a lecture given to the Augustine Club
Tuesday, October 12, 1993
by Dennis Helming
©1993 Dennis M. Helming
I wonder when the last time was that someone talked here about chastity. Ever? Well, if the improbable and near-impossible subject of chastity must be raised on the eve of the year 2000, I can think of no better auspices than those of the Augustine Club. As you know, the young man from north Africa was no stranger to lust, mistresses and illegitimate children. Yet Augustine, even as he felt his pagan lifestyle slipping away, still tried to keep God at arm's length with his famous: "O Lord, grant me chastity-but not quite yet." No wonder it has been aptly dubbed "The Undergraduates' Prayer."
A physician friend of mine was also made aware of the dangers of raising the issue of chastity. One day a leather-clad aspirant to the Hell's Angel motorcycle clan burst into his office and proclaimed to the whole waiting room, "Where's the doc? I think I've got the clap!" He was quickly ushered into one of those tiny rooms and immediately seen by Dr. Delaney. "Yes," affirmed the physician, "you have not only gonorrhea, but three other venereal diseases as well. Have you ever tried chastity?" "Doc, I'm desperate; can you write me out a prescription for that?" When the motorcyclist was told why chastity was not available at the local drugstore, the doctor nearly ended up in the hospital himself
So, with this particular topic and at this particular place, I'm foolishly about to step, quite literally and figuratively, into the lion's den. However, to spare us both some uncertainty and uneasiness, let me first say that the pro-chastity case I wish to lay before you makes no appeal to religion or other arguments of authority. Neither will I try to scare you with a catalog of venereal diseases and other dysfunctions that might very well invade your once private parts as a result of promiscuous couplings. Rather, my whole case appeals to very enlightened self-interest, personal to be sure, but ultimately that of the species also. Stated negatively and very simply it is this: we can't be happy, unless we freely and lovingly give ourselves to others. Nor can we love others, unless we come to own ourselves, which spells the need for chastity, among other self-liberating virtues. But the benefits aren't only personal. When men, the prime sexual predators, finally turn themselves inside out and thus become capable of loving disinterestedly, a truce will be called in the current and worsening war between the sexes. For then the fully alive Man women have only dared secretly to dream about will be on their very doorstep....
Let's face it: chastity comes across as a strictly negative thing. Those who would program us to "just say No" are partly to blame; even worse are their confreres who, especially in the past, exaggerate the ills and guilts of unchastity. The rest of the blame can be apportioned among those who equate pleasure with happiness, lust with love, humanity with animality. Many of the latter seemingly want to be overpowered, to forfeit their freedom and, above all, their responsibility. Indeed those who don't ever get beyond instinctive lust are truly sex-driven.
What is patently dishonest is for those who welcome sexual stimuli and thus go about in a state of semi-arousal to claim that chastity is a foregone impossibility. How would they, of all people, know? The "need" to engage in sex is a fabrication on the part of those who, admittedly, can't say No to our greatest sensual pleasure, because they choose not to say No to its more resistible preliminaries and to lesser gratifications. As even Freud himself said, sexual indulgence is the primary addiction; all other dependencies, on such as booze, drugs and tobacco, are but derivatives. Am I saying alcoholics shouldn't hang out in bars? Not if they want to dry out and stay that way. The whole problem with undomesticated, knee-jerk sex is that it contributes to a web of selfishness that, if not undone, locks us in our egocage, perhaps permanently, not to mention all the harm inflicted on others. Let me read two letters that originally appeared in Ann Landers' column. They're very reveallng that all's not well in Playboyville. First from a young man, who tells about his first time:
I was 16 and the girl was 15. 1 really didn't like her much but I wanted to see if I could score. I was the only guy in my crowd who didn't have anything to his credit and they used to tease me about it.
It was a crummy thing I did. I lied and told the girl I had been crazy about her for a long time---a real snow job. The whole thing lasted five minutes. When I took her home I didn't even kiss her good night.
I never called her for a date after that and I'm sure I hurt her feelings. I used that girl for my own selfish purposes and to this day I'm ashamed of myself
Sex without love is lousy. I hope every guy who reads this will remember what I'm saying. I wish I had learned it earlier.
