Revisiting the Anscombe Society

What my piece Stumbling Into Celibacy got wrong (and right).

In September 2021, I published a piece in The American Mind about campus celibacy clubs like the Anscombe Society.

I had first mentioned them as something of a footnote in earlier work about how I believe sex positivity is going out of fashion1—trying, and maybe failing, to pre-empt any “gotchas” about whether I was noticing a trend or engineering one into existence.

My one or two lines about college celibacy clubs sparked people’s curiosity though, and at the behest of a friend, I pitched an article about them. Now, I’m not the first person to be fascinated by these clubs, far from from it.

College celibacy clubs were a hot topic in mainstream media around what I like to call the “hook-up culture panic” of the mid-2000s. Particularly Harvard’s True Love Revolution, the club I originally mentioned in UnHerd. Now called the Anscombe Society, it provided a nice foil to the then micro-celebrity college sex blogger, Lena Chen2, who was known country-wide as a 19 year old Carrie Bradshaw.

On the one hand, there was Lena, the poster child of this new hook-up culture we’d been hearing so much about from publications like The New York Times. On the other, we had True Love Revolution, which people loved to frame as something of a university-bound Reverend Moore, trying to outlaw fun. As much as that would have been a crazy story, and despite sex-positive feminists’ claims into the present day, needless to say, the mere existence of socially conservative people a sustained threat does not make!

Eventually, the Lena storyline ended.

Times changed, people graduated, the narrative around young people’s sex lives evolved from being a horrifying grab bag of hook-up and rape culture. We moved on to Tinder, nice guys, and in 2017, #MeToo. Campus celibacy clubs faded from the discourse, popping up every so often maybe as a sideshow attraction in typically liberal media, but not much more.

So, I decided to give them a fair shot, hoping to represent them correctly.

Shortly after publishing my article though, the lovely Audrey Pollnow, former president of Princeton’s Anscombe Society (2013), reached out to me.

Turns out, I got a few things right, but I got a few things wrong, too.

What follows is our conversation…3


Katherine: Alright, let’s start with corrections. [laughter]

Audrey: The main thing that seemed not quite right, to me, at least, is this narrative that societies like ours were a reaction against hookup culture, or whatever you want to call it.

This wasn’t what a lot of your writing describes—a kind of increasingly conservative movement among some people in America, since Tumblr.

The Anscombe Society mostly predated that. At Princeton, we were founded in like 2006 or so, give or take a couple years, sometime around then.

In terms of who the participants were, we were people who had not fully bought into what I think of as “the mainstream” campus approach to sex.

I think the premise of the club was much more about saying, “Hey, being socially conservative isn’t just some niche, bizarre, personal preference you might have. This is something that is totally legitimate and can be talked about in public and in fact, advocated for in public.”

One of the premises of the club is that you can absolutely have rational philosophical conversations about sex.

Another premise of the club was that sex is actually pretty important. People can get kind of wrecked by this stuff and our choices impact one another, especially at the scale of 5,000 college kids living together.

There is no approach to sex that’s neutral.

Before the club existed, I think most people on campus (and probably they still do) would have said, there's sort of like the normal, sane way of approaching these questions, which is, “Don't do anything non-consensual.”

But other than consent, you kind of need to chart your own path. And whatever is fine, though, of course, with a lot of social policing going on about what behaviors are too extreme, and what behaviors are too prudish.

But it basically would have seemed really weird to a lot of people to try to stake out a position on sex and defend it.

One of the things that we would argue is that this position itself, that sort of the median student would have had, is also not a neutral position. It’s very specific, and it has its own baggage.

What you should really be doing is comparing different stances you could take and trying to see what's compelling and strong about them. The default position on college campuses is this [sex positive] is how humans naturally are.

Another thing is that there were only about 100 people or something in the club, but that that just meant they like written their name down at some point.

Those people supported the idea of the club, but weren’t necessarily in it. There were only a handful of really active members, people who were willing to write about these topics or do poster campaigns or participate in debates.

Katherine: So, when researching for this piece, I read through as much material as was publicly available, and I got the impression—and it seems like maybe this is what you’re saying—it’s not a reaction to Tumblr-style sex positivity, so much as it felt like an identification against 2000s-era hookup culture.

I don't know how old you are, but at the time, I remember it was this pendulum between campus rape and hook-up culture. Rape culture, hook-up culture, two sides of the same coin.

One of the things I reviewed was this interview with someone. I don't remember her name. But she was debating this other woman, Lena Chen, who had become very popular at Harvard for writing this blog where she chronicled her sex life.

And it felt, to me, like you have people like Lena, and then you have the reaction to Lena. I think if I understand you correctly, this is what you're saying—the Lenas are so normalized, it’s considered the default to this day. Asserting any sexual sanctity is considered weird or somehow antagonistic, which is also kind of strange.

Audrey: Yeah, yeah, that seems that seems about right. I think I remember this blogger and the whole thing there.

I graduated from college in 2013, so I wasn't there at the very beginning, I was kind of the next next generation, the generation after people like Lena. But yeah, it seems there was definitely a sort of person who came to the club who saw hookup culture, if that's the term you want to use as like, relativistic and nihilistic.

And they said, like, “Hey, you should actually be allowed to have a competing vision.”

There was also a sort of person in the club, who was like, sometimes more informed by like Marxism, or Marxist or leftist critiques of markets, who would have said, “Look, this sexual culture, which is like allegedly a laissez faire sexual culture is, in fact, highly coercive.”

