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The thrill of the chaste: In defense of sexless dating

Fed up with casual, meaningless sex in the modern dating world? Unsatisfied with today's sex-obsessed culture? Consider an alternative, says Dawn Eden. The author of “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On” argues in defense of chastity, providing personal details of her conversion to sexless dating.Speaking at colleges and churches throughout the country a
/ Source: TODAY

Fed up with casual, meaningless sex in the modern dating world? Unsatisfied with today's sex-obsessed culture? Consider an alternative, says Dawn Eden. The author of “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On” argues in defense of chastity, providing personal details of her conversion to sexless dating.

Speaking at colleges and churches throughout the country about experiencing unexpected joy after forsaking the “Sex and the City” lifestyle, I’ve had some interesting audience reactions — but one from a young woman last Friday had me momentarily speechless.

I had just finished a lecture based on my book "The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On," in which I lamented how modern society ridicules virginity.

“Look no further than ‘American Idol,’ ” I said, reminding the audience of Bruce Dickson, the 19-year-old contestant who told the judges he was saving not only sex but even his first kiss for his future wife. “Randy Jackson told him to come back after he had ‘kissed some girls.’ ”

After I finished, one of the audience members, a bubbly blonde of about 30, came up to me and smiled.

“Thanks,” she said, “for giving a shout-out to those of us who still have our V-card.”

Virgins are getting bolder — and for good reason.

* * *

It’s been quite a while since “love and marriage,” as Frank Sinatra sang, “went together like a horse and carriage.” The generation born around the time of that 1955 hit sang a different tune: Janis Joplin’s 1971 hit “Me and Bobby McGee.” To them, the goal of love was not marriage, but freedom, and freedom “just another word for nothing left to lose.” Virginity lost meant freedom gained — and a victory for the counterculture.

Today, as the baby boomers begin collecting Social Security, the once-rebellious ideal of free love has become as American as Cherry Garcia ice cream. In an age where sexual mores are set by the likes of Britney, Lindsay, Paris, and their greatest inspiration, Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City,” the true rebels are those young adults who are striving to attain a love that goes beyond sex. Like their parents, they make a free choice — and their choice is to pursue that long-forgotten virtue known as chastity.

Chastity is, in the words of Dr. Mark Lowery, associate professor of theology at the University of Dallas, “that virtue by which we are in control of our sexual appetite rather than it being in control of us.”

More than mere abstinence, which is purely physical, chastity flowers from within. While part of it does mean having sex only within marriage, it is not just about sex, but love. It is a lifelong journey of learning to love every individual in the fullest possible way — whether a friend, a relative, a spouse, or a stranger.

My friend Brett practices married chastity. That means he’s faithful to his wife, giving himself fully to her and receiving her love as a gift, rather than treating her as an object who exists to give him what he deserves. It also means the love he and his wife share adds fuel to all their relationships, including their devotion to their two children.

Brett agrees with me that, these days, chastity is countercultural. “It’s an alternative lifestyle,” he writes in an e-mail.

“When I think about that,” he adds, “I picture Cosmo, and where you find it: the checkout at the grocery store, perhaps the least sexy place on earth. But, if you think about it, the grocery store is mad sexy. As my wife’s been sick, I’ve been doing all the grocery shopping, and I take the kids with me so she can rest. And if you want true intimacy, there it is: Not only do I know her sexually, I know which flavor of jelly her children prefer. And like anything with a sales pitch attached, Cosmo is telling me, as I check out, that there’s something missing from my life. And the only way I believe that is if I overlook everything right around me.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the new, chaste counterculture is that many of its unmarried members no longer have their V-card. While some do save themselves for their wedding night, I find that most of the audience for my book and talks are young adults who, like me, bought into the “just do it” culture and found that it just didn’t do it for them.

* * *

For my part, I didn’t originally mean to become some kind of casual-sex fiend. When, as a teenage rock fan, I first dipped my fishnetted toe into the dating world, I hoped to have sex only with a man I loved who might become my husband.

Imagining Mr. Right would be a musician, I wasn’t above tipping the odds — becoming a rock journalist. Only after becoming disappointed in my quest — when I was 21 and the guitarist I thought was “the One” left me — did I change my plans.

