views updated May 14 2018


CHASTITY . A central virtue in the Greek, Roman, and Christian traditions, chastity (Gk. sōphrosunē, Lat. castitas ) reflects the values of purity, blamelessness, and order. The term is sometimes misunderstood as referring to asceticism or sexual abstinence, but the relationship between chastity and renunciation is one of tension and in many cases opposition. In its original context in the ancient Mediterranean, chastity is marked by a connotation of fertility and reproduction, and this has persisted in Christianity across its history, though with important and complicating developments described below.

Greek sŌphrosunĒ and Roman castitas

From archaic times, the Greek poets had celebrated the virtue of mental balance and self-mastery, sōphrosunē. Sōphrosunē stood for the moderation and good sense of an Odysseus, in contrast both to megalopsychia, the high-minded boldness and honor of a warrior hero such as Ajax or Achilles, and to hybris, the unwary pride that could only lead to nemesis, destruction. Where men are concerned, it is not until fifth-century Athens that this idea of balance begins to include emphasis on moderation (though by no means rejection) of the sexual appetites. For women, however, the sexual loyalty and self-control implicit in the male version of sōphrosunē is explicit in the earliest sources. The Odyssey 's description of Penelopein her faithful rejection of suitors when her husband Odysseus was believed dead, and her initial caution on being told that he had been seen alivewas accepted by all later writers as the classic example of the virtue.

In their origin, the values of sound-mindedness, moderation, and balance denoted by sōphrosunē bear no relation to Greek ideas of ritual purity (hagnotēs ) and pollution, but by the early fifth century bce purity had come to have a moral connotation, and this had repercussions for sōphrosunē. Plato (d. 347 bce) developed this further, according a role to sōphrosunē in his idea of katharsis (purification). In later antiquity, Neoplatonists such as Plotinus (d. 269/70 ce) and the Christian Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389 ce) would redefine sōphrosunē as a means of purifying the soul and elevating it towards union with the One. But for the orators of the classical and Hellenistic periods, masculine sōphrosunē was essentially a civic virtue, the quality allowing the good citizen to cooperate with his peers and rivals on behalf of the common good. At the same time, sōphrosunē is the most common virtue attributed on memorial reliefs and tombstones for Greek women, both married and unmarried.

Different aspects of sōphrosunē correspond to distinct Latin equivalents. The male civic virtue of self-control corresponds to temperantia and moderatio, virtues which are commended by the Latin orators in terms similar to Greek praise for sōphrosunē. But chastity (castitas ), the domestic or sexual aspect, comes from the Latin vocabulary of ritual purity. Corresponding to the Sanskrit Ṣ́íţah (instructed) and originally denoting conformity to religious law or rite, the adjective castus (from which castitas is derived) acquired, in classical Latin, an ethical dimension through its similarity with the participial form of careō (to lack). In writers such as Cicero (d. 43 bce) castus could be taken to mean "without fault," attested alongside the earlier meaning of ritual conformity or expertise. The range of meanings of castus is reflected in its antonym incestus, which denotes both ritual and moral impurity. For Roman women, castitas, like sōphrosunē, was the virtue of wisdom and fidelity in marriage, with a strong connotation of fertility (and specifically of producing children whose paternity was not in doubt). The chaste, fertile wife was a prized figure in Roman society, a cherished icon of romanitas.


It is through Latin Christianity that castitas exerted its greatest influence in the European tradition, and developments in late antiquity reflect an emerging tension over how to define the virtue. From earliest times, both sōphrosunē and castitas had been applicable to both the married and the unmarried. To the degree that restraint of sexuality was an important dimension, this was in service of the civic values of monogamy and fertility. A virgin's chastity foretold its own fulfilment at the next, married, stage of life in harmonious domesticity and the production of legitimate offspring. Earliest Christianity did not challenge the ancient definitions of sōphrosunē and castitas. Although many New Testament and early Christian writers perceived an eschatological value in sexual continence (enkrateia ), the second-century author of the Pastoral Epistles of the New Testament embraces a traditional Greek idea of sōphrosunē as a civic virtue, and even the proponents of enkrateia do not define it as a synonym of sōphrosunē. But in the fourth and fifth centuries Christian ascetic writers sought to redefine sōphrosunē and castitas in ascetic terms. In the case of Latin Christianity this would have significant repercussions up to and beyond the Reformation.

A minority of Latin Christian writers, among them the brilliant but famously intemperate biblical scholar Jerome (d. 420 ce), argued that it was the ascetic, not the legitimately married householder, who best exemplified the virtue of castitas. The more traditionally-minded Ambrose of Milan (d. 397 ce) found the winning formula, reasserting the ancient compatibility between premarital and marital aspects of castitas, yet describing castitas as taking three forms. Conjugal, widowed, and virginal castitas were, however, ranked according to an ascending order of virtue, in terms which evoked the New Testament hierarchy of the thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and hundred-fold fruits. This definition would endure through the Latin Middle Ages, and the Benedictine monastic commitment to poverty, chastity, and obedience draws on this "inclusive" definition. Perhaps the most important medieval contribution is that of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1273 ce), who defined castitas as an aspect of the cardinal virtue of temperance, moderating the sense appetite of both body and soul. (While the less perfect virtue of continence strengthens the soul against the assaults of passion, castitas operates at a deeper level, tranquilizing the impulse itself. Castitas thus sanctifies both the married couple in legitimate sexual union, and the ascetic in sexual renunciation.)

