Sex and sensibility: Why abstinence is the wrong focus

Waiting is devotion. And devotion is love.

Canned spinach or chocolate cake? That's how singles today are made to see the choice between premarital sexual abstinence and conventional sexualized dating. Popular culture screams: "Take the cake." Abstinence advocates preach: "Eat your vegetables."

But it is a false choice.

Premarital sex is the stale, half-eaten Twinkie. It too often goes hand in hand with much unhappiness: emotional distress, lackluster school performance, diverted dreams, career stagnation, and misguided marriage choices.

But when you're head over heels in love, something called "abstinence" doesn't exactly make the heart sing. I'll pass on the canned spinach, thank you. Is that the only vegetable you have today? What about those perfectly sweet heirloom tomatoes?

There is a third way, however, one that bypasses the Hollywood illusions and the finger-wagging didactics. That way involves replacing the concept of sexual abstinence with the more positive vision of innocent courtship.

The term "abstinence" actually puts the focus on sex as this alluringly forbidden object. It would have young couples spend as much time thinking about what they won't do on a date, as on what they will do. When interpreted literally, it leaves room for sexual practices that are inconsistent with the spirit of purity. Is it any wonder then that, focusing on abstinence, the result is often frustration, boredom, or guilt?

These are the distortions that make abstinence such an easy target for the entertainment media. Virginity is a curse, an object of ridicule, as in the 2005 movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Abstinence, if it ever comes up, is the position of cardboard stiffs, such as the religious broadcaster named James on the BBC comedy "Coupling." And abstinence education may unwittingly prop up those stereotypes by teaching singles that abstinence is a cross they can be helped to bear.

But chaste romance needn't be seen as an exercise in self-denial. No, a focus on what really constitutes true love should leave singles free to explore the sweetness and satisfaction of courtship based on innocent affection. Then the boundaries in physical relationships get drawn less with pent-up frustration and more with grace and lightness of heart. This progressive type of courtship strengthens each partner's life purpose and enables informed decisionmaking about marriage compatibility.

There is evidence that singles are craving the delight of such innocent courtship. Consider the tremendous public interest in Jane Austen, as evidenced by the frequent adaptations of her novels for film and television. Think about the love between Anne and Frederick in Persuasion. Is there any room for sensuality in the sweetness and steadfastness represented in that courtship? Are Jane Austen's stories not a beacon for the many singles who are seeking a new model for relationships, courtship, and marriage?

These stories teach their own lessons about premarital sexual abstinence, without ever using such terms or engaging in any didactics. Certainly there are aspects of Jane Austen's world not worth reviving, such as the rigid class and gender roles. But the lasting lessons of the courtship experiences represented in her stories offer a new-old courtship model, one that today's teens and singles are ready to embrace. Some young visionaries have already posted their favorite Darcy/Elizabeth moments from "Pride and Prejudice" on YouTube. Are you watching?

Today, few of us will find ourselves galloping off to Bath to court the love of our life, as Frederick eventually does in "Persuasion." But when Frederick finally pours out his heart to Anne, after more than eight years of constancy, the feelings race at light speed through the centuries.

I've been there, Frederick. All who've rediscovered such passionate purity have been there. Its story is written in the lives of so many couples in today's resurgent courtship movement. Perhaps after a cozy night baking cookies while sharing our inmost thoughts, or after a cold night serving together in a local soup kitchen. Lingering on an apartment doorstep, we smile at the surprising sweetness of saying good night when it's hard to say good night. We find our joy together in the here and now. And we see that waiting is not about canned spinach. Waiting is devotion. And devotion is love.

Old-fashioned love can still thrive in this newfangled world. Heartfelt courtship, with all its delight and devotion, is a feast from which no one need abstain.

Stephen Lapointe is a writer and social entrepreneur based in Cambridge, Mass.

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