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A wild constraint: the case for chastity

30 November, 1999

Jenny Taylor rediscovers chastity as a counter-culture that heralds a new sexual freedom and a recovery of community. She has as her model pioneers, like Florence Nightingale and Jane Austen, and the missionary spinsters who spent decades in India, Nepal and Africa providing healthcare and educational opportunities, especially for other women.

116 pp. Continuum International Publishing Group. To purchase this book online go to www.continuumbooks.com



  1. ‘Ready for Sex’ 
  2. Made in the Image of Dog: Freud and His Disciples 
  3. Sex and the Destruction of Childhood 
  4. Virtue and the Vamp: Women as Culture Carriers 
  5. The Church’s Turn Against Chastity 
  6. Alone Again — Naturally 
  7. Sexuality for Society 
  8. Surviving Chastity 


My old boyfriends will no doubt hoot and jeer when they discover I’m writing a book about chastity. Of course it provokes mirth and scepticism – and curiosity. Such a quaint notion. Ever since I became a Christian two decades ago, in part through the writings of St Paul on the body, I have found myself responding, albeit reluctantly, to requests particularly from the secular media to talk about why I turned my back on sex. I am not embarrassed to do so in public if it will encourage others.

The book came about as the result of an invitation to develop an article I had published in Third Way magazine (1). The Daily Telegraph Review had published a piece by Catherine von Ruhland about her intention, aged 40, to renounce her virginity to which I had responded robustly (2). Catherine’s piece went around the globe and was followed up by TV appearances, and then a BBC Woman’s Hour interview with both of us. I talked about how the degradation of the personality can start innocently enough with one’s first unsanctioned sexual encounter, and end in dark and increasingly wretched places. What is lost in terms of trust, self-esteem and integrity and the knock-on effects on the family and wider world is profound.

Once I began research for the book, I became aware of a curious phenomenon: there is almost nothing written for any market, be it sacred or secular, about the emotional and social costs of sexual licence. Rarely is a connection ever overtly made between the ‘healthy sex’ that sells cars, holidays and just about anything else, and the sex that ends in teen pregnancies, child custody battles and a destructive binge drinking culture. That would be to stray into the realm of morality. You can moralize about smoking, smacking and fox hunting, but not something as significant as sex which affects the core of our identities and is the locus of what Alan Bloom calls ‘the soul’s energy’ Emotionally unprotected sex needs a health warning of its own. The horrifying reality of sexual pain and its social cost is quite simply not discussed – beyond the dismal recitation of statistics that show the true fall-out of the sexual revolution.

On the other hand, in one bookshop, there were shelves groaning with well-written, passionate volumes of opinion and advice that indicated almost panic about the very real religious crisis that confronts the West’s sexuality. As the church re-evaluates its traditional stance on chastity and homosexuality, evangelical Christians particularly in America are deeply concerned about how to save their children from a sexually profligate culture around them. In January 2005, 1 counted 15 American titles published within the last two years alone with titles like Why Women Lose when they Give In and Every Woman’s Battle. The books were loud, righteous and directive – but none of them talked about sex in terms of social responsibility. The British contribution, though less strident – the tone being ‘we’ve all failed, but there could be an alternative’ – was nonetheless also carried on in a vaccuum, as if individuals had sex lives, but society did not.

What struck me also was that, barring Kristin Aune’s interesting piece of research, Single Women: Challenge to the Church?, no book looked at sexual abstinence as a coherent stance on its own terms; as a sociological phenomenon unconnected with marriage. ‘Singleness’ for unvowed Christians classically implies sexual abstinence – but only until marriage. It has come to have meaning only by reference to ‘un-singleness’. ‘The Silver Ring Thing had hit Britain as a clarion call for young people to ‘wait’ Chapter 8 of J. John’s book on sex is actually called ‘Single and Waiting’! (3)

I wanted to write a book about ‘single and not waiting’ – or `living fully as if I might never have sex’; I wanted to advocate a viable way of living that is an important social option, not a negation of something considered better but out of reach. I wanted to write it for thinking people, whether Christian or not, who find themselves completely bamboozled by the media; by pressure to be sexy, have sex, have it all, and are uneasy about it. I wanted to offer something to parents who watch anxious and bemused as their children get sucked into the sexual rapids. And I wanted to help single people to be an encouragement rather than a wretched warning.

