Sex and Chastity
by John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is not a new thing for Christianity to be accused of trying to take the
fun out of life, especially in matters of sex, by upholding taboos which are
simply contradictory to human nature. The pagan contemporaries of the early
Christians scoffed at their insistence on premarital chastity and marital
fidelity, and more than one martyr in the first centuries was a victim of
what we now understand to have been acts of sadism. Exercise of power by individuals
and groups was often associated with a wanton cruelty that had its origins
in sexual pleasure heightened by causing others to have pain.
In the neo-pagan renascence of the twelfth and thirteen centuries, poets
were suggesting that the only hope of indulging the passions was to ignore
the Christian norms, and, in rising crescendo, writers who advocate sexual
license have been saying the same thing ever since. "Continence, mysticism,
melancholia three new infirmities introduced by Christ," was written
in 1935. And about thirty years later Swinberne wrote the blasphemy, "Thou
hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey with thy breath."
Present-day literature is eloquent in extolling the cultus of sex, to a point
that no aspect of human life, no phase of human activity has been left untouched
by the mystic symbol of carnal intercourse. Students of history believe we
have come to the age of eroticism, in which every science and art is interpreted
as an expression of the sex urge, and the most sacred relations of family
and social living are construed in terms of the libido. "Condemnation
of all fornication," Bertrand Russell complained, "was a novelty
in the Christian religion." He regretted the innovation and excoriated
the faith which brought such inhuman repression on a biological drive.
Yet much of the opposition to the Christian religion for its stand on sex
and chastity stems from a misunderstanding. The simple fact is that Christianity
was never opposed to sex and, so far from repressing a basic human instinct,
raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament and crowned the conjugal acts
of husband and wife with the aura of holiness. This is not to deny that individuals
have sometimes made the mistake of confusing chastity with prudery, nor that
there have been movements inside and outside the Catholic Church that stand
at variance to the Church's official teaching on matters sexual. But these
are no more representative of Catholic teaching than the conduct of certain
members of the Church is an index of Catholic morals. Jansenism sought to
infect the Catholic faith with its rigorous exclusion of married women from
the Eucharist, and Puritanism became an exaggerated form of piety that forbade
husbands to kiss their wives in public. Both were reincarnations of ancient
Manicheism which held that the body is evil and therefore all bodily pleasure
sinful, whether sexual or merely carnal, and whether enjoyed by married people
or those who were still single.
No other area of the Christian faith requires more careful scrutiny of sources
than the matter of chastity, because it is so easy to misquote or quote out
of context in support of almost any opinion, from the most rigid kind of moralism
to complete self-indulgence. W.E.H. Lecky, whose History of European Morals
is still a Bible of abuse against the Church, wrote that the writings of the
Fathers are full of invectives against women. "Woman," he said,
"was represented as the door of hell, as the mother of all human ills.
She should be ashamed at the very thought that she is a woman." But he
failed to explain that the bizarre statements on which he relied were either
inconsistent with the Church's tradition or unapproved by the Church's authority.
It is true that Tertullian wrote in the third century, addressing women, "The
Judgment of God upon your sex endures even today; and with it inevitably endures
your position of criminal at the bar of justice. You are the gateway of the
devil." But by the time he penned that polemic, he already ceased to
be a Catholic because he was excommunicated for that very rigorism which Lecky
claims was typical of the Church to which Tertullian had once belonged.
Psychology and Morals
A rational approach to the ethics of sex requires some appraisal of the psychology
that stands behind the libidinal drive, at the risk of confusing issues and
of making Christian morals say something it never meant about the sinfulness
or virtue of sexual acts. Men and women are naturally attracted to each other,
and this attraction is as natural as the air they breathe. It must, therefore,
answer to a fundamental instinct of human nature which, in turn, responds
to the providential order established by God.
At the broadest level, men and women are drawn to each other in a generic
way, where each sex sees in the other a compliment of its own personality.
Men are naturally pleased with the gracefulness, emotional sensitivity, quiet
beauty and warm tenderness of women. Women are attracted by the courage, strength,
energy and calm deliberation which succeeds in action of men. Without this
underlying magnetism between the sexes, not only marriage but the whole fabric
of society would be torn asunder, where instead we find the inborn tendency
of men to be in the company of women as their alter ego, and of women to cherish
the society of men as their help and inspiration.
Properly controlled this innate attraction is good and wholesome and serves
to make community living the pleasant experience which the author of nature
intended. Even curiosity about the opposite sex, which derives from this kind
of attraction, is natural and does not of itself imply anything unchaste.
At some time in a person's life the generic appeal becomes distinctive and
gradually focused on one. Depending on the circumstances in which the two
find themselves, personal attraction may be mainly (or even exclusively) spiritual,
or it also becomes bodily. Only a sordid mind would question the capacity
of men and women to be attracted along intellectual or academic lines, or
find in each others company a spiritual satisfaction which they mutually
But generally the two forms are not separated, and what may have begun in
the spirit flows over into the body, until a definite person is attracted
exclusively by another person. Their mutual attraction wants complete possession
of the other, so that even the presence of a third person can be resented.
Just the thought of having someone else enter as a rival will cause the rising
of jealousy. As all the poets say, even a short absence is hard to bear for
this kind of exclusive love.
In spite of the cheap publicity that sex receives from modern literature,
it is a sacred experience that normally leads to marriage. When two people
come to share so much in common, when their tastes and temperaments are remolded
to a degree never thought possible, so that their hearts become locked together
in feeling and desire what other social institution than marriage could
tolerate, not to say profit from, such mutual exclusiveness?
Two cautions are in place regarding sex attraction. Those who are not yet
married should anticipate its rise and make a rational appraisal of the man
or woman they are dating. Otherwise the strong overtones that come with exclusive
sex appeal may blind the intellect to grave defects in the other party or
to serious incompatibilities that would make married life extremely difficult.
The emotion passes away and then only the cold, hard facts may be seen perhaps
too late to change the partner one has chosen under the mesmerism of her voice
or the pretended generosity of his love. Married people ought not be surprised
that their life together lacks the emotional appeal it once had. The romance
was a stage on the road and, though every effort should be made to maintain
the romantic element in marriage, something more stable than sentiment must
finally unite the two partners.
