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Angela Tilby: We need to put sex in its proper place

05 October 2018


WE NEED a new word for chastity. There is no current expression for sexual virtue that doesn’t have problematic overtones.

This struck me when I was asked recently to find synonyms for chastity to update a traditional litany of devotion to Jesus. Obvious dictionary suggestions were abstinence and continence, which limit chastity to something “not done”; then there were decency, virginity, and temperance, which sound Victorian; cleanness, and then spotlessness and immaculacy, which highlight the notion of sexual stain and shame; and, finally, honour and innocence, which avoid sex altogether.

How do we speak of Christ as “lover of chastity and purity of virgin souls” without sniggering weakly?

It is important to remember that chastity does not just mean abstinence, although it does include it. Chastity is sexual purity, and sexual purity is something of a blank. We really have no idea what it might mean in our sexually over-driven era, apart from a belief, which Freud would have questioned, in the sexual innocence of childhood.

As it happens, I do remember the sexual innocence of childhood, which included all sorts of covert exploration, repressed giggles, secret kisses, and fumbling comparisons of “parts” under the stairs or in the attic. Nothing that I do not smile about now, although I do remember a couple of scary “invitations” to unspecified “play” from sinister male persons. Today, the notion of purity has moved from sex to food, where the virtuous convince us that the body is in some way morally defiled if we ingest the wrong stuff. Note: even our gut bacteria will turn against us.

When it comes to chastity, perhaps we should think of sexual integrity rather than sexual purity. The point is sex in its proper place. For Christians, the proper place of sex is as part of life, but not the whole of it; as an expression of love rather than a feared or uncontrollable instinct.

Sexual integrity has room for the single person who does not seek intimacy with another person, because either he or she is content not to do so, or is waiting for the right person to be committed to. It also (obviously) includes respectful, loving, and considerate sex within marriage and other committed relationships, and excludes promiscuity and unfaithfulness.

Chastity is, in the end, a form of self-possession: a virtue that seems obvious in the person of Jesus, in his unselfconscious sense of self and his obvious freedom to love “to the end”. Think of St Peter, St Mary Magdalen, the Beloved Disciple, and all the saints and sinners who have been magnetised by his story.

Finding a fresh expression for “chastity” might be part of a whole new vocabulary in which we can discuss sexual virtue — including how it is lost, and how it might be restored.

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