, a club at Harvard University since 2006, distributed cards to all female freshmen on Valentine’s Day. The cards read, “Why Wait? Because you’re worth it.”

That attitude is repeated in the testimonials found on the Pure Love Club’s website. The Pure Love Club is an organization that advocates premarital abstinence. One member of the Pure Love Club, Michelle, writes, “I choose to be pure because that’s what God, my future husband, and I want. I know God wants it because he says so in his word. I know my husband wants it because it is such a special gift.” The 2008 president of True Love Revolution, Janie Fredell, frames the appeal of virginity in a different light, a more self-sufficient one. She claims that “virginity is extremely alluring “¦ [its] mysterious allure “¦ is not rooted in an image of innocence and purity, but rather in the notion of strength “¦ it takes a strong woman to be abstinent, and that’s the sort of woman I want to be.” In Fredell’s opinion, the benefit of abstinence is the absolute control over her own body it allows, a benefit she describes as unconventionally feminist.

There is a clear distinction between the intellectual idea of abstinence promoted by Fredell and the one experienced by many teenagers. Rather than abstinence being a choice and something to pride oneself on, it is an obligation and the loss of it is not just a personal failing but a deep shattering of ones place in the world. In Brio, a magazine for Christian teenage girls published by Focus on the Family – a conservative, evangelical organization – a reader writes to Susie, the “agony aunt,” with a question:

I’ve dated this guy for almost a year, unfortunately, I’ve given him my virginity. Now I’m feeling hurt and confused. I know God wants me to break off the relationship, but I don’t want to hurt my boyfriend. I feel as though I’m no longer one of God’s princesses. It seems there are so many other girls that He’d rather have in heaven with Him. I look at the Brio girls and how they’re still pure, and then I look at myself and feel disgusted! No Christian man will ever want to marry me. I’m so hurt!

This girl signs her letter “Desperate.” Susie’s answer is that this girl can still feel God’s love if she is repentant. The idea of a forgiving God, as described by Susie, figures into the born-again virgin movement, where past wrongs can be undone or forgiven by being reborn as pure in God’s eyes. The way “Desperate” describes her virginal relationship with God is notable because it represents virginity as glorious and the defining virtue of a teenage girl. Also, she describes a relationship with God as something akin to the cool table in a high school cafeteria. It seems that for this girl, and others like her, the emphasis on sexual abstinence is so overbearing that it becomes the central facet of a relationship with God, despite the scriptural, but frequently ignored, idea that God does forgive sins.

“Desperate’s” description of a virgin as one of God’s “Princesses,” and Fredell’s praise of the strength it takes to be abstinent, both lend themselves to the idea that it is universally better to be a virgin. At Harvard, in 2007, Fredell engaged in a public debate with Lena Chen, a sex blogger, at an event sponsored by True Love Revolution. Many of those discussing the debate on Internet forums reinforced “Desperate” and Fredell’s contentions that it is simply preferable for a young woman to be a virgin. In comments on Ivygate, a blog about the Ivy League, Chen was described by commentators as “a “˜slut,’ a “˜whore,’ a “˜total whore,’ [and] a “˜whore whore slut.'” Not surprisingly, one poster stated that “most guys out there would rather end up with a girl like Janie.” This echoes “Desperate’s” laments that because she is no longer a virgin, neither God nor a Christian man will ever want her.

The ideas of a forgiving God and the importance of sexual purity are central to the notion of “born-again” or “recycled” virginity. This is the belief that one can regain complete sexual purity through God’s grace. The idea is similar to the essential notion of being “born again,” the notion of a new beginning. In both, the past is forgiven and a new life is begun. In “recycled virginity” the idea is that through God, the past sin of sexual activity can be forgiven, but not erased. On the testimonial page at the website for True Love Waits, a young girl writes that, “Even though I know I am forgiven by my Father in heaven, the pain and grief still exist.” And while those who have strayed from the path of abstinence no longer have that sin weighing on their souls, they have not been restored to absolute innocence. Another girl writes, “I can never have that special gift back. I have ruined one of the best moments in my life with my future husband. I have ruined the honeymoon night, and the trust.”