Physical attraction adds a new dimension to the natural appeal that men and
women have for each other, and the equally natural tapering of that appeal
from many to a few and finally to one. Unless the physical desire to give
one's own and receive another's body were present, nature would not have provided
for the propagation of the human race since impulses are always related to
actions and, in this case, without the action of intercourse there would be
no conception of children.
It is of paramount importance to know that Catholic morality considers this
physical desire normal and part of the divine plan for the extension of the
human family. But its satisfaction must be confined to marriage, where alone
the children brought into the world can be adequately reared. Sex is unselfish
twice over. It begins by offering oneself to another in complete surrender,
and it ends by bringing into the world a new life on which father and mother
can expend their love.
Whenever sex is used for selfish gratification it becomes perverse, and the
perversion may take on a variety of forms. In contraception there is intercourse
while positive means are used to prevent a child from being conceived. In
fornication and adultery the sex experience is divorced from any responsibility
for the upbringing and education of children that might result. In self-abuse
nothing else is sought except personal satisfaction.
Sex is truly selfless when experienced between husband and wife. They may
freely enjoy the fullness of bodily pleasure in the love play that precedes
intercourse, during coition, and in reflecting on their past marital actions.
As explained before, the only practical limit to their enjoyment is contraception;
but in every other way they are permitted complete liberty to touch, feel,
see, speak or imagine whatever gives sexual pleasure in their conjugal relations.
Outside of marriage and, for married people, outside of their relationship
as husband and wife, venereal pleasure may not be directly sought or stimulated
or enjoyed, and every deliberate excitation of such pleasure (if fully consented
to) is a grave sin. Venereal pleasure is in a class by itself. It is felt
when the sex organs are aroused and involves a stirring sensation of the organs
of generation. Thus it differs from merely sense feelings, like inhaling the
fragrance of a rose or enjoying a good meal; it also differs from sensual
pleasure, as some call it, which refers to such experiences as a general "good
feeling" or rise of emotion (not in the sex organs) that comes from almost
any contact with someone who is loved.
Venereal pleasure is complete when it terminates in orgasm; it is incomplete
in all other cases. Yet any kind of sexual indulgence, even incomplete, is
gravely sinful if deliberately sought or experienced. This should be carefully
distinguished from indirect venereal actions, which serve some other purpose
than sex pleasure but may result in sexual excitation. Indirectly venereal
actions are not sinful if a person has sufficient reason for starting or continuing
them. Bodily needs of all kinds come under this category and may be summarily
described as actions which it is reasonable to perform although sexual pleasure
is expected or known to occur. This is an application of the principle of
the twofold effect where arousal is permitted (but not indulged) for the sake
of a proportionate good.
While there is no "minimum limit" in matters of sex, so that the
amount of carnal pleasure a person derives does not change the essential gravity
of guilt, yet the degree of awareness of what he is doing and the fullness
of volitional consent he gives make a great difference. Unless there is complete
awareness of mind and full consent of the will a mortal sin is not
committed, no matter how strong the pleasure or how long it lasts or what
reactions take place in the body.
It cannot be overemphasized that venereal pleasure in itself is not sinful,
otherwise married people could not indulge it and, in fact, have a sacrament
instituted by Christ to regulate its enjoyment. Even in the unmarried, such
pleasure is natural and responds to a divinely-implanted instinct whose purpose
is the noble one of leading men and women to conceive and procreate children.
It may last for hours without a shred of guilt. But for the unmarried it is
wrong to yield to that pleasure in the sense of wanting it in the body by
knowing it is there, consenting to its presence and enjoying the genital stimulation
which it gives. All three elements must be verified to constitute sin for
the unmarried. It is indifferent whether the pleasure is deliberately procured
or arises spontaneously; what is forbidden is the intentional yielding to
an excitation of the generative organs.
Preoccupation with sex has reached an all-time high in the Western world.
The writings of Freud, for example, are twenty volumes of analysis into the
lives of men and women whose mental balance had become inhinged through every
kind of sexual aberration. Critics like Julian Huxley further testify to the
extent to which sex has almost become identified with modern culture and the
advancement of sex pleasure a desideratum that centuries of Puritanical rigor
have sought unsuccessfully to repress. They claim that repression of knowledge
about sex has led to the discredit of religion and the outlawing of God. "Our
greatest taboo," according to Huxley, "has been the discussion of
sex. The child who begins to ask awkward questions and to display its perfectly
natural curiosities on these as on all other matters, is, for the most part,
simply told not to, and in a shocked voice. Here, on the one hand, is the
natural desire of curiosity, on the other, repression by authority, and by
authority mixed up with ideas of right and wrong." (1) The result is
that religion is first associated with suppressing urgent knowledge and then
discarded for hiding "the facts of life."
There is just enough truth about Puritanism among Protestants and of Jansenism
in the Catholic tradition to make it seem plausible that the present outburst
of sexuality is a reaction against generations of a hush-hush attitude among
Christians. But actually the issue lies much deeper. If there has been a reaction
it is against the ideas germinated in the first half of the sixteenth century
which claimed that concupiscence is a sin and every rise of sexual feeling
a sinful expression of mans utter depravity.
No one familiar with the consequences of this theory of human nature would
disclaim the criticism made of it by more trustworthy critics than Julian
Huxley or Bertrand Russell. Authentic Christian teaching has ever held that
the loss of integrity because of Adam's sin does not deprive people of their
free will nor of the power, with divine grace, to overcome the risings of
passion. Accordingly to charge Christianity (notably the Catholic Church)
with suppressing necessary information about sex and keeping it hidden in
Latin tomes is naive. The Kinsey report in this respect does an injustice
As in other areas of science, the restriction of
sexual knowledge to a limited number of professionally trained persons, to
physicians, to priests, to those who can read Latin, has not sufficiently
served the millions of boys and girls, men and women, who need such knowledge
to guide them in their everyday affairs. (2)
Those who know the background of the work of the Institute for Sex Research
vouch for the fact that other and lesser motives than science prompted the
publication of the Sexual Behavior of the Male and its companion volumes.
