A few months ago, while the media and the punditocracy were debating whether the president had come clean on Iraq, Britney Spears came clean about her relationship with her former boyfriend, Justin Timberlake. In the August issue of W magazine, Spears admitted that she had had sex with Timberlake, saying, “I thought he was the one. But I was wrong! I didn’t think he was gonna go on Barbara Walters and sell me out.”
Even by the standards of our celebrity-obsessed culture, this would rate a big “who cares?” except that Spears had been described—seriously!—as a “champion” of sexual abstinence because she had declared her intention to refrain from intercourse until marriage.
That Spears, whose career has been defined by sexually-suggestive videos and live performances, combined with a Lolita-like persona, could ever be cited as an exemplar in sexual matters, demonstrates the inadequacy of our—by which I mean Christians’—thinking about human sexuality. If Christians are to live faithfully in our sexually-charged culture, we must move beyond abstinence to the virtue that Scripture and the Christian Tradition commends in sexual matters: chastity.
Beyond the binary approach
The phrase “move beyond” shouldn’t be read as a disparagement of abstinence or the people who work to promote abstinence. On the contrary, abstinence is the necessary first step—the sine qua non, if you will—of the faithfulness I’m speaking of. To use a crude, but useful, analogy, just as the first thing a person with a substance abuse problem must do to achieve true sobriety is to stop drinking and/or using drugs, chastity begins with the commitment to refrain from sex outside of marriage.
But the necessity for abstinence doesn’t negate the inadequacies of an approach that adopts a “binary” view of human sexuality where the principal, if not quite the only, issue is whether or not the person has engaged in intercourse. Accompanying Britney’s tale in the “it would be funny if it weren’t so sad” file, reports and surveys tell us that many American teenagers don’t consider oral sex or even anal sex to be sex.
Stated differently, many of the forty percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control, of American teens who have had oral sex still consider themselves to be “virgins.” While there’s no definitive way to know how of these confused kids have been exposed to abstinence programs, it’s instructive to note that they are using the language—virginity, postponing sex, etc.—of abstinence.
Even if this weren’t true, there’s still an unintended, yet undeniable, consequence of this binary approach: an emphasis on just how sexually active you can be and still fall on the correct side of the abstinent/sexually active line. Anyone who works with teenagers, has teenagers or has ever been a teenager knows what I’m talking about. Questions about non-coital sex are usually asked in terms of “is X a sin?” or “is Y permissible?”
When is it over?
The use of words like “kids” and “teens” suggests another limitation of the binary approach: nearly all of the energy of the abstinence movement is directed at teenagers and young adults. (It makes sense in a setting where the emphasis is on postponing sex until some latter date.) By the time a person reaches 21 we have little to offer him in the way of Christian guidance on human sexuality. There are exceptions of course (and I expect to hear about them) but the pattern is well-established: once a young Christian has graduated from college, he, and questions about his sexuality, is handed off to, well, no one.
A quick glance at census data will show us how shortsighted that is: in the past 50 years, the average of first marriage has risen from 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women in 1950 to 27 and 25 today. For the college-educated—the status to which most Americans aspire, both personally and for their kids—the average age is nearly two years higher. And more than a quarter of all Americans between 30 and 34 have never been married. The bottom line of all these numbers is that young Christians are expected to remain sexually continent for a longer period of time than probably any generation that has preceded them.
By the time a person reaches 21 we have little to offer him in the way of Christian guidance on human sexuality.
If changing demographics do not alter the requirement for faithfulness in sexual matters—and they don’t—and if a nearly-total emphasis on abstinence is inadequate for the challenges met by today’s Christians—and it is—the need for a clear understanding of chastity becomes clear.
Toward a right ordering of the sexual life
For most people, “chastity” is a modifier, as in “chastity belt.” It reeks of quaintness, which in our postmodern culture, is an invitation to irony. But chastity is far richer and more challenging than many of us imagine. “Chastity” comes from the Latin castitas, which means “pure, morally clean, unpolluted.” This meaning fit well with biblical understanding of the Church as set apart and distinct from the world.
But it was in the medieval period, particularly in the work of Thomas Aquinas that the church refined its thinking about chastity and the chaste life. Instead of merely describing a state of being, chastity became a disposition, a way of understanding ourselves and what is required of us if we are to be faithful to our true and highest purpose. It’s this idea of chastity as a disposition that offers the best bulwark against our sexually-charged culture.
As Donald DeMarco writes in The Heart of Virtue, chastity is “the virtue that brings the sexual appetite into harmony with reason.” As DeMarco, who teaches philosophy at St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, Ontario, hastens to points out, chastity doesn’t require the renunciation of sex but rather “the right or reasonable use of it.”
Chastity is the virtue that brings the sexual appetite into harmony with reason.
What does DeMarco mean by “reason?” Not an “abstract and impersonal set of rules separated from life,” but on the contrary the “capacity to be realistic” about who we really are and which actions are truly in our best interest—a capacity something that lust, the opposite of chastity, always impairs. When we succumb to carnal desires, our ability to perceive and choose the good is impaired. Hence the jokes about which member a person was thinking with.
Sexuality and deeper love
Moreover, chastity isn’t only personal; it’s social as well. In Love & Responsibility, Pope John Paul II writes about how chastity frees “love from the utilitarian attitude” that is the defining quality of sex in the age of hooking up. The Pope writes that “the essence of chastity consists in quickness to affirm the value of the person in every situation,” and that being chaste requires “a ‘transparent’ attitude to a person of the other sex.”
Thus chastity, rather than being “one long ‘no,’” as the Christian sexual ethics are always characterized, is, in reality, an emphatic “‘yes’ of which certain ‘no’s’ are the consequence.” And that brings me back to where I started. In our culture where we are bombarded by occasions to sexual sin, our best chance at faithfulness is through an understanding of who we are and what we are called to be. This is the stuff of chastity. While sexual purity is never easy, especially in a culture where sex is almost omnipresent and where people are marrying later, it’s easier to say “no” if you’ve been told the “yes” along the way.
What’s more, every Christian, married and unmarried, teenagers and septuagenarians, is called to chastity. There is no sexual situation in which degrading the other person, regardless of your marital status, is moral. No one, married or unmarried, get a pass on the requirement to subject their appetites—sexual and otherwise—to the requirements of right reason. We all must be intentional about our sexuality.
Call me an optimist, but if everyone in the congregation understood that they shared the same calling as the unmarried 24-year-old in their midst, maybe the aforementioned guidance might be forthcoming. And hopefully that guidance would transcend “what can I get away with and still be a virgin?” Instead, we would ask, “What must I do to become what I was intended to be?”
Male chastity is difficult. It’s a calling of a lifetime. The kind of disposition DeMarco and the Pope describe are the products of countless instances of obedience and dedication. We will sometimes fail along the way; that’s what grace is for. (Yet another advantage of chastity versus the “either you are or aren’t” discourse of abstinence.) But there isn’t any alternative—at least not in a culture where a self-professed virgin feels comfortable singing “I’m a Slave 4 You.”