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Cory Silverberg

Chastity and Other Sexual Choices

By January 14, 2013

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I left the NPR window open on my desktop for a week before I finally got around to listening to Michel Martin's Tell Me More segment called Chastity: Why Wait? It wasn't the irony of waiting that kept the window there. It's become a bad work habit of mine to keep windows and tabs open of things I want to read, listen to, or watch. Over the week these accumulate and as they grow so to does my ever-present anxiety. At some point (usually every 10 days or so) the anxiety becomes overwhelming, I find myself unable to focus on work, and I wipe the slate clean.

What survives the reboot is usually material from known sources. This 17-minute interview remained not because I had high hopes for another public conversation about abstinence and chastity, but because most of the time I really enjoy Tell Me More. Occasionally I find that their unofficial motto "nothing is assumed" slips away. But you can feel both the heart and the thoughtfulness that goes into the show, and as a listener I always feel engaged and respected. What more can you ask for from people's work?

I wasn't sorry I waited. No great revelations here, but you get to hear (and read - there is a transcription of the interview available online) from three women who are writing in public about their decisions not to have sex in particular and their efforts to lead examined lives in general. And instead of an interviewer pushing them to justify or defend themselves, they are given the space to speak for themselves. It's a noticeable difference in tone and approach, and it gives you the listener time and space for your own thoughts to emerge (kind of like any good conversation).

For me what came up was the way that public conversations about abstinence or chastity so often rest on an assumption that a) we live in a "sexualized culture", and b) we all know what the term "sexualized culture" means. So much is made of the choice to not have sex, and I kept thinking to myself; why is that choice understood as harder or more complicated than the choice to have sex? Sure, sure, I know the argument that we live in a sexualized culture that glorifies a specific way of being sexual. But forget about that boring general argument for a second and think about your own life and the lives of people you are close with.

Isn't the choice to have sex, when you've made it, always one that comes with it's own kind of emotional and psychological weight? Have you ever made a decision to have sex that didn't come consequences both positive and negative which you've mulled over in the seconds, hours, days, and years that followed?

Public conversations about the choice not to have sex often feel as if they erase the crucially important fact that choosing to have sex is always a choice. If it isn't a choice, that's what we call sexual assault or rape. Consensual sex is, by definition, always a choice.

It's true that the narrow way sexuality is constructed in western media has an impact on the choices we understand ourselves to have and the choices we make. And we aren't all impacted in the same way. The weight of this difference is felt more heavily for anyone who can't (or won't) try to conform to its skinny, white, straight, non-disabled, cis-gendered form. But the ways that our options are limited by systemic oppression and violence doesn't negate the fact that each of us can still make our own choices.

I'm not suggesting that choosing to have sex feels the same for everyone, or that the choice to have sex is the same as the choice not to have sex. But as I was listening to the interview I kept thinking that when the conversation is about choice (as opposed to what one's sexual life is like with and without sexual activities), the differences between choosing to have sex or not aren't actually so great.

And I would add that when you strip away the generalizations and actually talk to people about their sexual lives, you'll usually find that in a culture that is so punitive and unjust, every choice we make about sex is a choice worth talking about.

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Comments
January 16, 2013 at 9:41 am
(1) Robert Shelby Blaisdell says:

Nice analysis…choosing to have sex takes great courage and has a million ramifications..sometimes a lot more scary and fearful than choosing not to have sex. But both are choices and need to be thought about..

January 16, 2013 at 1:08 pm
(2) Paul G. says:

While it’s true that choice is involved when choosing whether or not to have sex, I’m not certain that the choices are of the same magnitude (which no doubt changes across the lifespan anyway).

There is no need for me to go Freudian by talking about sex drive, but we do live in a chemical stew of hormones that “suggests” we go in certain directions. To use an analogy, take swimming. Whether a salmon or my little spermatozoa (alive, I hope, alive!), swimming upstream always take a great deal more effort than going downstream.

Actually, at this stage in my life, it may take more energy to go downstream!

Paul G.

January 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm
(3) William says:

As your article states we live in a “Sexual Culture” it has been like that for some two to three decades but not so long ago it was not so.
Perhaps we need to try to alter -redefine or change our culture from the in your face “Sexual Culture ” to ‘a more relaxed , sophisticated and cultured”Romantic Culture” it would certainly change how we act, think and behave. Sex is in our faces everywhere ,along with Coca Cola and Contraceptives, it dictates how we have to act , think and behave,at times it seems that ,that is all there is,no shades of grey, one is either in or out, do you or don’t, straight off the bat, before you can even hear your opposites name. Therefore I think that those who say they are abstaining, are not actually saying they will not have sex, they are just wanting to escape this forced one thought culture,they ,at the moment do not believe they a socially acceptable alternate. To put it rather simply they are tired with this “Sexual Culture” they desperately seek a total change of culture they want the horse in front of the cart and not the cart in front of the horse.

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