Monday, August 12, 2013

A Case Against Abstinence

This post originally appeared on Ignitum Today.  It got lost in cyberspace when the site temporarily went down a few months ago, but it did spark a fair amount of debate--one woman accused me of implying that abstaining from sex isn't necessary outside of marriage if you've found your future spouse (definitely not my intention), and I was asked, "You call yourself a Catholic?"  I never intended to stir up controversy for its own sake, or to play the victim; I only hoped to clarify what, in my eyes, can be a gray area of words that are used synonymously when I think that there's actually a big difference.  But, I would be curious (and humbled, most likely) to hear your thoughts!  What do you think?  Is there a distinction between abstinence and chastity? How would you define them?

I don't really like abstinence.  Wait.  What?  I resist the kind of trips where you go to Target for two things and come out with ten.  I try not to eat meat on Fridays.  My husband and I teach NFP.

 In some cases, though, particularly the case of sexuality, abstinence seems to miss the point.  Abstinence says no.  It emphasizes what you're giving up.  Often, it feels like a rule.

But chastity?  Chastity, I'd argue, shouldn't be interchangeable with abstinence; in fact, it can be the opposite of abstinence in radical ways.  Arleen Spenceley says, it's "a decision to die to self and to selflessly love (or to die trying)...Chastity never ends (that is, a person can be chaste simultaneously as he or she is abstinent, married or celibate).”  

And it's not a rule.  Focusing on abstinence, I've noticed, can lead to resentment or a sort of white-knuckle attitude where one feels like he or she just needs to hold on until marriage, when all of the impulses that have been held back can finally be unleashed.  This kind of thinking can raise the stakes, and perhaps overemphasize pleasure, to the point where one mistake leads to despair, self-loathing, or a feeling of being permanently broken.  But chastity, I think, acknowledges that we're already broken in our humanness, offering instead the hope that it's never to late to start over, and that the right kind of love can heal and restore us, giving us a glimpse, even, of the divine.  Chastity sees rules, then, not as a burden, but as a path to true freedom, with the goal being a body, soul, and mind so integrated that the rules aren't necessary anymore.   St. Paul knows it; he writes, "For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.  But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (Galatians 5:17-18).

It says yes.  Chastity says yes to authentic love, yes to your future or current spouse, yes to purity in your thoughts, words, and actions.  It's not about what you can't do, but what you can: How can you express love to another person in the fullest, most respectful, and unselfish way?  The answer depends on your state in life, but no matter what, chastity encourages sacrifice, creativity (which could mean anything from a Say Anything-style serenade to a single person to the actual creation of a new life to a husband and wife), and reverence for another, simply because he or she is.  

So, do I think abstinence is all bad?  Of course not.  Self-denial can foster deep holiness, but I think it's only in light of chastity that self-denial takes on a deeper meaning.  It means freedom and faithfulness; it withholds nothing and bears great fruit in every vocation.  It means an invitation to love.  I can definitely get on board with that.


  1. It seems to me that the controversy lies in semantics. I read your piece and I feel like I understand everything you're saying - and I'm pretty confident that you never suggested that we should not be abstinent...but rather that abstinence takes on a positive spin only when viewed through the lens of practicing chastity. Is that right? If so, I think people just got hung up on you saying you don't "like" abstinence and couldn't get beyond those words to see your bigger message. And I agree with you that abstaining can often come off as negative and places TOO much emphasis on the physical and just trying to hold on (and can lead to self-loathing when we stumble, etc) - when chastity gives us hope and tools to aid us if we struggle...and it applies to all stages of life and vocations - not just leading up to marriage.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Semantics for sure! My English major self is all about finding the right words...thanks, Steph!

  2. I think this is a great post! I agree with Stephanie, above. People just pick and choose things to get upset about.

    Abstinence can have such a negative connotation. But, when you see it as part of being chaste... then you can only see it as a positive. A gift for your future spouse. Abstinence in and of itself is just not doing something. That is boring. When people are being chaste, who choose to abstain from sex are doing so because it involves so much more. Like you said, it's a mindset. It changes your views on a lot of things.

    Now I am just rambling. Ugh, anyway... I agree with you. :)

    I don't think you ever make the case to NOT be abstinent outside of marriage. Silly people.

  3. Great post Stephanie! I agree that 'abstinence education' focuses so much on the need to avoid, to hold on until marriage. But now I am married, and guess what! I still have to work at abstaining, at chastity, at honoring God and my husband. My Catholic school education actually did very little to prepare me for life after I 'cross the finish line' (haha!) of a wedding. Thanks for raising awareness!

    Check out threefortrinity dot blogspot dot com!



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