When I was 15, the boy I'd been secretly dating told me over AOL Instant Messenger that he liked me, but he didn't want to see me anymore. When I asked him why, he told me it was because he knew I was abstinent.
At that time, I had already made a commitment to abstinence. I never took an official pledge or anything, but I'd made a personal decision, based on my Christian beliefs, to not lose my virginity until marriage. I wanted to follow Jesus's teachings and honor the Bible's commands to resist "sexual immorality" and give myself only to my spouse — not as dogma, but as a rule I truly believed was in my best interest.
But when the boy I liked told me he was dumping me because I didn't want to have sex with him, it really hurt. I'd thought my chastity was just a minor dating roadblock. But for him, it was nothing less than a deal-breaker.
I was recently reminded of that first time my celibacy became an issue for me as an adolescent when I read that Tim Tebow and Miss Universe 2012, Olivia Culpo, had split up, reportedly because of Tebow's vow of abstinence. While sources close to Tebow and Culpo have denied the rumors, saying they never even dated in the first place, the story raises an interesting question:
If one person is abstinent and the other person isn't, is abstinence always a deal-breaker? Or can couples work around it?
Waiting till "I do": For people in their 20s, like Tebow and Culpo, being abstinent is relatively uncommon, but it's also not rare. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, approximately 20% of people graduate college without having lost their virginity; other estimates suggest as much as 12.3% of women and 14.3% of men between the ages of 20 and 24, and 5% of men and women between 25 and 29, have never had sex.
In light of these stats, it's not totally uncommon for sexually active people to find themselves dating someone who is abstinent. Despite our cultural belief that teens and college-aged people are inherently promiscuous, that's not quite the case.
"Approximately 25% of college students in the United States are virgins," Kathleen Bogle, author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus, told HerCampus. "And even for those who have had sex, the most common number of sexual partners to have had in the past year is one."
Not all virgins abstain from sex for religious reasons. But some teens (approximately 1 in 8, according to one estimate) do take chastity vows, sometimes out of religious or parental pressure. Later, they might change their minds as they get older and develop their personal beliefs, as formerly abstinent celebrities like Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus famously did. But some, like Tebow, remain chaste into adulthood, sticking to the Bible's teaching that sex is reserved solely for marriage.
Beyond not having sex: Ross, 26, said he dated a woman who was abstinent for religious reasons for almost two years. He told Mic they ultimately broke up not because he had an issue with her abstinence, but because they simply didn't have much in common anymore.
"The abstinence was just a symptom of a larger issue — the growing disparity between her religiosity and mine," he said. "My lack of desire to be an evangelical Christian was a major reason we broke up."
The fact that they didn't have sex, Ross said, "wasn't that big a deal" at the time. "I really loved her and was eager to sacrifice sex for genuine companionship," he said. "The religiosity, however, was an unavoidable problem because you can't make yourself believe something no matter how hard you try."
Maggie, 34, was 17 when she started dating her first boyfriend, who was a devout Christian. Prior to dating him, she had fooled around with other boys, but she'd never had penetrative sex. After telling him she wanted to go on the birth control pill, he revealed that he was abstinent because of his faith. She was surprised.
"I knew he was Christian but I wasn't fully aware how devoted," she said. "In hindsight I would say I was apprehensive from the start but it wasn't a deal-breaker."
After five years, Maggie and her ex broke up, in large part for the same reason why Ross and his girlfriend did: they were just too different. "Our beliefs and values didn't align," she said. "That was the main problem."
Maggie and her boyfriend never had penetrative sex at any point during their five-year relationship; in fact, they never even slept in the same room. They did, however, partake in oral sex as well as mutual masturbation.
As it turns out, this was a recurring theme in many of the conversations Mic had with people who had abstinent partners: While penetrative sex was off the table, there was a great deal of grey area in terms of whether other sex acts were considered OK.
Ross said that to many people, both inside and outside the abstinent community, his relationship with his ex-girlfriend wouldn't be considered abstinent. "The only abstinent thing we did was avoid fucking, and of course feel guilt whenever we made each other splooge," he said.
Haunted by guilt: That sense of guilt Ross referred to is common among young adults in the Christian community, particularly for young women who might later renege on their abstinence pledges. There's a strong sense of shame associated not only with sex outside of marriage, but with sex in general.
Darlene*, 26, witnessed that sense of shame firsthand when she began dating her ex-boyfriend Tyler her senior year of high school. While she had previously had sex with other partners, he was a virgin, as she learned when they had their first kiss and he "made a big deal" out of it.
"I did not understand how, as a senior in high school, kissing could be such a sacred act," Darlene told Mic. "[Then] he told me about his guilt afterwards."
When Darlene told Tyler about her previous sexual experiences, it hurt and upset him, which made her feel guilty about her own sexual history. He then told her family that she had previously slept with other people. "His parents spoke with me about the Bible and their opinions on sex before marriage," Darlene told Mic. "I had never even talked to my own parents about sex, so I was embarrassed and ashamed."
Five months into their relationship, Darlene and Tyler ultimately decided to have sex, which she says he initiated. "He cried afterward and I tried to console him, but he was inconsolable for some time," she said.
Although they later started having sex regularly, things still weren't quite right. Tyler continued to feel guilty, as well as resentful of Darlene's past sexual experience. "He would bring up the fact that I had had sex with people besides him and how much it hurt him," she said. "There were times I wished he had been my first sexual partner as well because I knew he was bothered by my past choices, and I did not want to make him feel insecure."
After two years of dating on and off, Tyler and Darlene broke up. "It just became too stressful and negative for both of us," she said.
Saying goodbye to abstinence: Darlene's experience with Tyler highlights a major reason why dating an abstinent person tends to be so difficult. For those who have taken a chastity vow, being chaste is not a casual religious practice, like going to church on holidays or getting baptized. Instead, it's a large part of your identity. For Christians in particular, sex is a spiritual and intimate act that should only be shared with one other person, so the guilt over sharing that with someone who is not your spouse is deeply felt.
I remained abstinent into my early 20s, and it made my love life incredibly challenging, to say the least. Dates couldn't wrap their heads around the idea that I was devout, so they would goad me and try to sweet-talk me into having sex. They were convinced I didn't truly believe in my vow, or that I didn't truly know what I wanted. They insisted that I just hadn't met the right guy yet, or that I just needed a gentle and experienced lover to show me the ropes. None of these things were true, and when I stuck to my beliefs, some dates were truly nasty about it.
My own decision to leave abstinence behind was as heartfelt and painstakingly thought-through as my initial vow of celibacy. I ended up losing my virginity at 24, to someone I'd met at a bar 48 hours before leaving the country for several months. Though I recognized it would likely be a one-time thing, I felt completely empowered, like I had nothing to lose. I ended up falling in love with him over the months that followed.
Losing my virginity helped me realize that sex would always be a fluid thing for me, something I would and could change my mind about over time. It also taught me that sex could mean something different to me than it did to someone else, and that both our experiences of it could coexist and be beautiful and true.
I know from experience that the decision to remain chaste is not easy for anyone; in fact, it's often a great emotional struggle. But it's less about the decision to have sex and more about being true to yourself and your core beliefs. Now that I'm no longer abstinent, I'm still being as true to myself as I was when I first took the pledge. I just realized that who I was was, and always will be, changing.
*First names have been used to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.