Self-knowledge is imperative in the day-by-day business of remaining sane and honest in one’s living, and one must give an account that accommodates the sceptics. Sexuality is never without issues – and psychotherapists get fat on them. As a wild child who ran to religion I will no doubt be criticized by both sides in the battle for truth. I learned wisdom only through experience. I wish it had been otherwise. It is only because I know what I lost and what by the grace of God has been restored to me that I agreed to write this book. The biblical guidance on sex pulled me through a dark time – and if it is good enough to save one’s life, it is good enough to go on living by.

Care of our sexuality has traditionally been hedged about by taboos. Everyone is unpredictably susceptible to the power and intensity that sexual activity unleashes within them. No amount of sociological and psychological revisionism will change that fact. My conversations with women and men of all ages and backgrounds – for which I am profoundly in their debt – showed me that there is a world of pain caused by capitulation to cultural mores. I wanted to show that such pain has a more than personal cost; and that redeemed and used, there is more to sexless singledom than mere endurance. It is not merely an absence of partnership, but can become a life-saving presence of freedom, order and sanity; and more than that – a source of strength for society at large. I long for this to be affirmed and modelled attractively so that young women do not waste so much of their lives capitulating to men, waiting to capitulate or regretting that they did! So often they marry, and spend the rest of their lives regretting that too – or waiting for something else: a child that never comes; a bigger house, more freedom for creativity – or even for their oppressive spouse to die.

But there is more to chastity than just sexual abstinence. It is the opposite of the old credit card slogan: ‘Access takes the waiting out of wanting’ ‘The ‘grab it now’ culture is a direct attack on chastity. Chastity properly understood is an attitude that anticipates grace; that accepts there is a time and a place for all things. Learning how to wait well is the secret of maturity and satisfaction, even if it is for a lifetime. In Ronald Rolheiser’s words: ‘Irreverance or prematurity are what violate chastity. By that token marrying because it promises compensation is unchaste. When it assures us of security, status and sex – and most likely a rest from the burden of ourselves – it is unchaste. Yet we opt for it because the alternative as it has been presented, seems so awful. Without outspoken advocates for chastity, women will only go on trying harder to numb themselves to the pain of emotionally unprotected sex. And all that results in is a hardening of the heart and a greater insensitivity to what really matters for society as a whole. Chastity is deeply political.

I have also been intrigued to understand what lies behind the changed attitudes of a country once a byword for reticence about sex, from where chaste women led the world in sexual and social reform. What is the link between chastity and creativity? My own experience led me to want to know more about pioneers like Florence Nightingale and Jane Austen who responded with their bodies to the needs and constraints of their time. They chose something other than marriage – and it surely was not lack of interest in men (4).

I had inspiring role models among the missionary spinsters I’d worked with who spent decades in hard places in India and Nepal and Africa, often on their own, founding healthcare and educational opportunities especially for other women. Ordinary, unmarried and chaste, they often achieved something beautiful for God completely unsung. This book is dedicated to them.

Blessed are those who, going through the vale of misery use it for a well: and the pools are filled with water. (Psalm 84.6)



Carla Weller is 16 and lost her virginity three months ago. A tall girl with a long, rather sad and watchful face – she has agreed to come to my house to talk. She arrives alone, brave, feigning indifference; obliging the mother of a friend who is helping me find informants. Carla is trying to find her way in a life circumscribed by state school and the public houses of Wood Green. Her mother is a barrister in Chancery Lane; her father, who is a Polish Catholic, is an artist. She loves her family very much, and would hate to upset them. She refers to her older sister’s guidance, more than to her parents. Her answers to my questions reveal the habituated sophistication of a teenager suddenly, painfully, aware that her stock patter – the patter she used to use to shield her naivety – is false and inadequate. She is confused, hurt – and proud. She knows she’s been made a fool of by a weak boy she did not love but with whom she had grown up. Curiosity got the better of her; she ‘had sex’ when she was told it was ‘OK’ to do so, i.e. when she ‘felt ready’ – yet now she feels, in some obscure way, she has demeaned herself.

