writing bio research bagatelle home

Casta Divas

Geoffrey Nunberg

Commentary broadcast on "Fresh Air," May 1, 2002

These are hard times for chastity. As the Pope pointed out in his remarks last week: "The life of chastity. . . confutes the conventional wisdom of the world." And Eugene Clark, the rector of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, pointed to the difficulties that priests had in maintaining their vows in a "sex-saturated" society, where Americans are bombarded by images of "liberated sex all day long."

But chastity was problematic for both for the Church and society at large well before Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt filed their first business plans. You can see that in the declining use of the words chaste and chastity themselves. In modern times those words tend to be used chiefly in a metaphorical way -- you see a lot more references to chaste architecture or a chaste prose style than to chaste men and women.
The fact is that we moderns are uncomfortable about using words that associate sexual continence with spiritual purity. We've lost sight of the connection that used to be implicit in words like chasten and chastise, both of which originally had the sense of "make chaste," or "purify." (For that matter, the word castrate was taken from the same Latin root -- it's just a more draconian way of getting at the same end.)

Not suprisingly, the eclipse of chastity has blurred the meaning of the word in a lot of people's minds. It's true that chastity has always involved abstaining from illicit sex. But chastity wasn't the same thing as virginity: you could become chaste even if you had already had sexual experience. As Saint Augustine put it in a famous prayer, "Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not now." (The Center for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto sells boxer shorts with that legend in Latin on the waistband.)  For that matter, chastity didn't necessarily rule out sex within marriage, so long as it was free of concupiscence. "Moor, she was chaste" -- that's how Aemilia tells Othello that his wife Desdemona was innocent of the infidelities that he had imagined.
By the eighteenth century, though chastity was regarded as a minor virtue, and one associated chiefly with women, as the secular double standard came into its own. Samuel Johnson wrote dismissively of one vain, insipid country wife that she had no virtue but chastity. And over the last hundred years, people have pretty much bailed out on using the word chaste to describe sexual continence -- instead they've appropriated the word celibate , which originally meant only "unmarried."
Still, some people have been trying to revive chastity. On the Web, it comes up a lot in the sites for organizations promoting sexual abstinence. That movement's on a roll right now. Just last week, in fact, a House committee authorized an additional $50 million for "abstinence only" sex-education, this in addition to the half-billion dollars in state and federal funds that the programs have already received. The programs encourage teens to swear off sex until marriage and provide no information about birth control, abortion, or gay and lesbian sex, on the grounds that that might put ideas into adolescents' heads. The sites of the abstinence-only groups warn adolescents about the dangers of condoms, and offer them suggestions as to how to restrain their sexual urges -- one of them provides helpful links to the Amazon pages where they can order Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit.
But trying to resuscitate an unfashionable word is like trying to revive an old folk dance or costume -- people invariably get the details wrong. You can hear that in the way the abstinence-only movement tends to talk about chastity as if it were merely the spiritual concomittant of virginity. They ask adolescents to sign vows pledging to remain "chaste until marriage" -- there's no sense that chastity might be a state that you could maintain even after you've entered a committed sexual relationship, the way Desdemona did. And the groups often talk about the loss of chastity as an irrevocable step -- as one group puts it: "Chastity is a lifestyle. One date may be too late." Saint Augustine would have cut teens a little more slack than that.
As it happens, though, the abstinence-only organizations aren't the only ones who are contributing to the comeback of the word chastity . There's an odd mirror of their preoccupations in the Web sites put up by people who are into chastity as a source of sexual stimulation, by means of devices that prevent any kind of sexual activity until the wearer is released by the keyholder. For women the sites offer new variations on the chastity belt -- which by the way was actually invented during the Italian Renaissance, not the crusades, and which was probably very rarely used until its rediscovery by modern fetishists. For men there are a variety of cuffs, sheaths, and cages that achieve an analogous effect by what appear to be calculatedly uncomfortable means. Curiously, enthusiasts like use the word chastisement to describe the process of putting your associate into one of these contrivances. It isn't the normal use of the word, but it does have etymology on its side.
Given their druthers, I expect most people would prefer to curb their sexual urges with a brisk game of Scrabble. Still, the chastisement sites do capture something of the old sense of chastity as an austere spiritual discipline. And unlike the abstinence-only movement, they share something else of the Church's view of chastity: they don't pretend that everyone has the vocation for it.

Copyright © 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.