Since the early Modern period, the Protestant Reformed Churches have returned to a more ancient emphasis on the chastity of the married in their refusal to endorse clerical and monastic sexual renunciation. Catholic theology up to the Second Vatican Council (19621965) followed Aquinas in defining virginity as the highest form of chastity, while post-Vatican II theologians have asserted the moral value of sexual union in marriage as a sign and expression of conjugal and procreative charity.

Judaism and Islam

Biblical, Hellenistic, and Rabbinic Judaism do not have a concept precisely analogous to sōphrosunē and castitas, though sexual virtue is understood as a matter both of ritual purity and of ethics. Although ancient Israelite warriors had been required to practice sexual abstinence in preparation for battle, throughout Jewish history the procreative union of legitimate marriage has been prized as a response to the biblical dictum, "Be fruitful and multiply." In early Israel, the high priest was a married householder, and his family's behavior was scrutinized along with his own for sexual and ethical purity. Up to and including the Rabbinic period, polygyny meant that sexual fidelity to a single partner was required in women rather than in men; adultery, for example, was defined as extra-marital union involving a married woman. (A married man was not legally an adulterer unless his partner was another man's wife.) Fertility and secure paternity seem to have been the object. Though a wife's sexual virtue was highly valued, this aspect is not persistently singled out for praise in Biblical literature. The good wife of Proverbs 31, for example, whose price is celebrated as having been above that of jewels, was in fact praised for her shrewd business sense rather than for sexual virtue, though the latter is likely to have been taken as a given.

Islamic ideas surrounding sexual virtue are broadly compatible with those of Biblical Judaism. This is reflected in the idea that marriage, householding, and reproduction are a central ethical duty for men as well as women, and in the acceptance of polygyny, with the corresponding asymmetry in the definition of male and female sexual virtue. Legitimate conjugal sexuality includes periods of abstinence such as the fasting days of Ramaān or the pilgrimage to Mecca, but permanent sexual continence is not favored.

Most literature on chastity in Islam deals with its legal aspect, the regulation of sexual activity for both men and women in conformity with notions of ritual purity or ahārah. Female seclusion, haram (Eng., "harem"), along with specific forms of dress designed to signal married and particularly wifely chastity, are practiced in culturally diverse forms (and in varying degrees) in many Islamic communities, underlining the cultural centrality of sexual virtue. (Haram, the area wherein things prohibited to immortality are present, is a term also used to describe the sanctuary area around mosques and religious sites such as the Kaʿbah in Mecca.)

According to the Qurʾān it̄isham, modesty in personal appearance, is required of both men and women. For women, the adoption of severe forms of self-covering such as facial veiling, particularly by groups living in proximity to Muslim or non-Muslim communities whose female dress is comparatively relaxed, can serve as a means of marking a community's boundary, and even of broadcasting its dissent from a dominant culture in politically charged terms. By contrast, in South Asia seclusion of women, commonly referred to in English as "purdah" (pardā in Hindi and Urdu, from the Persian parde, "curtain") occurs in both Muslim and non-Muslim contexts, including Christian communities.


The broad array of South Asian traditions, sects, and religious-philosophical schools which are referred to under the umbrella term 'Hinduism' share no single defining feature. In general it can be said that their mode of defining the relationship between sexual and ritual purity is decidedly different from that of the religious traditions springing from the ancient Mediterranean empires. However, in the case of Islam a millennium of proximity between Islam and indigenous traditions in South Asia has not been without effect (so, for example, South Asian Muslim and Hindu approaches to purdah often reflect mutual influence).

While European writers such as Max Weber have tended to emphasize the traditions of the world-renouncing ascetic in South Asia in terms which highlight its superficial commonalities with European asceticism, these tradition are neither so dominant in South Asian religious practice, nor so similar to their European counterparts, as has been implied. Important in this respect is the fact that in South Asian traditions the purity/impurity binary coexists with the binary of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. Despite their structural similarity, these binaries often work across each other rather than in parallel. Thus sexuality is generally defined as impure rather than pure, but as auspicious rather than inauspicious. The identification of śakti, the generative and vital principle, with women means that maternity, like sexuality, is seen as powerfully auspicious, and as a positively valued arena of female agency, at the same time as childbirth and the sexual act are ritually impure. Though householdership is perceived as normative for women in most South Asian traditions, with devotion to the health, longevity, and prosperity of husband and sons the core duty (dharma ), it is generally held that for both men and women dharma may be defined according to life-stage. Post-reproductive asceticism for women is widely valued, with the rejection altogether of the householder dharma for women a minority position. Since antiquity, a strand of tradition has venerated the Hindu widow as an exemplar of perfect wifely loyalty and devotion if on the death of her husband she became satī by throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre. The practice, never widely attested, nonetheless is intermittently attested as having elicited considerable religious devotion. It continues sporadically to the present, and has been the subject of international concern and controversy in the aftermath of the death of Roop Kanwar, a young Rajasthani widow, in 1987.


Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn. 1993.

Babb, Lawrence A. The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India. New York, 1970.

Banerjee, Pompa. Burning Women: Widows, Witches, and Early Modern European Travelers in India. New York, 2003.

Cooper, Kate. The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Denton, Lynn Teskey. "Varieties of Hindu Female Asceticism." In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, edited by Julia Leslie. London, 1991.

Hawley, John Stratton. Sati, The Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India. New York, 1994.

Jamison, Stephanie W. Sacrificed Wife, Sacrificer's Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India. New York, 1996.

North, Helen. Sophrosune. Ithaca, N.Y., 1966.

