Thursday, April 26, 2007

Naked under clothes

A man who looked to be in his 20s came up to me after I spoke at the Manhattan Theology on Tap — where I mentioned I had just endured a breakup — and told me he could relate because his girlfriend had just broken up with him.

She left him, he said, because he wanted to be chaste.

My experiences at the dozens of other talks I've given since The Thrill of the Chaste came out have made me realize that the young man's experience is not an isolated phenomenon. While feminists and conservative moralists alike often portray men as being more likely than women to pressure a partner into sex, I've found that, when men are determined to be chaste, they often face great resistance from their girlfriends.

I don't believe that this phenomenon is primarily because women want sexual pleasure. I believe that it has to do with what a woman believes she gains when she introduces sex, or any kind of sexually exciting physical contact, into a relationship.

From my own experience, I know that when I am dating a man chastely, I am far more naked with him than if we were having sex. I'm more vulnerable, because I can't interrupt a dispute with a passionate kiss, and I can't push him to show affection by stroking him. If there is silence between us on a date, I have to trust that it is a positive silence and not a negative one — or I have to come right out and ask him which kind it is. There are then no shortcuts to building intimacy, only honest communication and the experience of one another's presence.

A couple of weeks ago, after I gave a talk, a woman came up to me and told me that, while she was not a faithful Catholic, her boyfriend, whom she believed was the one, was devoted to the faith — and he wanted to be chaste.

"And it's killing me," she said.

It was obvious from her expression that she wasn't talking about being filled with sexual frustration. She was emotionally distraught because she lacked the consolation of sexual intimacy.

Initiating sexual contact in a nonmarital relationship brings consolation because it brings control. If one fears rejection — a fear that is intensified if one has experienced the divorce of one's parents — then, by initiating sexual contact, one may gain the upper hand. One then has the power to take away what one has brought into a relationship — to be the agent of the breakup, if one so chooses.

"You have to get used to being loved for who you are," I told the woman with the chaste boyfriend.

"The other men didn't love you for what was inside you," I went on. "This one does. You have to believe that the beauty he sees inside you is real."

I might as well have been speaking to myself. I know how hard it is to believe that a man could love you so much that he would want to wait to have sex with you until he has vowed to present himself as a gift to you and accept the gift that you are to him, forever.

But I just can't imagine any other way to live. Once you realize what marital love is, and how much higher it is than any mere erotic love, the idea of any kind of lesser arrangement seems cynical. Even in the absence of a boyfriend, when I have the opportunity to deepen my friendships with those who are close to me, I know I am worth enough that I don't have to accept affection that lacks permanence.