The Catholic Church’s approach to sex, practically speaking, is simple: don’t. If you must have it, then have it within the context of holy matrimony, though various rules still apply, some acts are proscribed, and preventing pregnancy is not allowed. If for whatever reason holy matrimony is unavailable to you, then refer back to the first principle (don’t). For most of the contemporary world, on the other hand, there’s one very clear rule—no sex without consent—and then a much murkier field of what constitutes a moral obligation or harm once the first condition has been satisfied.
Chastity is Christianity’s most infamous and unpopular virtue. Its gaudy symbols—purity rings, virginity pledges, the uniforms of Catholic schoolgirls, the habits of nuns—are objects of curiosity and sometimes of fetishes. Progressive Christians don’t want much to do with it. Traditional Christians will look at the apparent lack of clarity around contemporary sexual mores and feel smug. Every few years, somebody (usually but not always a young woman) will publish a book with a title like Save It: The Case for the Chaste or Covering Up: Why Modest Is Hottest. None of this really changes the central reality: that Christianity has a very publicized set of historical rules around sex, and these rules resist being revived in a culturally significant way, but also resist being discarded.
I say all this not because I have an interest in arguing against the rules, at least where I’m concerned. I signed up for them, after all, when I became a Catholic. As with any virtue, I try my best, and go to confession when that’s not enough. But part of what makes chastity a particularly difficult virtue is that it can feel as if it runs counter to other virtues we’re meant to practice, such as generosity, humility, and self-gift. Counsels of abstinence are reinforced through fear: of being used, of disease or pregnancy, of losing something important about oneself, and, of course, of hell. Why is this particular sphere, and only this particular sphere, the one where Christians are counseled not to give freely, not to cast out fear, but rather to restrain, refuse, deny?
The fruits of the spirit, as Paul tells us in Galatians, are “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Self-control is easy enough to see here. But what about the rest? “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like,” Paul also says in the same passage. It is hard to argue with him; but perfectly chaste people are certainly prone to fits of rage and selfish ambition, something Paul himself, a prickly man, would probably be the first to admit. And here, I think, is the question that applies to both traditional Christian approaches and contemporary ones alike: Is it possible to talk about the moral aspect of sex in a way that does not put sexual harm at the center of the subject? Is any form of sexual morality, ultimately, about fear?
The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan’s debut book, is not about chastity, an ideal she firmly rejects in a brief passage responding to the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “Monogamous marriage,” she writes, “the heteronormative family and norms of chastity are...parts of a patriarchal infrastructure designed to secure men’s access to women’s bodies and minds.” Rather, Srinivasan, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, seeks to document insufficiencies in current feminist approaches to sex—specifically, sex between men and women, which is the only case the book really concerns itself with. She does this in six essays, each focusing on sexual culture and its consequences: #MeToo, pornography, involuntary celibacy and the “incel” movement, professors having sex with students, and carceral feminism.
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