Peristany, J.G., ed. Honour and Shame: The Values of a Mediterranean Society. Chicago, 1966.

Mandelbaum, David G. Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Tucson, Ariz., 1988.

Marglin, Frédérique Apffel. "Power, Purity, and Pollution: Aspects of the Caste System Reconsidered." Contributions to Indian Sociology n.s. 11:2 (1977).

Marglin, Frédérique Apffel. "Female Sexuality in the Hindu World." In Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality. Edited by Clarissa W. Atkinson, Constance H. Buchanan, and Margaret R. Miles. Boston, 1985.

Matthews, Victor H., and Don C. Benjamin, eds. "Honor and Shame in the World of the Bible." Semeia: An Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism 68 (1994).

Moulinier, Louis. Le pur et l'impur dans la pensée des Grecs. Paris, 1952.

Roper, Lyndal. The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg. Oxford, 1989.

Kate Cooper (2005)


views updated Jun 27 2018


Translating the Latin castitas, chastity is the moral virtue that moderates and regulates the sexual appetite in man.

The Natural Virtue of Chastity. Man is by nature a sexual being, endowed with specifically sexual desires or drives. Some regulation of his sexual appetite is required by the nature of human life, both personal and social. When self-moderation and self-regulation in sexual life are apprehended and practiced by man as inherently right or good they assume a moral character and become the natural virtue of chastity. The forms of sexual selfmoderation that are concretely apprehended as good or morally necessary have varied greatly in history and still vary among men. They are to a large extent determined by sociological patterns. The principle of sexual selfmoderation is, however, an absolute of human morality.

It is the foundation of natural law and natural virtue in the sexual sphere. Ideally, a rational analysis of human sexuality in terms of this basic principle should lead to the apprehension of the truth of all that Christian ethics places under the heading of natural chastity. In practice this conclusion is rarely reached on rational grounds alone. Christian ethics tacitly benefits by the higher light of revelation in positing the natural conjugal act as the only good fulfillment, in the moral sense, of the genital impulse in man.

Anatomically, physiologically, and emotionally sexuality is profoundly rooted in human nature and in the human person. This is a fact of general human experience that has been scientifically pursued and analyzed in modern sexological studies. The moderating virtue of chastity thus involves a rectification and harmonization of the whole man at the different levels of sexual experience, physical, emotional, and mental. Mere conscious rejection or unconscious repression of sexuality is not chastity, for neither constitutes a moral moderation of sexuality but only warps and frustrates it.

The modern psychological distinction between sexual fulfillment in a broad, or generic, sense and genital (or, in scholastic terminology, venereal) fulfillment in the strict organic sense clarifies the moral issue at this point. The conjugal act is the moral act of genital fulfillment, but sexuality in the general sense can be and is fulfilled in a well-ordered personal and social life. This is verified in conjugal life, where general sexual fulfillment in everyday relationships is at least as important for husband and wife as genital fulfillment. A satisfactory single life fulfills sexuality in another way. Basic personal energies, including basic sexual energy (i.e., the basic masculine energy of a man, the basic feminine energy of a woman), are channeled into the pursuit of life-enhancing goals. The urge toward genital fulfillment is transcended in the self-realization achieved through general personal and social fulfillment. Chastity, whether practiced in forms appropriate to conjugal life or in those required by single life, always maintains its character as virtue. It is the positive moral moderation and regulation of sexuality.

Chastity in Scripture and the Fathers. The Yahwistic creation narrative sets sexuality within the divine design of creation; sacred and purposeful, the sexual differentiation of mankind leads to monogamous sexual union (Gn 2.1824). This highly religious and moral vision of sexuality underlies the Judeo-Christian theology of chastity, though in practice it was greatly blurred in the OT by the tolerance of polygamy and divorce (Mt 19.8). Moral chastity in married life is praised in the later wisdom literature (Sir 26.1418; Wis 3.13; 4.12), and there are outstanding individual examples of chastityJoseph (Gn 39.9), Susanna (Dn 13.2223), and Sarah and Tobias (Tb 3.1418; 8.49).

In the NT the full sacredness and the full moral ideal of chastity are repeatedly stressed. Chastity (γκράτεια in the sexual sphere) and purity (γνεία) denote the general integration of sexuality with the life of the spirit. Chastity resides above all in the heart and spirit (Mk7.1423; Mt 15.1020) but embraces also the sphere of conduct (Phil 4.8: "whatever is pure," γνά). It is a God-given adornment of man, a fruit of the presence and action of the Spirit (Gal 5.23; 1 Thes 4.38).

Patristic teaching on chastityexcept when given an antisexual slant by Neoplatonic and Stoic ideasdevelops the Biblical theology of chastity as the sanctification of sexuality. The Eastern Fathers emphasize its mystical and transcendent character; the Western, its practical aspects. Chastity is a radiance of the divine beauty (Gregory of Nyssa), makes men akin to God (John Climacus), is divinely fertile (Origen). It belongs to the order of love (Augustine, Civ. 15.22) and requires purification from all sensuality (Cassian, Collationes 12.7). With Ambrose the three forms of chastityconjugal, widowed, and virginalbecome an established schema in Western theology.

St. Thomas's Theology of Chastity. St. Thomas Aquinas, accepting sexuality as a normal constituent of human nature, makes its moderating virtue, chastity, a subjective part of the cardinal virtue of temperance (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 141.4). Its subject is the sense appetite and involves both body and soul, or in other words the whole man. Thus chastity involves more than the strengthening of the spirit against the assaults of passion: this is the imperfect virtue of continence (ibid. 155.1). Chastity moderates and tranquilizes the genital impulse itself. Its highest form is virginity, which demands complete immunity from coital pleasure (ibid. 152.3 ad 5).