To many of the modern day advocates of abstinence, however, marriage is only defined by the sexual relationship included in it. Themarriagebed.com is a website offering sex advice for married Christians. In an article titled, “Why Wait?” Lori, one of the contributors to the website, writes, “When you have sex before marriage there is nothing really special to look forward to after marriage.” How can this be? Ought not marriage be a spiritual linking of two lives? Why is it that the marital relationship is assumed to be purely sexual? Certainly there may once have been a time when sex primarily existed within the confines of marriage, but today that is nowhere near the case. Perhaps that is why Lori makes that point – that sex and marriage should be mutually exclusive, and since sex shouldn’t exist outside of marriage, a spiritual connection like marriage shouldn’t be present of sex. Rather, sex and marriage are one and the same.

Granted, what Lori writes is not explicitly stated by many in the “wait until marriage” movement, but a huge emphasis is found on the magical beauty of marital relations. At a “True Love Waits” conference in 1994, “girls were told a sentimental fairy tale about true, eternal love and the achievement of the feminine dream of romance through the preservation of virginity.” It is understood that waiting until after “I do”s are exchanged will enhance any sexual experiences between married Christians. Susie from Brio describes waiting until marriage as “delayed gratification.” However, it should be noted that what Susie describes as “delayed gratification” is not the typical understanding. She writes, “You may want a piece of chocolate cake, but if dinner will be served soon, hopefully you’ve learned to delay gratifying that desire.” She doesn’t discuss that the cake may be better after dinner. Leo Keliher, Janie Fredell’s “True Love Revolution” co-president, describes sex as “breathtakingly beautiful,” but presumably only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage.

The magnificence of sex within marriage can be ruined by indulging in it too soon. Abstinence proponents claim that engaging in sex before marriage means that married sex will be unfulfilling and the marriage will be doomed. Chastity.com claims on their website that “early sexual activity and having multiple sexual partners is strongly associated with increased depression, greater likelihood of maternal poverty, and higher rates of marital infidelity and divorce in future marriages.” These claims are refuted by Martha Kempner of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, who says that there is no evidence that premarital sex leads to these consequences. However, it may be that if one is a reader of Chastity.com, or had been taught one’s entire life that premarital sex is sinful; the claims of “True Love Revolution” may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, the sources cited by TLR for the claims of increased depression and higher rates of divorce are misleading. In terms of increased depression, the studies cited focus on sexually active adolescesants and don’t seem to discuss depression outside of adolescence. The claims of higher rates of divorce come from a study published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Lori, from Themarriagebed.com, writes in her article “Why Wait”:

Premarital sex is not like marital sex. No kidding. There is a certain “naughtiness” and excitement about premarital sex. That “naughtiness” backfires after marriage. People tend to back away from it to have “good married sex.” The problem is that they’ve already done everything and it’s already been labeled “naughty.” Talk about frustration. It feels like bait and switch and can take some real unlearning to make sexual things ok for marriage. If you wait for marriage that sexual excitement becomes a part of married sex instead of being the “naughty stuff” you did before marriage.

It seems that those who are pro-abstinence are advocating a commitment-free life, that is, until marriage. Fredell says that because she doesn’t have sex with her boyfriend, she would be able to walk away from the relationship without regrets. Lori poses the question, “How bonded do you want to be before you say “˜I do’?” Many of those writing from the Evangelical viewpoint on the questions of premarital sex discuss the “bonding” nature of sexual activity. While few may deny the bonding effects of sex, the emphasis on it in the Evangelical community is overwhelming, as a further method of deterring premarital sex.

Premarital sexual activity, as understood by Evangelicals, is shame-producing, intensely regrettable, relationship suicide. This consensus in based in the romanticize of both virginity and marriage. It is intensified by the indoctrination of those romantic ideals, with a strong presentation of the supposed perils of premarital sex. To those who are brought up in this mindset, premarital sexual activity is absolutely wrong and to engage in it is not only a deep sin, but will sabotage the chances of future happiness.

Sources

Byerly, Lori. “Why Wait?” The Marriage Bed http://www.themarriagebed.com/pages/sexuality/ engaged/whywait.shtml

“FAQs,” True Love Revolution. http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/tlr/faq.php

“Feedback” Lifeway Student Ministry: True Love Waits. http://www.lifeway.com/tlw/students/feedback.asp

Hendershot, Heather. Shaking the World for Jesus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Patterson, Randall. “Students of Virginity,” New York Times Magazine, March 30 2008. Accessed online via nytimes.com.

“Research: Teens and Sex.” Chastity.com. http://www.chastity.com/research/document-library

Shellenberger, Susie. Brio Magazine. [NOTE: Brio Magazine’s archives are no longer available online]

By Lizy Yagoda

A young writer living in Brooklyn, she likes to make food, eat food, and think about food.