As she talks, occasional gleams of girlish mischief twinkle in her eyes. They alternate with darker, petulant self assertions that reflect an evident dawning awareness that sex is not just another childish prank. Sex leaves an emotional residue; there are social repercussions she had not anticipated, and for which no one seems to have prepared her. Pompous phrases straight from the teaching manuals thud into the space between us and lie like unexploded shells. The detonator is her dawning awareness that the system has let her down. Childhood friends who become ‘sex partners’ – or whatever the government calls them now – do not remain friends or partners for very long, it seems.

Carla: ‘We have people come in and do talks about underage sex and that kind of thing. The whole awareness thing – they say, “If you are not ready for it don’t do it”; wait until you feel comfortable. I won’t put an age on it. You could feel ready and confident enough at a young age, but you should probably save it until you are slightly older because if you do get involved it could be a disappointment. It’s hyped up so much by the media and by friends. It would feel a big deal – mainly to girls. Girls have a habit of talking more about their emotions. Boys are more, “Come on – get it over and done with” or “Oh, I would love to bang that!”

‘I lost my virginity three months ago [clicking her fingernail]. In myself I was ready. I was ready for a while. It was more about making sure Jo was comfortable. I wouldn’t do it unless it was a boyfriend. I would feel like a slut. There’s not a real difference; it’s more about myself. You need to feel a connection with someone. The one night stand appeals if you are drunk, in a club. To me it would have to have meaning to it rather than just wham bam thank you mam.

‘I haven’t seen Jo since it happened. It’s probably a lot to do with his friends. Maybe he wasn’t ready for the whole relationship thing. That’s what’s upset me. He is easily influenced, Jo is. He follows a lot of what his friends say, whereas I am the opposite. That was more curiosity for me. I was like, that’s something I haven’t done before. I just want to get it over with – see what it’s like. We’d get onto the subject, me and my friends.. . . At school they teach us that we have to feel ready. They tell us don’t feel pressure. It isn’t a need. If you want to do it, it’s because you want to. Condoms. That was our biggest worry.

‘To be honest? Because it was so hyped up, after the first time it didn’t really. . . . it was really over-rated. I expected it to be amazing, oh wow … the media’s always sex sex sex – something really massive in my life – but afterwards, I thought, well, that’s done. My friends went the opposite way and went sex crazed, but it’s not like I suddenly feel like I’m a woman note. ‘The first time was during the day, the second time in the evening. I think Jo was curious as well. I didn’t want to have sex with someone who had lost their virginity. I didn’t want it to be a big deal to me but not to them.

‘My feelings? I was nervous, there was excitement. Love? Well yeah, love has a lot to do with it but I wouldn’t say at the time I was in love with Jo. I wouldn’t say actual love, but I care for someone. I am more likely to call a girl a slag if she doesn’t give a damn about his background. It must be a mutual decision to explore things you have never been involved in before. I don’t think it has as much meaning when you are younger as when you are older. I don’t know why that is. When you are young, you don’t show the same affection: when you are a child you still have the whole do-you-fancy-him-thing. I think it’s a type of love, but I don’t think its the same kind of love as when you are older. If you really are in love with someone, they will take you for what you are. It’s not so much what you can give them – the whole virginity thing – it doesn’t really matter to them. As long as you don’t go around mentioning you have slept with someone already. What I have learnt from my sister, the guys don’t like you bringing up past relationships.

‘I would like to think of myself as not the kind of person who would have sex with any old Tom, Dick or Harry. With Jo, I really do care about him a lot – I won’t say I am in love with him. He was more my friend, I had that sort of friendship, care for him. At school, they should go into the emotional thing. But it can scare you. It is going to affect you for the rest of your life. I think it would be good if they gave you emotional awareness rather than just “You can get an STD or get pregnant”. I do think the emotions behind it are more important – because of how you feel after you have done it. I don’t think I am a changed person. I am aware people might perceive me differently. “She’s easy, she’s the kind of girl that would have sex straight away”. But I am really not.

‘I don’t regret that. If you are going to regret that, you are going to end up regretting it for the rest of your life. Having sex with Jo – it was OK. This is new for me and at first, I was a bit – do I regret this? and then I was – I would rather it was Jo who I have known rather than someone I met ten minutes ago.