There is also a spiritual or metaphorical chastity that consists in the due regulation of experiences of pleasure in the mind (mens ) of man. To delight in God is an act of chastity in this spiritual sense (ibid 151.2).

St. Thomas did not distinguish a form of chastity that is not metaphorical but truly sexual and is yet not genital. Modern psychological findings require a supplementation of his theology of chastity on this point. There is a chastity of the emotions that regulates and sanctifies sexuality in the general sense even where the exercise of genital, or venereal, chastity is not called for. Feminine possessiveness, for instance, can enter deeply into mother-love, especially toward a son. Genital chastity is not in question here; but there is a definite want of sexual moderation and therefore of chastity at the emotional level. St. Thomas is not concerned with emotional chastity. Following St. Augustine, he relates sexuality to the genital act (commixtio venerea ) in firmly biological terms. Sex belongs to man's animal life, whereas his life in society belongs to the rational and strictly human aspect of being (ST 1a2ae, 94.2). But chastity in moderating genital sexuality moderates and sanctifies the human person, and in marriage the human couple.

The Asceticism of Chastity. Chastity is both a gift of the Holy Spirit and a task of self-discipline. The asceticism of chastity forms an important theme of Christian spirituality in all ages (see lust). In practice the subject has often been befogged by the predominance of fear of sexuality in the manner of treating it (see modesty). In modern times the training of youth in chastity has become more positive and realistic.

Chastity in Modern Catholic Theology. The trend of modern Catholic theology has been toward a closer integration of sexuality with the distinctively personal life of man. Sexuality in the general sense is a form, sign, and expression of the human personality itself. Man is man and woman is woman at every level of personal life from the humblest to the most exalted. In this senseand it is a very far-reaching onesexuality affects the entire individual, social, and religious life of mankind. It derives its morality (chastity in the generic sense) from the positive and constructive function it should exercise in personal and social life as a whole, in accordance with each one's calling in life. Genital sexuality on the other handthe specific sexuality proper to married lifeis the specific form, sign, and expression of conjugal love. It derives its morality and chastity from its authentic love function in married life, to which it belongs exclusively. The procreative function of genital sexuality is in no way overlooked in this synthesis but assigned its rightful and necessary place within it. At the supernatural level sexuality is integrated with charity. Conjugal genital union stands as specific form, sign, and expression of conjugal charity, which is also procreative charity.

Bibliography: l. m. weber, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanishe Konsil: Dokumente und Kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al. (1966) 6:133136. w. e.mÜhlmann and f. bloemhof, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:125761. a. willwoll, Dictionaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al (Paris 1932) 2:787809. a. auer, h. fries, ed. Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, 2 v. (Munich 196263) 1: 498506. j. fuchs, De castitate et ordine sexuali (Rome 1959), standard modern textbook with good bibliog.; Die Sexualethik des heiligen Thomas von Aquin (Cologne 1949), analyzes St. Thomas's concept of sexual order. p. lafÉteur, "Temperance," The Virtues and States of Life, ed. a. m. henry, tr. r. j. olsen and g. t. lennon (Theology Library 4; Chicago 1957) 533613, on St. Thomas's theology of chastity. Modern expositions of personalized chastity. É. mersch, Love, Marriage and Chastity, tr. from Fr. (New York 1939). d. von hildebrand, In Defense of Purity (New York 1931; repr. Baltimore 1962). h. doms, Der Einbau der Sexualität in die menschliche Persönlichkeit (Cologne 1959). p. ricoeur et al., Esprit 28 (1960) 16651964, on different aspects of sexuality. j. cazeneuve, Les Rites et la condition humaine d' après des documents ethnographiques (Paris 1958), on sexual ethnology. On the psychology of chastity. l. c. sheppard, tr., Chastity (Westminster, Md.1955). VIIe Congrès international de psychologie religieuse, Mystique et continence (Bruges 1952). a. plÉ, Vie affective et chasteté (Paris 1964). a. auer, "Eheliche Hingabe und Zeugung," Theologische-praktishe Quatalschrift 112 (Linz 1964) 121132, on current theories on the subordination of opus naturae to opus personae in conjugal chastity.

[s. o'riordan]


views updated Jun 27 2018


Chastity is a concept found in the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It refers to purity of one's thoughts and deeds, particularly as they apply to sexual relations. To be chaste means that one is a virgin until marriage and engages in sex only with one's lawful spouse. For Catholic priests and nuns, chastity includes, but is not limited to, sexual abstinence; the goal of chastity is to eliminate all carnal desires so that one can fully concentrate one's mind and body on serving God.

Some Christians argue that married couples should also remain chaste, that is, abstain from sex, except for the purpose of reproduction. However, this was not its original meaning. The confusion over whether chastity refers to complete abstinence or only abstinence outside of marriage stems from the religious emphasis placed on chastity as a moral state of mind. The chaste person is first and foremost modest, simple in expression, and acts in accordance to religious moral precepts. Restraint in sexual behavior is a consequence of, rather than a synonym of, chastity.

