Born in 1968 when the sexual revolution was in full swing, Dawn Eden grew up thinking that the way to make a man fall in love with you is to have sex with him. Working as a journalist among rock musicians made the second part easy. Love was another matter. At 31, thanks to an intense faith experience, she faced the fact that all the sex she ever had only made marriage a more distant prospect.
Eden's journey of discovery is told in her book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfilment While Keeping Your Clothes On, published by Thomas Nelson. In this interview with MercatorNet she talks about the true meaning of chastity and how it has opened up her world.
MercatorNet: You have written that you "sacrificed what should have been the best years of my life for a black lie". What exactly was that lie?
Dawn Eden: It was the lie that says it is possible to set one's own rules for how much having sex outside of marriage will affect one emotionally. The idea is that sex only has to affect you as much as you let it and if you choose to simply keep things light, if you choose to have sex with full knowledge that the relationship may not lead to marriage, you can in some pragmatic way forestall some troublesome emotional attachment.
It's a lie because that is not how we are built as human beings. Biochemically and spiritually, both, we are created in such a way that sex bonds us, and will always take us somewhere beyond where we would be if we were merely, to quote Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, "shaking hands".
MercatorNet: Is this particularly true for women?
Eden: I used to stress that, but now I think it's counterproductive. Women do show the negative effects of non-marital sex more visibly, and they are more vulnerable to physical effects such as STDs and of course there's always the chance of pregnancy. Also women do emotionally show the negative effects more. But to make it sound like it's worse for them implies that men can just have sex without consequences, when the truth is that the emotional and spiritual damage of non-marital sex are serious for a man and should not be minimised.
This is obvious when you look at all the failed marriages from couples who have sex before marriage, couples who cohabitate. Here in America the divorce rate for couples who cohabitate is twice the divorce rate of couples who don't live together before marriage. So certainly for men, having sex outside of marriage affects their ability to build true intimacy
MercatorNet: Chastity has been maligned as the virtue of prudes and religious fundamentalists. What is the truth about chastity that you have discovered? How does it impact on marriage?
Eden: Contrary to the stereotype that chastity narrows one's world, chastity opens it up. It certainly opened up my world. It's important to understand that chastity isn't only for the unmarried. Basically it concerns the proper ordering of sex in one's life, that it should always be within marriage.
Chastity is a way of viewing all of one's relationships, so that you are seeing the other person not as an object but as a gift. Likewise, you are striving yourself to be a gift – to offer your presence to the other person in such a way that goes beyond mere transactionalism. By transactionalism, I mean the idea that "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." True friendship is based upon giving without the expectation of receiving back exactly the same as one gives.
MercatorNet: What was it like to wake up in the morning and think, "I'm living a chaste life?"
Eden: At first I considered chastity something that I was doing just to "be good", and my attitude was, "OK, God, I'm doing this for you and you better darn well appreciate it!" But as long as I had that attitude of blind submission to an arbitrary authority I couldn't really stay chaste.
One thing that really helped me earlier on was reading Christopher West's book, Good News About Sex and Marriage, which is one of many works that interpret Pope John Paul II's theology of the body. It helped me to understand that God's design for us to be chaste actually has a purpose, which is to bring us to heaven, and which even in this life makes us happy. These are not just arbitrary rules meant to mortify us and make us miserable.
I liked to think of myself as a rebel and this opened the prospect of being a different kind of rebel, one of those wonderfully annoying people who are happy in situations that other people would consider impossible for happiness. I'm going to be rebelliously chaste, joyfully chaste. It's counter-cultural and that really appealed to me. I think it can appeal to a lot of young people.
MercatorNet: What role did religion play in your own decision to go chaste?
Eden: Certainly it was fundamental in my decision. People ask me if it is possible for an atheist to be chaste. It is possible for an atheist to have any virtue but I believe they will find it much harder than believers. Faith is not necessary for chastity, but it certainly helps. You need the hope that comes with faith, not just the hope of a future spouse but that this is an upward path that will help you to become more mature and reach heaven.
MercatorNet: Writing a book about chastity for young women rather than teenagers must have been something of a gamble. What persuaded you to take the risk?
Eden: It didn't seem a risk at all to me. I wrote it because when I first started practising chastity I looked for books on the subjects and all I could find was evangelical-type books with titles like "Lady In Waiting", which were written by virgins till marriage for virgins till marriage. I've nothing against such books but these were from a culture where people are completely cocooned and not tainted by the outside world. So when I became chaste I wanted to write a book for the rest of us, for the people who actually need to learn to be chaste.
MercatorNet: Do you think women are happier chaste? Isn't it natural to them
Eden: Yes, and I think men are much happier chaste too. Some of the problems men have is that when they become used to a certain level of sexual excitement, through pornography, for example, then they can become more drawn to that and then feel trapped because they are not in control of their sexuality. When they do gain control they are more at peace with themselves and with the world.
MercatorNet: As for teenagers, the idea that they should be encouraged to abstain from sex has become mainstream again, although with competing messages about safe sex. Do you have any ideas on "abstinence education", and any advice to offer teens?
Eden: I think the big problem with abstinence education is that in order to have federal funding, educators are not allowed to use the word chastity, because it has a Christian connotation. It really shouldn't be understood in that exclusive way, but it is.
Some abstinence programmes talk instead about virginity or what's called "secondary virginity", which is unfortunate because it makes it sound second-class. Some students who hear that term may think, "Well, that's it, I've gone and done it, I guess I can't be abstinent." Whereas if chastity is taught, young people would understand that they can not only become chaste but they can be happier that way.
But even without using the term "chastity" I think these programmes could be much improved if they dealt more with the positive aspects of abstaining that don't just have to do with not getting pregnant, not getting diseases… They need to stress, "This is how you form the kind of relationships that last."
MercatorNet: You are now hoping for marriage — what encouragement can you give to other young women holding out for Mr Right?
Eden: I would say to young women to think of yourself not in terms of what you lack — a spouse — but in terms of what you have to give. Every day, every interaction you have with people is a choice that you make to either shed some light or take some light away, and you find that the more you shed light the more you have in your own life.
MercatorNet: Do you have another book coming?
Eden: It will be a while yet but it will be based on the questions people have asked me at my appearances, which is how to put The Thrill of the Chaste into practice, and it will be directed to men and women with practical advice for chaste dating. The title will be, "Get Out Of My Bed, Get Into My Heart".
Dawn Eden is the newly appointed director of the Cardinal Newman Society's Love and Responsibility Programme based in Virginia. She blogs at The Dawn Patrol