The temptation to have sex before marriage is as old as marriage itself. More than 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine, grappling with his desires, cried out to God, “Give me chastity . . . but not yet!”
What is chastity? The word is often used to mean simply abstaining from sex, as if it were equivalent to celibacy. So it may be strange to learn that, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life.” If that meant total abstinence, how would there be any new Catholics? (After all, cloning is out of the question.)
The Church’s stance makes sense only if one knows what chastity really is. A clue is in the rest of that sentence from the Catechism: “All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life.” By “states of life,” the Church means that there is unmarried chastity, and there is married chastity.
Part of chastity entails the proper ordering of sexual pleasure — which means engaging in it only within marriage. But more than that, it is really a way to look at all of one’s relationships so that they no longer become mere exchanges of commodities. It means experiencing others’ presence — not just what they do, but their existence itself — as a gift. A spouse is a particularly special reminder of that most perfect gift of self made by Jesus Christ.
While sex can bring pleasure, the jury is still out on whether it can bring joy. Despite all the efforts of popular culture to promote sexual “liberation” as a route to personal fulfillment, many people remain deeply unsatisfied by relationships that offer sex without lifelong love and commitment.
The Catholic Church believes that true joy comes from God. In that light, the only way a sexual relationship can bring such joy is if it is undertaken by a man and woman who have brought God into it through the sacrament of marriage.
In sacramental marriage, spouses’ commitment of unending love for one another emulates God’s unending love for them. As a result, their temporal feelings of sexual gratification are transformed — gaining a deep and fulfilling sense of spiritual permanence.
Beyond marital happiness, there are countless reasons why chastity is worth pursuing in the here and now. Here are ten and a half of them.
10. Find Joy in Unexpected Places
We live in a culture of entitlement. Movies, TV shows, and magazines exhort us to get the love that we “deserve.”
But love defies the culture’s rules. It is not something one can “get” in the sense of taking it for selfish reasons. When love is treated as an object to be consumed, it vanishes. “If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned” (Song 8:7).
Becoming chaste requires a conscious decision to change perspective. Relationships can no longer be viewed through the lens of entitlement: You accept the fact that love is too precious to be a thing “deserved.”
That decision, known and made by all the saints, is essential to happiness in this life and the next. It is only after taking the focus off love, acquired or absent, that it is possible to see life’s blessings as the gifts they are.
With this new vision, true love means being loved for who you are, not what you do. Likewise, there is a desire to share that same kind of unconditional love with others — not only a spouse, but also anyone else — because giving love is the only way to truly live.
After making the decision to be chaste, the effects of this change of perspective become immediately apparent. By taking the focus off yourself and what you might be lacking, you become more sensitive to others’ needs. Joy is discovered in having the ability, with surprisingly little effort, to bring light into the lives of others.
Instead of attending social events only to be disappointed because there are no attractive or available singles to meet there, you go with the intention of looking beyond appearances and making new friends. People will be drawn to you because they will sense that you see and care about them as they are — not as you would like them to be
9. Experience True Freedom
The sexual revolutionaries of the 1960s and their ideological children tout the supposed joys of sexual “freedom.” But how does the freedom to use or be used, to separate emotions from sex and sex from commitment, make one truly free?
As Americans, we have an inherent understanding of the necessary link between boundaries and freedom. Our Constitution, which guarantees our freedom, is valid precisely because we agree to abide by it and by the system of law and justice that upholds it. At its root is the recognition of the dignity of the human person — the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In the same way, true sexual freedom can exist only when the dignity of the human person is recognized. That is impossible in an environment that upholds works like Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, inviting people to reduce their self-image to their anatomy. Likewise, there is no dignity in a society that encourages touching another person’s body but not allowing that person to touch your heart.
The Church’s teachings on chastity enable us to discover, understand, and live out our liberty in Christ. G. K. Chesterton wrote nearly a century ago in Orthodoxy: “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. . . . We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased.”