In Islam the concept of chastity refers only to sexual abstinence among unmarried men and women. There is no order of religious priests in Islam and all religious leaders are permitted to marry. In Judaism, rabbis are permitted to marry and the injunction on sexual abstinence is limited to unmarried Jews. In Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, monks and nuns take a vow of chastity (brahmacharya) for life. In these three Eastern religions the goal of chastity is to eliminate all attachments to other humans and to all bodily desires so that the person liberate themselves from earthly pleasures, focus on religious service, and eventually attain nirvana or moksha. Nirvana and mochas refer to finally getting off of the wheel of death and rebirth (samsara) and reuniting with the universal godhead. In Zoroastrianism, chastity is expected only until marriage after which married couples—including priests, who are permitted to marry—are expected to have children to continue the faith. So, for all religions, chastity refers to sexual abstinence out of wedlock and purity of mind.


The modern Western idea of chastity is rooted in the ideal of courtly love that originated in southern France in the eleventh century. At that time, most marriages among the nobility were arranged and lacked intimacy. Courtly love served as a way for women to be sexually faithful to their contracted husbands, while at the same time having a chaste romantic relationship with a suitor. The suitor, usually of a lower class than the woman, was motivated not only by love but also by prestige and economic gain. Courtly love relationships were romantic and could even be expressed in public without shame and with the consent of the husband. However, such relations always had to be chaste, thus explicitly separating love from sex. When courtly love ceased to be chaste it caused both social and personal disruption, even destruction. The prototypical story of courtly love and chastity is that of Sir Lancelot and his love for King Arthur's wife, Guinevere. Their love was expressed publicly with the approval of King Arthur; it was when their love ceased to be chaste that it led to the dissolution of King Arthur's court. The two ideas of courtly love—that romantic love is pure when it is independent of sexual desire and that the conjunction of the two is frequently socially and psychologically dangerous—survive in the early twenty-first century.


There are three different forms of chastity that are popular: the first, and by far the most organized and largest of these, is rooted in various religiously based movements that encourage teenagers and singles to remain chaste until marriage; the second, which is not organized but which is also popular especially among youths, is the idea that youths should channel their sexual energy to noble nonreligious causes, such as poverty, the environment, self-actualization, and so on; the third movement is, in many ways, the perverse inverse of the religious ideal of chastity, and extols chastity as a means to heighten sexual pleasure. What these three different cultural versions of chastity have in common is the belief that chastity purifies the mind and allows one to focus on good deeds. Each of these three different modern-day cultural versions of chastity is discussed below.


The chastity movement in modern-day America began in 1940 when fifty Jesuit priests convened to write a booklet aimed at college-bound youths. The key theme of this booklet was that chastity is the queen of Christian virtues. Young adults were enjoined to resist sexual temptation by reminding themselves that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and therefore a shrine to God. Sex out of wedlock is the same as desecrating the house of God. Chastity does not mean celibacy for married couples but it does imply that sex should not be done to satisfy lust and that wife and husband should remember that the body belongs to Christ and not to one's spouse. After a couple has borne children they are encouraged to practice perfect or absolute chastity so that each can be closer to God.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Jesuit view of chastity was popularized by national chastity movements, the largest of these is called True Love Waits (TLW). TLW was founded as part of a Christian sex education campaign in 1987 by Jimmy Hester who was joined in 1992 by Richard Ross, a Baptist pastor. The success of TLW hinges on a four-pronged strategy: first are frequent meetings by peers; second are personal testimonials; third are symbols of commitment to chastity; and fourth is peer and parental pressure to encourage young adults to make a commitment to chastity. Members of the TLW movement are encouraged to meet regularly and recruit friends into the movement. Unlike the Jesuit booklet, TLW counselors and speakers directly address such intimate issues as whether or not looking at a swimsuit magazine, kissing, oral sex, or homosexuality are permitted.

The chastity movements in the United States are generically Christian rather than Catholic and are frequently associated with right-to-life and anti-abortion campaigns. Akin to medieval courtly love, the contemporary chastity movement separates romantic love from sex, emphasizing not only that sex can destroy romantic love, but that romantic love is purer when the couple is chaste.


In a study of New England college students who chose to be chaste, Victor de Munck (2001) discovered that as many as 50 percent of them chose to do so because of their commitment to a noble cause. These students were so devoted or committed to their particular cause(s) that they simply had neither time nor immediate desire to enter into a committed relationship. Their attitude was identical to that of a Catholic monk who chooses to be celibate in order to serve God, except that they chose to serve a secular ideological calling. Unlike the college students who chose chastity for religious reasons, these students did not consider virginity a moral requirement or virtue but chose it for pragmatic reasons—it took time and was potentially troublesome.


Although chastity belts are commonly associated with the medieval era, they were first made in the 1600s. Chastity belts were sometimes worn by females (usually from the upper class) either to keep them virgins or ensure fidelity whenever their husbands went away for an extended period of time. As Western medical practices had long considered masturbation deleterious to a man's health, chastity belts were also made for young men.

In recent years chastity belts have made a comeback as part of an alternative sexual lifestyle involving bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism (BDSM). Chastity belts are usually made of plastic, stainless steel and leather, with a key lock in the center. There are a number of specialty shops that make custom-made chastity belts. Among practitioners of BDSM, chastity belts are used to prevent penetrative-receptive sex or masturbation in order to heighten sexual desire and ultimately sexual pleasure. Periods of sexual denial may be short or long-term. In either case the goals are to gain control over one's own or one's partner's sexual desire, and to frustrate that desire in order to achieve a stronger orgasm.

Chastity belts for men or women are bought or, more typically, ordered online from adult stores or specialty shops, the latter making customized belts. They are usually con-sensually used by a monogamous couple. There is a division of labor: one partner wears the belt and the other possesses the key to the belt. The person with the key usually plays the dominant role (called dom), whereas the person wearing the chastity belt plays the submissive role (called sub). In order to have the chastity belt removed, the person wearing it must obey the commands of the keyholder.

