The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On
by Dawn Eden
W Publishing Group, 224 pages, $13.99
This book, Dawn Eden's first, will never be mistaken for chamomile tea and melba toast. The Thrill of the Chaste offers lessons in love and chastity, written for “marriage-minded single women who'd had enough of the Sex and the City lifestyle.” A rock historian turned news editor and writer for the New York Daily News, Eden fuses candid autobiographical content with a Christian ethos to chronicle her conversion-a conversion of faith, yes, but also one of ethics: a change of heart when it comes to sex and relationships. With great openness, sincerity, and wit, Eden writes of her experiences with premarital sex and her emergence from its darkness into the light of chaste living in her thirties. By doing so, she hopes to galvanize a movement where women reclaim the freedom and graces of womanhood. “Today, as the fruits of the sexual revolution prove to be loneliness, divorce, and disease, chastity's not only back-it's the new revolution. So out, it's in.”
In the Confessions, St. Augustine reflects on his liaisons: “What was it that delighted me? Only loving and being loved. But there was no proper restraint.” In modern secular societies, chastity is viewed as old-fashioned restraint, an injunction against our bodies, a denial of our sexuality. Rarely outside religious circles is the upside embraced or even entertained. Sexual intercourse is an intimate act of self-giving, but more sex does not translate into more love. Eden recalls, “All the sex I had ever had-in and out of relationships-never brought me any closer to marriage, or to being able even to sustain a committed relationship.” Her “chastity kick” is motivated by the natural desire to marry and make a total, pure gift of herself to her spouse.
Or, as John Paul II noted in Love
and Responsibility, “The connection between chastity and love results from the personalistic norm,” which “has a dual content: a positive content (?thou shalt love!') and a negative content (?thou shalt not use!').”
The problem with casual sex-with premarital sex, for that matter-is objectification of both persons, Eden claims. She acknowledges the loneliness and longing women feel when they are not in romantic relationships, but she also sees the shame and “disconnected feeling” that results from such trysts. She forcefully rejects the myth behind “no-strings sex,” because, for women, sex always culminates in an attachment-“the act had bonded me.” But this sex is addictive and selfish; it left her empty and “bereft.” It's a depressing story. And that's the whole point-there must be something more to believe in, worth pursuing, something better than and entirely different in character from the what-about-me sex we see all around us. “That's why chaste sexual love . . . is ecstatic sexual love, in the original meaning of ecstasy: being ?transported outside oneself,'” as George Weigel once wrote.
This countercultural message inspires women to trust in how God made them when they are otherwise pressured by society and organizations like Planned Parenthood (which she singles out for blame) to trade in their virginity and integrity for the so-called freedom and protection of contraception. If the pleasure principle does not lead to happiness, what about the tomorrow principle? “The tomorrow principle requires that vision, to be able to see how chastity will help me become the strong, sensitive, confident woman I so long to be.”
Eden is attempting to practice chastity, but the reality is that she is looking at a “lifelong discipline,” something that doesn't ?happen all at once. She is tempted to spend the night with an attractive male acquaintance but something stops her. It is in part her faith and newfound free will, but she also does something striking. She visualizes herself the morning after-that sad image of herself-and then thinks further ahead, realizing that she doesn't want this to be her story when she does fall in love. “It gives me hope to realize that one day, when I am married to the man I love, hindsight will be my friend.”
Particularly insightful is the connection Eden draws between her struggles with food and sexual temptation. These physical hungers point to deeper spiritual hunger. Acknowledging our own vulnerability is essential in a feminist culture of self-sufficiency precisely because this opens us up to praying to God with our struggles; living a single or married life of self-control and self-sacrifice cannot be done in our own strength. Eden encourages readers to develop through prayer and service “inner qualities-like empathy, patience, humility, and faith in spite of hardship.” She devotes an entire chapter to promoting ways to meet like-minded people. Her stories of people she has encountered in becoming chaste are deeply moving. This is not a lesson in postmodern self-actualization and finding oneself. It is about finding the treasure of self in God's eyes and uncovering joy in a chastity that, as the Catechism insists, “lets us love with upright and undivided heart.”
What is perhaps most interesting about The Thrill of the Chaste is that it is narrated from the perspective of a modern woman, a journalist living in the Internet age. Some of this territory has been visited before: by Wendy Shalit, for example, in A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue and by Lauren Winner in Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Readers should be aware that Eden draws on some graphic content from past relationships to make her points about chastity, but she is to be commended for reigniting the promise of love in chastity and for its honesty.
Erin M. Palazzolo is an exhibiting artist in New York. She also blogs for ModestyZone.net and odestlyYours.com.