8. Fornication Is a Mortal Sin
If there’s a Heaven worth getting to, then it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Jesus said that sex outside of marriage separates us from Him.
The Catechism defines sin in two categories, venial and mortal, according to their gravity, particularly how they affect charity — that is, one’s ability to love God and thereby truly love others. “Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it,” but “mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him” (1854-55).
“Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself,” the Catechism adds. “It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.”
The Catechism specifically mentions fornication — sex outside of marriage — as a sin, and the Church has traditionally taught that it is a mortal sin. This teaching can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus said, “I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 9:28). If lustful looks are adulterous, how much worse is lustful physical contact?
St. Paul tells us that “fornicators” and other “unrighteous” “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10). Willful sin of any kind, including fornication, deprives one of heaven.
A friend of mine offers another sobering thought: If you have sex outside of marriage, what you’re really saying to your sex partner is, “I wish you hell.”
7. Annoy Relatives
Are parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles trying to fix you up? No more do you have to explain why you really don’t want to take a chance on their nominee for Mr. or Miss Right. Just tell them you’re chaste and you refuse to go out with anyone who believes in having sex before marriage. (However, if they respond that the person they have in mind is chaste too, you’re busted.)
6. Be the Kind of Person You Would Want to Marry
Before deciding to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want that person to have a solid character. That includes possessing faith, integrity, trustworthiness, and self-control.
The fact is, like attracts like. A person with a rock-solid character is going to be attracted to someone who possesses those same qualities.
There is even a scientific study that suggests that chastity makes one more attractive. Psychologist Dr. Lucia F. O’Sullivan showed 110 male and 146 female unmarried heterosexual college undergrads photos of college students and gave them what she said was information about the students’ sexual history. The undergrads were then asked to rate the attractiveness of the students in the photos.
“Both men and women depicted as having had sexual relations in casual, non-committed relationships were judged least favorably overall,” writes Dr. Sullivan. “In contrast, men and women described as having sexual experience in committed relationships received the most favorable ratings, especially those described as having had few sexual partners.”
5. No Foams, No Jellies, No Pills, No Shots, No Sponges, No Latex, No HIV, No STDs, No ‘Honey, It’s Just a Cold Sore’
4. Build True Intimacy, Not Forced or Premature Intimacy
Before taking marriage vows, the best way to practice for married love is by not having sex. That’s because most of marriage is not having sex. It’s a lesson that many couples learn too late.
Studies show that the top three reasons why couples divorce are communication problems, unhappiness, and incompatibility (see “Perceived Causes of Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, February 1985). These problems often arise because couples have not learned, before their marriage, to communicate effectively and to make sacrifices for the good of the other. A major reason for this is often that they have skipped steps to intimacy, using sex to create a false bond while failing to make necessary efforts to deepen their relationship.
Part of the pseudo-intimacy that sex can bring is caused by body chemistry. Numerous scientific studies, some of which are cited in Dr. Miriam Grossman’s Unprotected, have shown that the hormone oxytocin, which is released during sexual arousal, facilitates or fabricates a feeling of bonding, particularly in women.
Moreover, the nature of sex itself — being a complete physical self-giving — puts pressure on relationships where emotional intimacy has not been fully and deeply established.
For those who attempt to use sex as a shortcut to intimacy, the results are often painful. A study in the Journal of Sex Research found that college students in committed dating relationships often consented to unwanted sexual activity out of the belief that it was necessary for intimacy:
Approximately one quarter of the men and one half of the women who participated in this study reported consenting to unwanted sexual activity during a two-week period. This finding indicates that these experiences were not uncommon for our sample. . . . Participants typically reported consenting to unwanted sexual activity to satisfy a partner’s needs, to promote relationship intimacy, and to avoid relationship tension. Diminished intimacy and/or relationship discord may be a consequence of violating such an implicit contract.
