Notes on Chastity
This post examines the virtue of chastity. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
What is chastity?
Chastity is usually defined as abstention from sex, or restriction of sex to certain moderate bounds, combined with a temperate regulation of the sexual appetite.
G.E.M. Anscombe asserted in 1972 that “chastity is simply the virtue whose topic is sex, just as courage is the virtue whose topic is danger and difficulty.” But by 1972, and certainly by now, people seem much more concerned with other sexual virtues: is your sexuality authentic to your desires? is it generous to your partners? is it respectful of other people? is it skillful? is it sufficiently cautious? Chastity almost never makes the list anymore.
Chastity is related to temperance, continence, modesty (“the outpost and safeguard of chastity,” according to The Catholic Encyclopedia), purity, decency, and dignity. It is sometimes confused with “celibacy,” which is usually defined as complete abstinence from sex and marriage, for instance as part of the qualifications for joining a monastic or priestly order.
What happened to chastity?
From the looks of things, chastity has long been a virtue more honored in the breach than in the breeches. But for a long time people at least paid lip service to it and thought that it was a virtue. Nowadays (except in the case of schoolchildren, who are sometimes asked in abstinence-only sex education classes to pretend as though adults value chastity), it’s rare to see chastity mentioned as an important character trait. So what happened? The whirlwind version of the just-so story I’ve heard about Euro-American culture goes something like this:
Even when chastity was held in esteem, there has always been a libertine subculture who did not buy it, believing that those who urged chastity were essentially killjoys who had an irrational disgust for sex and thought everyone else should too. This subculture waxed and waned in its influence.
The collapse of the hegemonic Catholic church as the gatekeeper to legal, officially chaste sexuality, meant that people were more encouraged to think for themselves about what virtuous sexuality meant, and different protestant sects could use their interpretations of what chastity consists of as ways of distinguishing themselves in the marketplace.
The importance of strategic considerations in marriage (social climbing, family alliances) has been declining, and now the cultural norm is to marry for love, based on mutual romantic (and sexual) attraction. Marriage is seen less as an alliance or partnership, and more of an ongoing romantic adventure, in which sexual satisfaction is vital. In that context, premarital sex is an important part of courtship as it tests sexual compatibility.
Freudian psychology pathologized sexual inhibition as the cause of maladies, and painted societal and institutional guardrails of chastity as things that were interfering with people maturing into healthy sexual adults. The libertine subculture used this as propaganda to gain more respect and to advance their creed, until it became the culture and chastity was relegated to a traditionalist subculture.
The automobile helped to normalize incorporating sexual trysts into dating and courtship. Mass media noticed that sex sells and kept pushing the boundaries of what could be said in public in order to gain eyeball-share. Civil libertarians sometimes added substantive defenses (of e.g. pornography, homosexuality, contraception, divorce) to their libertarian legal defenses, often using psychologized terminology, to the effect that ever-more promiscuous and polymorphous forms of sexuality became normalized and chastity and sexual modesty became further pathologized and relegated to the realm of the prude and the censor. As people discussed sexuality in all of its variety more publicly, they became more aware of its range and contours, and a sexual connoisseurship developed, which further expanded the market for ever-more-expansive descriptions of human sexuality, until what was depicted as normal had gone well beyond what would traditionally have been considered chaste.
The Pill (and convenient contraception and abortion more generally) mostly eliminated one of the most tangible reasons why the virtue of chastity might be important to a flourishing life, while meanwhile reductions in childhood mortality made contraception seem more desperately vital to not being swamped by a deluge of human larva. Feminists identified traditional sexual mores as having been part of the mechanism of the subjugation of women, and exposed chastity to critique on those grounds. People learned to identify themselves with their sexuality (“I am gay”), and so sexual identities and the freedom to express them became another front in civil rights battles. The civil libertarian argument that consenting adults ought to be able to please one another according to taste, combined with an emerging awareness of the extent and harm of non-consensual sexual behavior, refocused cultural discussion of sexual morality around consent and allowed people to remoralize sex while leaving chastity out of it. The internet made vast quantities of pornography available in every variety at the push of a button, and made it nearly impossible to maintain the pretense of chaste societal norms for the supposed benefit of children.
And so here we are. Chastity is defeated and the libertines have won. I have internalized the arguments of the libertarians and the libertines at least as much as anyone else in our society, and even the word chastity is hard for me to pronounce without feeling like a prude. I think that the attention we have given to redefining sexual morality for the modern era has been, by and large, a good thing. And yet I wonder if we lost anything important along the way.
The benefits of chastity
“Chastity does not pretend to extinguish our tender passions, or cancel one part of our nature: it only bids us not to indulge them against reason and truth; not give up the man to humor the brute, nor hurt others to please ourselves; to divert our inclinations by business, or some honest amusement, till we can gratify them lawfully, conveniently, regularly; and even then to participate of the mysteries of love with modesty, as within a veil or sacred enclosure, not with a canine impudence.” ―William Wollaston
I tried to hunt up some good, sophisticated, modernish defenses of chastity. Most of them assume a religious perspective in which one of the most important reasons you remain chaste is because God likes it when you do. Some others are defenses of chastity as a chosen lifestyle or even identity (people who don’t have sex but wish they could now are “incels” and some people who choose abstinence call themselves “volcels” in contrast). I tried to tease out of all of them some reasons why chastity-as-a-virtue might be important to human flourishing.