Although I grew up Reform Jewish, by the time of that breakup I no longer had any faith to speak of. Like Carrie Bradshaw, the only congregation I belonged to was “the Church of Be Nice to People” — and even there, I think my membership had lapsed. That’s because, where my sex partners were concerned, my definition of being nice to people was the same as Carrie’s —“respecting” them.

As far as I could see, based on the messages I received from women’s magazines, films, TV shows and my own friends and family, the only necessary emotional requirement for having sex was respect. So long as my partner and I claimed to respect one another, no one could deny us our pleasure.

Well, that last part is true, of course. I had free will, and no one could stop me from making my own decisions. And I had pleasure — believe me. But something was missing. It took me years to understand what it was.

What was missing was joy. The kisses and caresses I sought, the heights of sexual excitement that I pursued — all served to camouflage the emptiness I felt inside.

That emptiness was in fact a God-shaped vacuum, as I discovered at 31 when I had a born-again experience that converted me to Christianity — beginning a journey that would eventually bring me to Catholic faith. But when the initial rush of my newfound faith faded, I had to face some hard facts — namely that, where my sex life was concerned, I had to get with the program.

For the first time, I saw clearly that all the sex I ever experienced had failed to bring me closer to marriage or even being able to sustain a committed relationship. Even when I had been in a relationship, the sex that was supposed to bring me and my lover closer effectively caused me to put up emotional barriers.

Before I discovered chastity, I believed I was supposed to make the most of my freedom to “have sex like a man.” That meant divorcing my emotions from my sexual activity, so that I would feel a bond with my partner only if and when I wished. If I wasn’t enjoying this game, then, according to feminist wisdom, I was doing it wrong.

Today I see that I was doing it right, and that’s precisely why I was unhappy. Can a woman really have sex like a man? I’m not so sure men can “have sex like a man” — at least, not without lasting emotional dysfunction. Sex is the most giving, self-sacrificing act that a woman can do with her body; she literally lets a man under her skin. I could not handle making myself so vulnerable for a man when I knew he had an “out.” And I don’t care what anyone says about the high divorce rate: The fact remains that when a man hasn’t signed that piece of paper, it is much easier for him to simply pack up his clothes and leave.

So I had become hardened, to protect myself. And when the smoke cleared after the bolt from the blue that gave me my faith, I found myself having to learn not only chastity, but vulnerability.

At first, I was bitter and resentful about forgoing sex. I would think, “OK, God, I’m doing this for you, and you’d better appreciate it!”

But I quickly found that I couldn’t stay chaste if I thought that way.

I was resentful because I saw becoming chaste as entering a door into the unknown and closing the door behind me. It was scary.

I knew how to get close to a man — a kind of closeness — by leaving the door open, so that the option of sex was available. I did not know how to build any kind of closeness without that option. So, when I was being “resentfully chaste,” it was like I was standing in that doorway, looking back at what I was leaving behind — like Lot’s wife. And if you remember, Lot’s wife looked back at Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt — which is like a body made of tears.

Perhaps it was a better way to go than if she had stayed behind — she would have become a pillar of brimstone. And, indeed, if I had stayed unchaste, I would have gotten burned out. But Lot’s wife never got to see the better life that lay ahead.

What I eventually realized was that if you want to learn how to love, really love and be loved, you have to go through that door, because that’s the only way to find true joy in this life. That’s the secret of the saints. You have to discover that love that goes beyond sex, the love that we are meant to share with everyone and not just that special someone.

And, if you do find that special someone, learning how to truly love and vow that love for life, will give you a bond that nothing can destroy.

In the hippie era, the supposed joys of sexual “freedom” were heady stuff. But how does the freedom to use or be used, to separate emotions from sex and sex from commitment, make one truly free?

There is no dignity in a society that encourages touching another person’s body but not allowing that person to touch your heart.

During the times I’ve dated since becoming chaste, I’ve found that, even as my boyfriend and I resist the urge to take off our clothes, I feel more and more ... naked.

Now I realize more so than ever before, how much I withheld when I was having sex. My lovers and I had used the act as a shortcut to intimacy. Going on date after date with a man I find immensely attractive and not having sex with him, the layers of emotional protection gradually get stripped away. What’s left is either a highway to heartbreak — or the foundation for the greatest love that ever was. The only way to learn the answer is to take the risk.

Dawn Eden is the author of “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On” (Thomas Nelson), also available in Spanish as “La Aventura de la Castidad.” She lives in Washington, D.C. Visit her online at