Last week, Ellen Burkhardt wrote a lengthy testimony for Salon about difficulties she faces with regards to dating, due to her wish to remain a virgin until marriage. According to Burkhardt, obstacles include deciding when to tell a man she's not going to engage in sexual relations until marriage -- she says that the first date is too soon, but the third date risks being too late to bring the subject up -- as well as trying to maintain her standards despite dating men who want to have sex, but are trying to respect her boundaries.
I can empathize with Burkhardt's difficulties. As a sexually abstinent 29-year old male, I came of age battling with some of the same problems she still does. As a lifelong practicing Catholic -- Burkhardt is Lutheran -- it was difficult to date within the public school system. Even though fewer than half of high school students engage in sexual relations, breaking the public expectation of sex (especially as a guy, since we allegedly think about sex every eight seconds) made dating particularly difficult.
As such, coming from the double-whammy of New Hampshire and public education, I was considered the radical Catholic for being sexually abstinent, being pro-life, and attending church weekly. This was especially true in college. So I figured that I was just about the only person, and pretty much the only Catholic, who was abstaining from sexual relations from marriage, and I resigned myself to being a lifelong virgin.
According to Burkhardt, she has not found a solution that allows her peace of mind as she pursues her vocation of marriage. I thought I would offer what worked for me, as I travel along my own path.
One difficulty was the fact that, despite my sexual practices (or lack thereof), I am a guy. I might not be sleeping with anyone, but that doesn't mean I'm different from any other guy when it comes to certain desires. While abstinence has always been surprisingly easy for me, thanks in large part to a strong moral foundation from my parents and my contrarian and stubborn nature, I knew stubbornness and "Mommy and Daddy said so" would probably not be sufficient to last me the rest of my life.
Another difficulty was, as Burkhardt noted, how to break it to someone that we weren't going to have sex prior to marriage. I'll take it one step further, however, and note that I plan on doing nothing besides kiss until marriage. One of the best tenets of the Catholic Church is the call to chastity, which includes not just sexual abstinence outside of marriage, but not drawing someone -- or being drawn myself -- to inappropriate sexual thoughts and actions.
Naturally, this presents multiple challenges. Externally, how do I present this in a way that gets the point across without creating a chasm between myself and the woman I am pursuing? And internally, how do I balance physical intimacy -- important in any dating relationship -- with chastity?
These are all sizable, yet delicate, balances to find. But for me, the answer was to find a community that not only respected my chosen lifestyle, but bouyed it up through support and a commonality of belief.
When I first moved to the Washington, D.C. area, however, such a community was not something I expected. Within months, however, I made friends who held the same beliefs I did -- which was almost entirely a brand-new experience. And that small group has expanded over the last five years, to where I now have an extended community of hundreds of friends and acquaintances across the D.C. area and beyond... all of whom do their part in holding each and every other person accountable.
So that was the first, and more important, part of how to have the important "I'm waiting until marriage" conversation: Find a community where this belief system was acceptable, and where moral reinforcement abounds.
This also means that instead of strategizing how to bring up sexual abstinence, I can now step into a date knowing that we're on the same page. (Ironically, the problem now is the exact opposite of what I experienced prior to coming to D.C. Apparently, I'm supposed to be in love with someone before asking her on a date! Who knew?)
Okay, so now I'm around people who are helping me to be both abstinent and chaste. But I'm still single! Wasn't chastity supposed to bring me the joys of sex in marriage, as long as I worked really hard at not violating Christ's admonition to avoid lust?
The answer is: not necessarily. It may not be God's plan for me to married now, or ever. And while this has become increasingly difficult to accept, especially as I watch friends and both of my younger siblings wed, it's the most important part of maintaining a chaste mind and body: being at peace with God's timeline, not my own.
As Burkhardt wrote, regarding why she's still a virgin, "[a] long time ago I was taught -- and chose to believe -- that love and sex are intertwined in such a way that to separate them would be to lessen their value. When it comes to my decision to stay a virgin until marriage -- to hold out for that one-time-only chance to fully connect with and know and love another person -- I want to make sure it's the right man."
Switch "man" for "woman," and Burkhardt has largely outlined why I'm abstinent, though as I've noted elsewhere my reasons have evolved beyond simply reciting what others tell me. After all, God's singular path for sexuality isn't just some pie-in-the-sky, esoteric concept that requires a departure from evidence-based reality. There are countless earthly benefits of abstaining from sexual relations until marriage.
To be fair, federal data analyzed by Dr. Pat Fagan of the socially conservative Family Research Council shows that abstinence until marriage is not the key factor to a successful marriage, but rather having one sexual partner for life -- whether sexual relations began prior to, or after, marriage. Personally, I'd rather listen to God than my occasional overabundance of testosterone -- less risk that way, both here and in the afterlife.