So, popular culture’s ideal of sexual freedom, in practice, means making yourself available so that someone can emotionally pressure you into sex. Some freedom! As for whether such forced intimacy is likely to lead to a lasting marriage, see Reason No. 2.
3. Deepen Your Relationship with God
Different stages of life bring different priorities. “He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord — how he may please the Lord,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthians. “But he who is married cares about the things of the world — how he may please his wife.”
Likewise, Paul writes, “The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world — how she may please her husband” (1 Cor 7:32-34).
The time that God gives for the single life is precious — and not merely because you have more freedom to do what you want to do when you want to do it. As I wrote in The Thrill of the Chaste, it’s precious because it provides a unique opportunity to bring all your spiritual graces into full flower — and to do so in ways that will bear fruit for the rest of your life.
To be open to those spiritual graces, it helps to get prayered up: Pick up a new devotion from the veritable jewel box of prayers and spiritual aids approved by the Church — like the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (a great inspiration for maintaining chastity). Go to Mass on a weekday and stay afterward for the rosary. Read the great spiritual writers of the Church — like St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Beyond prayer, giving your time to help others can make this period of life spiritually fruitful. Participate in parish volunteer days or join Catholic groups devoted to helping others. Open your eyes and ears; someone you know has an illness, is recovering from an addiction, or has suffered a recent tragedy.
It costs no money and often takes very little time to share God’s love with someone in need, yet the rewards are incalculable. In years to come, you may be very thankful that, when you were unmarried and in good health, you used your time to learn holiness.
2. Dramatically Increase Your Odds of Having a Lasting Marriage
Numerous studies suggest that if a couple has had sex before marriage, the pair is far more likely to get divorced. The divorce rate for couples who live together before marriage is nearly twice that of couples who do not cohabitate (see “The changing character of stepfamilies,” Demography 32; and “Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 57).
Likewise, research by Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson shows that experimenting with one or more sex partners doesn’t prepare one for being able to maintain a committed relationship — just the opposite, in fact. The Heritage Foundation researchers, analyzing the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, found that for women 30 or older, those who were monogamous (only one sexual partner in a lifetime) were by far most likely to still be in a stable relationship (80 percent). Having sex with just one extra partner dropped that probability to 54 percent. Two extra partners brought it down to 44 percent.
As Heritage Foundation researcher Patrick Fagan noted, “Who would have thought that the price of sleeping with even one partner would lead to divorce for almost half of those who had only one extra tryst?”
1 1/2. Fornication is Still a Mortal Sin
And, the No. 1 reason to be chaste…
1. Learn How to Love Others the Way God Loves You
The hunger for love is so great that people often attach its name to emotions or impulses that are far inferior to the real thing.
As St. John wrote, God is love. In becoming man, He showed us how we are to love one another — fully, completely, and sacrificially, with nothing held back.
The key to love is chastity, because it is only through chastity that we can learn to love one another as God loves us. That kind of love does not depend upon what another does for us. We love others because God gave us the ability to do so, and it is in doing so that we fulfill our destiny as His children.”If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 Jn 4:12).
This love, as we have seen, can be experienced only when it is accepted as a gift, not as what one deserves. The beauty of it is that, to fully experience the gift of another, one must become a gift. “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift,” writes Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love): “Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf Jn 19:34).”
Loving others as God loves them requires truth and integrity — qualities that are absent in sex outside of marriage.
In non-marital sex, your body says, “I give myself to you completely,” while your heart says, “nope,” “maybe,” or “hope so.” The dichotomy between what is done and what is felt is spiritually damaging, because what you do with your body affects your soul.
“The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine,” John Paul II says in the Theology of the Body. “It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.”
That mystery has its source in the ultimate union — that of God and His Church in heaven. To the extent that you reflect God’s love, your body and soul are at heaven’s leading edge.
Living chastely means recognizing your true residence and living as though you are already there. The size of your home is determined by the size of your heart. As countless saints have discovered, it is truly living large.