‘I can’t tell you what love is because I don’t know what love is. I am not sure what I have with Jo is.

[Long pause]

‘At the moment I am really angry with Jo. I feel like he has pushed me out of his life and he hasn’t given me a reason. That’s what I wish they would have told me: “you will feel paranoid about whether the boy wants to be with you because he wants sex, or because he loves you.” I wish they had warned us. My sister did try and tell me.

‘You don’t get taught about marriage as something for sex. They teach you that marriage is the final way to say I love you – not sex, which is interesting. Part of me wishes they had taught me that.

‘He did tell quite a lot of his friends, which did upset me. They said, “Ah you’ve banged her now. Do it again. Do it again.”‘

Carla is a product of the national state school system. Her answers reveal a faux scientific attitude of moral neutrality in matters of sexuality. The education system and the research establishment operate a statistically based discourse that, while conveying authority, emerges from an ideologically closed circle of mutually reinforcing prejudice. Sex education is carried out within a framework of quantifiable data on health and hygiene. In itself, this can only incorporate ‘risk behaviour’ and ‘undesired outcomes’ rather than daring to break more metaphysical ground. Science, it seems, cannot guard the heart.

Society and its discontents
Seven million people in Britain now live alone, and lump it. According to the Office of National Statistics, this figure from a 2005 survey compares with three million in 1971 (1). More people than ever are living alone younger. The largest increase in single households over the past 20 years has been among those aged 25-44 years, more than doubling in the case of men, from 7 to 15 per cent. A further 58 per cent of 21-24-year-old males still live unwed, with their parents. The number of marriages has fallen from 408,000 in 1950 to 283,700 in 2005 – the lowest level this century. With marriage proving increasingly unpopular, it is assumed that most of these unwed people are permanently on the lookout for a sexual partner, or at least, for sex. If a woman goes to the doctor for her annual smear test, the first question she will be asked is not ‘Are you married?’ but ‘What contraception are you using?’

For the post-Pill world, shame – the old way society maintained its boundaries – has been decoupled from sexuality. Shame has been deconstructed, and sex is no longer perceived to compromise social order but is as much subject to rational consciousness as any other appetite or human attribute. The Pill ended the infamous ‘double standard’ and freed women from unwanted childbirth, male domination and domestic incarceration to enjoy the pleasures of sex in the way men always had. Personal completeness now means sex. The famous City blogger Abby Lee exclaims: ‘I feel like a woman again. Finally got some sex! (2)  For researchers and policy makers, sex is about safety and hygiene. Even the Girl Guides’ new Guide for Living for Modern Girls has a chapter entitled: ‘How to practise safe sex’ (3). For educators sex is a matter of biological maturity; just one way a person relates to another – and there is a menu of predilections. In 2005, 160,000 civil marriage ceremonies (marriages performed by a government official rather than by a clergyman) took place and accounted for more than two-thirds (65 per cent) of all marriages. Cohabitation before marriage is increasingly the norm. Whereas around 1 in 20 women marrying in the late 1960s had cohabited before their wedding day, by the end of the 1990s the figure was nearly eight in ten (4). The liberation of female sexuality has helped the liberation of all forms of sexual expression including buggery, once regarded as demeaning and unmentionable (5). Thirty years ago, there were just two venereal diseases – as they were known: gonorrhoea and syphilis. Today there are 23.

For the church, faithfulness and commitment still matter – but less so. Many in the church see their job as responding as sensitively as possible to people’s ‘needs’, and affirming their chosen ‘lifestyle’. Believers do not respond to God’s calling; instead they choose their ‘identity’ Clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church is increasingly discussed as ‘optional’; the individual’s choice rather than a calling.’ Cohabitation is now regarded by influential churchmen as an option that should have its own liturgies (7). Pleasure in sex is, for the first time in 2,000 years of history, a serious theological and ethical issue, not a mere footnote in the age-long discourse on procreation. The Anglican Report Marriage and the Church’s Task, published in 1978, speaks of ‘a polyphony of love’ that can be comprehended as, among other things, ‘two individuals’ experience of ecstatic pleasure’ .

