In Defense of Chastity

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I have a great idea for a new series of spiritual practice DVDs. It's called Goddesses Gone Wild.

Nubile coeds exposing their radiance for you, the spiritual practitioner, as you activate your second chakra in ecstatic states of mind/body bliss. You will expand your consciousness in an act of self-love, until rays of cosmic milk spew forth from your rod of creative power, bathing the universe in life force.

I'm kidding, of course, but only about this series being new. The Girls Gone Wild franchise raked in $40 million per year in its heydey, according to the LA Times. Could someone utilize Girls Gone Wild in his Integral Sexual Yoga practice? Perhaps. Is that what most of its viewers have in mind? Unlikely. Wrapping the same old story in glossy vernacular would not change that.

As a female born in 1984, let me assure you that the difference between myself and the young ladies featured in Girls Gone Wild is one of degree not kind. For those of us who were born into a postmodern cultural milieu having sex when you want to, with who you want to, for whatever reason you want to, is normal. If you are not doing it, you are obviously ashamed of your body or ::gasp:: a Republican.

rihannaThis may be a positive and necessary development from the time when it was normal to think masturbation caused mental illness, homosexuality was a disease, and so on. While we know that these attitudes still prevail in much of the world, let me assure you, San Francisco is on another page. Today, in my corner of the world, Rihanna's hot new single "S&M" is in heavy radio rotation, complete with the line, "whips and chains excite me". This is the dominant culture into which young people are expected to grow.

Maybe we need to recall that individual development does not always correlate with specific cultural values. In other words, I can be a conformist, blindly following the dogma of political correctness or the free market or sexual empowerment and that conformity is healthy, up to a point. Today the idea that sex is a wonderful part of human expression is not all that edgy in many communities, including ours. What seem to be missing is the big bad voice of traditional values (as opposed to a conformist orientation to those values) and the virtue of chastity with it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a traditionalist text if there ever was one, calls chastity, "an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom" (2239). Self-mastery implies a degree of control over oneself, an ability to make deliberate choices. It is the difference between hooking up with drunken strangers because that is what my friends are doing and intentionally hooking up with a stranger because that is what serves me and my community. Does the second scenario exist? Definitely. Plenty of people need to cut loose and master themselves a little less to get in touch with raw desire. However, for those of us who came of age as the term "fuck-buddy" came into parlance, I would suggest that a little chastity might not be such a bad thing. In fact, it might actually show us how sacred sex is.

As a post-traditional spiritual practice community, I believe we are having the wrong conversations. Debating whether or not spiritual teachers or even we *mere* laity should engage in a particular act is not the point. If we step back, we may notice that different behaviors are good for different folks at different times and certain behaviors are not good for just about anybody, just about ever. An ethical standard creates a point of cultural orientation to which we can generally conform. Is having sex with random strangers good for most people most of the time? Probably not. Is sex between most teachers and most students a good idea most of the time? Probably not. A leader should be able to cleanly communicate a value, like the sacredness of sex, across levels of development and value spheres, maintaining both a reasonable general standard of behavior and a level of personal transparency.

In my opinion, chastity is a good starting point for post-postmodern sexual ethics. Breaking free from blind conformity, whether that be to the postmodern sexual free-for-all or to rigid traditionalism, requires self-mastery: an ability to choose for oneself. While we may not be unduly swayed by traditionalism, the lure of union with the Divine Other (who invariably fits dominant standards of beauty, oddly enough) in his/her various guises is enough to keep us defending promiscuity as a general lifestyle choice. Chastity requires the masterful exercise of sexual energy in service of my own soul's highest calling, my community, and God. While that mastery can occur irrespective of the number of partners I have or the types of acts we engage in, the more variables in your sexual equation the more mastery required.

polyamoryWhy does sexuality seem to be a stumbling block for so many of us? There is no other domain in which the collective allergy to traditionalist notions of sin is more pronounced, but if you want to talk about Good Sex, you have to talk about Bad Sex.