Follow @ElizabethYagoda

14 replies on “Is Cake Better After Dinner?: Delayed Gratification in the “True Love Waits” Movement”

Yeah, I grew up around a lot of true-love-waits-type people. I can’t agree that it’s better to wait till marriage, or even that marriage is this magical special thing that suddenly makes your relationship better or more legitimate. And pigeonholing people into pre-determined roles/lives does not make for happy people. I also hate that this sort of thing goes hand-in-hand with inadequate sex education, so that when people inevitably fail at waiting, they suffer unnecessary consequences (see also: my high school abstinence-only sex ed program). As STFUConservatives pointed out, it is also disgustingly patriarchal to judge women/girls based on “purity” (and to put much less pressure on guys).

Unexpectedly enough, I do have one positive thing to say about this, and that’s that as an asexual teenager (really late bloomer), this gave me a really welcome facade to hide behind, despite being an atheist. It was a pretty easy choice between “I’m waiting till marriage, just like my religious friends” and “I’m asexual but don’t want to talk about it because I am really uncomfortable with pointing out yet another thing that makes me abnormal”.

As someone who has had plentiful premarital sex, I am deeply offended by the implication that you can’t have ‘true love’ unless you wait until marriage. I have had sex with people I didn’t love, and I’ve loved people I’ve never had sex with. I do not for one minute believe that my future marriage is diminished by my sexual activity. I don’t feel like I’m “bringing baggage” or anything like that.

The whole movement is painfully patriarchal and just gross to me. If it’s not only about women being pure, then why did “True Love Revolution” only hand out V-Day cards to women? How many letters does Brio publish from boys who are flipping out about ruining themselves for their wives? Just ick.

It’s interesting to read all these perspectives from women who have waited, since waiting just wasn’t part of my worldview or really the worldview of anyone I knew (except my freshman roommate, bless her).

I like to think of sex as being a normal part of any healthy relationship. I’ve always thought that “waiting” for any special moment–marriage or the third date or whatever–imbues it with some kind of mystical magic that can actually be harmful. If you think of a relationship as being defined by sexual activity, what happens when that relationship, like almost all relationships, goes through a dry spell? or when the sex starts getting a little routine? If you think of sex as being normal and usual, then routine and dry spells are also normal. If you think of it as being special and magical, then couldn’t those normal variations lead people to be unhappy or to worry that something is wrong with the relationship?

I’m not saying that it does. I don’t have the experience either way to say that, except from my own marriage, which is still pretty new (we’ve been married for a year and have a 9-month old daughter, so you can do the math on whether or not we waited!). I would be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts about it, though.

I think those are definitely valid concerns, and I would say that anyone who sees sex as magical or mystical probably is going to have some problems when it comes to sex whether they wait for marriage or not. In fact, that might actually be the thing that determines which of my friends were happy because they waited, vs those who waited but are now less-than-fulfilled. Those of us who realize that sex IS a normal, healthy part of a relationship are doing much better than those who have more magical/mystical expectations.

In other words, I don’t think that waiting to have sex automatically equals what you’re describing. I wouldn’t say that marriage is defined by sexual activity, although that is certainly an element of it. I have never thought my relationship was in trouble just because things had slowed down a bit. (I experienced severe pain for months after the birth of our daughter, so I’ve got some experience with things being less than ideal.)

Does that make sense?

Yes–I guess my impression of the TLW movement has tended to be that it encourages girls to wait by telling them that sex is something magical and special, but that’s only secondhand information. I can definitely see how waiting could make a couple feel like they had something special together without making sex the defining feature of a relationship.

I have no problem either way, obviously, if people wait or don’t. Personal decision! What’s upsetting is what this article and some of the comments articulate, which is that if girls end up “failing” to wait, they experience a lot of guilt and shame. I wonder if there is a way to reframe the argument for waiting without pulling all that guilt into it.

As a former (and failed) TLW-er, I think the problem is not just with the TLW movement, but with the larger virgin-whore dichotomy that exists as the dominant societal view of female sexuality. The purity movement and TLW just brings the division between those who have sex and don’t into even sharper relief.
I think the difficulty is that TLW and failing is often tied up in feelings of religious guilt, and A LOT of emotion. The latter, which a lot of conservative and evangelical churches depend upon to keep teenage populations within their thrall.
I think, if tlw/abstinence is and continues to be important to the evangelical church, there possibly needs to be a reframing of it, from the perspective of sexual health, rather than guilt and pain.

