CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Celeste Headlee sitting in for Michel Martin, who is under the weather. Coming up, you either loved him or hated him, but if you ever saw him perform, you certainly remember him and his catchphrase – dyn-o-mite – from the classic sitcom “Good Times.” We’ll talk to comedian Jimmie J.J. Walker later in the program.
But first, it’s the second day of the New Year and we’re still thinking about resolutions, many of which involve giving something up, like, say dessert or tobacco. But what about sex? The commitment to remain abstinent until marriage is something that was expected of previous generations – at least in theory – but today a new generation of men and women are making the argument for abstinence and they have celebrity role models, including football player Tim Tebow and Olympian Lolo Jones. Michel Martin spoke with three women who’ve either written or talked about abstinence in their own lives, so this is a good time to mention that this conversation may not be appropriate for some listeners.
Monique Matthews is the author of “Sex Free: A (Not So) Modern Approach to Dating and Relationships.” She also wrote about this for Ebony.com. Arleen Spenceley is a blogger and freelance writer. She wrote about this for the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year. And also with us is Lisa Marziali. She was featured on the TLC reality show “The Virgin Diaries,” and she’s a blogger for the site Confessions of a 29-Year-Old Virgin.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us and Happy New Year to you all.
MONIQUE MATTHEWS: Happy New Year.
ARLEEN SPENCELEY: Thank you.
LISA MARZIALI: Happy New Year.
MARTIN: Arleen, let me start with you because you talked about the fact that you practice chastity and not just abstinence. Could you help me with this? What does that mean?
SPENCELEY: There are basically three things that I identify about chastity that are really important if you’re trying to simplify it, because it is pretty complex. But the first is that chastity is not the same as abstinence. It just requires it until marriage. And the second is that abstinence ends at marriage, whereas chastity never ends. Chastity is something you can practice as a single person, as a married person, as even a priest or a nun who take vows. It’s basically what a lot of Christians would call a death to self. It is a choice to selflessly love and in the arena of sex it means waiting until you’re married to have sex and…
MARTIN: So you are planning to, upon marriage, be physically intimate. You’re not saying – because there are religious…
MARTIN: …commitments that people have made in the past where even married people were not physically intimate, but just for the purposes of our discussion, we’re talking about abstinence until marriage, but chastity…
MARTIN: …sort of more broadly. And can I…
MARTIN: …derive from that that your decisions are religiously or spiritually motivated?
SPENCELEY: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. I’m a Roman Catholic Christian. You know, faith for me – it’s not just a part of my life. It’s really the umbrella under which everything in my life falls.
MARTIN: OK. Lisa, what about you? How did you come to the decision to embrace abstinence or chastity or however you choose to describe it?
MARZIALI: So I grew up in a Christian home, nondenominational Christian family. I grew up with the belief system that you saved that part of yourself until there was that time of marriage when you committed to each other to spend your lifetime loving each other. I grew up with that, but for me it became a decision that I had to actually choose when I was in my teenage years. It was a choice that I had to make on my own.
MARTIN: And Monique, your perspective on this is interesting because the two ladies we just heard from made the decision to remain virgins. In your case, you decided to embrace abstinence later on – would be, would be – would that be accurate?
MATTHEWS: Yeah. Over seven years ago. Yeah.
MARTIN: More than seven years ago, and you also point out, and when you’ve written about this, that this is not unusual, that there have been a number of people who after a period of having a different lifestyle decided to embrace abstinence. Why did you decide to make that choice?
MATTHEWS: I wanted something more than what I was having in my life, so it was just that time for me to just really look at my life and evaluate things, and one of the things that was so great about me deciding to become sex-free or abstinent is because I learned that there are so many ways that we can communicate, and oftentimes in our society we focus on sex first, and sex first can actually detract from intimacy, detract from building stronger relationships.
MARTIN: How has your life changed since you decided to embrace abstinence?
