Halfway through our exchange of notes, I realized that her interest in kissing was less theoretical than mine. After all, like many evangelical teenagers in the late 1990s, I had read I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I bought Joshua Harris’s argument that dating was preparation for marriage and should therefore wait until you could marry the woman you asked out. And so I kindly but directly communicated this to my interlocutress before returning to whatever the teacher was saying in ninth-grade geometry class.

Today, I Kissed Dating Goodbye is more likely to appear in an ex-vangelical memoir than in a library. It’s part of the purity culture that many found constricting and shaming and gave them a reason to abandon Christianity. I’m tempted to say that the problem was right there on the cover: if a man is wearing tweed and a fedora and still has the top shirt button buttoned without a tie, steer clear. But, looking back, I see that the architects of purity culture were desperately responding to a hypersexualized culture without drawing on a deep intellectual or cultural tradition. In some cases, they made their own traditions from scratch: as a graduate student, I met a girl who had been a part of a public “becoming ceremony” in which her father had helped her out of flip-flops and into heels as an acknowledgment—or bestowal?—of womanhood.

In 2019, Joshua Harris would leave his wife and his faith, having already repudiated the book that made his name. At the same time, more and more people outside the Christian world have catalogued and decried the sexual revolution’s biological and sociological harms. College professors and chaplains have to teach students how to go on dates. Porn seems to be more effective at getting people to give up sex than purity rings were. It also makes harmful and sadistic practices more mainstream. The “no fap” movement helping young men quit porn and masturbation isn’t led by youth pastors. Despite the obvious failures of purity culture and the unpopularity of the subject, we are still left with the problem of how to talk about chastity.

Many answers to that question begin by unpacking the meaning of sexuality and the body. Some use John Paul II’s theology of the body, which focuses on the nuptial meaning of the body, how self-gift is written into our flesh and our yearning for the transcendent. This account of who we are then serves as the foundation for how we should act in the sexual realm, with clear implications for life as a whole. Others turn to Aelred of Rievaulx’s doctrine of spiritual friendship as a way of understanding how intimate friendships—sexual or not—can lead us to better know God. Still others seek to remedy the ways in which pornography and hyper-sexualized culture shape our minds by cultivating a sacramental imagination in their place. 

These can all be helpful, but I’ve come to see chastity as primarily a question of freedom: we are more free and more satisfied when we relate to others without trying to possess them, when we appreciate beauty and excellence without needing to grasp it for our own. In this sense, chastity is an integration of our senses, intellectual powers, and actions: a way of being more holistically directed toward our happiness regardless of the desires and attractions we experience. Many of us have had the experience of getting excited about something online and buying it, only to discover that it is only an object and unable to satiate our restless desires. It turns out our desire was for something more. Chastity has a similar dynamic. It’s not a matter of trying to tamp down sexual desire, but of realizing that our desire for people exceeds their capacity to fulfill it and therefore cannot be simply directed at possessing them.

This is not a novel conception of chastity. It turns out that I stumbled into the truth Thomas Aquinas articulated: that chastity is a kind of temperance. Temperance has about as much cachet as chastity these days, but the idea is simple. We are drawn to things that are pleasurable, but because we are rational beings, pleasures that are suitable for us must be in accord with reason and its discernment of the true good. Temperance is the habit that turns us from pleasures that would harm us toward those that help us. And chastity is the virtue of temperance as applied to sexual desire.

Temperance is the habit that turns us from pleasures that would harm us toward those that help us. And chastity is the virtue of temperance as applied to sexual desire.


More recently, the Harvard psychiatrist Kevin Majeres has developed a program drawing on modern behavioral therapy to help people overcome addictive sexual behaviors and attain purity, which he defines as “a state of peace in which your sexual desires and actions are in full agreement with your ideals.” In both cases, chastity or purity is one part of our broader quest to clarify what will actually make us happy and pursue that. This frequently requires filtering out the noise and unhelpful suggestions of our lower appetites and the world around us.

Christian monasticism has cultivated this kind of recollection for centuries. In his recent book Chastity: Recollection of the Senses, Erik Varden, the bishop of Trondheim and a Trappist monk, sees sexual desire as part of our desire for completion and wholeness. God made man male and female, and we are left with a sense of incompleteness, a sense of lacking the core aspect of humanity proper to the opposite sex. This hunger needs direction if it is to point us toward happiness, Varden writes: “Human sexuality calls out for a structure of personhood upon which to grow, blossom and fruit, much the way a climbing rose needs trellises to rise and spread.” Chastity does not suppress our desire for sex but helps it mature and integrate into our broader development. It is “not so much an anxious maneuvering between Scylla and Charybdis, menaces about us, as the progressive integration of possibilities within,” what Varden describes as “our homecoming to ourselves.”