Contemporary culture is more complex and varied than it was during the 1950s. The concept of chastity has been interpreted in surprising ways depending on the interests and personal dispositions of the individual. Regardless of the differences in the adoption of the concept of chastity, all three groups described above define chastity as a state of mind that is intended to discipline the body in order to bring the person into a closer relationship with the object of his or her love.

see also Abstinence; Virginity.


De Munck, Victor C. 2001. "Cultural Schemas of Celibacy." In Celibacy, Culture, and Society: the Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence, ed. S. Bell and E. J. Sobo. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Kelly, Gerald. 2002. Chastity: A Guide for Teens and Young Adults. Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books.

"Lifeway Student Ministry (True Love Waits)." Available from

                                           Victor de Munck


views updated May 21 2018


CHASTITY , avoidance of illicit sexual activity. In the name of holiness, the Bible exhorts against following the abominations of "the land of Egypt in which ye have dwelt" and "of the land of Canaan into which I bring ye" (Lev. 18:3). Adultery, incest, sodomy, and bestiality are called abominations; rape and seduction are likewise censured (see *Sexual Offenses). Maimonides writes, "No prohibition in all the Torah is as difficult to keep as that of forbidden unions and illicit sexual relations" (Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 22:18), quoting the talmudic statement that the Israelites initially objected when taught to desist from the immorality they had known in Egypt (bokheh le-mishpeḥotav, Num. 11:10 = al iskei mishpeḥotav, Yoma 75a). Accordingly, preventive measures are set forth in the Talmud and codes to keep one far from temptation and sexual sin. The force of this temptation, however, varies: while yiḥud ("being alone together") is forbidden as a safeguard against fornication, "Israel," says the Talmud, "is above suspicion of sodomy or bestiality" (Kid. 82a), and hence no preventive precautions were deemed necessary against these perversions (Yad, loc. cit., 22:2 and Sh. Ar., eh 24:1). Against incest, on the other hand, which might occur even unwittingly through the marriage of persons of unknown parentage, the preventive laws included measures to establish clearly the paternity of a child.

Adultery is severely condemned. It is both a sin (Joseph to Potiphar's wife: "How can I commit this great evil, sinning against God?" Gen. 39:9) included in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:14) – a sin which defiles (Lev. 18:20) – and a crime (Deut. 22:23–24). Along with murder and idolatry, the sexual offenses of adultery and incest are considered so grave that one must prefer death, viz. martyrdom, to committing them ("let him die rather than transgress," Sanh. 74a), whereas the entire Torah is otherwise set aside to preserve life or health (Yoma 82b). The adultery so roundly condemned is that involving a married woman, whereas sexual relations between a married man and an unmarried woman constitute an offense of a lesser category. This "double standard" is consistent with a patriarchal system, which allowed for polygamy but not for polyandry. Still, if the husband had not taken the second woman as wife or concubine, the relationship was considered to be one of zenut ("harlotry"). With polygamy and concubinage declining on both social and moral grounds, the mutual fidelity of *monogamy became the normative ideal. John Calvin was astonished at not finding an explicit reference to "fornication," i.e., relations between unmarried consenting adults, among the sexual prohibitions of the Bible. The Sifra (Kedoshim, perek 7:1), however, interprets Leviticus 19:29 ("Thou shalt not profane thy daughter to make of her a harlot") as referring to consensual relations without benefit of marriage (cf. Sanh. 76a). Maimonides codifies the view that declares such relations harlotry (Yad, Ishut 1:4) and that sees the marriage bond as the Torah's advance over primitive society. "A bride without the wedding blessings is forbidden to her husband like a niddah" (Kal. 1:1). Indeed, the laws of *niddah (of separation during the period of menstruation and subsequent purification) added a dimension to the regimen of chastity. Since even an unmarried woman, not having ritually immersed herself since her last period, is technically a niddah, the prohibition – interpreted to include contact (from Lev. 18:19; Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, negative precept no. 353; cf. Naḥmanides ad loc.) – was construed to apply to her as well (Ribash, Resp., no. 425; Maggid Mishneh to Maim. Yad, Ishut 4:12). Intimacies already prohibited on grounds of erotic stimulation, or of temptation to illicit sex, were thus to be avoided on additional grounds (as opposed to other such permitted contacts: cf. Ex. R. 5:1 on "and Jacob kissed Rachel," Gen. 29:11; Ket. 17a). The implicit prohibition against premarital sex was strengthened by a decree against yiḥud with an unmarried woman (Av. Zar. 36b). But the temptations are seen as remaining formidable, and are best overcome by early marriage. One who passes the age of 20 and is not yet married "spends all his days in sin. 'Actual sin?' Rather say, 'in the thought of sin'" (Kid. 29b). The "sin" here, however, ends with marriage (Yev. 62b; Tur, eh 1:1, and Isserles to Sh. Ar., eh 1:1, based on Prov. 18:22) – which sets off the Jewish view of chastity from the classical Christian view. Chastity is not an avoidance of sex but of illicit sex. Sex is not intrinsically evil – embodied in original sin, incompatible with the holiness required of a priest or nun, a concession to human weakness for others – but is a legitimate good, even a mitzvah. Nor is procreation its justification or its primary purpose. The husband's conjugal obligations, independent of procreation, are defined in terms of frequency (Ex. 21:10; Ket. 47b) as well as quality (Isaac of Corbeille, Sefer Mitzvot Katan, no. 285, on Deut. 24:5; Pes. 72b); they continue even during the wife's pregnancy or if she is barren. When the procreational mitzvah must be set aside, for health reasons, for example, then proper contraception is called for by the various rabbinic responsa (see *Birth Control), as opposed to abstinence, which is rejected as an unwarranted frustration of the mitzvah of marital relations. Chastity, then, was the manner in which Judaism steered a course between the twin excesses of paganism and puritanism. To stipulate, for example, that husband or wife follow "the custom of the Persians" and remain clothed during conjugal relations is grounds for divorce according to Talmud and Codes (Ket. 48a; eh 76:13). Natural tendencies toward modesty or chastity within marriage are acknowledged in Talmud and moralistic works, but the law is established (Ned. 20b; Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 21:9) that a "man may do with his wife as he pleases," in keeping, i.e., with her wishes (ibid.; Abraham b. David of Posquières, Ba'alei ha-Nefesh, Sha'ar ha-Kedushah; Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. by R. Margalioth (1957), 339, no. 509). A man may not be "pious" at his wife's expense and pursue ascetic inclinations to the neglect of the marital mitzvah (Abraham b. David, loc. cit.), so that when *asceticism became popular among both Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages, there was "one important respect in which Ḥasidism differed sharply from its Christian contemporaries" – that "nowhere did penitence extend to sexual abstinence in marital relations" (Scholem, Mysticism, 106).


