Arleen Spenceley has made a name for herself as a chastity writer, and her book, Chastity Is for Lovers: Single, Happy and (Still) a Virgin (Ave Maria Press), cuts to the heart of the matter.
Spenceley presents chastity in light of Church teaching, personal experience and cultural context.
What inspired you to write this book about chastity?
It started several years ago. I was 23 and dating a guy who did not see sex or chastity the same way I do. That was the first time I had dated a guy like that — and also the last time, because I’ll never do that again. Our relationship didn’t last all that long. He was one of those guys who was willing to “save sex for marriage” — not that he wanted to practice chastity, but he had to say that in order to be able to date me. It became pretty clear to me that he was going to try to get me to change my mind about saving sex for marriage.
When the relationship ended, it dawned on me that if this guy thought it was so absurd to save sex for marriage and didn’t really understand why I made that decision, then other people probably don’t understand either.
As a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, I thought, "What a platform I have to be able to share with the general public what really underlies my decision to save sex (for marriage)."
I approached an editor at work about writing an essay about why I’m saving sex for marriage, and he said, "Yes." I wrote an essay that I almost didn’t write. I tried to back out at one point, because I got a little scared about what might happen if I put it out there.
I wrote that essay in 2009, and for two years, on and off, I was getting emails from people who wanted to talk about sex, and they wanted to talk about chastity, even if they didn’t like it. People were questioning, and people were curious. I saw that this was important, not only to people who are Catholic, but also to those who aren’t.
The desire was there from the culture that surrounded me to keep this conversation going. I started to blog about love and sex and relationships after that and wrote a second essay in 2012 — and that was more popular than the first one.
That’s how all the book stuff started. It became clear that this is the kind of conversation that’s never going to end. It seemed like I had so much to say that I could make a book out of it. That’s what really sparked my decision to write a book.
This topic is so difficult to really talk about honestly. What repercussions have you felt, good and bad, from opening a window into your life this way? How has this impacted you?
When I decided to do this, I didn’t get any real slack from people I know.
As I said before, I tried to back out on that first essay, but then I started to think about the state of our culture, marriages and families, and I thought, “You know what, somebody has to say something.”
I decided I was going to be the person to do it, because I really couldn’t stand the state of things in our culture anymore. I thought if there was any chance that anything I write or say would make some kind of a positive impact or change, then I must do it.
Certainly, writing an essay called “Why I’m Still a Virgin” for a secular newspaper is not going to get entirely positive feedback. For the most part, I have had overwhelmingly positive feedback. I heard from people who were shocked that it was in the newspaper but were glad that it was. It gave them hope as they’re raising kids in a culture where they thought it was impossible to save sex for marriage or practice the virtue of chastity in any way.
I heard from college kids who, for the first time, were navigating a world in which people they were dating didn’t want to save sex for marriage. I got a lot of encouragement and feedback from people who finally didn’t feel so alone.
There were some people who were downright mean and a lot of attacks on my appearance, and the Web editors had to shut down comments and delete most of them within the first couple of hours that it was online. It was just a bunch of personal attacks.
When you put something so personal in print, you’re inviting people to respond to it. Just because I put it out there, it’s an invitation for feedback, and sometimes receiving feedback isn’t easy. I like to think I have thick skin, but sometimes people do say things that make me angry. I feel like, as a blogger and as a writer, my skin has gotten thicker over the years, because, inevitably, not everybody is going to share my sentiments. It challenges every person, and they share feedback, but it’s not necessarily what you want to hear.
It challenges me to remember that what other people think of me has no affect on my worth as a human. Nothing they think about me changes the fact that I am of infinite value — that that’s the way God created us.
Who do you hope to inspire with this book?
I really wrote this book for two kinds of people. No. 1: I think there are people in our culture who think adults who are virgins don’t exist. I wrote this book for that person, because I know from my own personal experience that you very easily can feel like you’re the only one if you are practicing chastity, which means that you’re saving sex for marriage or saving sex from now on for marriage. There just aren’t a lot of people, generally speaking, who are living life that way. So I wrote this book hoping that people who felt alone won’t feel so alone anymore.
And then I also wrote this book because I’ve met lots of people, particularly when I was in college, who would learn a little bit about me and a little bit about the virtue of chastity but weren’t necessarily interested in not having sex, but the more we discussed it, the more they considered whether another way of dating and another way of living might be possible. So the book’s also for people who are not happy or not satisfied with the way they’ve been having relationships, and the book presents them an alternative way of life that they can try.
What’s the most important part of your book?
The most important part of the book is really the chapter on Providence. That’s my favorite chapter; I couldn’t read or write it without crying, not because it’s my own stories, because it has other stories as well. I think part of the message of that chapter is a great reminder that we need to be seeking first the Kingdom [of God]. I think that’s what Providence proves, because, truly, when we do seek first the kingdom, that’s when we’re really trusting God, and it’s just amazing the things that happen.
What difference do you hope your book will make in the world?
I want this book to help people who have felt alone to know that they aren’t. I want this book to provide an alternative way of life to people who maybe didn’t even know they were seeking one. I want this book to dispel myths and misunderstandings about the virtue of chastity and how it differs from abstinence. I want to dispel myths about virginity as well. In this culture, a lot of people hear the word “virgin” and automatically assume the person we’re talking about is socially awkward, unattractive and not fun, when, in reality, the truth about virginity can be very different.
My current audience is young adults. In the Church, generally speaking, this topic of chastity is so relegated to youth groups that I’m finding people are having a hard time wrapping their heads around having a book like this for adults. People see the word “chastity” and think “youth group” and “teens.”
It’s important to note that there will be kids in a youth group who are gung-ho about chastity and saving sex for marriage, and then they go to college and have sex with the people they date. Back home, people are wondering why and what happened. Well, youth group ended, and so did the conversation [in their lives]. No one’s talking to them anymore about chastity.
My goal was to restart a conversation that never should have stopped. Chastity and sex are never not relevant for anyone.
Sarah Reinhard writes online at NCRegister.com.