There are some practical, biological reasons: unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases are still a thing. But this seems more an argument for prudence than chastity.
Chastity is supposed to help reinforce and preserve the value of marriage. G.E.M. Anscombe put it this way: “Humanly speaking, the good and the point of a sexual act is: marriage. Sexual acts that are not true marriage acts either are mere lasciviousness, or an Ersatz, an attempt to achieve that special unitedness which only a real commitment, marriage, can promise. For we don’t invent marriage, as we may invent the terms of an association or club, any more than we invent human language. It is part of the creation of humanity and if we’re lucky we find it available to us and can enter into it. If we are very unlucky we may live in a society that has wrecked or deformed this human thing.”
Similarly, chastity can make sex itself more special. Imagine if you only had chocolate once a year, on your birthday. That would potentially increase the value you get from that chocolate, and from your birthday. Maybe that extra value would be worth the cost of forgoing chocolate the rest of the year. Similarly, by restricting your sexuality to a particular partner in a particularly sanctified context, you add value to the sex, the context, and the partner, and conceivably that is worth the trade-off from abstaining from sex otherwise. By contrast, if you indulge in sex whenever and with whomever the fancy strikes, in a “(merely) natural” way, a part of your life that could have been extraordinary risks becoming no more remarkable than yawning or getting a haircut.
Some people insist that indulging in too much sex has harmful side effects, just as indulging in too much ice cream or alcohol does. “Chastity is one of the greatest disciplines,” wrote Gandhi. “A man who is unchaste loses stamina and becomes emasculated and cowardly. If his mind is given over to animal passions, he is not capable of any great effort.”
The reference to “animal passions” (or Wollaston’s more colorful “canine impudence”) points at another criticism of sexual indulgence: that it is the silly pandering to base instincts meant to prompt our reproductive success, at the expense of the higher callings our species is capable of. Why waste your human time questing for new opportunities to rut like a reptile when you could be devoting that energy to the more exceptional pursuits our weirdly wrinkled cerebrums allow?
Often people make terrible decisions under the influence of lust. People will degrade themselves, put themselves in compromising positions, wreck relationships, trash careers, behave shamefully, all for another few minutes of the bouncy-bouncy. The promise that we will be free from neurosis and shame if we just get rid of our hang-ups and let our sex drives guide us wherever they naturally want to go has turned out to be poor advice. Chastity can be a way of trying to reassert rational control over irrational drives, so that they serve us rather than us being served up to them.
Chastity is also sometimes recommended because it is harsh medicine. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes with approval the “real as well as etymological kinship between chastity and chastisement” and that “chastity is a thing stern and austere.” Chastity can be a sort of ongoing discipline that teaches temperance, self-control, and moderation. The sex drive can be viewed as a sort of exercise equipment: it provides the resistance we pull against in order to train ourselves in better self-discipline.
Another possible pro-chastity position would be to assert that the emerging modern consensus about sexuality is the new “virtue whose topic is sex” and so just is the modern version of chastity. To be chaste in this view is to be authentic, generous, open-minded, prudent, respectful, and skillful, or perhaps some other combination of things we’re still in the process of discovering. A virtue is meant to help us flourish, and as the world changes around us, what helps us flourish changes too.
How to develop chastity
Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo
[“Give me chastity and continence, but not just yet!”]
―Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
To become chaste seems therefore like it will require, more so than for the other virtues, spending some effort to define what chastity means for you. Traditional ideas of chastity may no longer fit modern realities, while modern ideas may be more fashionable than practical. How do you envision a healthy sexuality that helps you to lead a flourishing life? How realistic is that — how reality-based vs. based on moth-eaten ideas or pop culture fantasies?
The next step will be to develop a way to honor and respect your sexual drives, desires, fantasies, and inclinations while at the same time subordinating them to your larger project of being a flourishing person. (That ought to take at least couple of minutes, easy.) You might examine your past and present sexual behavior with an eye to discovering where it went against your better interests. Did you fail to think things through? Did you write your lust a blank check? Did your self control desert you at the last minute? Did you exaggerate how much satisfaction you would get in return? Are you trying to get something through sex that you would be more apt to find in some other way? In what way can you correct for this next time?
“Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.” ―James Clear
If you find your sex drive to be more than a match for your self control, then avoiding temptation may be important. Stay out of scenarios in which your weak self control is the only thing standing between you and a decision you will regret. Manipulate your environment in such a way that the thing you hope you’ll do is also the default, easiest, and most tempting thing to do.
Notes on Temperance: Can we shape our desires?
Notes on Self Control: How do we lose self control, and how can we strengthen it?
Notes on Endurance: How to improve endurance