We seem to get stuck in a rigid conception of sin when we are talking about sex, even when the traditions themselves hold a more nuanced view of the issue. The Church's teaching on chastity stands in stark contrast to the sex-positive edict that all desires are created equal. Only by gaining some control over our sexuality are we able to deliberately exercise it. That deliberate choice is a requirement for sin to occur. In other words, if we are sexually compulsive, slaves to every desire, or merely falling into cultural conformity, we are neither sinning nor behaving virtuously. Remember, conformity occurs in Berkeley just as much as in Iowa. Conforming to norms set by self-authoring folks, does not make you self-authoring; it makes you conforming.

rosaryLet's look at an example. I live with my fiancé. In my cultural context, this is completely normal. In fact, for us to get married without living together would be downright bizarre to most of the people around us. We are not living together because we made a deliberate inquiry into how cohabitation aligned with our highest purpose or God's plan; it's just what people like us do. This is a case where we are not heroically individuating from outmoded traditionalism, we are just conforming to the dominant culture around us. It is only by going back to Church that I even realized just what a big ol' conformist I am in this regard. In parts of San Francisco, hanging out at sex parties and dungeons is not all that transgressive, but praying the rosary is.

Values are distinct from levels of individual development. Ascribing to postmodern values, does not necessarily indicate a capacity for self-authorship. It very well might mean that I grew up in a postmodern value sphere and I am a die-hard conformist. Where the dominant cultural message is open sexuality at all costs, chastity is a move away from conformity. Maybe we can call it pre- vs. trans-chastity. Having sex before marriage because everyone else does is not the same thing as really inquiring into what is right for you and then having sex before marriage. Chastity is a prerequisite for mature, responsible sexual expression as well as sexual sin. The Catechism makes clear that you need "full knowledge and complete consent" to be in mortal sin (1860). In other words, you must recognize you are doing the wrong thing and do it anyway. If you can't control yourself, you can't make a choice in either direction.

For those of us who were born into modern and postmodern milieus, a dose of traditionalism may be required to get us to truly self-authoring levels around sex. This is not to say that any tradition is correct in every sexual teaching, but that an unexamined acceptance of sex-positivity is just as immature as an unexamined acceptance of any other ideology. For those of us who are deeply embedded in postmodern sexuality, a virtue like chastity can be the detox agent we need to truly reflect on what is right and wrong regarding sexuality.

magdaleneWe need to sober up when it comes to sex. That sobriety, that ability to choose should be the starting point of post-postmodern sexual ethics. Rather than claiming that particular behavior patterns demonstrate the sacredness of sex, we ought to recognize that only the deliberate, fully conscious enactment of those behaviors make it sacred. While it may be possible to view Girls Gone Wild as Goddesses Gone Wild, most of us are not at that level. Leaders must consider that when they defend particular sets of behaviors, they are defending it all the way down the chain of being. They are establishing the doctrine and dogma of the movement to which we all conform to some degree in order to call ourselves members.

It is time for us to quit defending the trappings of postmodern sex-positivity and start doing the hard work required to embody the virtue of chastity. Only from that place of including sin are we able to truly transcend it.

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  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Monday, 14 February 2011 06:05 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    You rock Emily!
    That's all I have to say :)

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Monday, 14 February 2011 16:06 posted by Richard Munn

    Hi Emily,

    For a while I've wondered about Girls being seen as Goddesses and what's going on there. I practice within a Buddhist context where the word "Dakini" replaces "Goddess" but seems to have very similar connotations, at least to the uninitiated.

    I have felt that it's useful to distinguish between Ground and Manifest realization in this context. Indeed, at Ground (so I hear, more than Realize), there is the Divine. As you point out, this doesn't mean the individual practitioner has actualized this in their practice and life.

    I also appreciate that you highlight a "Goddess" often conforms very much to our cultural ideal of beauty. A young woman with superficial (meant in a descriptive, not pejorative manner) beauty is easily described as a 'Goddess' by men without maturity. A women with deep beauty is easily missed, or is too threatening, to that same man, or his less matured aspects.

    The stories of the Dakinis are that they often appear as hags with '37 marks of ugliness' that shock, scare, provoke male yogis into deeper recognition of Reality. This is often overlooked by groups or people wishing to package the same old sexuality in 'spiritual' clothing, or lack of. This results in a stopping of development becoming elevated to something it's not.

    To briefly speak to the point about celibacy within a Catholic context my understanding is the reason there has been the amount of abuse of children within the celibate Catholic priesthood is that there is no yoga present for the practitioners of celibacy in this context to skillfully work with sexual energy. If intention and prayer are present but the inner body isn't addressed then this can lead to quiet a schism, which I feel is useful to be aware of in informing my own practice.

