Miss Information: I’m a sex-positive feminist who is considering abstinence

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I identify as sex-positive, a feminist, and religiously unaffiliated, and I am seriously considering practicing abstinence before marriage.

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Dear Miss Information,

I'm a 20-something woman, and I identify as sex-positive, a feminist, and religiously unaffiliated, so I never thought I would hear myself say this: I am seriously considering practicing abstinence before marriage.

Abbreviated backstory: over the past couple of years, I've had a few sexual partners, each in the context of an exclusive dating relationship. I approached sex expecting to have fun with a man I liked — and fun ensued — but, in time, that sexual bond would also open up feelings of emotional depth and commitment for me, which weren't really warranted by the reality of the relationship. (Not to say that these guys weren't committed to me at all… but we still had a lot to learn about each other.) And then the breakups of these relationships, though I knew they were for the best, would feel devastating — way worse than my breakup with a man I was never intimate with (and who is the only ex I can genuinely see as a friend today).

I don't blame sex for my problems. I think the problem is that I have been using sex as a shortcut to intimacy and partnership. And for that reason, I think that as I get ready to start dating again, practicing abstinence might help me set healthier boundaries. Like, knowing that sex would be off the table throughout the entire dating process might help me feel more comfortable with dating multiple people at the same time and really taking my time getting to know someone — and it might protect me from some (though obviously not all) of the pain of breakups. And to clarify, I definitely envision myself talking about sex with the people I date — preferences, kinks, all that stuff; I just think it might be best for me, personally, not to share that part of myself until I know that I am with someone for the long haul.

I'm hoping you can add some real-talk to my decision-making process. Am I naive to think this plan might work?

–I Don't Give a Shit About Purity

Dear I Don’t Give a Shit About Purity:

There’s good abstinence and bad abstinence, and it’s all about who is in charge.

Bad abstinence: Purity Balls, promise rings, too much Daddy involvement, wicked gender double standards, and lazy metaphors about one’s virginity being a flower. Good abstinence: taking control of your sex life as an adult (read: no input from Dad, God, or flower poetry.)

Judging from your letter, your plan is solidly in the realm of “good abstinence.” First hurdle cleared!

For what it’s worth, your logic seems grounded and self-aware—you don’t like your relationship to sex, and you want to change it. I wholeheartedly encourage the kind of abstinence you describe, which is about renegotiating your relationship to sex and turning it into something that works better for you. How could that be anything but positive?

Don’t look at abstinence as a nun-like vow: you don’t have to sign away all sexual activity forever and ever. Practice abstinence only as long as it feels like it is serving you. You don’t somehow accrue Purity Points for lasting a year sex-free versus going just a few weeks. It’s not about length of time, or some ascetic willpower; it’s about having (or not having) sex on your terms. Abstinence is not an all-or-nothing thing, despite what Miss America 2011 might have you believe.

In short, IDGASAP, abstinence can be sex-positive, feminist, and generally thumbs-up when it is in your hands. It falls in the realm of “ick” when it is used to take power from you: when it is foisted on you by narrow reads of the bible, zealous parents, public school sex ed, and slut-shame. (Spot check: did you use a ton of hairspray this morning? Are you wearing a rented ballgown? Then you’re probably in “bad abstinence” territory.) I applaud your self-awareness and careful thought. Come at it from a place of feminist empowerment, and yours will be the “good” kind of abstinence.