And what has been more concerned with the rape culture aspect of the climate on campus. So yeah, you would have seen both of those things.

Most people in the club already had countercultural beliefs about sexual ethics and had an appetite for articulating them.

Katherine: Were many of the people religious?

Audrey: Yes, definitely.

Katherine: This is sort of a weird question… I feel like there are two types of religious people you meet on campus— people who grew up with it, or maybe aren't so loud about it, but it's just like really part of who they are, and people who, at the cultural level, treat it very similarly to how people of that same age might treat Marxism. Do you know what I mean? I guess, maybe, what I’m trying to work out here is were they people who were raised in a faith, or new converts? Maybe the Marxism analogy isn’t relevant at all…

Audrey: I would say it was 70/30 or something.

I think something like 70% of people would have been raised in a practicing religious background, or that would have been important to them. Some of those people in college would have had religious shifts. Usually in the people in the club, it usually would have been in the direction of like, a more intellectually engaged religiosity, if that makes sense. So yeah, and sometimes that would involve like shifting denominations, but not necessarily.

Then some people would have become religious but the kind of the vibe of the club was not— I mean— the people who are most involved in the club were extremely intellectual.

It didn't have the feeling you get on the Internet—it wasn’t similar to super traditionalist internet movements at all, where most people are converts. Okay, I shouldn't even really talk about the internet traditionalist movement, because I don't feel like I understand it well enough. But whenever I seem to encounter it, it feels very different from what the Anscombe Society felt like.

It felt mostly like people who were from pretty reasonably religious backgrounds. And then many of whom became more like intellectual and philosophical engaged about it in college and some people who converted but often the people who were converting were from socially conservative backgrounds already.

Katherine: What do you feel like people misunderstand about like this sort of like more intellectual socially conservative demographic?

I think it's interesting that you bring up online traditionalists because it does feel like they're like a distraction from the more sincere engagement out in the real world— sincere maybe feels like the wrong word—but it's like the people I meet at like church who obviously really care about Catholicism at a philosophical level are not the same people I see on Twitter. At least, not most of the time, there are some sharp people on Twitter, but generally speaking.

Like they just like to they seem like they must be different groups.

Audrey: Well, it also just seems like people approach the internet in a really wide, wide range of ways. Like some people who are normally kind seem to view the internet as a video game. So they can act like psychos.

And other people don't but… yeah, there is a lot of perversity. My friends who are more online will tell me about these online groups, and the people I went to college with mostly don’t have those kinds of countercultural ideas. Well, they’re countercultural, but not in that way.

I don't know if that makes sense.

Katherine: Before I turn this into a conversation about Internet subcultures, is there anything else about the Anscombe Society you think people should know?

Audrey: I could run through the sort of thing we might do in a year. We’d write some articles in the newspaper—I remember writing one about why it's important to argue about stuff like this.

We’d also host discussions and debates, like about whether non-marital sex was bad.

It was valuable to be able to talk about these things, because sometimes it can seem insincere—it’s good to be able to talk about your reasoning.

We’d also do postering campaigns. During Valentine's Day, the one I remember doing was about pluralistic ignorance until we got data on, like, unsurprisingly, like the amount of sex people were having was not really that much, even back then. Like, I think it was one of those something like 43% of students would have had, like one partner in the last year, and like, 37% would have been zero.

It was like less than a quarter of students were actually what you would call promiscuous. But like, there could be a perception that that was higher. And so we wanted to, like, prevent people from feeling pressured by the sense of like, “Oh, I'm only this active…”

We wanted to make it easier for people who were pretty unhappy with the level of sexualization on campus or in their own life to feel comfortable backing away from that.

We wanted to make it clear that people who preferred to not be having non-marital sex had a defensible position, instead of like a weird superstition or something like that.

We also did get harassed and sometimes in the most hilarious ways, reporters were always asking women, “Well, how far is too far?”

I also think people assumed that we had a lot of prejudices—just things people got from stereotypes. People just would assume that we were a caricature of bad conservative people.

We weren’t aggressively persecuted, but we were accidentally persecuted in numerous ways. I’ve had people call my moral views abhorrent, or compare them to Nazism.

I don't think too many people in the club felt traumatized by this kind of stuff. It's just like, if you take a position that's like, not popular among people, it doesn’t occur to people that they’re treating you differently.

They just think, “Oh, yeah, you're the you're the eccentric person,” and that that treatment is natural and expected.

Katherine: I think that’s common. Just sort of like this weird implicit like dismissal of different ideas, and an expectation that those who hold them should accept being treated a certain way, to live up to the labels.

1

Celibacy clubs have long been used as a sort of “gotcha” to my thesis that whatever expression of sex positivity that digital media’s been trying to sell us is going out of fashion, and will be replaced by a more sex critical luxury belief. I’ve called it ‘sex negativity,’ but only for lack of a better name. (My friend Mary Harrington refers to it as a ‘sexual counterrevolution,’ and situates it in something she’s named ‘reactionary feminism.’ If this stuff interests you, her work is worth checking out.)

2

How scandalizing Lena seems now, and how mundane she felt in 2006! The scandal, then, it seemed was more with the people who were upset by her, as opposed to any behavior she detailed in her blog. Telling, maybe, that I was introduced to Lena’s work before I’d even had my first kiss, but uh…

3

The transcript was edited for clarity.