The first time I heard the name Elna Baker was on the "Matchmakers" episode of This American Life radio show. Her segment on working for FAO Schwartz is well worth listening to: The beginning makes me laugh hard, and then it packs a sucker-punch of commentary on American racism and classism. Touched by Elna Baker's humor and poignancy, I went looking for her personal website, which has clips of her telling stories. Watching her first video clip, then, I was surprised to learn that Elna Baker is also a practicing Mormon committed to virginity-until-marriage. As she says of her dating experience for the laugh-line, "As a Mormon, I don't believe in having sex, and eventually, as a guy, he didn't believe in that. So atheists do have beliefs."
And I have to confess my gut-level reaction to Mormon abstinence. Because most of my prior awareness of Mormons comes from their financial and vocal support for Proposition 8, which stripped Californian gays and lesbians of civil rights, and their practice of security-detention for gay men who kiss on the cheek. My awareness of abstinence-only propaganda is that it's objectively ineffective, in addition to intentionally spreading misinformation, sexism, fear, shame, and homophobia. There are "purity balls" that promote fathers' ownership of their daughters' sexuality, and "virginity pledgers" with comparable STD and pregnancy rates to their more honest peers. I highly recommend Feministing's Jessica Valenti's eloquent writing on female disempowerment by "the virginity fetish" and defense of pre-marital sex.
Personally, I discovered worlds of knowledge about my own sexuality between the time I lost my virginity and the time I got married. If I had bought into abstinence propaganda, I could have naively married someone who deprecated my kinks, and I would have been miserable for life.
But Elna Baker stayed in my head, because I couldn't write her off as a zealot. Her stories still make me laugh, and the majority of her stories that have little or nothing to do with abstinence still resonate with me. So I read a copy of her recently published memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, with the teaser on book-flap that her beliefs were challenged by falling in love with an atheist. I was curious.
And in the end, I still empathize more strongly with the atheist ex-boyfriend who refused to give up sex than I do with Elna Baker. Gender-roles reversed, I too once had a boyfriend squirm at the notion that having sex with me was "disrespectful" or antithetical to "real love," and it made me feel genuinely, sickeningly dirty. (Unlike now when my lovers call me a dirty whore because I've told them that that turns me on.) But empathizing with the atheist over Elna was okay for my enjoyment of the book, because Elna empathized with him too.
Because in a refreshing break from the more vocal enforced-virginity culture, Elna Baker isn't interested in judging anyone else's sexuality or preaching scare-tactics. She discusses abstaining from sex as a deeply personal choice, and confesses her occasional doubts, awkwardness, and heartbreaks. She finds joy in sexy lingerie, tells funny stories about giant vaginas, and makes fun of Mormon absolutists. She's self-aware and autonomous in a way that distinctly separates her from, say, Jordin Sparks, who has explained her abstinence, "Not everybody – guy or girl – wants to be a slut," as if there were exactly two options.
So I remain grateful for the memories and lessons of my eight years of premarital sex, and will fight for comprehensive, shame-free sex education. But I appreciate Elna Baker for challenging my preconceived notions of adult abstinence-pledgers.