Now the girl's perspective:
I am 16 and a junior in a well-known private girls school in Washington, D.C. Like nearly all the other students here I have already lost my virginity. Although most people consider this subject a very personal one, I feel the need to share this part of my life with girls who are trying to decide whether to have sex for the first time. In all the years I've been reading your column, I have never seen the honest-to-goodness truth about this subject and I think it's time somebody spoke out.
Take my word for it, girls, sex does not live up to the glowing reports and hype you see in the movies. It's no big deal. In fact, it's pretty darned disappointing. I would have waited at least until I got to college had I known what it was going to be like.
I truly regret that my first time was with a guy I didn't care that much about. I am still going out with him, which is getting to be a problem. I'd like to end this relationship and date others guys, but after being so intimate, it's awfully tough.
Since that first night, he expects sex on every date, like we are married or something. Our whole relationship seems to revolve around going to bed. When I don't feel like it we end up in an argument. It's like I owe it to him. I don't think this guy is in love with me-at least he's never said so [amazing deductive powers]. I know deep down that I am not in love with him either and this makes me feel sort of cheap.
I realize now that the first time is a very big step in a girl's life. After you've done it, things are never the same. It changes everything.
My advice is, don't be in such a rush. It's a headache and a worry. (Could I be pregnant?) Sex is not for entertainment. It should be a commitment. Be smart and save yourself for someone you wouldn't mind spending the rest of your life with.
Now for a bit of analysis: Chastity comes much harder to men than to women. It's no secret that the undisciplined male sex drive is monotonously predictable and frivolous. For men from 13 to 93 years of age, nothing ever seems to change, except perhaps the specific source of gratifying friction. Man's arousal is so physical, indiscriminate, effortless, supersonic and imperious. As a male colleague of mine recently wrote in an access of refreshing candor: "I've never yet met a woman I didn't want to bed down." The outcome, furthermore, is invested with about as much drama and suspense as the other functions of our human plumbing. For men, release from sexual tension comes across as psychologically peripheral, largely phenomenal: no big deal. Left to their wanton ways, most men find sex one big, obsessive game with few or no ulterior motives or meanings.
If women before weren't so familiar with these male facts of life, the sexual revolution spawned in the '60s has generated plenty of damning evidence. "Whatever men say or do," bemoan today many chastened (if not chaste) women, "they have only one thing on their mind, such as it is. They're such animals, completely incapable of genuine relationships, of lasting commitments." The result? Women are fast giving up on men and marriage. Instead they're betaking their sexploited wounds to the comfort of the feminist sisterhood. There some become lesbians, while others try to content themselves with vibrators and trillions of Harlequin romances, stealthily and pantingly devoured behind plain, brown-paper wrappers. Welcome to the gender wars.
Are these disenchanted women overreacting? Perhaps a tad, but beneath the surface lies a valid complaint. Ironically enough, it took the recent female abolition of the double standard regarding sexual freedom to reveal men's native hominess. Till then there'd been a bit of hypocrisy on both sides of the bed. For millennia, as popular wisdom has it, men by and large have put up with romance in order to get sex, while their counterparts have put up with sex in order to get romance. Now it doesn't take a Ph.D. in psychology to foresee what would happen if the romancing prerequisite were to diminish or even disappear. Wouldn't the result resemble an addicted sweettooth turned loose in a candy store?
Women read the double standard, not as a tactical device to elevate and domesticate the naked nomad that is man, but rather as an oppressive hindrance to their own experimentation and kicks. Then the next logical step for these newly liberated women was to jettison any remaining inhibitions and try to ape male recreational sex. Well, we've had a generation or two of free-and-easy sex, of the "just do it" school. We were told something we implicitly and eagerly obeyed, namely that if we just brought sex into the open, everything would be AI OK. So, up with openness, sex ed, freedom, instinct, naturalness, the undraped body beautiful. And down with taboos, fears, repression, guilt, dirtiness, authority, kids. Men gladly heard that sex is but a game, with unlimited players-and free to boot. Initially at least, women as gladly heard they could follow men down into the sweaty trenches dedicated to Venus, their patron saint. All millenarian prohibitions and injunctions were soon swept into one all-encompassing precept: that of technique-perfect simultaneous orgasm. But has the vaunted sexual revolution brought us any nearer to the second and definitive coming?
It didn't take women long to realize that, while they can actually find intercourse more pleasurable than men, in effect they've fallen for a monumental ruse-something men had only dared entertain in their wettest of dreams. Female accommodation of casual sex makes men, if anything, less and less fit for love, romance, marriage. So, sooner or later, with a literally withering laugh at his size and endurance, sexually superior women are today kicking the bums out into the dark night of impotence, if not brothels and bathhouses.
