Chastity, defined herein as refraining from intimate sexual relationships outside of the marriage covenant, has ebbed and flowed in acceptance over the centuries. It attracts respect from some and scorn from others.
In a predominantly Christian culture, chastity is deeply respected as one of the greatest virtues. We in the United States, due to the heavy influence of Christianity in shaping our culture, may think of chastity as a “Christian virtue.” However, it’s only fair to note that chastity isn’t an exclusively Christian virtue.
Aside from other faith traditions—especially the monotheistic ones—various nonreligious thinkers have extolled chastity. One of the most famous of these is the ancient Athenian statesman Solon, who died in 560 B.C.—centuries before the dawn of Christianity.
“Pure chastity is beauty to our souls, grace to our bodies, and peace to our desires,” Solon wrote.
That having been said, we in the West today must indeed look to Christianity as a major cultural force promoting chastity as a virtue. Thus, one of the great heroes of literature from the 1800s was the virginal male, Jean Valjean, in French novelist Victor Hugo’s great novel “Les Misérables.”
Today—a much more secular and materialistic era in the West (as evidenced by the popularity of people such as Hugh Hefner)—chastity is often likely to be belittled or ridiculed. Individuals seeking to justify their own indulgence in nonmarital sexual pleasures seek validation from others by trying to persuade them that chastity is a pointless, unnecessary, and even psychologically harmful superstition—a relic from bygone unenlightened days.
The key question boils down to this: Is chastity good or not so good for you? Basically, what’s in it for you?
The benefits of chastity are considerable. They come in two categories: the avoidance of negative consequences and the attainment of positive benefits. Let’s look at the negatives of not practicing chastity first.
When I was young, the two most common warnings I received about premarital sex were that it could lead to unwanted pregnancy or catching a sexually transmitted disease. While the means for reducing those risks are more widespread—such as more effective contraception, particularly, birth control pills, and teachings about “safe sex”—these preventive measures are often neglected. According to one study (pdf), a startling “45 percent of adults have genital HPV.” Likewise, the frequency of abortion shows that many women who don’t want babies nevertheless shun using “the pill.”
Today, thanks to systematic research by social scientists, we know of additional unpleasant or harmful consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage. Premarital sex in particular causes considerable psychological harm. There’s a noticeable increase in deep unhappiness among many who dabble in premarital sex, whether of the one-night stand variety or longer-term liaisons.
Marian Crowe wrote on The Harvard College Anscombe Society website:
“According to ‘Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying’ by sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, sexually active young adults often feel ‘guilt, regret, temporary self-loathing, rumination, diminished self-esteem, a sense of having used someone else or been used, a sense of having let yourself down, discomfort about having to lie or conceal sex from family, anxiety over the depth and course of the relationship, and concern over the place or role of sex in the relationship.’
“… girls who were sexually active ‘were about 11 times more likely than virgins to report elevated depression symptoms.’ Virgins, on the other hand, ‘tend to be a self-confident and accomplished lot.’ …
“In his recent book, ‘Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood,’ University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith argues that, for many young people, especially women, ‘sexual freedom is accompanied by real hurt, confusion, grief, anger, and regrets.’”
Still another negative consequence of premarital and extramarital sex that the chaste person avoids is the increased likelihood of divorce among those who haven’t practiced chastity.
The Chastity Project reports that according to research by Edward O. Laumann and colleagues: “When a man is married as a virgin, his divorce rate is 63 percent lower than a non-virgin. For women, it’s 76 percent lower.”
The project also reports that a majority of teens who gave up their virginity before marriage subsequently wish they had waited longer. Other research shows that women who were virgins when they were married “had the lowest divorce rates by far,” whereas the highest divorce rates among women were those who had been with 10 or more partners.
Divorce disrupts lives. It’s an unhappy, stressful time for the couple splitting up, and their unhappiness often lasts for years. Especially sad is the unhappiness suffered by children whose parents divorce. Although quite a large number of such children emerge from divorces relatively unscathed if their parents are sufficiently supportive, social science literature (pdf) is full of documentation about the harmful effects of divorce on children when their family dissolves.