Not the least was an implicit thesis spread through over two thousand pages
of print, that since men and women today are so constantly and consistently
breaking through the morals of sex we should appraise the whole structure
of Christian ethics and revise its outmoded standards. Of particular concern
are the sexual habits of unmarried youth.
Neither the law nor custom can change the age of onset of adolescence, nor
the development of the sexual capacities of teenage youths. Consequently they
continue to be aroused sexually, and to respond to the point of orgasm. There
is no evidence that it is possible for any male who is adolescent, and not
physically incapacitated, to get along without some kind of regular outlet
until old age finally reduces his responsiveness and his capacity to function
sexually. While there are many females who appear to get along without such
an outlet during their teens, the chances that a female can adjust sexually
after marriage seem to be materially improved if she has experienced orgasm
at an earlier age.
The attempt to ignore and suppress the physiologic needs of the sexually
most capable segment of the population has led to more complications than
most persons are willing to recognize. This is why so many of our American
youth, both females and males, depend upon masturbation instead of coitus
as a pre-marital outlet. Restraints on pre-marital heterosexual contacts appear
to be primary factors in the development of homosexual activities among both
females and males. The considerable development of pre-marital petting, which
many foreigners consider one of the unique aspects of the sexual pattern in
this country, is similarly an outgrowth of this restraint on pre-marital coitus.
The law specifies the right of the married adult to have regular intercourse,
but it makes no provision whatsoever for the approximately forty per cent
of the population which is sexually mature but unmarried. Many youths and
older unmarried females and males are seriously disturbed because the only
sources of sexual outlet available to them are either legally or socially
Most people, it is argued, would like to know how to resolve this conflict
between their physiologic capacities and the legal and moral codes. They would
like to know whether self-abuse is physically harmful and deleterious to later
enjoyment of marriage. "They would like to know whether they should or
should not engage in petting; and, apart from the moral issues that may be
involved, they would like to know what pre-marital petting experience may
actually do to their marital adjustments." On all of these matters, the
dominant question is not the moral one, but "what correlations the scientific
data show between pre-marital and marital experience." (4)
Needless to say this approach to sexual problems is revolutionary. If problems
are still admitted, the conflict is not between human passion and an objective
code of morals, sanctioned by two thousand years of Christian history, but
between the legal and social restraints imposed by a stodgy religious culture
and the newly discovered spirit of liberty that seeks only the maximum of
sex pleasure before and after marriage, and is willing to break through any
barriers to find gratification.
The net effect of ignoring moral values has been to flood the atmosphere
with a sexual miasma of books and magazines, movies and television, and all
the means of communication, whose incessant pressure places heavy demands
on the virtue of men and women that still believe in the Decalogue and hold
that Christ was not a dreamer when He enjoined restraint of the passions even
in the secret thoughts of one's heart.
Periodicals are a good example. The number of otherwise acceptable publications
that cater to the prurient tastes of their readers is legion, and occasional
efforts of civic-minded groups to control the tide only emphasize the powerful
influence which magazines have on the impressionable minds of the young.
But in the last two decades another, more pernicious form of sexual indoctrination
has come on the scene. Obscenity merchants are doing a multimillion dollar
business annually and only a fraction ever collide with the law. A typical
story is the case of a young widow who receives a plain envelope addressed
to her husband, four days after the funeral. She opens the envelope and to
her horror finds inside a packet of obscene pictures, along with a bill noting
that the "merchandise" he had ordered was enclosed. An ominous postscript
urged that payment should be prompt. The man never ordered the pictures, but
his widow was being taken in by a racket that preys on the innocent and seduces
the young with equal cynicism.
Like the dope peddler, the pornography dealer likes to lure his customers
while they are young. A favorite device is the placement of deceptive ads
in pulp and "confession" magazines with a special appeal to teen-agers.
The ads offer stamps, air rifles, dolls, pocketknives, rings and so on. In
responding to one, an unsuspecting youngster can receive the most lurid pornographic
material. A boy answering an ad for a model airplane may receive a photograph
of two boys engaged in homosexual play. An accompanying letter asks, "Want
to see more?" A girl answering an ad for a free novelty catalogue may
get back a pamphlet, obscene in itself, which details the excitements of a
book, How to Make a Woman Happy. Any youngster, expecting information
about rare coins, may end up with a brochure featuring photographs of women
in lascivious undress.
Even without trickery, the profit is enormous. Still photographs and movie
film remain the staple commodity, but the racket also has moved into erotic
books, pamphlets, phonograph records, color slides, wood carvings and even
One of the latest is a national publication that advertized itself as "this
country's first attempt to produce a worthy magazine on the ever fascinating
subject of love and sex. Until now, these subjects have been relegated to
cheap and tawdry periodicals." It boasts that the talents of the world's
most gifted writers, artists and photographers have been harnessed and applied
to a periodical of elegance and good taste, ranging from feature stories on
the contraceptive industry to an illustrated article, "Was Shakespeare
a Homosexual?" Its main theme is a repetitious quantity of nudes, in
color, intended as "a major breakthrough in the battle for the liberation
of the human spirit," which in just a few months of existence "has
become the rave of the American intellectual community, and the rage of prudes
If aggressive pornography has to skulk behind fictitious magazine ads and
resort to devious ways of plying its trade, the bulk of American fiction has
an easier way of reaching millions of readers with a calculated sex appeal.
Literary critics speak of a new cult whose faith is the belief that orgasm
is the goal of man's existence, whose language is studded with fertility symbols
and whose heroes and heroines are pimps and harlots that parade their obscenity
before the minds of a reading public drugged into moral insensibility. Novels
have become best sellers, and required reading in high school and college,
that pervert every decent instinct and arouse instead the basest drives of
fallen human nature.