Is therefore the social scene to split into two unbridgeable, forlorn whimpers? If things continue the way they are, that's very likely. But need they? Can't men and women, especially we men, somehow shift out of reverse and thus dislodge our insatiable groins from our fevered brains? The problem is less one of stimuli and testosterone than of muddled minds and unreinforced wills. We were sold a no-fault view of sex within a more or less deterministic scenario of human nature. The whole fraud becomes more plausible when viewed historically.
As religion waned in the 19th century, so too did fire and brimstone as reasons to brake the fierce sexual drive. Rigid social conventions and nascent science were both then pressed into service by our prissy, neurotic Victorian forbears to provide a new set of threats to unbridled sexual indulgence. Need we mention those outsized aluminum mittens some pubescent girls wore to bed to forestall self-fondling? "Stunting your growth" was another of the many cooked-up physical and psychological harms sure to befall the unrepentant masturbator and fornicator. But when many such practitioners outgrew their parents and more abstemious peers, pseudoscience took a well-deserved nose-dive. Or better said: "real" science in a swing of the pendulum was then conscripted to defend the utter harmlessness of doing what comes so naturally. Where was the physical harm? After all, how could human doings be either good or bad, when our behavioral tunes are called by gene or circumstance or both? Down with all value judgments. Orgasm is about as consequential as the sneeze it resembles.
It was almost as if the moral guardians of the 20th century surrendered to the injunction: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" White-haired grandmothers, such as Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Dr. Mary Calderone, soon took to the roads and airwaves to spread the new, condescending, maybe even demagogic message: "That's all right, Sonny (or Missy), you can't help it; so just keep on playing with yourself with no harm done. Ah, and here's a nice cherry-flavored condom to extend that impunity to both intercourse and even safer outercourse" (the newest ploy of our pandering sexperts). In their well-intended but misguided efforts to rid humanity of psychologically crippling sexual guilt, liberationists incited us to stunt, not now our physical, but our moral and spiritual growth. Isn't that, after all, what the feminists and other disillusioned women are beefing about today? For whatever causes, we men are deemed to be such moral midgets, ethical eunuchs and perpetual adolescents that we're incapable of transcending our sexual kicks.
What courses are open to us? George Gilder, the author of Sexual Suicide, wants to turn the clock back to the day when understanding but wary women imposed some sexual restraint on men by largely limiting their sexual favors to marriage and its procreative aftermath. But making of necessity a virtue is no real solution. Making men wait till marriage or thereabouts does not make them less lustful, once the knot is tied. Even the most conscientious and virtuous of husbands find it very difficult not to treat their wives as sexual objects. It was men's lack of interior self-dominion--debunked moreover as an impossible ideal--that largely spurred the feminist revolt of the '60s and beyond.
Well, the '90s are calling for another revolt, but this time in the opposite direction. So, all you rebels and repentant studs out there, how about for once pushing for internalized, genuine male chastity for all the right reasons? All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, we men just might be able to harness our sex drive or, when not, at least to acknowledge the harm we do others no less than ourselves. Have we so soon forgotten the social, cultural and personal rewards from sublimating Eros promised us by even Freud?
Yet chastity can't stand alone, not even when cultivated in the larger garden of, say, the four classical cardinal virtues. Acquiring good moral habits for the sake of smug self-perfection, as the ancient Greeks and Romans implodingly discovered too late, neither lasts nor fulfills. And good riddance! That's why our friend Augustine called the ancients' virtues "splendid vices." "Know thyself' should disclose how little we shortsighted hedonists own ourselves and how much we gyp ourselves. Yet efforts to reclaim ourselves out of enlightened self-interest only make ultimate sense when we also take the paradoxical step to "give thyself." If you haven't yet experientially discovered this fundamental law governing the human condition, you don't know what you're missing. Here's another formulation of the superenlightened self-interest that eluded the likes of Socrates and Seneca, Aristotle and Cicero: "Generosity fulfills and selfishness backfires." Still another: "You're never happier than when making others happy."