L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948, repr. 1967); D.M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law (1968); E.B. Borowitz, Choosing a Sex Ethic (1969).

[David M. Feldman]


views updated May 21 2018


The term "chastity" refers to religiously authorized sexual contact. Thus, within a given religious tradition, someone who is "chaste" has sexual contact only in a religiously sanctioned manner, usually vaginal intercourse with a spouse of the opposite sex. The word "chaste" is etymologically related to the word "caste," which similarly is concerned with rules of interpersonal contact. Chastity is often confused with celibacy, which refers only to abstinence from sexual contact.

The value of chastity is emphasized most strongly in Christian traditions, and it is a key element in Roman Catholic teachings. According to the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, chastity is one of the twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit, derived from the cardinal virtue of temperance. The Roman Catholic Church defines chastity as "the successful integration of sexuality within the person" (Catechism, paragraph 2337) and links it inextricably with the notion of self-mastery over human passions. Chastity may be exercised through celibacy or through marriage; among the young it is preserved through virginity and continence (abstinence by a couple engaged to be married). "Offenses against chastity" include lust, masturbation, fornication (sexual relations between two unmarried partners), pornography, prostitution, and rape. Although homosexual practices are also considered offenses against chastity, Roman Catholic teachings explicitly state that homosexuals are "called to chastity" and may "approach Christian perfection" by refraining from sexual relations (Catechism, paragraph 2359).

Protestant denominations place tremendous value on chastity as well but sometimes emphasize interpersonal morality more than self-mastery. This has historical roots in the Protestant rejection of Roman Catholicism's traditional preference for celibacy over marriage. Contemporary campaigns for youth morality, such as the popular True Love Waits initiative, treat chastity as a lifelong value that encompasses both premarital abstinence and marital union. These campaigns encourage self-discipline and stress that love, purity, faithfulness, and even sexual pleasure are stronger and more permanent in a marriage where both partners have avoided premarital sex.

Chastity does not have a direct counterpart in Judaism. While some rules governing interpersonal contact are governed by notions of tze'niut (modesty), others are governed by concepts of tumah (taboo). To describe a "chaste" Jew one would speak of a shomer ne'giyah, who does not touch members of the opposite sex outside his or her immediate family; this is a question of modesty—propriety—as much as of sexual purity.

Certainly traditional Judaism frowns on sexual relations outside of marriage, but with the exception of adultery (defined as sexual intercourse involving a man and a married woman), the ideal to be upheld is not sexual purity but rather privacy and dignity. At issue is not sexual intercourse, but rather uncovering: One should not be naked before anyone other than one's spouse, nor should one "uncover the nakedness" of anyone other than one's spouse. Some ultra-orthodox groups restrict uncovering even between husband and wife.

The taboo rules—analogous to certain restrictions on intercaste contact in Hinduism—are a series of prohibitions against sexual intercourse during menstruation and on certain holy days, such as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A violation of the taboo places the transgressor in a state of ritual impurity that must be purged through immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath). Thus, in questions both of modesty and of ritual purity, Judaism's notions about chastity do not simply restrict extramarital sexual contact; they also concern relations between man and wife.

Although attempts to "update" Christian and Jewish teachings about chastity for the contemporary world have taken a variety of forms, many of them have centered on new notions of marriage and family. Retaining a basic framework that locates sexual expression inside clearly marked long-term relationships (often including same-sex unions), these proposals seek to encourage self-mastery, interpersonal morality, and human dignity and propriety in both traditional and nontraditional situations.

See alsoCelibacy; Judaism; Mainline Protestantism; Marriage, Christian; Marriage, Jewish; Practice; Roman Catholicism; Temperance; True Love Waits.


Breidenthal, Thomas. Christian Households:TheSanctification of Nearness. 1997.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1992.

Goldman, Alex J. Judaism ConfrontsContemporaryIssues. 1978.

Gordis, Robert. Love and Sex: A ModernJewishPerspective, 2nd ed. 1988.

Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Way in LoveandMarriage. 1980.

