Campus abstinence clubs emerged in the early 1990s, mostly at conservative schools in the South, but in recent years they have caught on at some of the country’s most progressive campuses, including Princeton, MIT, and Yale. Harvard’s version, known as True Love Revolution, was founded by Justin Murray and Sarah Kinsella, a student couple who began encouraging—some say demanding—abstinence in 2006 through meetings, speakers, and outreach efforts, such as sending Valentine’s Day cards to all freshman women. According to True Love Revolution, sex before marriage is "meaningless," and leads to heartache and plenty of cynicism and confusion about relationships—claims that the club says are backed up by scientists and psychologists, as well as some of history’s greatest philosophers. Abstinence, by contrast, decreases rates of divorce, depression, and suicide, not to mention STDs.
Until recently, most students at Harvard hadn’t bothered to get bothered by True Love Revolution. But while many other campus abstinence groups are content to quietly support students who opt to steer clear of sex, Harvard’s version has embraced a more radical approach. This school year True Love Revolution ramped up its outreach, retooled its blog, and began an affiliation with the national abstinence group Love and Fidelity Network. The club also expanded its ideological platform, opposing gay marriage and gay parenting. And, for good measure, True Love Revolution rankled a number of women on campus by proclaiming its embrace of traditional values actually made it an advocate of "true feminism."
True Love Revolution co-president Leo Keliher, a senior classics major, says his group’s message is about "wanting the real thing and letting go of the counterfeits in temporary relationships." During his first weeks of college, Keliher says, he witnessed overexcited freshmen mishandling their newfound freedom. Later, he grew disturbed by the mess surrounding relationships that fell apart after sex. "One person cheats, one person just isn’t interested," he says. "Why do people bother with this? They could be leading much more productive lives." Keliher, whose e-mail signature includes a quote on love by St. Teresa of Avila, insists that, in the long run, sex outside of marriage "just doesn’t work." And he certainly walks the talk: Keliher doesn’t date.
Instead, he busies himself with True Love Revolution and with writing the sorts of e-mail missives that routinely touch off acrimonious debates. His messages can be wide-ranging: In one that advertised an upcoming club-sponsored lecture titled "Failures of Modern Feminism," Keliher also found room to defend traditional marriage, opine that the sexual revolution had taken society off course, and suggest that female empowerment can be found only in marriage. "Why settle," he asked, "for what is obviously unfulfilling?"
Keliher’s question wasn’t received well; the ensuing e-mail exchanges went on for days. "Putting up with propaganda telling me what I should think makes for a fulfilling life is not something I can stand for," one senior wrote in response.
Then again, the dustup over Keliher’s e-mail seems tiny when compared with the debate that played out in the pages of the Harvard Crimson days later. In response to a screed against modern-day feminists that True Love Revolution had posted as a "platform statement" on its blog, opponents took to the student newspaper’s op-ed page, venting for weeks. The club was decried as being, among other things, "ethnocentric, misleading, and inaccurate."
"Women are under enough pressure," says senior Silpa Kovvali, who penned one of the op-eds. "Who’s TLR to make us feel bad about certain decisions we make?"
And it’s not just women who say they don’t appreciate the badgering lectures. Patrick Quinn, a senior who is gay, says he’s all for having a public exchange of ideas, but True Love Revolution goes further than other campus groups. "People here are so focused on intellectualizing every little thing," says Quinn, referring to the extensive campus debates. "But what TLR is doing isn’t intellectual at all. This is fucking with people’s lives."
Indeed, for a 17-member organization that has to apply for funding just to buy a few pizzas for a meeting, True Love Revolution has drawn impressive ire. And plenty of people have suggested that perhaps the group could modify its tone to be a little less absolutist. "The vegetarian society, or environmental groups, for example, have views ‘of the good life’ that they advocate," wrote Sam Lipoff, a Harvard grad now working toward a Ph.D. at MIT, in an e-mail discussion at the dorm where he is a tutor. "But somehow they tend to do so in slightly subtler ways that even I, who strongly disagree with them, don’t find particularly sanctimonious or grating."
That observation is echoed by Matthew Kaiser, an assistant professor of English whose Literature and Sexuality course grew from 100 students in fall 2008 to close to 500 a year later. "My guess is that students are offended by TLR’s moralism and heavy-handedness," he says, "and the fact that they have a prescriptive model of how you should behave." The blowback against True Love Revolution doesn’t surprise him: Kaiser says students at Harvard are more "intellectually pugnacious" toward one another than those in any other student body he’s encountered. "The TLR is an aggressive abstinence organization, as opposed to a more therapeutic one," he says. "They seem to have a fatalistic view of relationships. But people can be embroiled in completely destructive romantic relationships that don’t even involve sex."
Proving no sinner is safe from True Love Revolution—not even one on tenure track—club co-president Rachel Wagley blasted Kaiser in a Crimson op-ed last fall, writing that he "plays porn to students" and implying that those who elect to take his class are "slaves to sexuality."
For most of the students put off by True Love Revolution, their activist impulse ended after a cathartic e-mail or a letter to the Crimson. But David Biery, a senior economics major from New Orleans, figured the only sensible corrective was to form his own club. In November, that’s exactly what he did.
Biery called his new group True Lust Revolution, deciding it would do the important job of bringing together like-minded students to discuss sexual freedom at college, a student’s right to copulate, and the notion that waiting until marriage might not be such a good idea at all. The club’s members, he said, would have sex with whomever they wanted, and wouldn’t even have to feel bad about it. "Join the True Lust Revolution!" Biery implored 350 of his dorm mates over e-mail. He may have been only half-serious, but within 24 hours he had 20 takers.
A good-looking 22-year-old with blue eyes and chiseled cheekbones, Biery says he didn’t form True Lust Revolution to meet potential partners. "I don’t get wasted and have lots of one-night stands. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with it—it just doesn’t float my boat," he says. "But I do believe in premarital sex…and I think the best way for the silent majority to take action is simply to join a group that represents their beliefs. That is, if you don’t like the Republican Party, then the best thing to do is join the Democratic Party."
Biery is currently at work on completing the True Lust Revolution manifesto. With it in hand, he intends to apply for recognition as an official student organization (a campus requirement, in order to distribute those T-shirts). "True Lust Revolution is not ‘Everyone should strip off their clothes and run naked and have sex’—not really—but just letting people know you can be more be confident with your sexuality and who you are," he says.
What began as an irreverent way to defuse tension among his dorm mates has now evolved into something that Biery thinks has genuine value. Sex, after all, isn’t going away, and neither is his nemesis: True Love Revolution. This month, the abstinence club will host an intercollegiate "relationships conference," sponsored by the Princeton-based Love and Fidelity Network, aimed at teaching some of the country’s most intelligent 18-to-22-year-olds how they might have functional relationships. "Ultimately," says Wagley, "our purpose is to inform and educate young adults about how to approach interpersonal relationships between men and women in a healthy and fulfilling way, which we hope will lay a foundation for strong marriages in their future." True Love Revolution expects the conference to draw about 150 students from around the country.
Biery isn’t too concerned. "Most people come here with their beliefs and aren’t likely to change them," he says. "The truth is that most people on campus don’t have a solid or healthy idea of what sexuality is, and if True Love Revolution is the loudest, that’s a problem. TLR proposes that there is one true sexuality. True Lust Revolution says whatever you want is okay."