Love, you see, is freely giving oneself Lots of it does make the world go round. Without it people and institutions can't help but misfire and capsize. Were there more of the genuine article today, especially on the part of men, would there be so many angry, frustrated women, not to mention millions of love-starved children? But centripetal lustful pleasure masquerading as love, even within marital bounds, is an unstable, contradictory thing. Such ersatz love is no longer free but conditioned and necessary; neither is it so much giving as getting and using. The only thing it can father is mutual masturbation.
What we can't seem to get straight is that true love is the absolutely hardest challenge facing us. Love's no overpowering feeling or state; it can't be flicked on or off, nor is it triggered by circumstances outside our control. At best a temporary set of emotions-falling (being) in love-may sometimes overtake us and lead to acting as if we were truly loving. But might not the purpose of this emotion, so long as it lasts, be to teach us how the genuine love of self-forgetfulness and self-transcendence is to express itself? Otherwise how would we know and aspire to the deliverance of bliss? Genuine other-love (disinterested attention to others' best welfare) takes time and reflection, training and self-mastery.
Thanks to this truth therapy, I emancipate myself from a host of prerational attractions and semivoluntary aversions. Only then am I able to love: to give of myself to others with no strings attached. We can't give what we don't have. When people aren't already striving to be reasonable and freely autonomous, there's no way they can acquit themselves in the thick of a superficially undertaken marital commitment or approximations thereto. They're simply unprepared for its challenges and demands; they can't help but default. We have to master the alphabet before we can aspire to write, let alone to become writers. We must be on the way and cornmitted to becoming fully human and consistently true to ourselves before trying to acquit ourselves at the love game. And a big part of that, though not the chief or most pervasive share, is sexual self-dominion or chastity. How else will we ever transcend instinct in order really to make love, not just sex and not just in bed?
Now, you're probably thinking: "But doesn't nature do us a dirty trick by ushering in puberty ten, 15, even 20 years before it becomes feasible to get married today? Isn't that too long to be just saying No? Most people by then have long since thrown in the towel." But, I respond, you can as easily turn the argument around. Isn't it advantageous to have a longer apprenticeship in virtue, love and chastity, given the heightened seriousness and demands of marriage today? See adolescence and beyond as at least a trial-and-error period when one ought to be leanung how to live, especially from one's own and others' moral mistakes. Since our failings are largely due to weakness, at the very least we should be learning which circumstances prey upon our weakness and consequently should be avoided. The truth is we most often get ambushed into lust, especially at the start.
The adolescent danger is to fall into defeatism before beginning to fight-or even before finding out that any struggle is called for. Puberty comes with a bang and with it the possibility of breathtaking and ecstasy-promising orgasm. A virtueless, weak youngster has few reasons and resources to avoid masturbation (or less solitary variants). A habit of stimuli welcomed and of consequent arousal-cum-masturbation can easily become, for boys at least, a daily affair, if not more frequent. But as Aristotle somewhere claims, misbehavior born of weakness (as opposed to supposed entitlement) is not so serious; it can be remedied, certainly repudiated. Actually, given the intensity of the pleasure and the seeming omnipresence of stimuli, masturbation may be the least serious of our failings. Here's the only final, fatal one: Dismissing the negative mental and emotional evidence born of such selfish indulgences as masturbation, while still clutching to self-centeredness. Behold the Big Lie that spells quicksand inescapable.
So, don't reject out of hand the prospect of cultivating virtuous self-acquaintance and self-ownership and thereby becoming capable of love. That's the way we're made; nothing else will really work. In the process we may come to appreciate and respect our bodily constitution, whereby pleasure is seen as enticement or reward for discharging certain biological and even superior functions. Sure, there will be lots of fits and starts, hits and misses, but again let's learn from both. Experience, after all, may be the best teacher, provided we're good students. Do we really have any other alternative but to cultivate the garden that's come our way with human nature? And if there's no chastity before marriage (or at least the desire and struggle to be continent), there certainly won't be any chastity, love, disinterestedness afterwards. What will abound is a soon-spent veneer of other-love and a lasting hard-core of self-love. [Now it makes things easier if we see God as the author of our nature and if we come to know something about our author. But to get started in this business of ratifying our nature, such knowledge is not necessary. It will come.]
