Chastity versus Virginity

Over dinner the other night, this question popped up: How do you help young people pursue lives of sexual holiness?

The conversation ranged all over the place. Condoms and birth control. Marriage and abstinence. God's purpose of sexuality.

The most interesting thread was probably how life-stage interacts with sexual holiness. Holiness has a different texture for a young single than it does for a married man or an older man who has lost his wife. I mention this as an aside, unsure how to crack the door of this conversation to you.

We touched on one thread that might be familiar to you if you've been in student ministry or around a college campus. That's the title thread. Chastity versus Virginity.

Much of the conversation around sexuality orbits around Virginity. True love waits. Promise rings. Save it. For most kids growing up in the church, they've been hammered with the real-world consequences of sex: STDs, ripped hearts, and less-than-optimal future marriages. But that's all they've heard.

Our emphasis on virginity is problematic for three reasons:

  1. It focuses on a point rather than a path.
  2. It focuses on a negative rather than a positive.
  3. It focuses on threats rather than grace.
Why should a young person stop having sex? If they engage sexually once and lose their virginity, they also lose their motivation to pursue sexual holiness. Sexual holiness is now out of reach, lost in the shadow of their past. Why should a student withhold from a second boyfriend what she gave to a first? Why should he say "No" to a girlfriend when she attempts to do what they've already done twice? Virginity is no help once you've crossed that line. If anything, it makes it harder to stop.

On top of this, the conversation around virginity fails to grapple with the complexity of our world. At what point do you officially lose your virginity? How far is too far? Does what happens in the mind matter? And what about someone who shares your gender: do you lose your virginity if you sleep with another man or another woman? And what if the sexual encounter is non-consentual: rape and molestation? And what if you're widowed or divorced? Virginity is no help in these complex conversations. If anything, it makes it easier to justify your behavior.

Contrast virginity to chastity. The concepts seem interchangeable, but they're not. 

Chastity applies to everyone, not just the virginal. The concept sinks its roots down into dark earth of God's view of bodies and his positive purpose for sexuality. The single man remains chaste through abstinence. The married man remains chaste through fidelity to one woman. Both honor their bodies and the marriage bed and the bodies of their potential sexual partners.

The concept of chastity is full to the brim with grace. Chastity is a discipline, a form of indirect effort that we utilize because the direct effort of living a holy and pure life is too much for us. We will fail. Chastity allows you back on the path toward holiness when you've wandered away.

The best writing on chastity that I know comes from Lauren Winner and her book Real Sex. She's a theologian at Duke div and manages to speak both conceptually and practically. Check out her book if this conversation interests you.

What do you think? Is chastity a better focus than virginity?

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