Sex in the Body of Christ
A word like chastity can set our teeth on edge. It is one of those unabashedly churchy words. It is a word the church uses to call Christians to do something hard, something unpopular.
Chastity is one of many Christian practices that are at odds with the dictates of our surrounding, secular culture. It challenges the movies we watch, the magazines we read, the songs we listen to. It runs counter to the way many of our unchristian friends organize their lives. It strikes most secular folk as curious (at best), strange, backwards, repressed.
Chastity is also something many of us Christians have to learn. I had to learn chastity because I became a Christian as an adult, after my sexual expectations and mores were already partly formed. But even many folks who grow up in good Christian homes, attending good Christian schools, and hanging out with good Christian friendseven these Christians-from-the-cradle often need to learn chastity, because unchaste assumptions govern so much of contemporary society.
I am not an expert on chastity. I am not a theologian or a member of the clergy. I'm just a fellow pilgrim. I offer only a flawed example, a few suggestions, and the reminder of why, as Christians, we should care about chastity in the first place.
Two-Thirds Unvirgin World
One reason we should care right now is because of the unchaste culture we find ourselves in. About 65 percent of America's teens have sex by the time they finish high school, and teenage "dating" websites that boast millions of members encourage teenage patrons to select not prom dates but partners for casual sexual escapades. A 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 41 percent of American women aged 15 to 44 have, at some point, cohabited with a man. According to the 2000 census, the number of unmarried couples living together has increased tenfold between 1960 and 2000, and 72 percent between 1990 and 2000. Fifty-two percent of American women have sex before turning 18, and 75 percent have sex before they get married. According to a 2002 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Seventeen magazine, more than a quarter of 15- to 17-year-old girls say that sexual intercourse is "almost always" or "most of the time" part of a "casual relationship."
Christian communities aren't immune to the sexual revolution. Three surveys of single Christians conducted in the 1990s turned up a lot of premarital sex: Approximately one-third of the respondents were virginsthat means, of course, that two-thirds were not.
True Love Waits, a popular Christian abstinence program with roots in the Southern Baptist Convention, was founded in 1993. The program asks teens to make the following pledge: "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship." In 2001, a study of 6,800 students showed that virgins who took the pledge were likely to abstain from sex for 18 months longer than those who did not take the pledge. Abstinence advocates touted this as good news, but actually it is troublingit means simply that a lot of abstinence pledgers are having sex at 19 instead of 18. This is hardly a decisive victory for abstinence.
As one reporter summarized the findings, "The pledge was more effective among 16-year-olds than 18-year-olds; there was no entirely conclusive evidence about its effectiveness among 15-year-olds; and it was only effective among those surveyed so long as less than 30 percent of their classmates took it. It had to be popular, but not too popular. Pity the poor policymaker who's supposed to act on these findings, navigating the incomprehensible logic of high-school cliques and identity politics." The study, which was conducted by sociologists at Columbia and Yale, also showed that students who broke the pledge were less likely than their non-pledging peers to use birth controlpresumably in part because the use of birth control implies that you thought about sex beforehand; you planned for it. The culture among Christian singles dictates that the sin is somehow less grave if you got swept up in the heat of the moment.