By now it should be clear that the speaker is not some sort of latter-day Victorian or Puritan or whatnot. Repression, prudery, sexual aversion, any and all those cockeyed view that brand sex as something vile have in me no greater foe. Neither surrendering to the instinct nor fearfully fleeing from it works, because neither accords with the way we're built-something you'll discover if you really comb through your experiences. We can't just let sex be; we must do something with it, even within marriage. The only option is to humanize it, endowing it with freely chosen and less centripetal purposes that make both parties grow (rather than shrink). This can either be in a good marriage or equally dedicated single life where the drive is harnessed to more expansive self-giving.
The quickest way to ensure that pleasure eludes you is to pursue it directly, hoardingly. Why? Because pleasure is governed by the law of diminishing returns. On the other hand, the best way to see pleasure grow and last is to go beyond it in furtherance of real love. Thus, married couples who don't stop at their respective orgasms can continue to enjoy them well into their nineties.
Before I offer you some personal tips on how to get and stay chaste, just a word about how growing male chastity (and a bit more female) would affect the ongoing gender wars. As said earlier, women dream about romance; men, about occasions to maximize sexual bangs. Thus, what makes women salivate is the prospect of finding a dashing knight on a white stallion who overcomes all adversities and social conventions to rescue them from their unappreciated and humdrum existence to whisk them to his pinnacled castle, there to worship and ravish them. While that's a tall order, men committed to chastity and never-ending courtship and wooing will attract droves of nubile beauties, who in turn will gratefully overlook and help to supply whatever's missing in their Prince Charming.
Webster's Dictionary says that chastity implies "refraining from all acts, thoughts and so on that are not virginal or in keeping with one's marriage vows." Put positively, chastity entails a lifelong struggle to reserve sex only to expressing love for one's spouse and any future children. The acquired ability to shout Yes to what really matters and fulfills presupposes a myriad of whispered No's to exaggerated pleasures, fears and "needs." We need to acquire the ability to say No to Coke before we can hope to say No to Chivas Regal. Male chastity looks to skirting unmistakably physical arousal during waking hours, except as a freely willed incarnation of marital love. On the other hand, female chastity, except where a fixation on orgasm has taken root, is usually a more interior, diffuse thing: avoiding near-irresistible romantic day-dreaming and scheming, triggered by such things as rivalries with other women, fashion photography, soap operas, heart-throb novels, primping and the like. I don't know whether I'll ever end up on the David Letterman Show (which seems to favor list-making guests), but in a just-finished manuscript I include a section entitled: "50 Ways to Be Chaste (Though 10 Might Be Enough)." Here's a sampling:
Those are 13 ways to keep sexual passion at bay. They and any others are tactics, means, that only make sense when one's sold on the goal of limiting sex to marital expressions of other-love. You can scoff at them if you like, but if you're to convert the sow's ear of the sexual instinct into the silk purse of genuine love, you must do something. You cannot remain supine. See chastity as the best insurance policy against the siren songs and seductive scents of bogus blisses. Sexual selfmastery resembles nothing so much as the regimen and training that lift raw athletic talent to the level of expertise and artistry. The secret is to filter out sexual stimuli, lest our despotic drive be incited, precluding the ability to act humanly, reasonably and freely. When, however, that's not done, I would almost have to agree with those who claim they'd go crazy without sex (though they'll probably go no less crazy with just sex). But one can, with adroitness and wariness, sidestep or put out the sparks one by one. It also helps, immeasurably, to be oriented toward higher, more selfless goals whose rewards are already being savored.
Speaking of which .... There's one last thing to be
said about sex-maybe the most crucial. The euphoric bliss that
accompanies sexual climax, whether the marriage-sanctioned kind or
not, does indeed promise more than it can deliver and proves much too
fleeting for our taste. But without that overpowering experience, how
would our appetite ever be whetted for bigger, better, lasting
ecstasies for which we're so obviously made? And doesn't that
seemingly insatiable appetite point to the probable existence of
something or someone that could very well bring about ecstasy
unending? So, don't knock sex as a tease that deceives; stop idolizing
sex as if it were something divine. Sex can never be the end-all and
be-all of human existence. Neither here can you squeeze blood from a
turnip. Rather, see sex as a foretaste, an aperitif. It's doing all it
can in pointing beyond itself to bliss unbounded and ineffable. Yes,
let's passionately seek the eternal buzz, utter mindblowing joy. The
only human tragedy would be to seek it where it can't possibly be
found. Thank you.
19 hrs 5030 words
19 hrs 5030 words
©1993 Dennis M. Helming
Also of interest:
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