Yvonne Orji, an actress in the award-winning HBO show “Insecure,” confidently smiled and laughed as she sat on the set of New York radio show “The Breakfast Club” last November. The show’s hosts — Charlamagne Tha God, Angela Yee and DJ Envy — questioned the charming actress on a subject that they found somewhat shocking: Orji’s decision to remain abstinent. As Pitt senior Michelle Nkumsah listened to the radio interview, she was delighted to see a charismatic and successful woman talk about her abstinence in such a public forum while expressing neither shame nor embarrassment. Nkumsah is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh who’s majoring in social work with plans to attend graduate school for public administration.
Like Orji, Nkumsah has made the decision to abstain from sex until marriage on the basis of her Christian faith — she grew up in the Pentecostal Apostolic Church and currently attends a historically Baptist church in Oakland. Her family and friends have encouraged her decision, but she said she doesn’t feel pressured either way.
Nkumsah brought up Orji’s interview to me in an effort to express the idea that although media and popular culture often seem to alienate and portray those who don’t have sex as abnormalities, sex is a choice, and people who choose not to have it aren’t strange.
Although her initial decision to remain abstinent was based in faith, Nkumsah feels empowered to continue because of how it’s benefited her as a person.
“I think it allows me to focus. I have a lot of things that I want to do and a lot of things that I want to accomplish,” she said. “And because I’m only concerned about myself and focusing on that, I have a lot of time to focus on bettering myself.”
Nkumsah uses her time wisely: she’s an involved student member of the Black Action Society and the African American Alumni Council, acting president of the African Students Organization and a mentor in the Bridges Mentoring Group.
According to research from Stanford sociologist Paula England, people who make decisions to abstain from sex before marriage like Nkumsah are increasingly more common. A 2011 survey of over 17,000 students from 20 different universities showed that 24 percent of seniors considered themselves virgins, up six percent from 2002.
Of course, Nkumsah’s choice to abstain doesn’t just affect how she progresses in her school and career but also how she plans to handle relationships. Although a potential partner once chose not to date her because she was waiting to have sex, Nkumsah said the experience only better prepared her for the moment when she does enter a relationship. She says the choice has saved her the emotional and physical damage that can accompany college hookup culture.
“Obviously, there’s the issues of being safe while you’re doing it, so there’s the public health concern,” Nkumsah said. “But also, that type of stuff does have an emotional impact that I feel like a lot of people just don’t register sometimes.”
With sex comes the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies, but what many people seem to forget is that sex and hookups can cause an onslaught of emotional distress and regret.
Several psychological studies looked at the effects that hookups can have on a person’s well-being. One 2013 study from the American Psychological Association found that in a sample of 270 sexually active undergraduates, about 78 percent felt regret following at least one hookup. A separate APA study from 2006 that included 291 sexually active adults found that participants reported depressive symptoms following a regretful hookup.
Hookup culture’s prevalence among younger Americans is increasingly reflected in our media. About 70 percent of television shows portray at least some sort of sexual content, and for popular music, the number is even higher — with reports reaching 92 percent.
This mainstreaming of sex through media fails to include individuals who choose not to have sex, and when a character is a virgin — a loaded term — it’s usually implied that there’s something wrong with them. Take “The Forty Year Old Virgin,” a movie entirely based on poking fun at the sad life of a middle-aged man who’s never gotten laid. Not only does the film highlight the overblown idea of how sex is supposedly a necessary “coming of age” experience, but it also fails to acknowledge the role that choice has in whether or not a person is having sex.
“I feel like people always portray the virgin as someone who is ‘awkward.’ Like, I’m an awkward individual, but…that has nothing to do with [abstinence], she laughed. “It would be nice to have stories that were told from people who are making that decision on their own.”
Nkumsah’s decision to remain abstinent is a consciously religious choice, but she does recognize the implications that accompany “purity” and “virginity” outside of the religious context.
“There’s also the issue of what purity is in the cultural context,” she said. “When it’s talked about, purity is oftentimes only applied to women, and it’s used to police women.”
The concept of virginity and purity are often thought of as a social construct, a praiseworthy trait for a woman to have yet an undesirable one for men. Society uses these constructs to both restrict and objectify women as sexual beings. Nkumsah feels that if there were a more universal definition of what sex means, then the issue of virginity wouldn’t be as problematic.
The idea of abstinence, to many, might seem daunting. With the combination of social pressures to engage in sex and the negative stigma that is attached to virginity, it’s easy to fall in the trap of writing off abstinence and those who practice it. Nkumsah, a strong, successful and ambitious student proves that sexual activity isn’t so much a substantial character trait as a decision that’s made based on what one believes in and how one feels.
Nkumsah recognizes that not everyone is going to make the same decision. But regardless of whether you decide to have sex or not, she said she believes strongly that the decision is “just another aspect of who you are.”
“If someone is not interested in being with you because of it, then they weren’t really into you in the first place,” she said. “It’s not that serious, it’s not that deep, you’ll live through it and it’s going to be okay!”
Julia primarily writes about politics and social issues for The Pitt News.