I recently stumbled across a delightfully humorous description of the different types of speakers on chastity commonly found in Christian youth ministry circles. It reminded me of the chastity talks I experienced at my middle school and high school and churches.
The one in high school that stayed with me was of the more pseudo-factual variety, begun with a slideshow full of statistics and graphs and charts. It was all very sciencey, but it ended with a moral message that the safe bet was abstaining from sex until marriage. And that’s true. It is in fact the safest option if we want to have the best chance of avoiding STDs and unwanted pregnancies.
The problem with making this argument to teenagers is that, for various evolutionary reasons, they weigh risks and rewards in a very different way than adults. Where adults will tend to weight risks highly and tend to be more cautious, teenagers will tend to weight rewards highly, so highly that the rewards seem to outweigh the risks far more often than we as adults can imagine. Even those of us who were teenagers not that long ago like me have trouble getting back into that mentality.
If we are to convince young people who are not particularly risk-averse that waiting until marriage is the best choice, we would be better served by not making the risks of not waiting until marriage central to our argument.
The one in middle school that struck me was a talk by a women who shared her past of drug addiction and promiscuity, providing my peers (most of whom had been raised on a diet of television programming that preached a sweetly seductive message of Cyreniac hedonism) with a laundry list of things to try next. She inadvertently gave them tips on how to make more of the same mistakes that drive our consumerist culture along its feel-good downward spiral, a slope we have sprayed down with lube and declared to be not slippery at all.
The problem with this approach is that it communicates to teens that the rewards they seek are readily available, and it does nothing to change their risk-reward evaluation in favor of avoiding the risks.
The chastity talks at church were more varied, some of them more horrifyingly bad than the talks at school and some of them very useful and uplifting.
The worst ones were the talks that worked really hard to convince young women that all men were sex fiends who only cared about their bodies. They were the worst not only because that’s a terrible way for women to go through life if they operate with that point of view, but also because in a culture in which we have consistently socialized men to treat women as sex objects and socialized women to be the best sex objects they can be…it’s mostly true.
Part of the problem with this is the risk-reward imbalance already mentioned, but also that it does nothing to call us out of our unhealthy way of treating each other as objects; men are treated as inhuman fleshpots of desire and women are treated as inhuman projections of our desires onto a fleshly canvas. Any vision of chastity can only take place in a world in which we no longer see each other as less-than-human things to lust after or fear. An effective chastity talk would have to depict this world in such a way that we could experience it as a real possibility, something many teens in my generation had not experienced in their lives.
The ones that were not quite as bad were the talks about the benefits of waiting until marriage to have sex by married persons who had waited. These were sometimes uplifting, and despite their cheesiness and distinct lack of coolness in the eyes of the audience, they managed to present chastity before and after marriage as a valid option rather than something only religious nutjobs would do.
While this approach is far better than most, it still is often done in such a way that teens are left with the impression that chastity is about sex, that it is a way of getting us to the sex spot on the Monopoly board of life so that we can pass Go and get $200 on the way to the children spot and the retirement spot.
Chastity is not caused by merely abstaining from sex; it is a virtue. It is not a virtue to abstain from sex because we have a fear of intimacy. It is not a virtue to abstain from sex because we are too afraid to risk ourselves for the good of another person. It is not a virtue to abstain from sex because we believe ourselves to be unworthy of other people out of an unhealthy lack of self-esteem. These things are not chastity, though we might rightly described them as continence or abstinence.
Chastity is a choice to orient ourselves toward our spiritual, emotional, and mental health so strongly that we move out of the way any sexual act which would interfere with that goal. Chastity is not and cannot be a negation of virtuous sexual expression, but makes the most healthy sexual expression a real possibility for us by ensuring that we separate ourselves from those things that lead us to view each other as less than a whole person worthy of the highest love and respect we can muster. Chastity is what happens when our decisions about sex are ordered toward the highest good for ourselves and others.