I still recall being fifteen and my best-friend Katie asking me the question, would you would be willing to sleep with someone you weren’t married to?
I hadn’t thought much about the topic. I was more concerned with getting a guy named Steve in my literature class to notice I existed. I decided, because Katie said she wouldn’t, that I wouldn’t either.
Steve finally did notice me. On our first date he kissed me in the snow. For a teenage girl it was like a fairy-tale. Soon, he was my boyfriend. After a month of dating, the topic of sex had yet to emerge. Steve never spoke about sex, but he didn’t need to. After one particular date, he tried to go further physically than I was comfortable with and I stopped him, diplomatically, with my elbows. Three days later I was told by a mutual friend that, because of the elbows, Steve didn’t want to see me any longer. I soon heard through the high school grapevine that he figured out I wouldn’t sleep with him and it was over.
In the 11 years since my Steve experience, a lot of things have changed in my life. I went away to college, moved to New York, started grad school and got a job. But my decision to remain chaste hasn’t changed. I am a 26-year-old woman who has decided to wait until I’m married. While I feel like a bit of an anomaly in our super-sexed culture I also don’t feel at home in the “Chastity Movement” either which seems to encourage people to wear their virginity on their sleeve. I’m not interested in being the poster child for a movement and in my experience there are other people out there who value chastity but don’t fit in either camp. Being a virgin is something I’m neither proud nor ashamed of. My decision has not been without struggles or doubts but I still believe it is the best expression of my deepest self.
At sixteen, staying chaste seemed simple. I was just following the guidelines set down by my parents and CCD teachers. The message was loud and clear. Sex out of marriage is bad. It can hurt you physically and spiritually. You’ll be mired in mortal sin until you confess and amend your life. But once you’re married have a lot of sex, enjoy it, and all will be well (Of course, offering teenagers such a simplistic explanation for an issue as complex as sex was neither helpful nor realistic but
A measure of Catholic guilt found its way into most dating experiences I’ve had since I was a teenager. While in college, I was certain I wanted to marry my boyfriend of two years. A heavy make-out session would be followed by the inevitable “How far is too far?” conversation. Boundaries would be set and we would backpedal physically. Eventually, though, we would tumble more furiously forward in our physicality.
In high school and college, it was easy to tell a guy I was committed to remaining a virgin until I was married. Most guys found my stance endearing. Although the physical boundaries in my relationships were constantly being re-defined, staying chaste remained a pretty easy task.
My post-college experience has been verydifferent.
The first guy I dated after moving to New York was a medical student by the name of Alex who was older and more experienced than I was. Early in our relationship I was very honest and told him I wouldn’t sleep with him. He seemed happy I was a virgin and admitted he liked my morals and agreed to my stance on abstaining from sex. Soon, though, Alex began to drop little hints. Why was I a baby? What was I afraid of? Was I really a virgin? According to him, I didn’t kiss or seem like a virgin. We soon broke up.
The experience with Alex and several other men I have dated since college, some of whom gave me strange looks and soon broke up with me when my “secret” came out, others who thought of my virginity as a potential conquest and still others who accused me of lying, caused me to rethink my commitment to chastity. Fear of breaking the “rules” worked when I was younger but as an adult they no longer seemed sufficient. When I heard about a talk entitled “Catholic Sex and the City” put on by a local Catholic group at a nearby bar, I immediately made a date with a girlfriend who was having similar struggles.
The talk was billed as an open, down-to-earth discussion about sex and faith, including the challenge of chastity. I was ready for some real help with the difficulties I was having as a normal, single young woman who just happened to be Catholic and was trying to stay chaste. Instead, for forty-five minutes we endured a presentation informing us that we shouldn’t have sex because of STD’s, pregnancy, and mortal sin. A bar full of twenty and thirty-somethings had been given a talk meant for high school students. More rules and piety were imparted but nothing practical and, for me, nothing helpful. Essentially the speaker was preaching to the choir, encouraging us to go out and boldly proclaim our virginity, while those of us who were seeking deeper, more meaningful guidance were left frustrated.
Instead of getting advice on how to realistically deal with the doubts, loneliness and societal pressures I was feeling I was offered a reheated pep talk designed for teenagers. I wanted a better understanding of how to handle the sacrifices and frustrations I was encountering because of my decision to stay chaste. I especially needed realistic help reconciling chastity with the natural progression of physical intimacy as a dating relationship develops.
Yet despite the pressure, the embarrassment and the pain of lost relationships, not to mention the simple physical struggles, I have come to a deepened resolve to remain chaste. In thinking about it and talking to several girlfriends who have made similar commitments, I now recognize that there are layers to the practice of chastity. The practical reasons for remaining chaste still resonate, but it is no longer simply about obedience. My decision isn’t fueled by self-righteousness, an obsession with self denial, a fear of intimacy or even a romanticized understanding of the importance of sex. Chastity is only a part of being faithful to who I am and hope to become. I want to be a human being that affirms, respects, and loves all people. Sexual intimacy is the most sacred expression of my deepest self–my thoughts and ideas, emotions and actions, and my very heart and soul. It is something I hope to share with only one person in a lifetime commitment. Until that time comes, I will continue the struggle, and keep my elbows at the ready.