Yet the most serious aspect of this sex revolution is not the amount of pornography
or the ease with which it is propagated. The worst feature is the complacency
that a radical change of moral climate finds among the people and the difficulty
of getting the courts to convict anyone who is making a fortune on his neighbor's
When in 1957 the Supreme Court ruled against Samuel Roth, a big-time smut
peddler in New York City, denying his appeal against previous convictions,
it looked for a moment as though a new policy was in the offing. But subsequent
decisions by the nation's highest judiciary indicate that such is not the
In the case of Sunshine Book Co. v. Summerfeld, the Supreme Court overruled
a circuit court decision and in so doing held that the Postmaster General
could not bar nudist magazines from the mails. In United States v. 31 Photographs
the District Court upheld the prohibition of Customs officials against the
importation of obscene material imported by Indiana University's Institute
for Sex Research. The material was ostensibly to be used only in connection
with research projects, but the prosecution argued that the Kinsey reports
and other productions of the Institute were notoriously not limited to research
purposes. The Supreme Court overruled the District Court without giving a
Another decision of the Supreme Court indicating that no substantial change
had taken place in giving pornography free rein was that of Times Film Corporation
v. City of Chicago. The Federal Circuit Court had held that a Chicago ordinance
authorizing the censorship of motion pictures found to be "immoral or
obscene" was valid. The Supreme Court overruled the Circuit Court but
did not give a written opinion.
In a celebrated decision that provoked wide reaction in religious circles,
the Supreme Court passed judgment in favor of Kingsley's International Pictures
Corporation v. Regents of State of New York. The case involved the censorship
of a motion picture known as "Lady Chatterleys Lover" which advocated
adultery as morally acceptable. The opinion of the Court held that the New
York statute under which the motion picture was banned is unconstitutional
since it prevents the advocacy of an idea, in this case that adultery may
be legitimate behavior. The Court asserted that the First Amendment protects
such advocacy, on the score of literary freedom.
Parallel with this procedure was a ruling on the unexpurgated book version
of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." In this action the Federal District
Court had outlawed the mail ban of the Post Office and stated that undoubtedly
much of the book would be shocking to many people. However, "even it
be assumed that these passages arouse shameful, morbid and lustful sexual
desires to the average reader they are an integral and, to the author, a necessary
part of the development of theme, plot and character." Accordingly no
matter how salacious the contents of a book intended for public consumption,
their publication may not be hindered because they advance the purpose for
which the book was written.
A forceful commentary on the present situation is the preface of D.H. Lawrence
to one edition of his "Lady Chatterley's Lover." He argued that
if the world would resume the free, uninhibited use of the Anglo-Saxon monosyllables
relating to elimination and copulation, all our neuroses would melt away.
Sober critics admit there is much charm in this simple doctrine, but its only
drawback is that it is not true. "They tell you," say the critics,
"sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty
years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long.
Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble,
ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. I think it is the other
way around. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had
become such a mess." (5)
Implicit in the rise of sexualism through all the media of communication
is the denial of original sin, which, by definition, means that men have lost
their perfect dominance of the passions and therefore the sex urge should
be controlled rather than stimulated for the sake of the pleasure it gives.
Extra marital self-control is not easy, and anyone who claims the opposite
is either deceived or deceiving. Yet much of the effort expended in controlling
the sex drive can be wasted in other channels when it should be given to acquiring
self-knowledge and acting on the information thus gained.
Carnal impulses can take on different forms. Normally they are directed to
sexual union between men and women, and to the intimate acts that are the
natural preliminaries to such union. Nevertheless the impulses may also be
directed elsewhere: to oneself for the solitary enjoyment of venereal pleasure
which is commonly called masturbation; to another person of the same sex which
is homosexuality; or to any of a multitude of approximations or combinations
of the three prototypes. Other sex perversions are rare and have been treated
in many standard works on the subject.
What brings on a rise of venereal emotion? There is no limit to the number
and variety of such stimuli, which differ with different people and with the
same people at different times, while a certain kind are inevitably for any
normal man or woman.
There are many things that are innocuous in themselves but, under given circumstances,
may be stimulating. Books, movies, television, decent dancing, conversation
about certain topics, the study of physiology or the social sciences, the
dress, posture and gesture of self or others are all capable of affecting
the generative nervous system, cause sexual pleasure, and then incline the
will to indulge the feelings aroused just for the pleasure they give.
A person's subjective disposition can itself be conducive to sexual arousal.
Fatigue or emotional stress, disappointment or humiliation, time of the day
or night are all contributing factors. There is also a correlation between
arousal and the activity of the endocrine glands, and especially stronger
venereal desires when the body is biologically prepared for fertile intercourse,
around the time of ovulation for women and of accumulation of semen for men.
Sex stimuli differ quite as much as different kinds of food appeal to various
people. Boys and men are usually more affected physically than girls and women;
but here, too, there are notable exceptions. Yet this single fact can be of
great importance for women in dealing with men. They normally have no personal
experience that even resembles the powerful sexual drive of the male, and
must take on faith that such is really the case. Some people are decidedly
hypersensitive along sex lines; they can be excited strongly by something
that leaves other people cold. In this matter, a prudent insight into one's
own drives and tendencies is worth any amount of theoretical knowledge that
maybe found in books or secured from lectures.
As might be expected, the sex appetite works in much the same way as other
emotions. When we become angry, what happens? Someone says a harsh word, we
immediately feel a boiling state inside, and get the urge to strike back with
a harsh word in return. Before we heard the word we were not angry; the fact
that he spoke was a stimulus to our feelings. The feelings themselves
were a response to that stimulus. Suddenly from perfect calm our whole
body and mental outlook change. A state of unpleasant tension occurs and we
have a natural urge to relieve the conflict. In sequence, therefore,
we follow a logical pattern: from stimulus to response to impulse urging us
to do something about it. That is the elementary S-I-R process of every stimulation.
Sex follows the same order. We may be quietly seated reading a novel when
we come on a suggestive passage, some bedroom scene that triggers the generative
faculties. The stimulus-response stirs the impulse to keep reading more or
dwelling on the scene or performing some sexual action that will heighten
the emotional state. A basic law of psychology is that any pleasurable feeling
carries its own inclination to continue unless checked by some agency outside
itself, e.g., the will or another emotion.
Men and women differ so greatly in responsiveness to sex stimuli that some
knowledge of this difference is necessary to make an objective application
of moral principles to ones own case. The very concept of sex is
suffused with distinctive connotations for men that are not verified for women,
and vice versa. Kinsey and associates discuss thirty-three kinds of psychologic
factors in sexual response, and their conclusions are very pertinent to a
better understanding of the ethical dimension of sex stimulation.
