Chastity as Economic Subversion

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Huh? How can embracing chastity make me an economic rebel? Christopher Decker explains how in a short, sweet, and brilliant article from New Oxford Review. If you haven’t read this publication before, go check them out (as soon as you finish reading my blog, of course!) To find this particular article (published in 1993) you have to be a subscriber. But you can peruse more recent articles from the NOR.

Now on with the show. If you always thought that embracing chastity meant that you were a boring goody-two shoes (you don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do??), fasten your seat belt for this bumpy ride.

Mr. Decker’s first premise is that “it is inevitable that lust and chastity would have to trade places…in a consumer society, chastity is the counter-cultural value. Chastity is the practice of restraint, not just any restraint, but the restraint of desire, and not just any desire, but an extremely powerful desire – the desire for sexual gratification.”

He then goes on to assert that the notion that powerful desires are suspect and should often be restrained is, in a consumer culture, bad for business. In other words, the economic powers that be have a stake in making us want things.

“Business, through advertising, attempts to make us want things, but all the advertising in the world will be for naught unless people come to believe that if they want something they should go out and get it. It is hard to maintain the attitude that my desires exist in order for me to gratify them (the consumer attitude) while holding to the attitude that my desires are suspect and must be restrained (the chaste attitude).”

In other words, you can’t serve both God and Mammon. Chastity must be opposed by a consumerist society, because at its heart, the logic of chastity is diametrically opposed to the logic of consumerism.

So how exactly does chastity threaten consumer culture? Because “the one who has learned to control the desire for sexual gratification has learned that he is master of his desires, not slave to them. It is much harder to sell anything to such a person, for one must appeal not simply to his appetites, but to his reason. And when gratification is no longer an end in itself, reason unmasks the propaganda of the consumer society for what most of it is – deceptive promises built on false values.”

So is it any wonder then that in the last 40-50 years the rise of consumer culture coincides pretty nicely with the decrease in chastity throughout society? Though chastity was not universally practiced 40-50 years ago, it was respected. So what happened? “People who had been accustomed to hardship, sacrifice, thrift, and hard work now experienced affluence. With wealth came unheard of levels of consumption, indulgence, and waste.”

The consensus of society changed, and would you look at that, it changed to a mindset that indulges our endless appetite for more, whether that be big macs, ipods, or sex. So now the basic jist of the collective wisdom of society is that, “Sex is fun, why should we deny ourselves fun?”

So, Decker claims, the main argument against chastity is based on a fallacious assumption, “namely that desires exist to be fulfilled. In the language of moral philosophy, it is the assumption that desire is a sufficient reason for an action.”

Can desire (and only desire) ever be sufficient reason for an action? It seems to fall apart when we venture outside the realm of sex. One example would the desire one may sometimes feel to do violence (or even to kill) someone in a fit of rage. A desire to kill my __________ (insert family member here) can never be the justification for killing him/her, because murder is wrong.

Decker says, “Our desires may or may not be reliable guides to proper action. A strong desire should not be followed until it has been analyzed and one is sure it springs from sound motives and leads to worthy ends…Obviously this view [consumer culture] begs the question of whether we should want what we want.”

That question, should we want what we want? is not asked by the creators of culture, because here in America, that is an economically dangerous question. If people only bought what they really “needed”, our economy would probably totter on the verge of collapse. So we have to be stimulated to always want *more*, so there’s always someone to sell to. The questions raised by a culture of chastity is “profoundly unsettling to those who profit from a materialistic society.”

So, my dear friends, embrace chastity whole-heartedly, and not only are you embracing God’s will, but you are participating in a Christian social protest!

How’s that, you ask?

“The chaste person refuses to participate in the degradation of sex and the degradation of the human person which it implies…His life bears witness that a fully human existence consists not in a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, but in a higher calling to a life of discipline and self-sacrifice – in other words, to a life of loving and serving others.”

And just to bring on home the point, Mr. Decker concludes with these gems, Chastity is a virtue that undermines the very foundations of a culture based on selfishness and greed, and begins to build a new one based on self-emptying love…The Gospel and the constant tradition of the Church tells us that unrestrained pursuit of gratification, sexual or material, is ultimately the road to misery.”