MATTHEWS: I grew up in New York City. I went to UCLA. I’ve stayed in Los Angeles. I’m a filmmaker. I’m a writer, and I used to be a managing editor for a major hip-hop publication published by Larry Flint of Hustler fame, so I would say that those are environments where one’s sexuality is just – there’s a lot happening there.
In terms of my daily life, one of the things that I had to learn was how to communicate with people where it wasn’t sex first. I’m not saying that that was all that I did, but in our society, and as an African-American, we’re so easily identified by black bodies, sexuality, things of that nature or, in the hip-hop culture, which I am a definite part of, having fun, having sex. And that’s not the be all, end all, so one of the things I just had to learn is what works for Monique, what works in terms of going out with friends; how do I maintain a very active lifestyle without the question of sex being in the forefront?
MARTIN: Lisa – I’m going to ask Lisa and Arleen this too, because your decisions are somewhat rooted in upbringing, but you also had to commit to this as adults yourselves. So Lisa, let me start with you. How do you communicate about these issues with, say, a potential partner?
MARZIALI: Well, it’s something that didn’t really actually come up until the last couple of years when I found myself surrounded by friends getting married who also believed the same things I believed, and so abstinence all of a sudden became a topic because they were getting married and going to have sex, and I was still, you know, the single one.
And for me, in my dating life, I have to admit it’s not a big dating life. I don’t date often, but when I do, it’s usually men that are in the same mind frame I am or believe the same things I believe or have the same faith that I have, and so I don’t often find myself in a sticky situation that I have to try to get out of.
MARTIN: Arleen, I wanted to ask you this question too. One of the things I was interested to read in your piece for the Tampa Bay Times, where you talk about being kind of in the minority on this – you cite statistics according to a 2011 study published by the National Center for Health Statistics that suggests that 97 percent of men and 98 percent of women ages 25 to 44 are not virgins, so you kind of come in with a consciousness that you’re part of a small minority – at least self-reported, you know, minority. So how do you talk about this with potential partners?
SPENCELEY: It’s never really necessarily an easy conversation to have. I think, like Lisa said, you know, a lot of the guys that I am drawn to are guys who believe the same things that I do, and so in those situations it’s not so hard.
But then you do encounter men who don’t so much understand the choice I’ve made to live a chaste life, and so in those situations I prefer to get it out and on the table immediately, because I’d rather know right away whether this relationship is even an option. And you know, I think a lot of people have this belief in our culture that somehow virginity or chastity or even abstinence from now on is somehow this disadvantage in dating. And I really couldn’t disagree with that more, because you know, if you’re dating and all of your relationships end because you won’t have sex, it’s never because chastity is the problem. It’s because you’re dating the wrong kinds of people.
MARTIN: You know, Monique, you wrote about – it’s interesting because you wrote about this in your piece. You report getting a lot of responses from men who share that perspective.
MARTIN: We happen to be speaking with all three women, because in part – because the three of you wrote about your decisions. Right? But Tim Tebow, the pro football player, is a high-profile advocate of this lifestyle, has spoken openly. And Monique, as we said, in your piece for Ebony, you report getting a lot of responses from men.
MATTHEWS: Yes indeed. Yeah.
MARTIN: But do people make fun of you, though? I mean do you feel like it’s something that’s – I’m kind of curious about the gender piece. Do you think it’s harder for men to defend than women, in a way?
MATTHEWS: You know…
MARTIN: There was, in fact, a comedy movie about it, wasn’t there? The Steve Carell movie?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” Yeah. You know, Michel, one of the things that is so interesting about this is that the response I get from men – I found that women, when I talk about it, or in social media when friends of mine share the book and their responses to it, that the men are scared. They’re afraid that I might tell their girlfriends or there’s some secret that’s going out and it’s going to destroy their sex life or they are apprehensive because they don’t know what it means. They don’t – they keep saying, Monique, what are you talking about? I don’t get this sex-free stuff.