Observing the opposite sex, for example, was found to be several times as
arousing for men as for women. And about the same ratio was true of all other
possible kinds of sex stimulation in which the physical element was dominant.
In the same way, once aroused, the stimulation among men more often involved
indulging in erotic fantasies of past sexual experiences, or of potential
future ones out of all proportion to similar situations among women. Correspondingly
where men sought to excite themselves, they regularly used erotic books or
pictures as sources of stimulation, which seldom occurred among women.
But two areas of excitation were discovered to be as appealing to women as
to men, and often more so, with important implications in the moral order.
Movies (and television) and reading romantic literature were found to affect
women as much as or more than men. Emotional and romantic factors, it appears,
are the more common prelude to sex stimulation among women as in the case
of movies or television.
Some of the stimulation provided by a moving picture may depend on the romantic
action which it portrays, and some of it may depend on the portrayal of some
particular person. In a large number of instances, the erotic stimulation
may depend on the emotional atmosphere created by the picture as a whole,
just as viewing a landscape, reading a book, or sitting with another person
before an open fire may lead to emotional responses which then become erotic.
Sometimes the erotic element in the picture may have no obvious sexual meaning
except to the individual who has been conditioned by the particular element.
Sometimes the erotic arousal may depend upon the presence of the companion
with whom one is attending the performance. (6)
From the ethical standpoint this is of paramount importance. It highlights
an aspect of temptations against chastity that too seldom appear in books
on morals or in conferences and sermons from the pulpit. While there are many
exceptions and it is impossible to generalize absolutely, yet by and large
the opening wedge to erotic response among men is something physically and
directly connected with sex, whether seen, heard, read, touched, or thought
about. But among women, the more usual beginnings of sex stimulation (and
therefore of temptation) are psychic and emotional, romantic and personal
where the initial stimulus may have nothing to do with coitus except, perhaps,
the vague feeling of being loved, or a sudden mood of depression, or the soft
caress of a friendly hand.
The amorphous idea of "atmosphere" has much to do with evoking
sex stimulation in anyone, but never more so than in women. Hence the need
for avoiding those emotional situations which previous experience has shown
are sexually inciting, even when their immediate function is not erotic at
One form of stimulation that deserves special attention is petting and kissing,
that moralists distinguish on permissiveness and gravity, depending on the
venereal pleasure they excite. Passionate kissing, where the mark of affection
is prolonged or intensified to the point that erotic reactions take place
in the body, is gravely illicit for unmarried people. The same with petting,
which means some handling of another's body in such a way as ordinarily to
produce genital pleasure in the one fondling or the person fondled. Always
the norm of sinfulness is whether touching another orally or tactilely was
either intended to arouse the sex passion or, if that was not the original
intention, continued once the passion was aroused in order to enjoy it.
A passage in Freud may help focus attention on a subject that too many people
take lightly and tend to ignore as part of the complex of eroticism. In context
he is talking about sexual perversity and wishes to clarify the precise nature
of a sexually perverse act. Such acts, he argues, may be relatively or absolutely
perverse; they are relatively perverted (or better, diverted) in different
ways: when they overstep the sexual aim because they are not strictly necessary
for intercourse, when contact is had between other bodily organs than those
requisite for conception, when some other part of the body than generative
is aroused in one or both parties. But only one kind of sex act is absolutely
perverse, when erotic pleasure is sought while deliberately excluding the
possibility of reproduction.
This Freudian passage is classic. It illustrates what he thinks of contraception
as the prototype of sexual perversity, of kissing as often in its effect on
the body, and of the infinite variety of sex stimuli to which people may respond.
I must still add something more in order to complete our assessment of the
sexual perversions. Abominated as they are, sharply distinguished from normal
sexual activity as they may be, simple observation will show that very rarely
is one feature or another of them absent from the sexual life of a normal
The kiss, to begin with, has some claim to be called a perverse act, for
it consists of the union of the two erotogenic mouth zones
But no one condemns
it as perverse; on the contrary, in the theatre it is permitted as a refined
indication of the sexual act. Nevertheless, kissing is a thing that can easily
become an absolute perversion namely, when it occurs in such intensity that
orgasm and emission directly accompany it, which happens not at all uncommonly.
Further, it will be found that gazing at and handling the object are in one
person an indispensable condition of sexual enjoyment, while...in another
lover not always the genital region, but some other bodily region in the object
provokes the greatest excitement, and so on in endless variety.
It would be absurd to exclude people with single idiosyncrasies of this kind
from the ranks of the normal and place them among perverts; rather, it becomes
more and more clear that what is essential to the perversion lies...solely
in the exclusiveness with which these deviations are maintained, so
that the sexual act which serves the reproductive process is rejected altogether.
In so far as perverse performances are included in order to intensify or to
lead up to the performance of the normal sexual act, they are no longer actually
Freud's shrewd analysis confirms the teaching of Christian morality in two
important ways. He shows that contraception is perverse because it looks for
sexual pleasure while excluding the possibility of reproduction. He also shows
that numerous stimuli are closely connected with sex because they either prepare
a person for intercourse or intensify the conjugal act. Since the act itself
is forbidden to the unmarried, so also are the stimuli designed to achieve
or increase its enjoyment.
Chastity or the control of the sex appetite is an integral part of the Christian
religion, and from the earliest centuries has been strictly enjoined on the
followers of Christ. In the sermon on the mount, He recalled the Mosaic law
which He then intensified and explained in a way that no one could mistake
His meaning. "You have heard," He told the people, "that it
was said to the ancients, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you
that anyone who even looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery
with her in his heart." (8)
The Master proceeded to draw the conclusion from this premise. If unchastity
is sinful and commissible even internally, every means should be taken to
avoid the occasions of sin. "If your right eye leads you astray, tear
it out and fling it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your body
than for the whole of it to be thrown into hell." (9) While the injunction
is directly addressed to men, its scope is universal and applies equally to
men and women. Of course the energetic language in which Christ warns against
the occasions of sin must not be taken literally. Nevertheless the cost of
sacrificing a known sinful occasion may be as high as plucking out an eye
or cutting off a limb. Yet it must be done if virtue is to be preserved.
