Virgin Teens: Why I won't have sex until I marry
College student Maura enjoys a good night out but is happy to live a chaste life, writes Susan Gately
Maura Garrihy was 16 when she decided that she would not sleep with anyone until she was married. She remembers the decision well. She was at school in Scoil Mhuire, Ennistymon. A group called 'Pure in Heart' came to address the fifth and sixth years.
In walked three very attractive young people. Emmet was the guy -- mid twenties, tall, dark and handsome with a great sense of humour. "He was really cute," Maura recalls. Half the class instantly fell in love with him. "Mind you, in an all-girls school it doesn't take much to fall in love!" she adds laughing.
The girls were very good-looking too. They started to talk about sex, about waiting for marriage and commitment.
"I got the impression that Emmet hadn't always lived in chastity, but he'd made a commitment some years ago and was sticking to it."
The three of them convinced Maura that it was worthwhile to wait. "They were three young people, they lived normal lives. They were extremely good-looking. Their message was, 'You don't need to sleep around. You shouldn't sleep around.' I was blown away by it," says Maura.
Sex was not something that she and her circle of friends talked about a lot at school though there was plenty of discussion of 'the lads'. They were not sexually active but others were. "I was quite sheltered. It was going on, but I never felt pressurised."
All that changed when she went to college. For the first time she experienced pressure to lose her virginity. "Sometimes it is hard. You are only human." She was open about her choice with her friends. "It is not just about sex. It is a matter of your mind, heart and body. It comes down to respecting yourself."
In second year, Maura and a few others were asked to give a talk on chastity to their fellow students. "I was absolutely petrified. When you say you want to keep sex for marriage, people look at you as if you have 50 heads".
Eighty people turned up to for the session. No one left and there was a positive vibe during the question and answer session.
Now in 3rd year NUI Maynooth, Maura lives a full life, splitting her time between college, voluntary work, friends and part-time work at a surf school in Lahinch.
She's been in a few relationships and says that so far her choice for chastity has not been an issue.
Does she avoid places where it is going to be harder to resist the "urges of the flesh", like night clubs? A definite No! "I go to nightclubs. It is not that I live indoors and shield my eyes. I'm living in the real world but I have a belief system," she says.
The big fear for many women and men is that if they wait, they will never meet Mr or Ms Right and their decision will stop them having any meaningful relationships. "When I was a teenager, I had a sense that this was a 'minority decision', but the older I get, the more I realise this is not so, and lots of people are choosing a chaste lifestyle, but you wouldn't know it," says Maura.
There are no official statistics as to when young people become sexually active in Ireland but anecdotal evidence suggests that many lose their virginity in their mid to late teens.
Culturally the pendulum has swung so far in favour of being sexually active that to admit to the fact that you live a chaste life is absolutely taboo. Two women I interviewed had made that choice but did not want to be named for fear of the terrible slagging their husbands would endure if they went public.
Róisín (25) from the North made a decision as a teenager to be chaste and lived it. Nine years later, she met her fiancé. I spoke to her a few weeks before her wedding day. "It is possible to wait. Sexual union is something beautiful and special and a gift from God. I cannot wait until in two weeks I marry my wonderful fiancé and we get to experience each other as one."
Sharon from Dublin agrees. "I had a few messy relationships in my teens and decided in my early twenties that I was going to wait for the right person. I knew that the only way I could do that was to lay it on the line at the beginning of each relationship. Surprisingly enough, guys really respected my choice."
In her late 20s she met her husband and they fell madly in love. Ironically, he too had come to the same conclusion and was waiting. "It was beautiful. I was so happy I hadn't been with anyone else. We both had the impression we had come home," said Sharon.
Statistically Sharon and Roisin's marriages are more likely to last.
A study in the Journal of Marriage and Family based on responses from nearly 4,000 women found that almost a third who lost their virginity as teens, divorced within five years, and almost half had divorced within ten.
Another study in the Journal of Family Psychology last December, showed that people who delayed having sex ended up having better relationships based on four criteria: communication, sexual quality, relationship satisfaction and perceived stability. Their study was based on interviews with over 2,000 married people examining how soon they became sexually involved as a couple.
All people long for intimate relationships, and intimacy is often equated with sexual intimacy, says Liam Lally, head of counselling with Accord, Ireland's largest marriage support agency. Yet real intimacy, the closeness you feel with another person, is multi-faceted, and built on trust.
"Those with whom we have an intimate relationship are those people in whom we have a high level of trust, with whom we can share private, personal thoughts and feelings, in whom we have confidence that they have our best interests in mind," says Lally.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Martin O'Sullivan says research in the area of early sexual involvement is not ambiguous. "Early sexual involvement correlates with other precocious behaviours -- use of drugs and alcohol, non-attendance at school which put the young person at risk of poorer outcomes in adult life, including a reduced capacity to form stable relationships.
In his wide experience in dealing with adolescents, he sees huge pressure on young people to have sex, similar to the peer pressure surrounding drink and drugs. Cyber-bullying frequently has sexual themes, he says. "There is a double standard, especially for girls. There is a pressure to become sexually active when they are not mature enough and then a tendency for them to be lacerated by others in social networks when they do."
Disappointments in "precocious relationships" can lead to "acute despair and self harm," warns Dr O'Sullivan, who works at the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
"Despite what Hollywood might tell us I don't believe that casual sexual relationships, easily formed and easily broken, are good for the mental health of our young people. In a real sense they lower expectations and make people cynical about love."
It is very counter-cultural to openly choose to live a chaste lifestyle. Maura is adamant that you need support.
In her case, it comes from a Christian group, Youth 2000. She has also delved into writings supporting her choice, like John Paul II's theology of the body. "If I don't know why I'm doing it, I'm going to fall at the first obstacle," remarks Maura.
Regaining a chaste life style is difficult but do-able. Hephzibah Anderson, a British journalist, gave up sexual intercourse for a year after her ex proposed marriage to someone else. She recounts the experience in a book she wrote afterwards: Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex.
During the year she discovered the thrill of romance, and an emotional tranquillity, "a kind of tuning out some of the chaos".
She did not exclude all sexual contact, but even with just the boundary of no full sex, she discovered how much better she got to know her dates and the men "appreciated the chance to act out, for lack of a better word, a more emotional role," she said.
Her year without sex changed her. She is now not going to drift into anything she does not want and is, in her own words, "a lot more assertive". "I'm actually quite happy. There's been a lot less sex, but more romance."