Titans of Virtue: Chastity

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 “Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”

Guest Columnist

Our desire for sex, like hunger and thirst, allows human survival, and as Bertrand Russell remarked, is “enormously enhanced by abstinence, and temporarily allayed by satisfaction.”

But the similarities end about there.

Much can (and has) been said on the delectable pleasures of a perfectly paired wine or a decadent dessert, but Venus and Aphrodite were worshipped for a reason. You see, like all things divine, sex can and should be an unutterable but unforgettable experience—and that makes it special.

As you may know, Ben Franklin was no stranger to the erotic arts and was quite famous, or perhaps infamous for his seductive pen.  Consider this verse:

“Fair Venus calls; her voice obey.

In beauty’s arms, spend night and day.

The joys of love all joys excel

And loving’s certainly doing well.”

Sounds amazing, right? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. On the flipside, to buy a ticket on the transcendent train to O-town, emotional vulnerability is a common currency. And I say “train” because the acceleration is often slow and obvious, but eventually the speed, weight and momentum make it hard to stop.

The iconic and beautiful Mae West once quipped, “sex is emotion in motion,” and try as we might, emotion just doesn’t stop on command.

There are two opposing camps when it comes to sex. The abstinence folks think it best that sex be avoided and postponed until a suitable monogamous relationship can be formed, and preferably one endorsed by the church and state. The big problem here is that married or not, women still lay their monthly eggs and men still produce 1000 sperm per heartbeat. Sparks are bound to fly.  Abstinence until monogamous, even if we grant it as ideal, is biologically unrealistic.

On the other side, proponents of Marquis de Sade-like sexual indulgence see it as something to be actively pursued and enjoyed whenever and with whomever possible. To them, sex is the physical activity par excellance, and the more of it we get, the better off we’ll all be.

This view too has its problems.

Oxytocin, the brain hormone causing breastfeeding mothers to bond with their infants, can also be released during intercourse, thus forging connections between lovers.  The “benefits” in a world with utmost promiscuity would not appear to outweigh the emotional costs associated with constantly violating this biological pair-bonding system.

Thankfully, abstinence and absolute indulgence aren’t the only ways to approach this topic. Franklin’s virtue of chastity is neither one nor the other as it advises, big surprise, a middle path.

If hunger and thirst are natural urges that can be abused by improper choices or by consuming too much or too little, maybe the same holds true for sex. So when might it be appropriate to board, and when should we alight from this train?

The way I see it is that we only have a finite number of orgasms during our lifetimes. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but at some point, you will have your last one, and that will be it, as far as orgasms go. In the meantime, we should strive to do all our squirming and moaning in situations where we have good reason to believe that the peace and reputations of all involved can remain intact—and this includes people both in and out of the bedroom, kitchen, front seat, swimming pool, elevator, what have you.

Lovers aren’t the only ones who can be harmed. Sometimes sex involves the breaking of vows or commitments to significant others, and children can be exposed to the collateral damage.

So take a moment to think about your last sexual encounter. Did anyone get hurt? If your answer is no, great! But if you’d rather not go there, let’s at least see what we can do about things going forward.

To calculate who might become damaged by our acts requires clear and level-headed thinking; but at a time when we need it most, reason often eludes us. Blood flow to the brain—the physical location of our reasoning faculties—is diverted to other the erogenous extremities. As previously mentioned, oxytocin levels can spike unawares.

“What a silly thing Love is…,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “For it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true.”

So let’s recap this phenomenon of sex. We have to do it—biologically speaking. We really, really want to do it.  Someone might get hurt in the process—maybe even us. But we may become too unreasonable to sort through it all. Talk about a catch-22.

Fortunately, we are not without recourse. Here are three things we can do that can help us have our cake and eat it too.

1)     If you’re in a healthy monogamous relationship, stay put. This is the often-unrealizable ideal for many, but if you have it, keep it. If you don’t, this might make a fine goal. Having a long-term lover and friend brings many benefits both in and out of the bedroom.

2)     Be honest. If you want a committed monogamous relationship, say so. If monogamy is not for you, that’s fine too. We’re all in different places. If you’re just looking to bang it out for a night, a few weeks, a summer, say so. There’s probably more than few out there who aren’t looking for anything more than just that – and that’s OK. Have fun and be safe. But don’t assume the other person just intuits your intentions. Make them known and talk about them. Don’t be afraid to share what is on your mind, but don’t forget to also listen to what your partner says in response.

3)     Be willing to walk away. If the relationship is bringing more harm then good into the world, it is time to let it go. Sex is a wonderful thing, but perhaps not so wonderful that we ought use it to accomplish our own selfish ends at the expense of others.  If harm is present, see if you can fix it. If it works out, great! If not, have the strength and courage to walk away.

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