According to Duncan Dormor, Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, the Pill heralded the greatest social change since the ending of feudal society and the shift to a capitalist economy (8). For Anthony Giddens, Tony Blair’s adviser on marriage policy, this is a welcome sign of ‘autonomous development, an aspect of ‘a society where almost everyone has the chance to become sexually accomplished’ (9). Sexual morality has been replaced by sexual ‘competence’, defined by social scientists and statisticians as sex without regret or adverse consequences such as unwanted pregnancy or disease. The less regret there is, the more mature, socialized or ‘autonomous’ the individual is.

The implications of these changes in how society perceives its sexuality are significant, both for social well-being and for the increasing numbers of people for whom their status has no social meaning. They live in limbo, seeking artificial ways to palliate an inchoate sense of disconnection. Those who face life alone – the uncomfortably named ‘singles’ – have no status beyond a negative one: the not married, the uncommitted, the incomplete. They seek sex – and are assumed to be seeking sex – to make them complete. The historic option known as chastity is not just invalid as an ideal, but has effectively dropped out of the lexicon because few understand its wider social meaning. The supplementary role in parenting of the bachelor and the maiden aunt depended upon freedom and a notion of service. Now Aunt Jessie is likely to be too busy with her new toyboy. Respectability has withered on the vine since it is an attribute fostered by community activity.
It has been replaced by individualistic ‘acceptability’ or ‘cool’ (10). The anthropologist Tim Jenkins defines respectability as ‘status claimed by an individual and his or her family, subject always to acceptance by the neighbourhood. It is a business of matching self-regard and public regard’. But the anonymity of the city renders pointless the social value of controlled or withdrawn sexuality.

It is the contention of this book that the absence of a rationale and particularly a religious and social rationale – for the single state per se – is an issue for us all. Miserable books – and there have been a plethora of late – that merely point out the isolation and despair felt by single people, compound the problem. Perhaps the most miserable of all has been Phillip Wilson’s Being Single published in 2005, which contains analysis of 15 interviews with single Christian men and women chosen at random, all of whom found their condition wretched and pointless. Chapters like ‘Loneliness, Dating and Sexuality’ and ‘The Challenge of Singleness’; and subheads such as ‘The Biggest Problem of All’, ‘Church-Pain’ and ‘Church-Stress’ speak for themselves. ‘It seems that no matter the personality, the age, the context, or the church, loneliness is a simply enormous issue amongst many single people’ (11).

Wilson calls on the churches to ‘do something’ for their singles as if it were a a disease or a disability. In fact, it is more a sign of disordered times – and a pointer to the need for social reconstruction. At key times in the past it was the religious connection between chastity and the vitality of communities that gave purpose and
meaning to the lives of the unwed. A restoration of such a connection is the key both to happier people and restored communities. First, we turn to the contemporary social and emotional scene.

Parental accomplices
‘We’re from the ghetto!’ smiles 18-year-old Nickie as I approach a group of teenage girls sitting smoking on the wall outside the St James Shopping Mall in downtown Edinburgh. ‘We have a hard life’, she says smiling vacantly, between puffs on her smoke. I’ve explained – loosely – that I’m researching for a book on young women and their life choices. I offer to buy them a drink if they will talk to me. They march me to the nearest Burger King and I buy them Cokes. Beckie explains straightaway: ‘My boyfriend bullies me, tells me what to do and that. I don’t want to get married’.

I hope to talk to all four of them, but it’s Nickie who sits down with me, while the others wait politely at another table, and giggle. They’re not malicious; there is real prettiness in their faces and clothes, but they have an air of something slightly feral and disordered about them. It’s what made me stop. Were they with the girl selling the Big Issue nearby, swaying slightly on her feet, losing her struggle to keep her eyes open enough to see the passing punters who might pay for the next fix? Perhaps they weren’t with her – but they could have been.

I buy the Cokes – two politely refuse – and we stumble upstairs to find a quiet table. It is furnace-hot on this July heatwave day as I attempt to get my head around the presuppositions of a 16-year-old ghetto-child who’s just been picked up by a middle-aged English woman and hasn’t a clue what she wants. Pretty with a soft
pink and white complexion, and the remains of a lurid pink hair dye an inch from the roots, she is guarded and almost totally lacking in self-awareness or sexuality. A child still – a naughty child – playing with dangerous toys.

