Not Your Father's Chastity. Or Is It?
Dawn Eden's version of the New Chastity sounds awfully familiar.
By Astrid Storm
The first day of the week isn’t usually the best bar night in New York, so I was surprised to walk into Midtown’s Metro 53 one Monday in April to find it packed to the rafters. Even more surprising, everyone was there to discuss…chastity.
Yes, in the past few years, chastity has acquired vogue status. There’s “chastity chic,” “the chastity revolution,” “chastity haute.” And on this particular Monday, Metro 53 was hosting Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.
To put this movement in perspective, I suppose the old chastity was what I grew up with in my Midwestern Baptist church, where people like my doughy youth minister and his mousy wife wagged their fingers at us about the perils of premarital sex. This evil act, they warned us, leads to STDs, infertility or sterility, depression and suicidal tendencies (especially in women), and ruined marriages, because it basically amounts to cheating on your future spouse, thus counting as adultery—and who wants to start off a marriage having already committing adultery against your spouse?
Compared to this chillingly illogical scenario, the New Chastity seems downright harmless, even refreshing. Ms. Eden, sporting a somewhat unfashionable red, crumply velvet top that reminded me of her amusing chapter on chaste dressing, began her presentation with a stammer and some jokes with elusive punch lines. While she herself hardly seemed “chic” or “haute,” there was something disarming about her. Obviously the New Chastity isn’t being preached by the condescending know-it-all figures of my youth.
And the New Chastity is not being proclaimed from a position of virginal innocence, either. Eden soon launched into her own story, establishing right away that she wasn’t a virgin. In fact, her life has consisted of numerous sexual encounters that, despite, or perhaps because of, her earnest efforts to convert them into a married relationship, have basically amounted to nothing but casual sex. As she puts it in her book: “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t transform a sexual encounter—or string of encounters—into a real relationship. The most I could hope for, it seemed, was a man who could treat me with ‘respect,’ but who really wouldn’t have any concern for me once we split the tab for breakfast.” Ouch.
This New Chastity, unlike the old, also tends to downplay the supposed mandate from the Bible, preferring to cut directly to the appealing benefits of chastity here and now. It will give you time for other interests. It will give you the joys of a clean conscience. It will help you relate better to other people, making you more outward-oriented. Along these lines, Eden explained the difference between a “single” and a “singular” woman—a “single” woman being one who spends all her mental and spiritual energy trolling for men, and a “singular” one being oriented toward a broader range of people and concerns.
I looked around at the crowd, noticing more than a few skeptics or sports fans—including a priest—distracted by the baseball game on the flat screen TVs overhead. Statistics show that probably most of them (the priest included?) are having sex or will have sex before marriage; in fact, according to last December's Guttmacher Report, 95 percent of the population has engaged in premarital sex.
The more I listened to Dawn Eden, the more convinced I became that her cause was unlikely to change these figures, because a lot of it is Old Chastity in New Chastity clothing. Take the old gender stereotypes, for instance. It’s one thing to observe that there might be some differences between the way men and women approach sex and romance; it’s quite another to say that women should keep themselves as “gifts” for their future husbands. Eden’s use of that term reminded me of a classic in the conservative Christian world, “Gift Wrapped by God”– a humorous title, but a sobering reminder of the repressive attitude towards women that even these new chastity movements tend to fall back upon.
Christianity and women’s liberation may have once been at odds, but that time is long past for many Christians, especially the sophisticated urban patrons of Metro 53. I somehow doubted that Eden’s female listeners were eager to go home and gift wrap themselves in Saran Wrap for their men, as Marabel Morgan suggested in the conservative Christian 1970’s classic, “The Total Woman.”
What’s more, I doubt many people were buying Eden’s argument that premarital chastity is the only way to cultivate the nobler characteristics of humanity. I’ve never found premarital sex incompatible with a concern for others. In fact, it probably makes you more generous, loving, relaxed and happy. And as far as I know, there are no statistics proving that pre-marital chastity insures your fidelity to a future spouse. In fact, those who have indulged in sex before marriage are most likely more ready for physical commitment than virgins who will always be wondering what they might be missing.
Many of the Christians I know wouldn’t buy into the New Chastity’s claims for a minute, and I’m happy that they are living much more complex sex lives than these chastity movements—new or old—could ever accommodate. Today’s informed, sophisticated Christians know that a healthy sex life can be lived out in many different ways and contexts. Now, someone please point me to the bar where I can hear a talk about that.
A version of this review originally appeared in Orato.
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