Page Summary

  • Chastity is the virtue that engages the erotic dimension of relationships, integrating it with respect for the whole person, which can only take place in marriage.
  • Though it involves a “no”, it’s in service to an ultimate “yes” of giving and accepting the gift of another in relationship.
  • Without chastity, it’s impossible for a person to make a total gift of self in marriage or a partial gift of self in any other relationship.

Is it possible to live out human sexuality according to a standard as difficult as chastity?

Yes. The virtue of chastity frees us to love others for their own sakes according to our different relationships with them. This applies both to a conjugal relationship with a spouse and to friendship in general.

Ok, but what does that actually mean?

Whenever Will was out in public, he couldn’t help sizing people up. He didn’t even realize he had a habit of treating people differently once he “evaluated” their appearances. The habit didn’t just make him pay more attention to those he found attractive, it prevented him from paying attention to and caring for those he didn’t find attractive. Subtly – maybe without even realizing it – he determined his relationships by whether they gratified him. But isn’t it unavoidable to use others in this way? Doesn’t everyone do this to some extent?

man smiling
a couple smiling and walking

It was so difficult for Will to avoid, because the habit of seeking sexual pleasure for its own sake, apart from the unitive and procreative meaning of sex, was already ingrained in him from a young age. Even when he realized what he was doing, the lustful habit didn’t go away on its own. Even when he stoically attempted to cancel out his desire for sexual pleasure, and avoided lust (at least for a while), he ended up in the opposite, less common extreme of becoming frigid to all desire and relationship. Either way, he felt like love was too high a standard to reach.

It’s not impossible, though. Chastity can break the hold that the attractiveness “evaluation” previously had over his actions. More importantly, this virtue can free him to love others, not according to attraction, but according to his particular relationship to them (either stranger, friend, or spouse). This love is not primarily motivated by whether someone’s appearance appeals to his subjective preferences, but by the beauty that each person objectively has, as a share of God’s beauty.


Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.

Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 5:8

Chastity is the virtue that engages the erotic dimension of relationships, integrating it with respect for the whole person, which can only take place in marriage. Generally, though, chastity impacts all human relationships, because a person’s sexuality as a man or a woman isn’t just about conjugal activity. It plays a role in honestly appreciating the beauty of any other person, through the unifying activity that characterizes the relationship.

But the avoidance of sex is the “no” that we most commonly associate with chastity. So how can chastity encompass both married sex and the avoidance of sex? Here’s how: there are three different ways we can say no to something, even in a non-sexual context.

Will might put a tarp over his car because it’s a broken-down, rusty eyesore that he would rather not look at. This first “no” is equivalent to the way puritanism approaches sex. Or he might keep his car in the garage because he doesn’t want a thief to steal it. This second “no” isn’t absolute like the tarp, because the car isn’t bad, it just needs to be protected from misuse. We can equate this “no” with a kind of abstinence when it comes to sex, which is good, but not an end in itself. Or Will might keep the car veiled, because it’s good, he wants to give it as a gift, and he wants the recipient to be the one to joyfully accept it. This third “no”, from chastity, is directed toward a “yes”: gift and acceptance.

Giving a total gift of self means not giving it to anyone other than the recipient. This is why chastity guards against adultery. It frees Will to truly say yes to his wife and give a total gift of self, according to A) the other’s objective beauty and B) the mode of the relationship. When those two factors govern the loving act, Will can act with integrity across the whole range of human relationship, so that the same man can love a variety of people in all states of life without interior contradiction.

The interior contradiction that plays out in chastity’s absence causes deep personal suffering. If Will had not fully said yes to his wife and treated her or someone else as a thing to be used, he would be divided against himself, and isolated from others. He would have to live a double life: sometimes caring about his wife for her own sake and sometimes using her without concern for her well-being. This would also isolate him from friends, because if he could use any one person, it would pose a risk to any others who could be reduced to objects of use (which is everyone).

Conversely, living chastely makes Will better able to be friends with others, because it means he has integrated respect for the other into every aspect of his life. It doesn’t mean that anyone who relates poorly with others is secretly unchaste. There are a variety of non-moral factors that can prevent a person from relating well. This is only to say that the chaste version of Will would relate to others more freely than the unchaste version of Will, all else being equal.

Because chastity impacts all human relationships, everyone is meant to live chastely, whether or not they happen to be married. The decision to marry is a gift, not an obligation. There are other ways to love chastely without a conjugal relationship, which are encompassed by celibacy.

friends standing in a forest
guys sitting on a mountain