The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women
Seal Press, 2009
300 pp., $24.95
A Wild Constraint: The Case for Chastity
Bloomsbury Academic, 2009
166 pp., $25.95
Reviewed by Anna Broadway
How to Re-Frame the Conversation About Chastity
Today, at least in industrialized, Western societies, the battle is more for women's emotional and psychological health, as seen in Valenti's framing of the issue. Yet abstinence is no less useful or radical here. Only in chastity does one fight for integrity of personhood as worth more than the fleeting hit of attention earned with entrée to one's body. If we are not ready to grant men things like access to our bank accounts or power of attorney, why would we give them free run of our bodies? Such a choice becomes possible only with a divided sense of self, whereby some parts are more valued and secured than others.
As summarized by Valenti (though she seems to rely mostly on a 2004 report for Senator Henry Waxman and the "damning" quotes favored by opposition websites like the "No More Money" project), current abstinence education texts don't place sufficient emphasis on this message of integrity. Nor, in many cases, does church instruction do better. Taylor cites an interview with two British evangelical women, one of whom is involved with a UK affiliate of Campus Crusade for Christ. Though the women represent a different church culture than America's, their critique will be familiar to one who's spent much time around Christian singles. "It's all about small rules, not the big picture," one of the women tells Taylor. "You don't admit you struggle with how you play the Christian culture game. It's then easy to sin because there are such separate worlds."
How can those who believe there is a case and a place for chastity then improve on how we explain it? I believe there are two ways. First, as I have suggested above, the practice of chastity can play a valuable role in fighting our tendency toward fragmentation. However, I do not think the church, in particular, has done an adequate job of explaining the biblical view of sex and marriage in terms of whole-self giving. With ignorance of the overriding principles and purpose of sexual self-control comes a tendency toward technical adherence—following the letter of a misunderstood and disrespected law rather than the wise and lofty spirit of it. We must do a better job of rooting our understanding of sex in the character of God and his image-bearing purpose for mankind. People may wrestle with the question of his goodness, but an honest fight with the real issues is better than brushing God off as a daft and irrelevant uncle.
Secondly, we must stop speaking of abstinence as if it has no post-marriage value. The fact is, we are talking about self-control—a virtue that matters as much to marital monogamy as it does to premarital chastity. And those are just the sexual applications! But when all we tout is abstinence, rather than sexual self-control, the connection to all other spheres of healthy restraint is lost—and with it the urgency and relevance of being disciplined people, of being adults.
If we could stress these two things in our talk of chastity—wholeness and the importance of sexual self-control—we might be able, as Taylor says, to "re-cast our bodies in terms of charity and community, rather than … self-gratification." I'd like to think even the secular Valenti could see some good in that.
Anna Broadway is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity and a contributor to Faith at the Edge.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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