The importance of chastity is without question, but the way we talk about chastity is crucial.
Despite our good intentions, the language we use and how we communicate the message of chastity can seriously distract from and weaken the points we’re trying to make.
As Catholics, we need to do a better job of communicating the truth with love. I believe there are six things we need to stop doing in order to more effectively and lovingly share the truth about chastity.
Before you start typing up an angry comment, I am 100% pro-abstinence-outside-of-marriage, but there are a number of problems with having laser-sharp focus on virginity.
The first is that virginity is potentially a temporary state while chastity is a lifelong virtue. Chastity doesn’t start and end at virginity. A virgin may struggle with unchaste thoughts, using pornography, or do other unchaste things. A woman who has lost her virginity outside of marriage but has repented may be living a very chaste life. As Catholics, we know that sin does not define us, so we shouldn’t use language that focuses on a sin rather than the overall virtue.
Chastity doesn’t start and end at virginity.
The second is it can be hurtful to women whose virginity was taken from them. I have seen several pieces from women who really struggle with this focus on virginity because despite their chaste living, an event beyond their control took their virginity away. [**Please go to the end of the post for a very important clarification on virginity.]
Finally, if we focus too much on virginity and not enough on chastity, it can cause a lot of confusion after marriage. A married person will spend much more of their life not as a virgin than as a virgin. We need a strong foundation of the virtue of chastity so they can express their sexuality appropriately within the context of marriage.
Gendering Chastity Topics
Chastity is a virtue for everyone. While I personally believe we should separate chastity talks out by gender, the discussion topics themselves shouldn’t be gendered.
Pornography use and masturbation aren’t just male issues.
We shouldn’t make young women feel like the burden of maintaining a chaste relationship falls on their shoulders.
Men aren’t standing guard to protect a women’s virtue.
Women aren’t immune to sexual desires.
Men and women are different and may struggle with chastity in slightly different ways, but to assume that only one sex struggles with a certain topic does a huge disservice to the opposite sex.
Within the Catholic sphere, I have seen a positive shift in not gendering components of chastity, but this is still something as Christians we must be conscientious of.
Telling people who acted unchastely that they are “broken” or have “given a piece of themselves away”
I completely understand where this language comes from: when we sin, we damage our relationship with God; it has negative impacts on our souls. However, this is not the full truth. We know that no matter how much we have sinned, we are still children of God. We are still humans with dignity. Telling someone they are broken may describe the impact of sin, but it probably isn’t going to be all that effective in calling to people to conversion. In many cases, it can be hurtful.
On a related note, analogies like a crumpled flower, tape getting less sticky, and used chewing gum need to get thrown out of our chastity talks. Beyond being dehumanizing, they also aren’t accurate from a Catholic perspective. Everyone can be made new through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Analogies like a crumpled flower, tape getting less sticky, and used chewing gum need to get thrown out of our chastity talks.
Focusing on Spouse Over Self
A lot of times, chastity is presented as a virtue based on how it impacts the future spouse. We say things like “Do you really want to be making out with another woman’s future husband?” or “How would your husband feel if he knew you did xyz with another man?”
Yes, sin affects a community and unchaste behavior may affect future relationships, but that shouldn’t be the focus. The focus should be living chastely to pursue holiness out of love for ourselves and God. To be clear, I am not trying to say that people who live unchastely don’t love themselves. What I am saying is that when we love God, it shifts our perspectives on us as body AND soul, recognizing the beautiful connection between the two. We shouldn’t just be chaste because we don’t want to hurt our future spouse’s feelings; we should pursue chastity because it is something God calls us to practice because it is the best thing for us.
Shying away from Secular Sources
I know we believe that “because God says so” should be a good enough reason, the reality is that we need to meet people where they’re at. And where a lot of our culture is “at” is a passion for science.
The reality is that we need to meet people where they’re at. And where a lot of our culture is “at” is a passion for science.
As Christians, we should know that God is the author of all truth. Just because a source doesn’t directly mention God doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have something helpful for supporting a Christian perspective.
Let’s use scientific, psychological, and sociological studies to support our chastity talks. Let’s talk about the bonding hormones released during sexual intercourse. Let’s talk about the ways men and women view sex differently. Let’s talk about how porn rewires the brain.
Let’s say “here’s what God says, and here’s why science also supports it.”
Death over Loss of Virtue (tw: sexual assault)
One of the most disturbing implications I’ve heard is that we should die rather than “lose our virtue.” You are not responsible for someone’s sin against you. One of the three conditions for mortal sin is consent, and if someone forces you to do something unchaste, that is entirely on them. You are not obligated to put your life at risk to stop this imaginary concept of “loss of virtue.”
I think Simcha Fisher articulates this misconception well in her piece “Maria Goretti didn’t die for her virginity.” She says “Over and over, I’ve heard [St. Maria Goretti] praised as a holy girl who prized her virginity so highly that she was willing to die to defend it...But when her would-be rapist attacked her, she pleaded with him to stop because he would be committing a mortal sin, and he would go to hell. She didn’t say ‘Please, please, spare my virginity!’ She begged him to spare himself.”
That being said, it is important to remember that this act is heroically virtuous. She went beyond what could be expected of a person in that terrifying situation. Though we are all called to be saints, and we can admire what she did, we must also remember that we are not necessarily called to repeat that. Though it is morally permissible to use self-defense, someone doing something against your will, whether you fight back or not, does not apply the sin to your soul.
Chastity is an important virtue, and we desperately need conversations about it in our current society. As with all things, however, we must proclaim the truth with love. By avoiding the habits mentioned in this article, we can have much more meaningful conversations about this beautiful virtue.
**Note on virginity in cases of rape and assault
After this article was posted, Sophia Swinford brought up an important point to us. She shared a quote from "My Peace I Give You" by Dawn Eden. Dawn Eden writes "I found that the Church Fathers and Doctors ("Doctor" being a title given to saints of the highest wisdom) said many powerful things in defense of victims of sexual abuse. St. Augustine, writing about the virgin martyrs of the early Church, lashed out at pagans who claimed that virgins who had been raped were no longer virgins: "What sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity?"
In modern times, women who were sexually assaulted are still able to become Consecrated Virgins. For the purpose of that particular Vocation, they are still virgins.
Though there isn't a definitive teaching on this in the Catechism, I see no reason why this wouldn't apply to any person who was sexually assaulted, especially when we consider the wisdom from St. Augustine.