The Thrill of the Chaste:
Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On
by Dawn Eden
(W Publishing Group, 212 pages, $13.99 paper)
SEX USED TO HAVE SOMETHING to do with marriage. That was then, this is now. Now, sex happens in more ways and places than perhaps ever before; but people don't seem much happier for it. Consider the fact that sex is everywhere, men and women claim to be looking for love and commitment, and the singles industry is booming; but the marriage rate doesn't appear to be keeping pace and people seem to spend much more of their lives being single. In such a light, the sexual revolution appears to have been more limiting than liberating.
Dawn Eden's new book, The Thrill of the Chaste, makes the case for shaping one's sexuality and life without assuming stereotypical conservative or liberal rhetoric. Following the genre of easy to read, self-help-ish books, Eden writes from her perspective as a self-identified agnostic Jew who became a Christian as a young adult. She realized, as much as she wanted to be married, that casual sex and even the ensuing relationships weren't getting her any closer to her goal. In fact, she found herself nowhere near her goal of meeting the type of man she'd want to marry.
Extremely honest and forthright, Eden details her decision to pursue chastity as a way of ultimately being happy, whether or not she ever meets Mr. Right. Fortunately, her writing style lacks the saccharine drama commonly found in inspirational books. Rather than condemn a particular lifestyle for pages on end, she helps the reader to understand the lifestyle. Whether one is on the outside looking in or completely immersed, Eden provides a framework that helps explain the choices that so many people assume are "natural."
But it would be a mistake to think Eden simply attempts to make the case for a return to traditional sexual mores. She identifies a condition that generally has been reserved for discussion in the academic circles of philosophers and psychologists.
EXAMINING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN the lifestyle choices of sex (mostly casual) outside of marriage and the decision to wait until sex can be fully experienced within marriage, Eden identifies two types of women: single women and singular women.
She explains, "A single woman bases her actions on how they will or won't affect her lacking state." In other words, if the activity doesn't apparently bring her immediately closer to her desire of not being single, then she's not interested. If the party doesn't guarantee some quality eligible bachelors, forget it. If the fellow asking her out on a date doesn't fit her ideal of what her mate should be, forget it.
The single woman is excessively utilitarian, and auto-determining; she defines her relationships, her circumstances, and her future, according to her desires. The "other" only comes into the picture insofar as that person is useful to her. She spends her time resenting what she does not have, especially the lack of an intimate relationship, even though she bases her identity on that very lack. Her identity is about what she hasn't got (a boyfriend or a husband), not who she is.
A singular woman acts integrally. She chooses to do things because they are good in and of themselves, not because they will serve her immediate interests whether they involve dating and romance, getting a job, or any other desire. She allows herself to actually experience what a situation offers, even if she didn't foresee it. Unlike the single woman, she will go to a party simply to have fun and be with people she enjoys. If she meets someone at the party, it will be all the better. But whether or not she meets someone won't determine the success of the party.
Eden also identifies gratitude as the distinguishing factor between the singular woman and the single woman. In stark opposition to the single woman's focus on her lack of a partner or mate, the singular woman expresses gratitude not only for what she has and is given, but for what she can give.
In essence, the difference between the two types of women lies in the direction of their gaze: inward, at one's self, or outwardly, towards the other?
Eden leads the reader into this discussion with her own experience of premarital sex (what I often call "sex without context"). While such a lifestyle does little to encourage total well-being, it is by no means the only lifestyle that fosters the mindset of a single woman...or a single man. Her diagnosis can apply to both the unmarried and the married, to both men and women. The lived example of the Sex and the City philosophy happens to be a particularly acute instance of the condition and it affects many people who think that sex without marriage will wipe away their loneliness and ultimately bring them the intimacy of marriage. But the experience of countless men and women proves otherwise.
In addition to the well-placed Chesterton quotes in her book, Eden has some memorable lines of her own. Articulating the root of the problem, she writes, "Once you allow yourself to be defined by your loneliness, it's a small step to violating your most deeply held beliefs." Precisely this action determines whether an individual woman or man is single or singular. The single person defines the self with her loneliness, i.e. the lack of an intimate relationship in her life. The singular person has an intimate relationship first with God and subsequently with others. The various authentic friendships probably won't be as intimate as the healthy relationship between a husband and wife; but some of them certainly will be close and others still good even though they are more removed. More importantly, these real friendships will prepare the singular person for marriage. They'll learn to expect nothing but the best from people who are close to them, especially a spouse, and that will affect their decision in whom they choose as a spouse.
EDEN WRITES CONVINCINGLY, "[O]nly through chastity can all the graces that are part of being a woman come to full flower in you." But she's actually hit on something more than a woman's decision to wait until marriage for sexual intimacy. Chastity, as her work illustrates, is more than saying "no" to sex. It's a way for all to live: married and unmarried, men and women. It means always thinking of the other instead of fixating on one's self and one's lack. Doing so automatically eliminates extramarital and premarital sex because -- despite all our efforts to rationalize it -- it's about the gratification of one's own immediate desires and not a desire for the ultimate good of the other. As much as the people involved may think that they are experiencing love, it is not a fully committed and unreserved vulnerable love that can only exist in an exclusive and permanent marriage. In any other type of relationship, there's always an "out." Eden makes the case that very often these relationships just mask the loneliness. In which case, the real issue, that is the loneliness, is never addressed. Accruing such baggage can hardly be good for anyone, especially someone who eventually hopes to marry.
Recently, a friend mentioned a Sex and the City episode where the promiscuous blonde has the flu and has just bought an apartment. She needs someone to install blinds so that she can sleep. She opens her little black book and calls the men from her various dalliances. In the end, nobody wants to install the blinds. She realizes that although she's had lots of sex, she's actually very lonely and has no one.
In many ways, Eden's book is about loneliness and what we decide to do with it. As such, her book is not simply for unmarried women who are making a choice about their sexual behavior. All of us are faced with loneliness and we can choose to distract ourselves with sex, work, shopping, sports, and numerous other activities or any combination thereof.
Eden's decision to face the loneliness directly evidences its success in the fact that she no longer suffers from depression. Sex -- without a context -- played a very big role in obfuscating the real issues in her life. But the change in her life wasn't just about sex, it was about living the principle of gratitude, thinking of the other. This book represents Eden's gift to us, to her readers. And it looks like she's more prepared than most people not just for marriage, but for life.