December 22, 2006


In 2005, I borrowed a book called A Return to Modesty1 and got kind of annoyed with it.

Conveniently, someone else has written the same book again, so I don't have to come up with new ways to be irritated. Dawn Eden2 is older, and she became an observant Catholic instead of an observant Jew, but it's basically the same old same old. Some woman becomes religious, stops having sex, and realizes how much happier and more fulfilled she is when she's chaste (or celibate or modest or whatever) and religious. Next step: publish a book so all the rest of us can learn how to be just as satisfied with our lives.3

The arguments are oddly similar to the way polyamory advocates sound sometimes: "Why didn't I know about this before? I spent all that time trying to be [monogamous/promiscuous]! I never realized that I actually could sleep with [lots of people/no one] without being [skeevy/lame]!"

The most noticeable aspect of this interview with Eden is that the focus of her romantic life, both before and after she was celibate, was primarily on finding a husband and secondarily on relieving her insecurities about being good enough and lovable enough. Note that when she talks about her pleasure in sex, she says:

There were times when I would count how many men I had had sex with in one two-week period and thought, "I must be this really hot, attractive chick to attract so many men."
I used to believe that, if I knew that I would never get married, I would kill myself.
Not anymore, but now,
as I was writing, I didn't want to think of what would become of me if I didn't get married. It was too frightening to imagine.
It gives you a sense of how central the idea of marriage was and is to her life. Also of what she sees as the alternative.

If you desperately want one kind of relationship, and start pursuing something completely different, you'll be unsatisfied. No real surprise, then, that when she stopped sleeping around and started looking for something she actually wanted, she got happier. Chastity, in Eden's view, is about not pursuing sex, but instead pursuing serious relationships with people whose values you share.
Instead of following the pop-culture prescription, to single-mindedly pursue a man who's going to make you happy, I am suggesting women should be singular and concentrate on being the best people they can be and displaying grace as individuals and as women. In doing that they will become more giving, more appreciative of everyone around them, so not only will they be better able to have meaningful friendships and relationships, but they will also be able to enjoy this time they have as singular women.
Similarly, she says chastity made her a better friend: before, her romantic life and friendships were about activities, and now both are about values and intense personal connections.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this transformation happened in Eden's life. But check it out: fundamentally, none of this is about who you have sex with. It's about caring, respect, connection with other people. For her, that happens through her relationship with sex. FOR HER. But she, like a lot of conservatives, conflates values with sex; like Wendy Shalit, she assumes that because she fundamentally wanted marriage and preferred chastity to promiscuity, all other women want that too.

I think, honestly, that it's a failure of imagination on her part that makes this happen: for her, relationships are either permanent or superficial; either no sex until marriage, or promiscuity. It's a false dichotomy, not just because there are possibilities between those two extremes, but because there are possibilities that combine those qualities, or have neither of them. It's also a way of trying to get people to be less obsessed with sex that is, itself, incredibly obsessed with sex.4 Really, the most telling line in the whole interview is her summary of her message:
It's about having substance as a person, seeking out friends who have depth and substance.
But why exactly does that have to be about sex?

1. By Wendy Shalit.
2. The Thrill of the Chaste.
3. Start following the Amazon links for those two books to find a few more. Their covers even look similar - part of a woman's face in some kind of old-fashioned painting.
4. The most extreme example of this I know is Westboro Baptist, who protest 'gay-friendly' organizations like the U.S. military with signs that depict sodomy using stick figures. That shit is weird.

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