A few months ago I was called as an Elder's Quorum instructor in my singles ward. Because people have told me they like my lessons, I've decided to make at least one blog post here for each one, this month on the lesson "Keeping the Law of Chastity" in the Ezra Taft Benson manual. Honestly, there aren't many subjects I consider more important. Chastity is one of the most crucial yet least understood parts of the spiritual life, so I think it's my duty to give you all my perspective on the topic.
This post will be split into three parts. This first post, called "Why be Chaste?" goes into the reasons behind the law of chastity--both why we keep it and why we are tempted not to keep it. The second post will be called "An Alchemy of Desire," and it will use psychological writings on alchemy (a spiritual, pre-scientific ancestor of chemistry) to metaphorically describe sexual feelings and common problems that come up in that area. The third post will be titled "Practical Tips," and I'll use it to describe ways to cope with sexual feelings that I've discovered online, in books, and from personal experience.
Unchastity can only give transitory pleasure
The most obvious reason I can give for why we should be chaste is that unchastity's pleasure--whether it happens as masturbation, pornography use, or premarital sex--can only ever be short-lived. If I get on a porn website and leer at graphic videos, I'm definitely not concerned about how I'm going to feel when I'm done. If I were, I'd remember that porn is always a letdown--it seems to give ecstasy and intimacy but only offers its empty shell. Pornography and masturbation are frauds in that sense because they promise something they can't deliver.
That brings up a crucial point: in contrast to how most people think of it, pornography isn't appealing to its users because of its promise of physiological sexual release. Instead, it offers something almost religious in nature, though perverted beyond recognition--the light of meaning as it's made flesh in human bodies. What the addict looks for in porn isn't physical sexual release but an experience of divinity he can't find anywhere else. Pornography promises something that--at least on the surface--looks like a spiritual experience: physical things (in this case naked bodies) holding meaning that goes beyond their physicality, transcendent connection, and the experience of otherness. But porn is a fraud because that ecstasy only lasts for a few moments. The porn user is left afterward feeling empty, spent, and even more alone than he was before.
Masturbation without pornography is sinful for the same reason, although it is less of a sin than pornography use. For although it avoids objectifying literal people (which I'll get to later on), masturbation still involves sacrificing long-term well-being for short-term pleasure. There are a few reasons this is true: first, masturbation empties one of energy. Redditors on the subreddit r/nofap talk about this a great deal, often posting about how frequent masturbation saps them of confidence and willpower to do things. I'm not sure what "the science" is behind this, but most of the users there aren't religious and don't think it's a bad thing to have premarital sex, even though they frown on masturbation. A part of me thinks: why would they think that if it there wasn't some truth behind what they're saying? They would have no reason to do so, all other things being equal.
Moreover, kundalini yoga (which I wrote about in this post) also extensively deals with this principle. According to the ideas behind it, there is a symbolic serpent called Kundalini located at the base of the spine, one which represents the "energy" mentioned above. If you masturbate, the energy simply gets expelled out the genitals and you're left feeling empty. However, the exercises of kundalini yoga are designed to raise kundalini energy up the spine until it reaches the head, where the snake can finally "come out" in a way that leaves you still feeling "full." I've done kundalini yoga for a few months, and the times when I've experienced something like that were incredible. Waves of pleasurable warmth (similar to those of sexual release) flooded through my whole body (including my head, my back, and my arms) and didn't dissipate at all quickly. It was also comparable to what a "burning in the bosom" feels like, except, again, it wasn't just in the bosom.
So one reason "why you should be chaste" is that chastity is a long-term investment. It not only avoids the rollercoaster of lustful expectation and the disappointment that follows, but it preserves spiritual energy that is better used elsewhere. Psychologist Wilson Van Dusen probably puts it best when he says:
"One of the quickest and surest ways to awaken the inner life is to deny bodily pleasure. This is probably why visions are rare these days."
He wrote this in his book on Emanuel Swedenborg, who had problems with chastity for a lot of his early life. We know from his private journals that it was actually his meditative efforts to control his sexuality (in a similar way to kundalini yoga) that gave Swedenborg enough spiritual energy to experience his incredible visions of higher worlds. And this brings up another point, which I also alluded to in my essay on kundalini yoga: if you have a problem controlling your sexuality, don't think yourself cursed. Instead, consider whether the energy struggling to get out through masturbation or pornography might be so powerful that it will take you a while to figure out how to contain it. Psychologist James Hillman even reports that an early sign of a call to Shamanism among the Mohave Native Americans is childhood masturbation. So while I'll get to practical tips mainly in the last post, know that a tendency toward unchastity might actually be the sign of a greater calling.
When someone isn't chaste, it's always because he doesn't value the object of his pleasure as a person. Whether a fantasy in masturbation, a porn actress, or my partner in casual sex, he can only ever see that person as an object, a thing-like tool he's using to give himself pleasure. In contrast, loving marital partners have intercourse not to take but to give pleasure. Sex then becomes a manifestation of the highest and deepest eternal patterns, where both partners give and both partners receive--an image of losing myself so as to find myself. In masturbation and pornography, the focus can only ever be on taking. Even in casual sex, an image of someone "good in bed" evaporates when the intimacy you shared reveals itself as something transitory and ultimately finite; because there's no further commitment, it was nothing more than an exchange of economic interests--buying pleasure with pleasure.
To be chaste means to recognize the innate human worth of everyone, especially the person whom you decide and commit to be intimate with. It means seeing not only the titillating surfaces of human flesh but looking deeper into the soul and the divine light shining from within it. Chastity means respecting the other's divinity, to treat them as ends and not as means.
That's that for part one. Check back soon for part 2!