Words to Scrap: Chastity
Originally published on SexReally.com on November 23, 2009.
I’m about to toss another word into my trash bin. It can rest nicely there alongside “wedlock” (marriage is not necessarily a prison); “lost my virginity,” (have you found it yet?) and “practicing abstinence” (let me know when you’ve got it down).
The word this time is “chaste,” defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “not indulging in unlawful sexual activity.”
I’m okay with chaste’s first cousin, “abstinent.” Being abstinent implies something you choose to do or not do. You decide whether or not to abstain from smoking, drinking, or sex.
The word chaste, however, describes your moral character. As Webster’s says, it implies “moral excellence manifested by forbearance from acts or thoughts that do not accord with virginity or strict marital fidelity.”
In other words, it is a label applied by others, a reputation to uphold in certain circles lest you fall from grace and become a slut (while we’re at it, let’s toss that word also).
This week’s episode of the Fox comedy “Glee” illustrated beautifully the dark side of the words “chaste” and its more common sister, “chastity”. The parents of Quinn, the pretty, blonde president of the Chastity Club at McKinley High School, learned that their daughter was pregnant - and threw her out of their house.
The alleged father of her baby (although, as viewers know, he’s not the real dad) suffered no such abuse from his mom who, in saintly fashion, took Quinn in. No surprise there. Celibacy – the guy version of chastity – is rarely expected of any man unless he wears a cassock and collar.
The word chaste means pure, the word chastity, purity. Does that make women who have sex outside marriage impure? According to model/makeup artist Jessica Hoffman (and others), it does.
Midweek.com, a news website based in Honolulu, ran a profile this week of Hoffman, 28. Hoffman recently started Pure Beauty Ministries, a business that advises 14- to 34-year-olds on fashion and abstinence. What really got to a friend who read the article, then alerted me to it, was the way Hoffman not-too-subtly described sex outside of marriage.
“The word purity means not to be contaminated with anything,” she told the reporter (my italics).
So all sex other than married sex is dirty? What would the 80% to 90% of unmarried 20-somethings who have had sex say to that? Would it change their behavior, make them feel bad, or just annoy them?
The words chaste and chastity bring to mind a several-hundred-year-old chastity belt I saw displayed in the museum of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Academics now debate whether such belts, forged from metal and equipped with teeth and keys, were actually used during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
But as I stood in the palace staring at this contraption I shuddered to think that someone – assuredly a man –even had the idea to clamp a large, spike-laden piece of metal around a woman’s private parts and lock away her “goods” from use by anyone but himself.
And I continue to be puzzled that couples today can and do buy similar devices of torture for sex play. A woman wrote the Ottawa Sun recently, worried about her married sister. She said her sister allowed said husband to lock her up in a chastity belt 24 hours a day. When he wanted to have sex with her, he would unlock it.
“She has no access to the keys, except when he is away,” this woman wrote. “Then he leaves a spare key in a sealed container so that he knows she tampered with it.” Read: her sexuality belongs to him, not her.
So it was as well in the Netherlands during the Renaissance. Hans Memling, an artist of that time, painted an allegory of chastity depicting an ivory-skinned, fully-clothed maiden perched on the top of a mountain, surrounded by a moat and protected by two lions. Her eyes are cast down demurely, her hands crossed in front of her strategic place.
More than 500 years later, women have made their way down that mountain to lie in bed alongside men and enjoy the same sexual freedom that men enjoy. Like men, they sometimes use that freedom wisely, at other times foolishly.
To categorize them - or their male counterparts - as pure or impure teaches them nothing about how to handle the moral complexities they will face in their lives, including their sexual lives.
Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” and “Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence.” She is a consultant to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.