Varden sees the Christian understanding of chastity as marked by mercy and eros. Borrowing St. Ephrem the Syrian’s image drawn from Psalm 8:6, he notes that if Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness in the fall, their original innocence acted as a kind of robe of glory. After eating the fruit, they move from glory to nakedness to their vain attempt at clothing themselves with fig leaves. Though God punishes their sin with expulsion from Eden, he clothes them with animal skins as an act of mercy. It is this mercy that makes the Christian difference, Varden argues. Mercy allows us to accept the natural goodness of our bodies and desires, to live with our flaws and weaknesses and move forward despite our faults: “The Christian condition is the art of striving to answer a call to perfection while plumbing the depth of our imperfection without despairing and without giving up on the ideal.”

In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI describes eros as “a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a ‘divine madness’ which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness.” Left to itself, it can become “warped and destructive”; purified and trained, it can provide not just fleeting pleasure but “a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.” Varden counsels us to remember that “eros is an impulse towards the divine, but it is not itself divine. It has its part to play in ordering human existence towards its true goal, the knowledge and love of God. It must not be mistaken for the goal.”

The monastic approach to chastity trains eros toward God. It encourages us to see ourselves, our fellow men and women, and God for what they truly are. The first step to this is seeing that we are not identical to our desires and our thoughts. In the sayings of the desert fathers, Abba Zeno was walking past a cucumber plant on a terribly hot day. Hungry and thirsty, he said to himself, “Take a cucumber and eat it. Truly it is only a little thing.” Instead of giving in, he asked himself if he was strong enough to endure the punishment a thief would suffer for such an action. He stood there under the scorching sun for five days, as if he were in the stocks, decided that he could not bear the punishment, and said to his thoughts, “Since you cannot bear punishment, do not steal, and do not eat.” The story is humorous, Varden argues, but with a point: we need to consider our desires as distinct from ourselves, “concrete proposals with concrete impact,” that we need to weigh rationally. We need to extricate ourselves from our passions—note that Zeno speaks to his thoughts—consider their actual consequences, and choose wisely.

Varden also writes that we should also cultivate “luminous seeing” as an antidote to “predatory looking.” Commenting on Jesus’s teaching that anyone who has looked on a woman to lust has committed adultery in his heart (Matthew 5:28), Varden notes that Jesus is condemning a kind of seeing that seeks to objectify and dominate: “The key element here is the preposition pros, ‘in order to’. What is evoked is not a spontaneous encounter with beauty stirring a response at once of mind and body. Such experience is not necessarily unchaste. It simply reveals man as man, woman as woman. It can issue in wonder and thanksgiving, be full of joy, lead to love.” In other words, chastity cultivates not a kind of blindness, but rather a seeing that leaves both the viewer and the viewed in a state of freedom. Hence Varden recommends doing something beautiful for its own sake, “for intrinsic delight and without thought of gain,” as a good first step toward cultivating chastity.

By happenstance, as I finished reading Varden I watched Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s recent biopic of Leonard Bernstein. The film portrays Bernstein as a man of conflicting parts: a composer and a conductor, a heterosexual family man with a string of homosexual lovers. The world wants you to be one thing, he complains to his young wife, Felicia, but he wants to embrace his multitudes. The winsomeness of this wears off over time. In an early letter, Felicia wrote that she knew whom she married and would allow him to be himself as long as he’s discreet: “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr . . . let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession.”

The results are disastrous. As his life unfolds, we see Bernstein dissipate his energy and squander his marriage under the guise of loving so many people. His internal disintegration breaks down the bonds of love and trust that mature, ordered love should have built up. We watch the contrast between Bernstein snorting cocaine with an apartment full of men and nursing his wife as she dies of cancer, Bernstein sweating in ecstasy as he conducts the final minutes of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony and sweating in a smoky dance club with a protégé young enough to be his son.

Without channeling and self-mastery, love runs in shallow and destructive ways. Hence chastity is not so much about checking God’s boxes, or not going too far before marriage, as about clarifying where our passions will direct us and what will make us happy. It should lead not to repression, but to recollection and direction of our desire to God and those made in his image. As the Russian theologian Pavel Florensky puts it, chastity leads us “to wholeness, healthiness, unimpairedness, unity of the inner life, to a person’s unfragmentedness and strength, to freshness of spiritual powers, to the spiritual organizedness of the inner man.” In other words to purity—rightly understood.

Image by Panot and licensed via Adobe Stock.