I grew up Catholic and with a strong pressure to stay a virgin until marriage to the point where, when I did have sex, I felt horribly guilty at church and started avoiding going because I knew I was technically in a state of what the church considered mortal sin and shouldn’t be taking Communion (the guilty was intensified by me breaking up with the guy a week after the first time because I found out he essentially had just been interested in turning a post-college virgin).

Pretty sure the only reason I ended up with a vaguely healthy view on sexuality is that my parents have always had an active/loud bedroom life and I’d been reading sex-positive romance novels since I was 9 or so. Whenever anyone says romance novels aren’t feminist, I want to point to all the sex-positive novels that show that a woman takes control of her sexuality and uses to choose when to have sex, with whom, and how often. Having sex with multiple partners before marriage does not make the heroine a slut and not having sex doesn’t make her a prude. For me, that’s been a really strong message of romance novels (especially thinking of Jenny Crusie ones here) that makes me proud of them as a feminist.

As someone who’s saving her cake for after dinner, I agree that a lot of the rhetoric surrounding these movements is creepy (especially purity balls with daddy/daughter pledges and stuff). I’ve never signed a card nor been involved in a movement of any sort. I just made a personal decision (yes, based largely on religious ideology), and at 28, I’m still comfortable with my choice. However, I will say that the Evangelical church’s emphasis on abstinence becomes a lot less appealing to the masses when the average marriage age continues to creep back. I can’t tell you how obnoxious it is to be a celibate 28-year-old and have a smug 22-year-old married couple proclaim to a single bible study that waiting is SO worth it. Child please, you got married at 19; you didn’t wait. Most of my Christian friends, whether they intended to or not, did not wait for marriage to have sex. There’s a lot of self-righteousness involved in a movement with such a high failure rate. The fact is, the world has changed. And confining sex to marriage is very counter-cultural. Which is why it’s rare. Personally, I’m not too concerned with what other people are or are not doing in bed; I’m just doing what’s right for me.

For intelligent commentary on intentional adult virginity, I highly recommend the writings of Anna Broadway, who wrote a blog entitled Sexless in the City, as well as a book by the same name.

In high school, I committed to True Love Waits, and my mom promptly marched me down to the Planned Parenthood for birth control. She was pissed because she wanted me to embrace sex as a good thing. She’d also had a terrible experience with her first husband who used waiting until marriage as a great excuse to hide his homosexuality. I ended up losing my virginity mid-way through college, and I felt terribly guilty about it due to this earlier promise, but now, especially as someone who is not getting married any time soon, I am very happy to have abandoned that promise.

That said, I think waiting for sex is an appealing idea in a way (and somewhat titillating, let’s be honest). It suggests really getting to know the person. Though as someone who has had many partners, I can say that sex sometimes reveals a heck of a lot more about a person than years of dating.

I always feel a little weird when this sort of stuff is discussed, because I pretty much followed the True Love Waits-style plan to the T, and it worked out great for me. Fulfilled, interesting, safe, and fun sex life within the context of marriage. No baggage from previous relationships, no insecurity in my relationship when it comes to sex, etc. It’s nice. It really ended up for me the way that they say it’s supposed to.

BUT (and as you can see, that’s a big, capital “but”), I disagree with a ton of the things associated with these teachings. I don’t know many True Loves Waits-style Christians who, like me, believe in comprehensive sex education and, say, continuing to fund Planned Parenthood. I hate it when people put all the responsibility on “purity” on the woman/girl in the relationship. I think Susie Shellenberger of “Ask Susie” gives girls terrible advice on a regular basis–I even thought that back in my fundamentalist days, when I had my own Brio subscription! A lot of you know me as a commenter, and you know that we’re on the same page with pretty much all the typical stuff–on slut shaming, victim blaming, gender-based double standards, etc.

And I would never, ever insist that anyone else make the decisions I made. I have not an ounce of judgement or “concern” for everyone else I know. (I do have many other friends who made the same decisions as me; for some it turned out great, for others, not so much.)

So the question becomes, what will I teach my own daughter? I don’t want her to be bound by the sexist teachings that are associated with this sort of movement. I also want her to be safe and educated about sex and relationships. I would never, ever want her to think that having sex somehow sullied her before God or anyone else.

