If you are a young Catholic woman, you have likely heard the term “emotional chastity.” As far as I can tell, it seems to be a good thing in itself. I first learned about the concept early on in my college career while attending a women’s Bible study: “Do you know that song ‘Starlight’ by Taylor Swift? Emotional chastity is refraining from emotionally obsessing over someone you just met. Or creating a nonexistent relationship in your head. Or placing huge relational expectations on someone with whom you barely have a relationship.”
I agree with all of that. We should keep a healthy perspective on our emotions and relationships. What I do not agree with is labeling this nebulous virtue as emotional chastity. Allow me to explain.
First, where did this virtue come from? Within the last century, the Church introduced new and helpful ways to discuss morality in general and sexual morality in particular. (Theology of the Body, anyone?) However, I remain suspicious of the necessity of the term “emotional chastity.”
I recently read an article which relates emotional chastity to Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I found this explanation to be the most convincing argument for using the term; namely, that we are attracted to people both physically and emotionally, and that we can therefore use someone physically and emotionally. That makes sense to me, but I would argue that emotional attraction remains distinct from sexual attraction, and the two do not always go together. Additionally, it is possible to use someone (i.e. objectify them and treat them as a means to an end) without sex being involved. Hoping for a bit more clarity, I consulted the Catechism.
The Catechism states that, “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (2332).
I can certainly see how that can be interpreted to include one’s emotions and, indeed, nearly every aspect of a person’s life. However, when we typically speak of chastity, we speak specifically of sexual relationships that glorify God and respect the dignity of the human person (or refraining from sexual relationships for those same reasons). In general, if we say “chastity,” but really mean “a virtue that encompasses all of the ways that we relate to other people,” then we use a definition that, while technically correct, can be misleading, and a definition that is vague enough to mean both everything and nothing.
[W]hen we typically speak of chastity, we speak specifically of sexual relationships that glorify God and respect the dignity of the human person
In an effort to clearly define emotional chastity, let us look at the vice that opposes it. But, what is that vice? I suppose we could talk about emotional unchastity or emotional lust, but “unchastity” is no clearer and “lust” is inherently sexual. More accurately, when we speak of not practicing “emotional chastity,” we mean allowing our emotions to have too great a hold on us. If we read a little further in the Catechism we find that this description fits quite well: “The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason” (2341). I do believe that “emotional chastity” can rightly be included under the umbrella of temperance; however, I maintain that it should be considered separately from the virtue of chastity.
As I mentioned earlier, emotional chastity is, at best, tangentially related to sexuality. As integrated persons, our emotional and sexual lives naturally impact each other, which creates all the more reason to use accurate terms. Do I struggle with living chastely or do I struggle with how I relate to people emotionally? Both struggles are areas of growth, but I would argue that only the former is necessarily a sin. Sure, we can argue about the sinfulness of idolizing another person or a relationship, or even about emotional fantasies that lead to sexual fantasies. (To clarify, that same article from The Chastity Project does differentiate between sexual fantasies and emotional fantasies, only the latter of which is an offense against emotional chastity.) I would still argue, however, that emotional chastity is used as a vague umbrella term for a host of issues, none of them necessarily sexual.
As integrated persons, our emotional and sexual lives naturally impact each other, which creates all the more reason to use accurate terms.
In fact, the insistence on emotional chastity contributes to a dismissive view of woman’s emotions. Emotions are not bad; in fact, Edith Stein says that woman’s strength lies in her emotional life (when emotions are formed by the intellect and will). Despite the wisdom of women like Edith Stein who understand the positive aspects of woman’s emotions, some people today still dismiss women because of our emotions, calling us irrational or hysteric. The narrative surrounding emotional chastity is directed almost exclusively towards women, which can feed into the stereotype of women being controlled by their emotions.
A brilliant post at Bad Catholic articulates a number of my concerns regarding “emotional chastity.” The author argues that it is a prime example of sexualizing virtues that have nothing to do with sexuality just so that we can present them to women, which amounts to objectifying these same women.
“But by widening the term ‘chastity’ to include things beyond the integration of the sexuality with the entire person, we once again make women into creatures more fundamentally sexual than men. What ‘emotional chastity’ is straining to express is the virtue of prudence . . . and that of temperance, . . .which, of course, includes the near-voluptuous pleasures of emotionalism and romantic effulgence. Christian men tell each other to be ‘honest,’ to be ‘truthful,’ to be ‘prudent’ in how we speak with women and ‘temperate’ in the tears of love we indulge. . . .Men can be admonished for our own emotional irresponsibility without referring to our emotions as something fundamentally sexual. But with the hip, new, synthetic virtue of ‘emotional chastity,’ women are taught to refer to a part of themselves that is not necessarily sexual as something fundamentally sexual.” (emphasis added)
While proponents of “emotional chastity” are advocating for something good (i.e. healthy control over the emotions), their chosen method reveals that we still view women, the primary recipients of “emotional chastity” advice, primarily in light of their sexuality. Not only that, but in this case we reduce women to a false “sexuality” that is chiefly about our emotions. At youth conferences, men get the porn talk and women get the emotional chastity (i.e. “chastity lite”) talk, which brings me to my next point…
Women miss out in a big way when we replace healthy conversations about sexual virtue with emotional guilt-tripping. (And let us remember that we cannot assume that women do not struggle with “physical” chastity, because they do.) Men also miss out if we act as though women are the only ones who need to “guard their hearts” and control their emotions, or if we suggest that men’s sins and struggles are only sexual. Chastity is not a struggle reserved for men and emotions are not a uniquely feminine phenomenon - and neither sex has a monopoly on any specific vice or virtue. We ought to discuss both, without equating the two. I would love for men and women to have a healthier and holier understanding of their emotions and their sexuality, as well as how both are important aspects (but not the only aspects) of the spiritual life.
Emotional chastity is not bad; in fact, it can be good and even virtuous - but it’s not chastity. The phrase remains a confusing term that is often sexist and spiritually harmful in practice. I am all for whatever it is, but not if we dress it up as the virtue of chastity.
Call it emotional wisdom. Call it emotional temperance or emotional prudence. Call it common sense.
But please, don’t call it chastity.