CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sarah Kinsella and Justin Murray didn’t intend to start a revolution when they began dating two years ago. But the Harvard undergraduates found they shared the belief that chastity is actually good — a notion considered downright radical in a sex-saturated culture.
“Justin and I talked at the beginning of our relationship about loving each other in the most selfless and beautiful way,” said Kinsella, 22, a graduate from Wheaton, Ill.
The idea of sacrificial love — of saving sexual relations for marriage — wasn’t exactly mainstream. In fact, abstinence wasn’t even discussed in the freshman orientation program “Sex Signals,” which warned against date rape.
But the couple recognized that abstinence brings physical and emotional rewards, and started a campus group to share this insight.
“When you find something that’s really important in your own life, and you realize there’s a need for it, you try to better the lives of people around you,” explained Murray, a 22-year-old graduate from Euless, Texas.
They credit their Catholic faith — and Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body — as a major influence on their own lives.
“Even though our faith was a huge part of why we formed the group, we didn’t promote religious reasons,” Murray said. “We wanted these ideas to be accessible to everyone.”
As the group asserted its presence, more than a few Ivy League feathers, particularly the radical feminist kind, were ruffled. These upstarts were questioning the prevailing social code of casual sex?
Appropriately, the group named itself True Love Revolution (TLR). From its founding last year as an official student-run organization promoting pre-marital sexual abstinence, it grew to 150 members.
“The message of chastity as the Church presents it is so comprehensive and unified,” Kinsella said. “We found that when we talked about theology of the body ideas with others who weren’t Catholic, or weren’t even any religion, this really resonated with them.”
But they stuck with a practical non-sectarian approach. As a model, they drew upon the Anscombe Society, with chapters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University. The society is named for British Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, and promotes moral and ethical reasons for living chastely.
Murray felt a less philosophical approach would succeed better at Harvard.
“We wanted our image to be reflective of the school; that’s why we used ‘revolution’ in the name,” he said. “Harvard’s activism-oriented. And it was fun: true love as a counter to sexual revolution.”
The fact that Kinsella and Murray were a couple who had fun together was a definite draw to some. But to others, their ideas provoked a hostile response.
In fact, the new co-chairwoman this year, Janie Fredell, joined after she rose to its defense in reaction to “rude op-ed pieces” in The Harvard Crimson newspaper.
“I was astounded by this — on a campus known for openness,” said Fredell, a junior from Colorado Springs, Colo.
She fired back her own tongue-in-cheek op-ed: “I will never have to sit through a lecture with a raging case of herpes,” she wrote. “Abstinence does not deprive one of sex appeal, romance or excitement.”
“I’ve always looked at things through a Catholic lens, but I really believe there’s a great secular argument to be made,” Fredell said. “Objectification of people is wrong. There’s a lot of overlap with Christian theology.”
Her co-chairman, Leo Keliher, agreed.
“TLR is fun,” said Keliher, a Catholic from Seattle. “To start out talking about the spousal nature of the body as it relates to Trinitarian giving … well, that’s not really going to fly. But if people want more, we have a core background of ideas they can chew on.”
The group’s first publicity campaign was to mail chocolates on Valentine’s Day to all freshman women with the message, “Why wait? Because you’re worth it.” They later hosted a discussion: “Challenging the Hook-up Culture.”
That attitude of questioning the status quo should work well on a secular campus, according to Dawn Eden, 38, author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.
She recently became director of the Cardinal Newman Society’s Love and Responsibility Program, which seeks to reclaim chastity on Catholic college campuses.
“Groups like TLR can have the biggest impact if they position themselves as a positive force for personal growth and social change,” Eden said. “Chastity is counter-cultural, and college is a time when students want to rebel. The idea is to channel that natural desire into a healthy rebellion.
“Also, the mere existence of a pro-chastity club can be extremely helpful even to students who are too shy to join it, as it gives those who want to be chaste a reason to believe they’re not alone.”
True Love Revolution’s peer support has definitely been a plus, said Father William Murphy, Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Association chaplain.
“The impact of the chastity message depends on what kind of ears it falls on,” he said. “At least students get the message that their social goal in college is not to be sexually active, but to develop as people. A good number of those who hear it are relieved, as it articulates what they’ve been feeling.”
In fact, hundreds of inquiries poured in last spring after the Associated Press ran an article about the fledgling group. Murray and Kinsella appeared on CNN and Fox News, and Kinsella set up a global group on Facebook.com so students with a similar interest from other schools could meet online.
She and other officers credited Father Murphy and the Harvard Catholic community with giving them the moral support they needed.
“We wouldn’t have been able to succeed without them,” Kinsella said.
And their enthusiasm spilled off-campus as well. With like-minded friends, Kinsella and Murray became volunteer speakers for the Archdiocese of Boston’s chastity education program for middle- and high-school students.
The college volunteers rejuvenated the program, according to Deborah O’Hara-Ruskcowski. “We were mainly middle-aged women,” the director said. “When I saw 15 Harvard students walk into my office, I said, ‘Oh, thank you, God.’”
The students pulled no punches. “They told kids exactly what to expect,” she said. Her veteran adult speakers asked them, “How can we get our kids to be like you?”
“Most of the time Justin and Sarah just told the parents to support and encourage their children,” said the director. “Parents are the No. 1 influence on their kids’ choices in faith and morals.”
Kinsella recalled, “When kids heard how beautiful this message was, they loved it. It empowered them. We told them that although it may seem like rules, the Church is really trying to help you get the best sex life there is.”
Gail Besse writes
from Boston, Massachusetts.