“Chastity is an art,” said panelist Scott Stephens, but not everyone agreed. On September 8, Intelligence Squared held a debate in Sydney where the motion was “Chastity Will Save the 21st Century.” It was a surprising topic, even for an ethics debate, as chastity has become a prudish word, asking maidens to re-clasp their iron belts and hide the key under their fathers’ mattresses. This attitude was evident in the primary vote: sixty-one percent were against, twenty-seven were undecided, with a small collection of twelve percent brave enough to say yes for chastity.
Before the teams were introduced, the moderator announced that chastity would not be defined as abstinence before marriage. Neither side would argue for less or no sex. The Mormons in the hall, of which there were next to none, were surprised. What is chastity if not abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within?
Arguing for the motion were Scott Stephens, theologian and philosopher; Imogen Bailey, human rights advocate and model; and Justin Hamilton, comedian. They stretched the definition of chastity to mean developing a relationship with oneself, thus find finding self-confidence in one’s sexuality. In today’s terms, chastity is not about no sex but about choosing whether or not to participate in certain aspects of the dating culture.
Bailey told the story of a twelve-year-old schoolgirl who was shamed for saying no to sexting and and physical sexual activity. Not knowing how to cope with the anger fueled towards her, she turned inward and began self-harming. Just as minority groups call out for rights about their sexuality, Bailey called for freedom for this girl who became a minority by saying yes to chastity.
Opposing the motion were Rob Brooks, evolutionary biologist; Nikki Goldstein, sexologist; and Alex Lee, BuzzFeed political reporter. They called chastity an outdated word with no place in our society because of its controlling connotation throughout history. Rob Brooks said that men call for chastity to control their wives and daughters, and women call for chastity to control the competition. This team’s opinion was that sex is out in the world, don’t flaunt it or control it. Nikki agreed with Imogen’s plea for opportunities to say yes or no, but disagreed that chastity was the correct term. Instead the debate was about sexual expression.
The final vote came down to yes for self-control or no to restraint. The against side argued that self-control in sex is problematic because it puts sex on a pedestal as something that is too good to be achieved as opposed to a basic human need like eating and sleeping. The team for the motion suggested that there is more to sex. Scott Stephens declared chastity to be a virtue linked to all others, and while his companions did not quite echo that statement they all agreed that everyone should be free to make decisions without feeling pressured.
Mormons seek to obey the Law of Chastity by not participating in sexual intercourse outside of marriage. As the debate ensued, it was clearer than ever that this “lifestyle” is a minority. The results from the vote revealed fifty-seven percent remained against the motion, seven percent were undecided, and those who said yes jumped to thirty-six percent. The world will not return to the days of abstention from sex before marriage. As every word that once held a religious connotation is being redefined in a modern light, it is important to understand what each term means to us as Mormons and what it can mean to those who are not members of the Church. Forget about saving our century, can chastity even survive?