McDowell, Josh, and Bob Hostetler. RightfromWrong. 1994.

Waskow, Arthur. Down-to-Earth Judaism:Food,Money,Sex, and the Rest of Life. 1995.

J. Shawn Landres


views updated Jun 11 2018

chastity A confusion of the terms ‘chastity’ and ‘celibacy’ has long existed. ‘Chastity’ — deriving from the Latin ‘castitas’, meaning ‘cleanliness’ or ‘purity’ — does not necessarily mean the renunciation of all sexual relations, but rather the temperate sexual behaviour of legitimately married spouses, for the purpose of procreation, or the sexual continence of the unmarried. The Greek word for chastity, sophrosyne, means moderation, which in the ancient Greek world was the chief philosophical virtue. This entailed proper self-mastery for men, and the virtue appropriate to a devoted and child-bearing (or potentially child-bearing) wife. For both men and women this meant the avoidance of fornication rather than the avoidance of sex altogether.

The early Church saw a debate between the proponents of chastity and celibacy. Paul questioned chastity in favour of celibacy in the first century, as I Corinthians: 7 indicates, for example. This passage was (and has continued to be) variously interpreted. Those in favour of celibacy highlighted Paul's comment that he wished all were like him — that is, celibate — and his urging of those unmarried or widowed to remain so, while those favouring chaste marriage have emphasized Paul's words that it is better to marry than to burn if one cannot practise self-control. A different perspective is seen in 1 Timothy: 3, where a bishop (not, in this period, in charge of anything beyond a local church) is described as a person who must be above reproach, married only once, temperate and sensible, and keeping his children submissive: that is, he must embody the qualities of a chaste, married householder. In the letter to Titus, an elder is described, similarly, as one who must have been married only once, who must be blameless and not rebellious, and whose children are believers.

In the second century, many writers were still advocating chaste marriage. For Clement of Alexandria sexual intercourse should be undertaken in marriage in service of God and for the begetting of children. A well-ordered sexuality was not in itself a problem: sexual relations needed to be ordered just as the rest of Christian life had to be ordered. He was therefore concerned about the continence of unmarried men. He saw marriage and celibacy as equal callings, each having its own and different forms of service and ministry to God. In marriage this entailed the care of one's wife and children (Clement was writing to male householders like himself). The particular readers he had in mind were, perhaps, the members of his own congregation in Alexandria who might be told by the ascetic and celibate encratites who lived in the area that they had accommodated too much to the world in marrying. Clement and others who wrote along these lines were, indeed, trying to accommodate Christian principles within the Roman and Greek household structure.

Tertullian, also in the second century, wrote on the importance of monogamy, the bond between one man and woman, believing marriage to be the lot of most Christians, for virginity might be splendid and ideal, but it was not for most people. Those who, at this time, privileged celibacy over marriage were sometimes accused of extremism, such as the prophet Montanus, who was said to allow the annulment of marriage.

By the fourth century, however, almost no one was writing of celibacy and marriage as equal Christian callings. Celibacy was seen as decidedly superior. Many people, from Ambrose to Jerome to Gregory of Nyssa, wrote on the importance of virginity. Only the monk Jovinian denied that virginity was a higher state than marriage, and only Augustine — who himself advocated virginity — wrote anything significant in support of chaste marriage, in his The Good of Marriage (c.401), in which he outlined the three goods of marriage: offspring, fidelity, and the sacramental bond.

Because chastity in the sense of the continence of the unmarried triumphed (until the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation) over the chastity of temperate sexual behaviour in marriage, the term chastity essentially came to mean celibacy, though historians debate exactly when this happened. It had happened generally by the sixth century, though as early as the fourth century, ‘castitas’ was used in some texts to mean continence rather than non-fornicatory marriage.

Jane Shaw

See also asceticism; celibacy; religion and the body.


views updated May 14 2018

103. Chastity (See also Modesty, Purity, Virginity.)

  1. Agnes, St. virgin saint and martyr. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 76]
  2. Artemis (Rom. Diana ) moon goddess; virgin huntress. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 36]
  3. Bona Dea goddess; so chaste no one but husband sees her after marriage. [Rom. Myth.: Zimmerman, 43]
  4. Britomart embodiment of purity. [Br. Lit.: Faerie Queene ]
  5. Claudia proves innocence by rescuing goddess ship. [Rom. Myth.: Hall, 70]
  6. Cunegunda proves innocence by walking unharmed on hot ploughshares. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 86]
  7. Gawain, Sir remained chaste despite the temptations offered him each night by his hostess. [Br. Lit.: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Benét, 934]
  8. Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphars wife. [O.T.: Gen. 39]
  9. lapis lazuli emblem of sexual purity. [Gem Symbolism: Kunz, 370]
  10. mirror of Alasnam by clearness or opacity shows womans purity. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights, The Tale of Zayn Alasnam ]
  11. orange blossoms symbolic of chastity when used in wedding ceremonies. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 176]
  12. phoenix in Middle Ages, attribute of chastity personified. [Art: Hall, 246]
  13. sapphire emblem of sexual purity. [Gem Symbolism: Kunz, 370]
  14. tortoise symbol of sexual purity. [Animal Symbolism: Mercatante, 21]
  15. unicorn capturable only by virgins; thus, a test of chastity. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 105]
  16. Venus Verticordia Venus invoked to make women pure once more. [Rom. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 1126]


views updated May 29 2018

chas·ti·ty / ˈchastətē/ • n. the state or practice of refraining from extramarital, or esp. from all, sexual intercourse: vows of chastity.