Also, the economic consequences of divorce are grim, casting a pall over the lives of those divorced—and often disproportionately on mothers—for years. Indeed, at least one social scientist calls marriage “America’s greatest weapon against child poverty,” and a significant portion of the disparity between black and white poverty rates in America can be attributed to disparities in the incidence of broken versus intact families.
In addition to avoiding the various negative consequences that so often follow in the train of unchaste behavior, there are significant positive benefits to the practice of chastity.
The primary argument against chastity is that you’re missing out on pleasure. That may be true, but only in the very short run. A wise human being includes long-run as well as short-run considerations in his reasoning process.
It’s well known in the social sciences that poor people have short time horizons—they think only of the present and downplay, if not ignore, the future. By contrast, those who take a long-term view avoid squandering valuable capital on frivolous expenditures today in exchange for a more affluent lifestyle later on. (Incidentally, politicians, like poor people, have short time horizons. They focus on the next election. Maybe that explains why Congress has put us $28 trillion in debt, impoverishing us while enriching themselves. But that’s another story for another time.)
Think of chastity as an investment in your future. Many have found that the key to long-term success and happiness in life—both economically and psychologically—is to defer gratification. By giving up a lesser, transitory enjoyment today—whether refraining from extravagant spending or declining to participate in a hook-up or short-term affair—one paves the way to greater affluence and greater happiness later on.
By the way, the economic and the romantic are closely intertwined here. Think of how much money some young men spend on overpriced drinks at bars and on other expenditures trying to woo women in whom they have no real interest beyond sex. How much wiser to conserve funds for a truly meaningful relationship and to start saving a financial nest egg in preparation for buying a home for your eventual family.
What does it take to defer gratification—to say no to present pleasures for the sake of attaining greater happiness and satisfaction in the future? Wisdom, character, maturity, and patience are among those helpful virtues. The Latin word from which our noun “virtue” comes, by the way, is “virtus,” which has the additional meaning of “strength.” To rein in passion, one needs strength of character—specifically, integrity, self-restraint, self-discipline, and self-control.
The self-control needed to practice chastity isn’t confined to the realm of action, but includes the realms of speech and thought. Real self-control includes eschewing locker room trash talk—juvenile braggadocio about what one wants to do with some girl’s body. As the New Testament writer James teaches (James 3:1-10), the tongue is a formidable and potentially destructive little member, and the person who can control his tongue is well on his way to self-mastery.
In the realm of thought, it’s most helpful to exercise self-control. The book of Proverbs warns: “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?” (Prov. 6:27) Fantasizing about sex is an aggressive temptation. If left unchecked, it can lead one into the dark labyrinth of pornography, which again offers short-term pleasure in exchange for heavy long-term costs.
According to the Love and Fidelity Network: “Studies increasingly show that pornography alters your brain chemistry and, like a drug, can leave you dependent. Frequent users and their loved ones know the consequences: guilt, anxiety, depression, difficulty forming or maintaining relationships, erectile dysfunction, decreased pleasure, and increased risk of divorce.”
The triple mastery of thought, word, and deed can be a difficult challenge. Indeed, there are often temporary setbacks on that path. But the rewards of chastity can be considerable. At this time of the Olympic Games, heed the wisdom of Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge, the defending Olympic champion and the first human to run a marathon in under two hours: “Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.” Strong words, but needed. There’s much more joy and satisfaction in being the master of passions instead of their slave.
Chastity isn’t a minor virtue. On the contrary, it can be a key building block in achieving a productive life full of meaningful achievements, both at home and in one’s chosen career. A major key to success is the ability not to get distracted from one’s goals or to waste time taking detours down dead-end alleys. Chastity involves self-mastery, and that opens the door to the greatest achievements and fulfillments in life.
As 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau put it: “Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it.”
Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.