Since writing The Thrill of the Chaste — a recovery manual for grown-ups who missed the memo on abstinence — I have addressed all kinds of people, from fishermen in Alaska to unwed moms in New York City, pornographers at “Sex Week at Yale” to hooting Catholic schoolboys in Drogheda, Ireland. But never have I been so affected by audiences as I was in Poland, meeting readers of the Polish translation of my book.
What struck me about the Polish readers — most of them young women in their 20s and 30s — was their consciousness of sin.
It was not merely guilt imposed from outside. Those who approached me after my talks — mostly women, but men as well — described a depth of pain that went far beyond simply a sense of regret over failing to follow the instruction of their parents, their priest, or the pope. Likewise, the readers’ hurt clearly was not because they were ostracized from society on account of their behavior. If anything, just the opposite; it had made them fit right in.
What I saw instead was an acute awareness on the readers’ part that their sexual experiences outside of marriage separated them from God. And I have never seen anything like it.
Young people in Poland, even if they are unable to remember communism, are haunted by the sense that their parents, who kept the Faith under persecution, had something that they themselves lack. They know that their country under communism, while materially poor, was spiritually rich. And they see that beneath the superficial excitement brought by the country’s new panoply of “choices” — from the influx of designer-brand luxuries to the spread of pornography and strip joints — lurks a profound spiritual emptiness. It is a “darkness which may be felt.”
Nowhere else have I witnessed audiences so hungry for what I have to say, nor so grateful — particularly compared to audiences back home. While Poles can still remember when faith defined their identity, we Americans have largely become deadened to the effects of sexual sin upon the heart and soul. We have become lukewarm, taking in so much poison through the very air we breathe that we often fail to react when it is proffered to us for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I think too that the effects of sexual sin are felt more sharply by Poles because they have not yet been overpowered by the arguments of those who uphold the so-called right to an abortion. With abortion illegal in Poland (save for certain exceptions), the nation’s citizens have more social leeway to regret destructive sexual behavior than Americans have. They are free to believe that sexual behavior has moral content.
American public life in the age of Roe v. Wade does not permit such freedom. One’s sexual behavior — or, rather, “sexual expression” — is reduced to being simply one “choice” among others. No consensual sex act or sexual pairing may be called socially or morally unacceptable — and woe to the man or woman who says otherwise.
A recent example of this phenomenon is The Purity Myth, the latest work by Feministing blogger Jessica Valenti, who formerly ran the official blog for the abortion-advocacy organization NARAL Pro-Choice America. In it, Valenti, whose previous books include Full Frontal Feminism, castigates several pro-chastity authors, including myself, for “using the media’s obsession with young women’s ‘deviant’ sexuality to cash in and spread their retrogressive messages.”
“If the virginity movement really cared about women,” she writes, “the link to anti-feminism wouldn’t be so evident. What other movement has ensured that young women have the rights that they have today?”
Valenti then enunciates the familiar list of feminists’ legislative achievements. For the reader who has any sympathy with chastity advocates, the message is quite clear: You are either for feminism, and everything it stands for — especially sexual license — or you are repressive, retrogressive, and downright dangerous.
This is the attitude put forth not only by Valenti but by the entire feminist establishment, putting their movement above all reproach. The logic it follows is that a political movement, once it has accomplished a noble goal, is infallible. (Mussolini, after all, made the trains run on time.)
Such blind dogmatism fosters an atmosphere of tremendous repression that hurts both men and women. This is seen nowhere more poignantly than in feminists who deny the personhood of the unborn (as with those who liken a child in the womb to a “parasite” or “tapeworm”) and likewise deny the pain of post-abortive women.
Valenti’s wider message, as she explains in the introduction to The Purity Myth (reprinted on the Today show Web site to coincide with her appearance on that program), is that morality, or at least negative judgments about morality, should be removed entirely from the sexual sphere. She writes, “Our daughters deserve a model of morality that’s based on ethics, not on their bodies.”
Valenti allows that freedom from sexual morality is not without risks. That is why she believes in “giving young women the room to explore sexually and even make mistakes, without being judged.”
“It’s part of the learning process,” she shrugs, “and most of us have been through it.” The idea that sexual experimentation might hurt not only the “learner,” but others as well,appears to be immaterial.
To accomplish her goal of removing morality from the sexual sphere, Valenti must deny that pornography is inherently immoral — a task she takes on gladly in The Purity Myth. “Naked women aren’t the problem — a woman believing her only value is sexual is what’s dangerous,” she writes. To her, socially conservative organizations that battle pornography are part of “a system that devalues women even more than some of the worst porn does.”
I do not know if, by “some of the worst porn,” Valenti means the kind that depicts violence against women. But I do know, from my conversations with women, that men’s use of pornography takes a terrible toll on relationships. For the women who witness their boyfriend’s or husband’s obsession with it, it amounts to a violation, the psychological equivalent of a rape.
That Valenti — who decries violence against women — would so despise chastity that she would advocate pornography over sexual restraint shows how deeply she has blinded herself to the logical consequences of her philosophy.
Indeed, she holds sexual restraint in such contempt that she excludes it entirely from the ethical sphere, deriding it as the “ethics of passivity.” She mocks Janie Fredell, a Harvard University college student and chastity advocate, for telling the New York Times, “It takes a strong woman to be abstinent, and that’s the kind of woman I want to be.”
Her mocking a young woman barely out of her teens reveals the foundation of not only Valenti’s own hatred of chastity, but also that of her feminist peers. When she dismisses Fredell for having the audacity to co-opt the feminist concept of the “strong woman,” her remarks recall nothing so much as the petty, insecure high-schooler resentful of female competitors. And, indeed, Valenti admits in her book’s introduction that her motivation for writing it was that she was herself teased in high school, a “cruelly labeled slut” whose sexual experience caused her to be pegged as a “bad person” by schoolmates who ignored her “good heart, sense of humor, and intelligence.”
It never occurs to her that anyone who disrupts the sexual order in high school suffers for it — the chaste perhaps most of all. For every sexually experienced girl who is labeled a “slut,” there are ten inexperienced ones who try to appear more worldly wise than they are, for fear of being marked as prudes.
For Valenti, the idea that virginity even exists is “a lie.” She came to that realization after her first sexual experience at age 14 left her feeling unchanged, as she writes in Chapter 1: “I fail to see how anything that lasts less than five minutes can have such an indelible ethical impact.” She seeks to “outline a new way for us to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn’t include their bodies.”
Her goal is supremely practical: “If having sex is a morally neutral — or positive — act, then young women will start making better and healthier decisions, because they’ll feel justified in making them.” It is the optimism of radical individualism: Take away the moral dimension from a choice, and wisdom will emerge on its own.
The author’s certainty that “healthy” sexual conduct flows naturally from the absence of moral guidelines recalls the experiments performed by a 16th-century Indian emperor. He isolated babies with a mute nurse to see what would be their “natural” language. Lacking an example, the children grew up unable to speak.
The American children of the sexual revolution are much the same way. Now grown up, they are unable to speak about their pain, and so they are incapable of teaching their children to speak of it. They could learn something from their peers in Poland that might help them heal — if only the feminist culture, which claims to be so concerned about freeing them from repression, would grant them permission to listen.
Dawn Eden is author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and has been featured on NBC’s Today show and EWTN’s Life on the Rock. Visit her online at thrillofthechaste.com or her blog, The Dawn Patrol.