Writing in the same spirit a generation later, St. Paul outlined what some
have called the magna charta of chastity. His letter to the Corinthians, whose
city was notorious for profligacy, is steeped in Oriental imagery and revolutionary
in its demands on fallen human nature.
Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of
adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards
or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God. Such were some
It is not true that the body is for lust; it is for the Lord and the Lord
for the body. God not only raised our Lord from the dead; He will also raise
us by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are limbs and organs of
Christ? Shall I then take from Christ His bodily parts and make them over
to a harlot? Never! You surely know that anyone who binds himself with a harlot
becomes physically one with her
but he who links himself with Christ is
one with Him, spiritually.
Shun fornication. Every other sin that a man can commit is outside his body;
but the fornicator sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body
is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is Gods gift to
you? You do not belong to yourselves; you were bought at a price. Then honor
God in your body. (10)
For a believing Christian no more need be said. In his weakness he may sin
and dishonor the body which houses the Holy Spirit, but he does not question
the authority that stands behind the injunction to chastity, nor does he doubt
that with Gods grace chastity can be practiced.
Every manner of sin is identified by St. Paul: fornication which is intercourse
between unmarried persons, adultery or sexual relations in which one or both
parties are married, self-abuse (the effeminate) or masturbation that indulges
sex pleasure on one's own body, sodomy or homosexuality where two men or two
women have carnal relations, and finally a sweeping condemnation of all kinds
The gravity of these sins is implied in the consequence that follows on their
commission. Those who sin against chastity will be excluded from the kingdom
of heaven. Salvation therefore depends on the practice of chastity. In fact,
even pagans are said to be guilty of unchastity because in the preceding context,
St. Paul told the Corinthians they had to be washed of their sins (through
baptism), which assumes they were culpable even before receiving the gift
of faith. The natural law of reason tells people that unchastity is sinful,
and they are correspondingly responsible, whether they are Christians or Moslems
or of no religious affiliation.
Basically the sinfulness of unchastity derives from its violation of one's
own body, which for a Christian includes the additional crime of dishonoring
a member of Christ, defiling a body redeemed by the blood of the Savior and
destined to rise with Him on the last day, and desecrating a shrine of the
The teachings of faith are strengthened by the insight of reason into the
sinfulness of unchastity in all its forms. As a backdrop for the evidence
of reason we know that the natural purpose of sexual activity is at once biological,
psychological and social. It is biological because the built-in function of
intercourse is to fertilize the female cell and thus conceive a human being.
Not every act of coitus results in the conception of a child, but no conception
is possible (except by a stupendous miracle) without carnal intercourse. It
is psychological because conjugal relations among humans, otherwise than mating
in animals, should be the culmination of love and the acme of deepest affection.
It is finally social because children need the on-going care of father and
mother, whose own mutual love is fostered by intercourse and whose love of
their offspring must first be stabilized by their love for one another.
All sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage defeats one or more of
these natural functions and is therefore morally wrong. Moreover since these
functions are transcendently important, whatever actions contradict them are
gravely wrong. They are by their very nature mortal sins.
Fornication defeats the social purpose of sexual activity. For although children
can be physically conceived outside of marriage, unmarried partners cannot
give their children the education and moral nurture they require. Without
the stability of married life, and given the example of unwed cohabitation,
children cannot be brought up to respect their parents or to practice the
fundamental virtues of decent living. Premarital intercourse also contravenes
the psychological purpose of sex experience. By implication coitus is a total
self-surrender and a symbol of mutual and abiding love. But without the stay
of marriage and the guarantee of permanence which only matrimony can assure,
the self-surrender is really self-deception, since only the marriage contract
says "until death do us part." Until that commitment has been made,
either party is free to withdraw his or her affection and leave the other
a victim of caprice.
A fortiori adultery defeats the social and psychological purposes
of sex activity by adding to the sin of fornication the further crime of injustice
against one's lawful spouse. In the Old Testament this breach of contract
was considered basically a sin of inequity, where the rights of a husband
or wife were invaded by a third party. And the commandment of the Decalogue
which forbade a man to covet his neighbor's wife was correlated with the sin
of avarice since it assumed that, like avarice, to desire any mans spouse
is theft by intention. Like robbery, adultery takes what belongs to someone
else by the strongest ties of personal affection.
Solitary use of the reproductive faculty is sinful because it defeats all
the purposes of the sexual powers. Biologically a child cannot be conceived,
socially and psychologically the function of marriage is inverted when the
sex organs are stimulated by thoughts or external manipulation in order to
excite venereal pleasure.
It is incredible to read how widely accepted is masturbation as a normal
outlet for sexual tension, and how many sociologists, psychiatrists, counselors
and medical practitioners permit or even advocate the practice. The clash
between Christian and pagan standards of morality could not be clearer than
here, where two contradictory philosophies of life teach the very opposite
about solitary self-abuse. Kinsey and the staff on the Institute for Sex Research
devote thousands of words to defending solitary sexual activity. "When
no guilt, anxieties, or fears are involved, the physical satisfactions which
may be found in any type of sexual activity, whether socio-sexual or
solitary, should leave an individual well adjusted psychologically."
(11) It would be hard to find anywhere in modern literature a more damaging
indictment of Western civilization than the foregoing statement, italicized
for emphasis. Not only masturbation but any type of sexual activity which
gives physical satisfaction is commendable and should be psychologically beneficial,
once a person rids himself of what the new prophets of sexualism call the
tyranny of conscience.
