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
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
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.