Forget “The Talk”: Focus on Chastity Rather Than Purity

“You see those two grasshoppers on top of each other over there?” I asked my daughters when they were preschoolers. “What do you think they are doing?”

Biology

I started early teaching my kids about sex by focusing on biology. My husband and I don’t believe in the concept of a “big talk” where primary information about sex is saved until a child is eleven or twelve. We believe in talking about sex informally and formally frequently throughout their childhood.

By never talking about sex in my family of origin (see previous posts in this series), my siblings and I assumed it was a taboo subject. Later, when my brother and I took sex education in high school, our teacher told us we should be comfortable discussing sex around the dinner table. My mother was not impressed. Deprived of sex education at home, I was so motivated to learn that I won an “academic achievement” certificate in the course.

I don’t want my kids to learn about sex from friends in the locker room or on the internet. When my younger daughter in first grade began joining her buddies playing basketball with fifth-grade boys, I ordered It’s Not a Stork to read aloud. We’d rather she learn about human sexual intercourse from her parents first—not a preadolescent kid.

Desire

But so far, all we’ve done as parents is talk about biology—how our bodies work together to create babies. We’ve talked little about desire. After watching Swiss Family Robinson at school, my nine-year-old daughter asked me,

“Why was the couple who was not married kissing more than the married couple?”

“Because,” I answered, “when you’re first in love, you want to kiss a lot.”

“So weird—” she responded, “it doesn’t make sense.”

My kids don’t get desire yet. The closest we come to talking about it is in talking about masturbation. Rubbing one’s own genital area is pleasurable and that pleasure is part of God’s design for their bodies, we say. But it’s something to experience privately. Because my parents shamed me as a child for masturbation, I felt guilt initially for how good sexual experiences felt with my husband. We hope to avoid passing that shame onto our daughters.

Chastity vs. Purity

As my nine-year-old faces age ten, my husband and I are aware she’ll soon undergo dramatic changes. Our focus is not on her maintenance of purity but rather the practice of chastity—restraining the fulfillment of desire for the proper moment. Chastity can also be defined as rightly ordered desire.

The word purity for evangelical Christians has become an “either/or” term. Either you’re a virgin or you’re not, and if you’re not, you’re tainted. It centers on a line drawn rather than a relationship with God. I’ve known Christian college students who viewed oral sex as acceptable for dating but not mutual genital intercourse until marriage. Their parents would be shocked.

Talking about sexual chastity is an extension of the parental interactions with each of our daughters we’ve already had about restraining desire. This could be a desire such as punishing her sister herself, buying something right away with her allowance, or yelling when things aren’t working out.

One of my kids has sobbed to me about her lack of self-control. My response, following John H. Coe, a specialist in psychology and spiritual formation, is not “try harder.”  Rather, it’s: “Let’s see this as a way to need Jesus. We can ask Him for help with self-control.” In restraining the fulfillment of desire, we are sent back to Jesus.

The heart of practicing chastity becomes a relationship with God.

My husband and I believe all desire is rooted in our desire for relationship with God: to be able to walk with Him as Adam and Eve did once in the garden and be symbolically naked—completely vulnerable. Our desire for God is the only desire we have that doesn’t have to be restrained. He’s the only person we can approach with our desperate hunger for help, intimacy, and affirmation, and not be exhausted by it.

Waiting for the proper moment is a leaning into Him that we would not do otherwise. What is the proper moment for sexual intercourse? My kids have already learned from conversations on the Ten Commandments that the proper moment for genital desire has to do with marriage. Rightly ordered relationship includes waiting for marriage because the ordering of one’s relationships is first with God. Marriage is special because it is a sacrament: an outward symbol of His sanctifying grace.

But sexual restraint or rightful ordering doesn’t stop when we’re married. Although evangelical purity teaching has included avoiding pornography and sex outside the context of marriage, it’s neglected other forms of chastity within marriage. There is always the practice of chastity, even in marriage (see Sarah Coakley’s The New Asceticism). Sex isn’t a sudden free-for-all between two lovers. There are respect for the other’s body and sensitivities, pushing away one’s thoughts of sexual fantasies with others, and times of prayer.

Wholeness

“To be chaste,” writes Catholic thinker Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing, “is to experience things reverently, in such a way that the experience leaves them and ourselves more, not less integrated.” Ultimately, my husband’s and my goal for our children’s sexual education is a sense of wholeness with their own bodies, the world, and God.

Heather Walker Peterson

Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.
Heather Walker Peterson

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