There was a lot of chew on in this article, although it was only three pages, it was packed full of thought-provoking insights. I worried slightly about the fact that Mr. Decker didn’t seem to make a distinction between sexual desire inside of marriage versus outside of marriage. Of course it’s always wrong to lust for someone, even your spouse, but the restraint of sexual desire for one’s spouse is perhaps less suspect that that of someone outside of marriage. He could have made this distinction more clear, but perhaps it would have muddied the waters too much.

I appreciated this article so much, and am contemplating sending a photo-copy to my social justice professor at Loyola. Many people who advocate for SJ take a lot of crap from orthodox Catholics because they are more lax with regards to sexual teachings (and I’m not saying they shouldn’t take crap for it, as a SJ advocate I was often the one dishing it out!), and I’d love to see a class wrestle with the premise that refusing to indulge all of our sexual desires is a way of participating in building a culture free of greed and selfishness.

For those of you who have embraced chastity, have you ever felt like an economic rebel? If you haven’t, or to the extent that you have, how much do you think consumer culture plays into how you see sex?

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8 thoughts on “Chastity as Economic Subversion

  1. I’m not sure that I’ve felt like an economic rebel, but I have been thinking a lot about contraception and our crazy economy. They seem so connected; both of them wanting what we want RIGHT. NOW. No silly saving up money until you can afford things; no waiting until you’re married. Both of them are about zero responsibility. It’s interesting. Btw, (maybe this is a stupid question) what do you mean by SJ?

  2. Huh. I don’t feel like an economic rebel, but I suppose I might be. I certainly don’t fit the typical consumer profile. We live on less than we make, don’t carry a credit card balance, etc. And I guess it does feel like a similar sort of self-control as chastity, though it feels to me like the lines between chaste and unchaste behavior are more firm than the lines between – what? gluttonous and moderate spending?

    Actually, I’d say you could tie other virtues of moderation in there, like temperance in food consumption and in entertainment consumption (I’m certainly working on the last one!).

    But I think the author you quote is onto something: self-control is self-control. And if you’ve disciplined yourself in one area of your life, it does bleed into the others. Because you realize that discipline is possible. <– I think that's the author's biggest insight. In my own life, I've seen self-discipline in exercising regularly effect my ability to be self-disciplined in writing regularly. And I wouldn't be surprised if my husband's and my practice of chastity had an effect on our ability to control our spending, even if we hadn't noticed the connection.

    Interesting stuff!

  3. Fascinating! Really, this is so interesting. While I’ve never thought of it before, it really does make perfect sense. As Jessica rightly points out in the comments, temperance and discipline carry over!

    Let’s see, have I ever felt like an economic rebel? Well, we’ve never owned an i-phone/pod/whatever or any types of fancy phones or digital devices, so in that way I suppose I do. We’re fairly skeptical of most advertisements and marketing claims, which may indeed be related to knowing that we don’t actually need longer eyelashes/frozen lasagna/faster internet/etc right this instant!

  4. I do not see chastity itself as directly tied to economic restraint. I think that chastity in this context is a form of restraint- sort of a sub-virtue under temperance, with maybe a bit of wisdom mixed in. I guess that I am a stickler for traditional ways of understanding the virtues, and Decker gives me the impression that he does not fully understand chastity, and is thus conflating it with self-control or moderation.

    The practice of chastity probably indicates a larger ability to deny one’s lusts (whether material or sexual), but I do not think that they are one in the same.

    “Hey, dude, sorry I can’t buy that now. I’m financially chaste!” just doesn’t work for me. 🙂

    That said, I really like what *you* wrote. Your comment on Decker’s failure to distinguish between etra-marital and marital sex made me think that perhaps he is not only failing to distinguish chastity from temperance, he may also be missing the extra glory of chastity. It is not just about self-denial/restraint, it has an extra beauty in itself as a part of its correct gift of self.

  5. Hi Em,

    I’m not sure I understand the reason for your comment, but I’d like to. What makes you think that Mr. Decker is a fascist?

  6. Oh my goodness, wow I just read my post again and I did not mean that Mr. Decker is a fascist by any means. But, the mentality he was writing about is parallel (or at least maybe its just me) to that of fascism. I’m talking about how, even in Catholic high schools chastity is barely mentioned in “sex ed” classes. And when girls go to their doctors with irregular periods, the doctor is quick to subscribe the BCP. I have witnessed this with a lot of girls and it’s really sad. But, I did come across a really good article about how doctors technically can be charged with negligence for not respecting patients moral and religious views, AND it was written by a doctor. I am chugga chugging my way to find it.

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