I think I’m just going to tell her, “This is what worked for your dad and me, and we’ve been very happy with it. Based on our experience, this is a valid, healthy choice. I find myself hoping that you make the same choice. But if you choose differently, that will not in any way change the way I feel about you, or the way your father feels about you, or the way God feels about you.”

If I ever have sons, they will receive the exact same speech.

I hope this sounds reasonable. I think we all have done some things that we regret, and other things that we think really worked well. . .we probably give our friends/family members/loved ones warnings and advice based on those experiences. I can only vouch for what I’ve gone through, and encourage people who are so inclined to do something similar.

Thanks for sharing your experience-I really appreciate your perspective. That speech sounds sensible and loving.

This is a decision I haven’t had to make yet. I knew I wasn’t ready in high school, the guy I dated in college was very conservative in regards to physical affection, and I haven’t stayed anywhere long enough to develop a relationship since. I am a Christian (but not an evangelical) and have always been liberal in my politics and conservative in my actions. The question of waiting is something I’m trying to resolve for myself. It’s a hard thing to discuss, not so much because I’m embarrassed as because someone always gets offended. When I mention to liberal friends that I might wait, I’m told I make them feel like sluts; when I say to conservative friends that I’m trying to decide, they’re often shocked. Since I tend to talk out my decisions, that can make things challenging.

It’s not a pressing issue right now for me, but I know that whatever decision I make, I want to be able to own that choice. I don’t buy into the guilt and gender essentialism organizations like TLW propagate; the whole evangelical Christian machine isn’t something I’m comfortable with. I know that whether I wait or not, I support women’s rights to make all sorts of choices about their bodies (whether to keep or end a pregnancy, whether to have sex at all) and that all people ought to be adequately informed to make such decisions (comprehensive sex ed, please.)

People choose to wait or not for all sorts of different reasons. I don’t care what others decide, as long as it’s right for them; I want to do the same.

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think you’re approaching this in a really healthy way. It is definitely about what is best for the individual.
I know where you’re coming from about making other people feel weird when I bring it up–I usually avoid telling people my story, because nobody on either side of this issue is happy with it.

I think that with the thought you’re putting into this, you will come to a decision that is right for you.

When I was in high school, a friend and I were TLW “members,” with jewelry and everything. We were also both in long-term, eventually physical, relationships. Hers ultimately led to a happy marriage in which they helped each other through undergrad and are now both in advanced programs (she’s in medicine, he’s in grad school).

Mine, on the other hand, led to emotional manipulation and abuse, because I lost my virginity to him and, in the mindset of the abstinence movement, that meant we were as good as married in God’s eyes and I would never be able to leave him.

Friend and I talked about what was going on, and ultimately we decided together that the TLW thing was bullshit. We spent a class period (we were in multiple classes with just the two of us; in our tiny school, advanced classes just didn’t fill up) joking about all the things that true love “waited” FOR, and decided none of them were about sex.

I finally broke up with the dude just before graduation, but had to get a restraining order after he showed up at my college dorm (several hours away) the following fall.

TL;DR version: that shit’s scary and leads to the potential for people staying in really, really terrible relationships because leaving them means someday ending up in hell. Rather than face damnation in the afterlife, girls stay in hellish circumstances starting at really young ages. Not ok in my book.

Heh.. Brio magazine was/is a site of religious trauma of sorts for me. My parents got a subscription of it for me for my thirteenth birthday and it carried through till I was 19. I don’t think that they knew much of the content other than that it was a “wholesome” version of seventeen. If they did, I don’t think they would have maintained my subscription for so long, as they are fairly moderate as far as baptists go. While the magazine told me a number of this I rejected (like that gay people are bad or being friends with non-christians was wrong), one significant and somewhat lasting area of influence for me was Brio’s discussion of sexuality. It definitely made for a confusing and guilt riddled time in my early twenties, specifically surrounding the time period where I lost my virginity. One of the strongest take-away messages repeated time and time again in “Ask Susie” as well as the magazine as a whole was the idea that the girl in the relationship is the one reponsible for chastity, as if she feels no sexual desire on her own. As a result, when I did start to want sex (at the rather ripe old age of 23) I felt incredible guilt not necessarily for having it, but just for feeling lust.. because women aren’t supposed to have those feelings. I think that this situation possibly points to a larger problem in evangelical purity rhetoric which is the surpressing of female sexuality which in turn can result in sexual health issues and other problems. Ugh.

Also what if you wait till after dinner to have the cake and then discover it’s all moldy and gross?

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