Whether or not you’re a virgin, chastity is for you. I read a lot about chastity. You might have noticed that if you’ve read any of my writing here at Austin CNM. I recently re-discovered the blog of Arleen Spenceley, a chastity advocate and professional journalist, when I got word of her new book for Ave Maria Press, Chastity Is for Lovers: Single, Happy, and (Still) a Virgin. In it, Spenceley presents a long-form explanation of her journey into speaking openly about virginity, chastity, and the truth of love and sex that can only be found in the Gospel.
Norms aren’t normal because they’re good. They’re normal because we keep them that way.
It’s not normal to avoid sex outside of marriage, but it is good. You might have seen Arleen’s viral personal essays for the Tampa Bay Times about being an adult virgin. If you’re anything like me, you were overjoyed (and surprised). Finally, there was a voice speaking out in a secular forum for the virtue of chastity! What a bold, confident, wise voice hers was and is.
Because I both seek out and unwittingly find myself in discussions of chastity, I have come across declarations that waiting until marriage for sex was a bad idea. These go beyond scathing remarks from never-married non-virgins; they’re from people who waited and found the experience wanting. One uniting theme, though, is that the people making these declarations are almost always graduates of “purity culture.”
Purity culture, as far as Spenceley and I can tell, is based on:
- emphasizing the necessity of virginity until marriage for girls, but not always for boys,
- shaming those who have already had sex outside of marriage as irredeemable and permanently broken,
- offering no forgiveness for unmarried non-virgins,
- and promising blessings in marriage simply as the result of waiting until marriage for sex.
This is also the culture that promotes “purity balls,” dances during which little girls (not even young women) promise their fathers to remain virgins until marriage. That’s a promise not to sin made by a human being who will, inevitably, sin. Purity culture is not chastity. Purity is not chastity. And it’s not mercy. It reduces a person’s entire worth to avoiding one specific sin. Spenceley makes a great point in that “purity” is hard to even define! Think about it yourself: how do you define “purity”? Are you thinking about people who are virgins? Or are you thinking about newly-fallen snow? The spotless Lamb of God? The clean slate created by baptism? Unconditional love without any sign of selfishness or the desire to use someone? If we can’t define it neatly, how can we build a culture around it?
On the contrary, Catholicism promotes chastity: real love that does not use people for sex without a lifelong commitment. Chastity says there is more to love than sex, and more to sex than virginity. Spenceley even notes that, in the rising trend of couples having children together without marrying, there is a tacit reverence for marriage. Maybe they have babies together, but they know marriage is too important to just jump into without serious consideration. Thus, she advocates for dating honestly and with clear intentions, recognizing that virtuous friendship may be found in many people you date, but if you can’t see marriage in the future, the romance should end. She criticizes contraception as a path away from self-control and the freedom found in true, marital sexual health. This book is not just about her story. It’s about the love story we all have with God.
Spenceley has identified the chapter on providence as her favorite. If you’re just looking for advice on how to stay (or become) chaste, you might miss that. I did. However, it is in that chapter that Spenceley bears her heart the way she originally did in the Tampa Bay Times. Much of living a chaste life is about trust. The chaste person trusts that God’s plan for sex and marriage (as promoted by the Catholic Church in particular) is good and true. The chaste person believes in finding happiness even while celibate. The chaste person is certain that God has a plan for our specific ways of living holy lives founded on him.
If you’re not reading Arleen Spenceley’s blog, you should be. Her book is an excellent collection that weaves together thoughts on critical aspects of chastity, but I actually find her short-form writing more direct, pithy, and infinitely shareable. She helps give me hope that the chaste life is possible. Join us in hope, faith, and love.
I received a free copy of Chastity Is for Lovers from Ave Maria Press in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!