But when I talk one-on-one to men, there is certainly a rising trend among the men of feeling like, you know what? I’m not just a piece of cattle. I don’t want to just be defined by my sexuality. If I score, I’m a man. If I don’t, then I’m not. I would actually like romance. Romance is seeming to be one of the things that has been left behind, so I think it certainly takes a man of maturity and I have a lot of friends who are sharing this with their sons, and their teenage sons, because one of the things, Michel, that I’ve learned during this process of dating – because I do date, I do enjoy the company, I really like male energy, I have a lot of male friends – is that a lot of men have been hurt and scarred by being single for so long too, and the fact that they can’t show emotion or express emotion is kind of a release at some point, that it’s just – that they can just get to know somebody and they don’t have to feel like they have to constantly perform.
MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about why some young women – we happen to be talking to women in this case – choose to abstain from sex, but as we’ve been discussing, this is a decision that men are making as well. Our guests are writers Arleen Spenceley, Monique Matthews and Lisa Marziali, and all of them have written about their decision to abstain from sex.
I wanted to ask Arleen and Lisa – you mentioned that this is a coherent kind of lifestyle choice, thought. It’s in alignment with your values, but I did want to ask if it’s ever hard. I mean, do you ever feel – maybe I’m missing something? Arleen?
SPENCELEY: You know, I get that question a lot and I’m very vigilant not to put myself in situations where it would be hard. I think – and that’s part of the beauty of chastity, is it kind of gives us a reason to discern before we date and even to discern before we decide to, you know, consume the media that’s going to make us – that’s going to lead us into lust or to decide, hey, I’m just going to take a nap with my significant other in the bed. You know, we’re very vigilant when we practice chastity not to wind up in situations or positions where it would be hard.
MARTIN: Lisa, what about you? Is it ever hard?
MARZIALI: You know what? For me it is hard some days, because I think that’s what we are created for. We are created for intimacy. We are created for emotional intimacy and physical intimacy. I think a lot of times we’re brought up sometimes in the Christian community where we are kind of programmed to think that sex is bad and then we all of a sudden get married and now it’s supposed to be good.
And so for me I’ve kind of – I’ve flipped that switch of – of actually it’s a great thing that’s going to happen, but the timing needs to be right and the timing for me is in marriage. But it is hard. It is hard to wait it out. You know, I don’t know about you girls, but I know for me, as I got into my 30s, it’s kind of like these hormones have turned on that I did not know were there, and you know – and it kind of is one of those situations where you have to, you know, like Arleen said, not put yourself in situations where you’re going to find yourself in any kind of, you know, choice that you have to make.
MARTIN: What about with the reality show? Why did you decide to – you know, the metaphor that one would normally use doesn’t seem appropriate here, but put yourself out there. You know?
MARZIALI: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, the reason that the three of us decided to do so was because there’s four of us that write for the blog. If us four are out there and we’re living our lives this way and we’re in our 30s – we were 29 at the time when we started the blog, but we’re in our 30s now. And there’s got to be more out there, and sometimes it can get discouraging when you feel like, you know, you’re quite alone or, you know, is this ever going to happen? Are you ever going to find somebody to be with and to marry and to have a family with? And so we just decided that this is a great opportunity to tell our stories.
MARTIN: Well, Monique, why do you think it is that we’re hearing more about this now? As I mentioned, you know, there’s Tim Tebow, the NFL player, and then Lolo Jones, and it’s interesting that when they’ve talked about it, they’ve both talked about a desire to speak publicly about this in order to be role models for people who want to embrace this as a choice, but I kind of get the feeling that people pick on them a little bit. Do you?
MATTHEWS: It can be social suicide. I didn’t really let anyone know until I was five years strong in my abstinence because I just – it’s the conversation. It’s the question. There’s – is he really doing that? I mean as some of the – as my other panelists have talked about, it’s – and one of the things that I’ve found – I’ve found the most apprehension for me discussing being sex-free from other women who think that it’s social suicide, who think that I’m uploading the cart in terms of dating, and why am I talking about this? It’s just unsettling. So I think that Tim Tebow and what he represents, it’s – people have a problem with people who are quote-unquote seemingly wholesome and good. And that’s not even what he’s saying that he is, but people have a problem with that. I think that that’s, to some degree, what Tim Tebow is experiencing.