Her dad died when she was 6, in a fire, she tells me. Her parents had already split up by then. He had come home one night dog tired, and had fallen asleep in the chair, dropping his fag on the floor. He died of smoke inhalation, trying to put it out. She had moved to Edinburgh three years ago with her mum, who found a job in a bakery. She attended St Augustine’s Catholic school, although she was a Protestant. It didn’t mean anything to her. She liked going on the Orange walks.

‘I had a boyfriend for two years. It’s someone to talk to, and spend time with and stuff. He moved to another school and it was too far to see him. I’ve never slept with a boy. The last boyfriend I had I was too young. Sex doesn’t bother me. I’d sleep with him if I liked him. At school they just taught us about STDs and protection and peer pressure. If you don’t want to do something don’t get pushed into doing it, that’s all they said. They didn’t teach us it was wrong. It was in PSE – I can’t remember what that means – it was guidance, all your work experience stuff, odd jobs, sex education.’

What are your hopes for the future?
‘Getting money when I get older. Have a good job and be happy. I want to join the army. You have to be 17, so I will probably stay on at school another year.’

She looks at me as if I am strange:
‘No – I don’t think sex is for marriage. I don’t want to get married anyway. I don’t want to have any children either. I don’t want to be tied down. I just want to have fun.’

What is fun for you?
‘My pals, having a drink, going to parties – I drink vodka or anything – alcopops, WPB – I’ll have four big bottles. If I really want to get drunk, I will have a bottle of vodka to myself. I don’t do that every night.’

Why do you get drunk?
‘Because it’s fun.’

Where do you get the money from?
‘From my mum.’

Schooled for sex
Between a quarter and a third of children now have sex at puberty, and neither schools nor parents see it as their job to instil restraint. The Natsal Survey, reported in the Lancet (see footnote 5), reveals that 30 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women aged 16-19 years now reported their first heterosexual intercourse at younger than 16 years. The proportion of women reporting first intercourse before they were 16 had gone on increasing, it emerged, up to the mid-1990s, but had ‘stabilised’ after that.

The report also noted a sustained increase in condom use and a decline in the proportion of men and women reporting no contraceptive use at first intercourse with decreasing age at interview i.e. younger and younger children are heeding the lessons they are taught at school, and going into their first sexual encounters with  ‘protection’. ‘Only a small minority of teenagers have unprotected first intercourse.’

The report interprets the findings as showing that teachers are the most significant influence on ‘risk behaviour’, noting ‘an increase in the importance of school in the sexual education of the young, particularly men’. It also notes ‘a striking increase in condom use at first intercourse, suggesting ‘some impact’ from sexual health promotion messages, and concluding that ‘[f]actors most strongly associated with risk behaviour and adverse outcomes have considerable potential for preventive intervention: Children now know they can have sex without sanction – so long as it is ‘protected’ (and is therefore no financial burden on the State). Indeed, far from deterring them, they feel it’s expected of them. A 13-year-old Tyneside lad stuck up his hand after a sex education class I attended, and asked: ‘Miss – when you see condoms everywhere in the toilets and shops and things, does that mean you’ve got to have sex? (12)

Education, however, is not preparing children for the emotional rigours of the experience. Throughout the age range, there is a strikingly high level of regret – 42 per cent on average among females. Even among those whose first experience of first intercourse was 18 years and older, 19.3 per cent wished they had waited longer. `Women’ says the Natsal report, ‘are twice as likely as men to regret their first experience of intercourse and three times as likely to report being the less willing partner.’ Regret is one of four criteria of ‘sexual competence’ in the survey, but regret is an odd choice of word in the context of a subject that is treated scientifically, since it is usually applied to experiences that cause lasting harm. One does not regret one’s first alcohol – one simply likes or dislikes it, unless one becomes an alcoholic. A schoolgirl may regret not revising harder for an exam – because the implications endure into adult life. So too, first sex. The language belies the study’s own purported neutrality.

The other criteria of ‘sexual competence’ are ‘willingness, autonomy and contraception at first intercourse’ A ‘strikingly high proportion, 91 per cent of girls and 67 per cent of boys aged 13 to 14 years at first intercourse were not sexually competent’. However,'[a]nalysis by age group shows that sexual competence at first intercourse has increased during the past three decades, despite decreasing age at intercourse. Kids have sex younger, use condoms more and claim less to be doing so under pressure.