Too seldom has a connection been made between this license to enjoy any kind
of sexual activity, especially solitary sins, and the widespread practice
and promotion of birth control. Yet nothing appears more certain than the
transfer from one to the other. Persons who have indulged their passions in
self-abuse during the years before marriage will continue to indulge after
marriage, and with perfect consistency. Why should contraception be avoided
in marriage if solitary sex pleasure has been practiced (and rationalized)
before a couple marry? The same reasons hold good in both cases: gratification
without fear of begetting a child, satisfaction without self-sacrifice, and
self-indulgence with no concern for the welfare of others. Masturbation and
contraception are related as cause and effect. People (and especially men,
accustomed to gratify their passions alone with no scruple about committing
sin will continue to gratify those same passions, alone, although in the company
of the person they marry. The basic gratification has not changed, but only
its technique. The only check on a continuum from one indulgence to the other
is the certainty that sex is morally good only if altruistic directed to
please the partner in marriage and benefit whatever children may be born of
their selfless love.
Method and Means
Anyone who wants to remain chaste in the modern world has work on his hands.
All around him are floating ideas about the harmfulness of sex restraint that
nothing but direct contradiction of these theories will maintain a person's
balance. Pseudo-scientific testimony about the injury to mental health or
personality from the practice of continence is to be measured by more weighty
evidence to the contrary from reputable physicians who are not biased in favor
of sex indulgence. A report of some four hundred doctors at Brussels, for
example, declared "There is no known disease resulting from the practice
of continence, while many are found to originate in the opposite vice."
The British Social Hygiene Council published a statement that neither psychology
nor experience shows any need of sexual intercourse for either physical or
Another aspect of sex propaganda that tends to weaken resistance is the current
penchant for making polls. College people are often polled to discover what
their attitudes are on sex. One depressing effect is the impression that all
but a handful of men and women in college are unchaste. Harvard University
conducted such a poll recently. Ninety-five percent favored birth control,
eighty percent approved premarital intercourse, seventy percent saw nothing
wrong with extra marital intercourse, ninety percent accepted divorce with
remarriage, eighty percent had no moral objections against homosexuality or
legalized abortion. The trouble with these surveys is the size of sampling,
the character of the people who take them, and the impossibility of knowing
how seriously or sincerely the answers were given.
Yet even without surveys, anyone attending college knows that sex is one
of the main problems that a student must cope with if he wants to come through
four years of campus and dormitory life unscathed.
When the president of Vassar College told the students that the administration
meant to stand behind its injunction against premarital sex relations and
dismiss offenders, a violent protest was raised on and off campus. Yet, as
a national authority on marriage problems explained, most people missed the
point. The issue is not whether administrators or the law should come out
against premarital sex experience. The issue is not even whether a man or
woman may indulge their passions privately and society show no concern about
their conduct. The real issue is a new code of morals that has infected American
culture and that sees nothing wrong with girls becoming the mothers of illegitimate
children, or brides of hasty and premature marriages. Mainly because marriage
is increasingly looked upon as a non-permanent institution, a new moral alignment
has taken place, one in which the idea is accepted that premarital sex is
all right provided it ends in marriage.
By accepting this new morality, parents, teachers, guidance authorities and
preachers have abdicated their responsibility to young people. Instead of
encouraging them to realize the opportunity to remain single and abstinent
during their developing student years, the college has turned into a place
where pregnancy if it ends in marriage is not penalized but rewarded.
Parents and colleges have, in effect, put a social shotgun into the hands
of young people. A girl and a boy who want to get married have, today, a new
thought at the back of their minds: if the girl gets pregnant, they can get
married, with everyone's blessing. (12)
Clarity of mind is essential if a young person wants to withstand the pressure
to conformity all around him, whether in high school or college, at work or
in the world of human relations. Christians from the earliest times had to
recognize the difference between themselves and others, and present-day Christian
youth are no exception. The teachings of Christ are not out-moded, and the
injunctions He placed on His followers are equally binding now as they were
when first spoken.
Two virtues are indispensable if a man or woman hopes to preserve chastity:
modesty or a sense of shame, and prudence in avoiding needless sex stimulation.
Both are seldom mentioned in literature on the subject, yet without them sexual
indulgence is inevitable.
Modesty regulates our conduct in things that are liable to evoke forbidden
pleasure, notably dress, language and general deportment. It is midway between
prudishness which sees sin in everything, and pruriency that ignores the most
fundamental laws on the stimulus-response psychology of sex. A sense of shame,
therefore, is the greatest protective force we have in the sphere of sex,
and whoever denies its value in safeguarding chastity has lost his grip on
sane morality. Few women know how easily men are stimulated by what they see
and how much they can do to help men control their passions by feminine modesty.
False modesty has done a great deal of harm, and some of the present reaction
in favor of sexual liberty was provoked by the senseless secretiveness about
everything concerning sex that we still call Puritanism. The Scriptures are
not puritanical, as almost any chapter of the Old Law will demonstrate, and
as Christ in His own teaching amply proved. He could speak of sexual matters
without inhibition. But granting the existence of false modesty does not exclude
the need of a modesty that seeks to attract without seducing and is more interested
in displaying one's charm and personality than exposing the body.
But modesty or a sense of shame is not enough. It must be joined with prudence
if chastity is ever to be preserved. Custody of the eyes and ears may sound
like a monastic regulation, but it is simple common sense if a man wants to
remain pure or a woman retain her chastity. Movies and theatres, magazines
and comic books, jokes and risqué stories, night clubs and parked automobiles
are danger areas for anyone seriously concerned about his virtue.
Not infrequently an otherwise prudent man or woman will take unnecessary
risks only because they do not want to be thought different. The psychology
of ridicule or estrangement from the crowd is easy to understand. Everybody
knows it is easier to indulge sexual desire than to restrain it. Those who
let themselves go must admit, if they are honest with themselves, that those
who refuse to do so are holding themselves to the hard task of restraining
a powerful desire, and are thereby displaying superior self-control. To escape
the feeling of inferiority involved in admitting this even to themselves,
loose-minded people do all they can to coax, tease, or otherwise persuade
a fellow or girl to go with them, and thus bring them down to their own level.
Failing in this, they next try to belittle. By calling him (or her) names
and poking fun at him they assert their superiority, and thus evade the discomforts
of feeling inferior. The more persistent their efforts, the more probable
it is that at heart they greatly respect their victim. Even when the motivation
is less selfish, and the relationship between friends more noble, the pattern
of persuasion is about the same and it takes more than passing courage to
resist these blandishments.