    An integral appreciation of sexuality is complex (not necessarily complicated!) and this seems to lend itself to a practice with sexuality that contains multiple components that address our multiple areas of being.

    I'm looking forward to (the) conversation around this.

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Monday, 14 February 2011 16:21 posted by Richard Munn

    To speak to another side of the coin.

    It also seems some women gravitate towards the term "Goddess" in describing themselves as part of a post-modern women's liberation. This is often an expression of a conflation between post-modern beliefs about liberation (the freedom to do what/who I want, when I want etc.) with spiritual liberation, which calls for much greater maturation and understanding of working with pleasure and pain.

    Perhaps worryingly there are some trends present or starting to occur within the Integral scene that seem to largely gravitate around this conflation. Fueled by a reaction against a child-like conformity to traditional values comes the adolescent reaction (influenced by post-modern culture) that is phobic towards true sexual responsibility and ethics.

  • Comment Link Rebecca Bailin Monday, 14 February 2011 16:47 posted by Rebecca Bailin

    Wow, Emily, you really articulated what had left me sputtering in Jun Po's article -- this is a GREAT piece of analysis. Your perspective is SO needed in the conversation about sexuality where, as you point out, we may be caught in a pre/trans fallacy thinking that we've really made our sexual choices object when in fact we are subject to them and really unreflectively subject to our cultural milieu.

    Write the f**ing mainstream BOOK! Do a book treatment! Get an agent.

  • Comment Link Kerry Dugan Monday, 14 February 2011 20:19 posted by Kerry Dugan

    Appreciating the discernments Emily's made here, this is the first piece I've seen that resonates well with what I've been writing this week, though this article is stated with clarities I've yet to manage. Still needing to give the topic the time it deserves, I want to register agreement with the Emily's contribution.

    Last night, finding Mark Epstein MD's book, Open to Desire, his chapter, In Defense of Desire, further compounds the density of my notes. With a topic so rich with importance I'm enjoying cultivating perspectives while aware that conversations are engagements that we can be timed-out of.

    Meanwhile, the process of writing is itself worthwhile, even if generating more seed than fruit.

  • Comment Link Mary Williams Tuesday, 15 February 2011 01:01 posted by Mary Williams

    Thank you for cradling that baby within the bathwater, Emily. Here's to "a dose of traditionalism"!

  • Comment Link David McCallum, S.J. Tuesday, 15 February 2011 03:52 posted by David McCallum, S.J.


    Thanks so much for doing such an appreciatively inquiring job treating traditional values from an Integral/developmental perspective, and helping reveal how these values have an evolutionary edge that can keep transcending and including the further one matures. As a Jesuit priest who has taken a vow of chastity, I resonate very much with what you've shared here.


  • Comment Link Nomali Tuesday, 15 February 2011 06:25 posted by Nomali

    Love this! Thank you, Emily. As an Asian woman in the integral community (if there is such a thing), currently living in the "People's Republic of Boulder, Colorado," this is so refreshing. The key piece for me here is this: "Breaking free from blind conformity, whether that be to the postmodern sexual free-for-all or to rigid traditionalism, requires self-mastery: an ability to choose for oneself." And I love your eloquentia!

  • Comment Link Emilio Martinez Tuesday, 15 February 2011 07:41 posted by Emilio Martinez

    Thanks for the article. I left the Integral Culture partially because of their oversexed stance on everything. And akin to what you said about the rosary, I find that being a "born again" has more radical reverberations in my life than when I worked for Ken Wilber.

    I'm actually working now on a film project about abstinence. It's a faith-based comedy that's somwehere between 40-Year-Old Virgin and Focus on the Family (link below to the website for our demo trailer of the project). And yes, that is the real Ted Haggard.

    Good luck on your quest and thanks again for daring to have a different perspective!

  • Comment Link Emilio Martinez Tuesday, 15 February 2011 07:44 posted by Emilio Martinez

    Whoops! Click on my name above to go to the trailer link. Thanks!

  • Comment Link alexey Tuesday, 15 February 2011 16:48 posted by alexey

    Thanks for the article!
    Emily, I ask your permission to translate it in russian.

  • Comment Link Lindsay Tuesday, 15 February 2011 21:27 posted by Lindsay

    Great post Emily. It's refreshing to hear support for chastity from an intelligent well balanced perspective. While I don't think that a period of celibacy is for everyone, I definitely think the value of if should be respected and understood by everyone.

