Chastity: The Forgotten Virtue
Young Adults Speak Out About Real Love
The Catechism has a beautiful section on chastity, describing it as the virtue that "means the successful integration of sexuality within the person." Sexuality is what it is meant to be only when, as the Catechism says, "it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman" (2337).
But many, unfortunately, do not understand the Church’s truth, either because they haven’t heard it proclaimed at church or because they have not heard why it is a beautiful teaching.
Mary Eberstadt, in Adam and Eve After the Pill, writes about how many in today’s society fail to make the connection between social ills and the failure to practice chastity.
The facts are startling: In 2006, the Guttmacher Institute reported that about 95% of the American public had sex before marriage. Now, 40% of births in the United States are to unwed mothers (while it was just 4% in 1940).
The research in the social sciences increasingly shows how destructive sexual permissiveness has been. 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."
The authors also note that 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."
If young women suffer more from the sense of having given themselves away, pornography and casual sex harm young men by creating a kind of insatiable desire for more sex and a wider variety of sexual experiences.
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."
Chastity on Campus
In light of the devastating statistics, young voices are being raised in defense of chastity.
Young people see the harmful effects of casual, uncommitted sex both for themselves and for the larger society.
The Anscombe Society (Blogs.Princeton.edu/anscombe), named for the British philosopher and Catholic convert Elizabeth Anscombe, began at Princeton University in 2005. The society’s mission is to promote traditional marriage and family life, along with chastity.
In 2006, Harvard students founded True Love Revolution because they believed that "casual, liberationist sentiments toward sex, sexuality and relationships are detrimental to the health and well-being of our fellow students." The group, now renamed the Harvard College Anscombe Society (HarvardCollegeAnscombeSociety.wordpress.com ),"strives to present another option to our peers regarding sex-related issues, endorsing premarital abstinence and sexual integrity, upholding the institution of marriage and the family and advocating true feminism."
In 2007, one of the founders of the Anscombe Society felt there was a need for a national organization to give college students more resources to resist the pressure to conform to the norm of casual sex on campus. The result was the Love and Fidelity Network (LoveandFidelity.org).
Caitlin Seery, a spokeswoman for the organization, gave the Register insight into the situation on contemporary campuses: "It’s widely understood that sexual integrity is under assault on college campuses when it comes to the social aspects of campus life, through the hook-up culture and gross misunderstandings of healthy dating norms. But what people don’t know is that university administrations, under the pretense of providing sexual education, often perpetuate (if not worsen) the problem, both by setting the tone in their programming for what is considered normal — lots of casual sex — and providing one-sided support for events like ‘Sex Week,’ where pornography screenings are the tip of the iceberg."
There is hope, she said. "Fortunately, the other piece that people don’t know is that there is a national movement of students pushing back: of courageous young leaders challenging their peers to embrace a healthier understating of sex and challenging the administrations to take seriously the academic arguments and research in favor of sexual integrity. These young leaders and the ideas they are exposing their peers to are reshaping the campus conversation about sex — and will ultimately reshape the campus sexual culture, too."
Seery also pointed out how the campus culture affects the larger society. "The ideas of the sexual revolution — which have fueled the breakdown of marriage and family in our culture — found a foothold in America’s colleges and universities; and from there, influenced the ideas and behavioral norms that have come to shape American society and culture," she said. "In order to reverse these trends and restore a proper respect for marriage, the family and the integrity of sex, we must similarly focus on America’s educational institutions with the goal of challenging the reigning sexual orthodoxy and changing the mode of discourse on these topics and the behavioral norms surrounding them."
The Love and Fidelity Network is meeting this challenge. "At the Love and Fidelity Network, our aim is to raise up a generation of leaders who will challenge the ideology of the sexual revolution. Our mission is to educate students in the arguments defending marriage, family and sexual integrity and to equip them with the leadership skills and materials they need to effectively articulate their beliefs and commitments on campus and in the public square," Seery said. "Our network is a truly unique collection of renowned scholars, culture leaders and talented young college men and women. We personally coach and mentor these young leaders in their efforts to challenge the sexual orthodoxy on campus and to form them with the ideas and knowledge they need to carry the truth about marriage forward to the next generation."
There are now more than 20 universities with student groups promoting chastity on campus, Including Stanford, the University of Virginia and Columbia.
Yet, even on religious campuses, there is pressure to conform to the hook-up culture, suggesting that these schools, in spite of their religious affiliation, are not providing their students with adequate grounding in their faith’s sexual morality and a support system to help them live by it — despite these schools having student groups that promote chastity.
Three young women at the University of Notre Dame, who did not want their last names used, offered their perspectives to the Register. Sheridan thinks that "living chastely on college campuses becomes easier once you realize that ‘doing it because everyone’s doing it’ is no longer a valid excuse." As Clarissa says, "When women demand respect from a man, the men worthy of attention rise to the occasion." Jessica believes that chastity should not just be presented in a negative manner, as a list of prohibitions, as is often the case in our society. "Personally, I see chastity as something illuminating and beautiful, something that informs my entire worldview," she says. "I think we need to start talking about the glorious beauty of chastity more."
Young people’s enthusiasm for chastity is not limited to college campuses. They are also promoting chastity online. In the summer of 2010, Patrick Langrell, director of young-adult outreach for the Archdiocese of New York, launched Love and Responsibility, which sponsors small-discussion groups on the subject of authentic love and relationships and promotes the ideas presented in Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. The organization’s website (LoveandResponsibility.org) has videos of talks on sexuality and marriage preparation, as well as information on activities in the New York area and links to related topics.
The Chastity Project (ChastityProject.com) features young married couple Jason and Crystalina Evert, who have talked about chastity to more than a million people on five continents and authored books, CDs and DVDs. The site has Facebook and Twitter pages.
Also on the site is Sarah Swafford (see related profile in this section), who stresses the importance of what she calls "emotional virtue" in combating the sexual revolution and keeping one’s emotions under control. "It seems as though the world is constantly bombarding and manipulating the emotions and passions of men and women — sometimes without their even realizing it," she told the Register. "What we let invade our hearts and minds can take root and ‘mess with us.’ We have to fight it with virtue."
What is animating so many of these young people is that they clearly see the connection of chastity with the love that we all want, a connection so eloquently expressed by wife, mother and law professor Helen Alvaré in her book Catholic Women Speak for Themselves:
"Women looking for happiness and freedom are searching for ways to live that might genuinely deserve the name ‘loving.’ But we live in a world that has regularly adulterated the meaning of the word: loving as taking care of No. 1; loving as sexual license; loving as doing what is emotionally satisfying; loving as never judging; and loving as avoiding suffering. We are, rather, looking for love that will bring genuine goodness, wholeness, happiness and a spirit of generosity — in a word, love in truth. Love that actually allows us to be the person God meant us to be, and loving that reflects the way we would want to be loved ourselves, the way God loves us."
The work of Alvaré, Regnerus and Eberstadt and the commitment of organizations like the Anscombe Society and the Chastity Project are decisively engaging and attempting to undo the societal damage caused by sexual promiscuity.
And it is affecting the many young people who passionately believe in the connection between sexual morality and human flourishing. For them, chastity is beautiful. They are attractive, articulate, self-confident and joyful.
Chastity is making a comeback.
Marian Crowe writes from
South Bend, Indiana.
She is a retired professor