Great reserves of strength to meet the challenge of chastity are open to
every person of good will. Periodic reflection on one's conduct is so obvious
that the marvel is more people do not take time out every day, if only for
a minute or two, to ask themselves how they stand before God, and what they
should do to avoid occasions of sin or overcome the temptations they cannot
This can be highly effective in overcoming unchaste thoughts. By recalling
the kind of thoughts I wish to control and planning on a positive method of
controlling them, I give myself the best assurance of success. The reason
is the thoughts are more elusive than overt actions; the power of the will
over them is described by Aristotle as diplomatic instead of despotic. I cannot
say to my mind, "Don't think of this," as I would to my hand, "Don't
touch that," and hope for immediate response. I need to substitute another
thought-complex for the undesirable one and hope that the latter will be driven
into the subconscious.
Through the examination of conscience I foresee what actions can be substituted
for the usual ones, with consequently different thoughts evoked in the mind.
I may have found that certain reading perhaps innocuous in itself brings
on a train of thought that will cause me trouble with carnal images. The foresight
gained by examination will recommend changes in my reading habits, company
keeping, conversation pattern, with corresponding freedom from disturbance
in the mind. I can even use my examination to plan on what kind of thoughts
to substitute for the salacious ones; how I should maintain myself in peace
when the body is aroused, and how to divert my attention to what is attractive
but harmless, and away from what is sexually attractive but potentially sinful.
This single rule: to overcome pleasure with pleasure, venereal satisfaction
with innocent enjoyment, is a talisman of spiritual psychology and has been
found effective whenever tried.
Chastity is impossible without prayer. Whoever thinks he can control the
sex drive without help from God, obtained through prayer, is ignorant of a
basic principle of the Christian faith. We have a fallen human nature whose
appetites lack the inner control they once enjoyed. Instead of perfect dominance
of the sex urge, concupiscence allows this powerful instinct free rein. Sometimes
on the slightest provocation, like a single glance of the eye or the mere
touch of the hand, the whole body is aroused to seek carnal satisfaction.
And once aroused, the desires are not easily quieted down but may require
great effort of resistance to keep the will from "giving in" to
the venereal pleasure being experienced.
At every point in the sexual process, human weakness is so manifest that
even people who have no sympathy with the Christian religion admit the need
for calling upon divine assistance. The Old Testament axiom that "No
man can otherwise be continent, unless God gives it to him," epitomizes
the teachings of Judaeo-Christianity on the supernatural means that every
adult must take if he seriously hopes to remain chaste whether unmarried
and avoiding all deliberate sex pleasure or married and remaining faithful
to his wedded partner. (13)
Between human weakness and the prospect of restraining the sex appetite is
divine grace, which Christianity insists is indispensable for observing even
the natural law in its entirety and for resisting the imperious demands of
the flesh. The classic description of this tension between what we know is
right and what we are constantly tempted to do against conscience was given
by St. Paul where he concludes that nothing but the grace of God can deliver
him from enslavement.
The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which
is against my will; and if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no
longer I who am the agent, but sin that has its lodging in me.
I discover this principle, then: that when I want to do what is right, only
the wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God,
but I preceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting
against the law that my reason approves and making me a prisoner under the
law that is in my members, the law of sin. Miserable creature that I am, who
is there to rescue me out of this body doomed to death? God alone, through
Jesus Christ our Lord. (14.)
The tradition of nineteen centuries of Christian thought confirms this dictum,
that chastity and prayer are correlatives. Only a person who prays is chaste,
and those who have trouble with chastity either do not pray, or pray enough.
God does not command the impossible, and control of sex is no exception. But
He bids us pray to obtain the strength to keep His commandments, and assures
us the light and power of resistance if we ask for His grace.
Proof of the power of prayer over concupiscence is the evidence of tens of
thousands of persons who dedicate themselves to a life of celibacy and virginity
and, with the help of God, maintain themselves in His friendship through a
The prayer need not be formal and certainly not protracted, but it should
be as frequent as occasion demands or as the pressure of temptations requires.
A simple, "God, help me!" may be enough to check the first risings
of passions or quell the beginnings of undesirable thoughts or desires. If
temptations become stronger, even though occasioned by our own carelessness,
prayer should be more urgent and the petition for divine help more insistent.
Among the ways that God reminds us of our constant dependence on Him, few
are more obvious than the matter of chastity, especially for men and particularly
for the unmarried whose conscience tells them they are obliged to control
the seductions of the flesh under penalty of displeasing God and endangering
A Catholic has other supernatural means at his disposal for restraining the
irrational drives of sex. Reception of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist,
is not only recommended by the Church but has been found remarkably effective
from people's experience. One of the immediate effects of the Eucharist is
to assist the will in calming the sexual urge; for although we no longer have
the gift of integrity enjoyed by our first parents, we have an effective means
of approaching that integrity through the frequent and fervent reception of
Christs body and blood. Too seldom do Catholics reflect on the warning of
Christ, that "unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink
His blood, you shall not have life in you." The life in question is the
life of grace, which for many people is most easily lost, or at least most
constantly threatened because of their sex passions getting out of control.
Those who believe in Christ and recognize the validity of His claims, know
from their own lives how readily God's help is available for the asking and
how effective it is in liberating a person from the slavery of his passions.
Each conquest of self is another proof of Christ's warning, to "pray
lest you enter temptation," and of His promise, "anything you ask
in my name, I will do." The only limitation on this aid is a person's
own unwillingness to be helped.
Sex and Chastity References
- Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation,
New York, 1957, p. 119.
- Alfred C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the
Human Female, Philadelphia, 1953 p. 11.
- Ibid., pp. 14-15.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- Edmund Fuller, Man in Modern Fiction, New
York, 1958, p. 119.
- Kinsey, op. cit., pp. 659-660.
- Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis,
New York, 1960, pp. 331-332.
- Matthew 5:27-28.
- Matthew 5:29.
- I Corinthians 6:9-20.
- Kinsey, op. cit., p. 169.
- Margaret Mead, "Sex on Campus: The Real Issue,"
Redbook, October 1962.
- Wisdom 8:21.
- Romans 7:19-25.
Copyright © 2004 by Inter Mirifica