    Personally, I can speak to the benefits of a year of celibacy. I stopped having sex in an effort to gain some understanding, perspective and control of my own patterns. And I did. It also gave me the opportunity to be alone and still with my sexuality, and, it directly contributed to the strength, depth and authenticity of the sexual, and personal, connection I have with another person now.

    There were those who doubted what I was doing, and who thought I was missing out, or denying myself a good time. But in fact, I gained a lot more than I lost from the experience, and I would recommend it for those in a similar situation

  • Comment Link Sam Alexander Tuesday, 15 February 2011 22:40 posted by Sam Alexander

    Thanks for this piece Emily. Honest and hopeful. One can imagine a healthier sexuality emerging from the seeds you have sown.

  • Comment Link R. Michael Fisher Wednesday, 16 February 2011 00:18 posted by R. Michael Fisher

    I think a notion of "mastery" (although a characteristically abhorent concept to most postmodernists and theories they espouse) is as good a place as any to find discernment in any realm of human behavior (sexuality is a good focus point). In agreement, in principle, with Emily's argument, I refer to a lesson I had some 30+ years ago when I was training in biofeedback. The teacher-clinicial taught us that most people (and practitioners) assume that to be 'good at' biofeedback (i.e., self-regulation of blood pressure, temperature, galvanic skin response) and thus controlling "stress," they merely had to learn the body/mind connection (with aid of technology) to bring stress reactions (measurements on the biofeedback machine) "DOWN"-- and that was proof they'd accomplished "mastery" over their physiological (UR) by mind controlling the "DOWN" direction of the biofeedback indicator. Not so, said our teacher. And he began to explain, the real success and effectiveness (as research has shown) of biofeedback training is to learn to move the biofeedback indicator (and physiological correlates of stress) BOTH "down" and "up." That was counterintuitive to us new clinicians. The point he said, is that that is real mastery, to learn how to raise the stress correlates (e.g., blood pressure) and to lower them at will. Going in both directions, research showed, was most effective for biofeedback patients in "controlling" (i.e., self-regulating) themselves. Now, apply that to sexual arousal and I think we'd have a "mastery" paradigm of analogy. I interpret this from Emily's argument and it makes a lot of sense, at least theoretically if, and only if, one sees the value of "self-regulation" (in all quadrants), as an integral goal.

  • Comment Link David Zeitler Wednesday, 16 February 2011 03:26 posted by David Zeitler


    First of all, outstanding article.

    As folks who are interested in integral models of all sorts, I wanted to bring up another context that I have long thought is affecting this issue.

    One of the reasons that I became a martial artist is because I did not have a positive male role model. I craved the masculine container of my master. Like 50% of my peers, thanks to the "trans-"cultural vision of the baby-boomers, I grew up in a divorced family.

    We cannot go back to an agrarian container, which limits healthy individuality, but nor can we ignore the fact that many of the girls seeking sexual attention from men are likely doing so because they did not develop any nuanced capacity to acquire that attention because they did not have a stable, consistent male role model in their life.

    Just like I lacked masculine nuance with sports, self-defense, and let's just say "chivalry" for lack of a better term, I believe that many women my age and younger who want male attention lack nuance with gaining, securing, and sustaining male attention.

    Perhaps we are collectively "regressing in the service of transcendence" (i.e., "Girls Gone Wild") and will soon be fashioning some post-postmodern or integral structures that will bring some semblance of balance to this craziness.

    Because it IS crazy. I am kinda disgusted, certainly with the internet, but also with how willing we are to objectify one another in every way. But the kosmos will always "right" itself.

    Sex is a bit like meditation in the sense that you can use either to be more, or to be less. Our intentions have an enormous impact on each. If sex is not sacred to you, then you will not have sacred sex.

    thanks for the stimulating dialogue,

  • Comment Link Emily Baratta Wednesday, 16 February 2011 04:25 posted by Emily Baratta

    Thanks, everyone for the kind words and support.

    I think this is an important topic and I am glad others agree.

    Richard - I don't know much about how Catholic priests are trained (or not trained) to deal with sexual desire. What sorts of practices do you see in other traditions that are lacking in the Church?

    Emilio - Can you tell me more about the "radical reverberations"?

    Alexey - Da! Cpacebo! (Please send me the link.)

    Lindsay - Who do you think a period of celibacy might be good for? Who might it not be good for?