MARTIN: Why did you decide to write about this and to talk about this publicly?
MATTHEWS: Michel, so many people – when I first started sharing it, like I said, I was really quiet about it. They were like, well, how do you do it? It’s like walk me through this. This doesn’t make – so when you go on a date, what do you do? What are the rules for this? And at the time when I found a lot of rules, they seemed to have a very strict judgmental tent to it and it didn’t work for me, so a lot of it was, you know, trial and error.
I started with: What exactly is sex? Two of my top rules is I don’t tell people because I think sometimes it can be an elephant in the room. I’m just trying to get to know you, so I want you to know me first. And the second thing is, I make breakfast, lunch dates and coffees my best friends.
MARTIN: Arleen, we’re speaking just after New Year’s and New Year’s is a time that – it’s – you know, Christmas is family-oriented, Thanksgiving is family-oriented. New Year’s is couples-oriented, I think, you know, in a lot of ways because it involves the kind of – the template is going out, you know, drinking, dressing up, kissing somebody at midnight. Sometimes the emphasis isn’t on who. Just kissing somebody at midnight. Do you ever feel – at times like that, do you kind of feel left out or how – or do you feel, in a way, better, like insulated from all that drama?
SPENCELEY: I don’t. I don’t usually feel left out. You know, there are moments when I’ll have, you know, my little three minute pity party. I’m all alone. And then I’ll be like, Arleen, seriously? And I’ll snap out of it. And I’m not saving myself for marriage. I’m saving sex. And the reality is that by saving sex, I’m not just putting it off for later, but I’m redeeming it. And some people who save sex get married and others don’t. And I don’t know yet whether I’m going to be one who gets married.
MARTIN: Lisa, what about you? Do you ever feel left out at a time like this?
MARZIALI: Yeah. I have my days. I have – especially around Christmas or different holidays, but that’s when I usually – I try my hardest to surround myself with great family and good friends that are encouraging and just know that I’m OK the way that I am and this is my story and that this is not something that – you know, there’s not something wrong with me or there’s not something that is off or unacceptable.
And like Arleen, I have my – what I call two percent days where there are just moments in time where you feel a little bit like, man, when’s this ever going to happen? But you just realize that, you know, I’m living a good life.
MARTIN: Well, good luck to all of you. Any final words of wisdom that any of you want to share? Arleen, I’ll come back to you.
SPENCELEY: You know, make it about love. That’s my ultimate goal, is to make my life one of love, and so I would just encourage listeners to think about what love is and to remember that it’s not just those sensations or those emotions, but it’s about sacrifice.
MARTIN: Monique, final thought from you?
MATTHEWS: Yeah. I’d like to say that, particularly because it’s New Year’s – new year, new you. And I really encourage people to just – as I do myself every day – to just be willing to put yourself out there and to try things that you haven’t tried before, and there’s no such thing as failing. I just keep playing until I win.
MARTIN: And Lisa, what about you?
MARZIALI: Do you and be yourself and just – and love life.
MARTIN: Lisa Marziali blogs at “Confessions of a 29-Year-Old Virgin.” She joined us from her home in Ontario, Canada. Arleen Spenceley is a freelance writer. She blogs about sex and chastity at ArleenSpenceley.com. She joined us from Tampa, Florida. Monique Matthews is the author of “Sex-Free: A (Not So) Modern Approach to Dating and Relationships,” and she joined us from our NPR West bureau in Culver City, California.
Thank you all so much for joining us, and Happy New Year once again.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, Michel.
SPENCELEY: Thanks a lot. You too.
MARZIALI: Happy New Year.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.