    David - Does the kosmos right itself or is it us that does the righting? What is the first step?

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Wednesday, 16 February 2011 15:09 posted by Richard Munn

    I must confess I don't know how Catholic Priests are trained either, though did some training with a Priest from Poland and he was a very warm-hearted man.

    Having said this it is important to discern between exoteric and esoteric religious practice and, very importantly, how this difference exists not only in the container of the practice but in the mind of the practitioner and requires enacting day after day.

    There are many considerations around Adi Da that I will bracket here, however his book 'The Complete Yoga of Emotional-Sexual Life' is very interesting as it points towards relating to sexuality from the inner body, rather than the surface body (and mind) that it's typically related to/from.

    The ancient Greek myth of humans originally being Whole and then being split by the angry Gods into Men and Women is an interesting symbol. These 'split' people (us!) are doomed to try and regain their wholeness. The wholeness Adi Da suggests is an internal process of the 'loop' of energy within the body being complete, not needing to gain or throw off sexual energy from/into another.

    This points towards a place of sexual wholeness not characterized by frustrated lack, but of deep completion and is only accessed by correct yogic discipline. It also opens the doors to appreciating what level of depth a practitioner is relating to desire and love.

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Thursday, 17 February 2011 17:52 posted by Richard Munn

    Emily, I also appreciate that you mention the DVD's not being new. I would add they're not even new on the "spiritual" scene, or even the fringes of the "integral spiritual" scene.

    Someone called Adam Gilad recommended a DVD set on his e-mail list a few months ago that was advertised as instructional material for men on how to be better lovers (with not so subtle hints that if men weren't in tune with this they wouldn't attract women or sustain relationship with a woman).

    The DVD set was two female porn-stars demonstrating 'correct' oral sex techniques etc. and these kind of women often get called "Goddesses" in various groups I've seen that profess "spiritual sexuality" or "authentic sexuality."

    I'd like to include this clip of one of the actresses however as it's quite clear to anyone with psychological-emotional awareness how young this girl is developmentally. Far from the Divine Incarnate in Female Form!

    I think there's a lot of green sexuality out there, some of which is being called "integral," and works towards value judgments in this area is important. An ethics of depth, a developmental appreciation of sexuality, not for the sake of being judgmental but being discerning.

    I feel this will help truly move people towards depth of sexuality, not just of state experiences that are attention-grabbing but a depth of structure-of-intimacy within which people can unfold.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Thursday, 24 February 2011 05:03 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Thanks Emily, I really enjoyed this piece, so glad to have you on the site.

    I think the distinctions you're making here are really important in our postmodern culture. In particular I appreciate you bringing attention to the way we are socially conforming, and perhaps interpreting it as something special, or highly evolved.

    On another note, have you ever noticed that when speaking with some highly sex-positive folks about chastity they respond to you by trying to point out your sexual "issues"? The assumption here being that if I don't follow-up on all my sexual desires then I'm somehow repressing myself or not experiencing life to the fullest.

    But I think this argument is flawed. I don't think we *ever* reach a point where we're sexually satisfied or have reached the limit of our sexual desires. In my experience sex is like any other exciting activity; you want to keep up the level of intensity for as long as you can. That means we're constantly trying new things, positions, partners, porn sites, fetishes, locations, etc. But these things just up the ante each time, raise the bar a little higher, and next time we need a little bit more for the same hit.

    I can't tell if these are the actions of a connoisseur or a junkie. It's a thin line.

    Over time, I've watched myself get wrapped-up in the obsessive impulse to constantly push the edge in sex. I don't mean being crazy kinky (though that's part of it for some people), I mean just looking to constantly up the ante of excitement as I get accustomed to old forms of sex.

    But it's an endless journey. At some point I just have to ask, "when is it enough?" To me this is where chastity enters the fray.

    I now view abstaining from sexual activities in the same way I do abstaining from scratching an itch during meditation. If I scratch it, I know it's just going to lead to another, and another. Sex is the same way. There's nothing magical or sacred about it, my libido just wants to fuck. So chastity is an expression of the confidence to withhold yourself from certain desires that you know are essentially meaningless and will only bring you to wanting to satisfy other new desires.

    Perhaps postmodern individuals (like us) have confused the intense *feelings* of sexual desire with the *importance* of those desires. I think this piece helps shed new light on this conundrum. Thanks again for posting.

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