There is an emotional and social cost to the relaxation of sexual mores in Britain that may be just as high as disease and pregnancy – but is harder to quantify. There is a clear correlation between sexual activity in young women, early school leaving age – and subsequent pregnancy. ‘These data identify a vulnerable group of women in public-health terms; 29 per cent of sexually active young women in this study who left school at age 16 years with no qualifications had a child at age 17 years or younger’ For nearly a third of young sexually active women (29 per cent), future options are diminished.

This survey shows, beyond much doubt, that girls are having sex as young as possible, and that while more of it is ‘protected’, young women still pay the highest price. The ghost in the machine is clearly the school. The researchers applaud the increase of condom use – ‘risk reduction’ – and ‘the association between school sex education and risk reduction’ – irrespective of the emotional and social harm that’s being done. Unhappy children mean an unhappy society. There is a significant group of young people whose aspirations are being betrayed by actual experience, whether thanks to parents, school, media or peers. Given the indisputable influence others have on the timing and mechanics of first sexual experience – as the report indicates – there is a clear role to be played by the whole of society in helping children to imagine an alternative route through the rapids of puberty.

Old singles: menopause, spinsterhood and the fear of dying
Fewer than 1 per cent of people marrying today are virgins (13). The British Household Panel Survey carried out life-history research into four groups of women born in the 1900s, 1920s, 1940s and 1960s. It found that while 17 per cent of women born in the 1920s had neither married nor cohabited by the age of 30, for those born in the 1960s the figure was a mere 8 per cent (14). According to the 2000 Natsal Survey, however, for those born in the 1970s that figure had become negligible.

The Gadarene rush to have sex as soon as possible is powered partly by the myth of the miserable spinster. It is the myth that stigmatizes, goading younger women into false behaviour, forcing them to work harder at their own self-gratification than at creating supportive communities. This can only rebound on society, as more and more singles face a future stripped of nurturing forms of community. Says Christopher Hayes, Director of the National Centre for Women and Retirement Research in Southampton, New York: ‘As the first baby boomers turn 55 … gerontologists expect the ranks of older singles to continue to grow, making this an issue for women in particular. My perception and it’s a very strong one, is that singleness will be one of the biggest quality-of-life issues for women entering retirement in the millennium.’ In the States, with 40 per cent of all adult women now single, says Kim Campbell, `[w]e are going to be living in a singles society’ (15).

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Co-Director of The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, New Jersey says: ‘There’s no script for them to follow or borrow from an earlier generation of women … They’re defining this stage of life as they go through it.’ This new cultural phenomenon is invisible – most advertising is directed at couples. ‘That means that 43 million women are invisible!’

There is a lack of a shared cultural image of the happy single. Kay Trimberger, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Soroma State University, California, says this may have to change. ‘One thing that might help younger single women feel more secure in their singleness is more images of older single women. They need to focus not on a search for “Mr Maybe” but on “a single woman’s pursuit of happiness’ ” (16).

That pursuit is not new, of course, and, indeed there has been a small but influential secular literature since the 1930s, some of it recently republished, celebrating the turns it might take. The most influential writing is American, ranging from Marjorie Hillis’s demurely hedonistic Live Alone and Like It, published in 1936 and republished by Virago in 2005, to Cosmo founder Helen Gurley Brown’s famous Sex and the Single Girl published in 1963, foremost in the genre. Laurent Cantet’s sensitive 1973 pre-AIDS film Heading South, about rich American women of a certain age finding illusory comfort in the boys who hang around a Haitian beach paradise, took Gurley Brown’s ideas seriously and was re-released at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. But the consequences he portrays are far darker than Gurley Brown intended.

Heading South
Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is 55, an elegant divorced academic, who loves a beautiful young stud named Legbo for his ability to bring her to orgasm as soon as he touches her. Brenda – who never had an orgasm until she was 45, the summer three years ago when she came to Haiti with her husband and met Legbo – is depressed, on Valium, self-destructive and desperate. She’s left her husband and her home, and come back to find Legbo; she admits to him one drunken night that she obsessed about him for three years ‘in agony’. She explains to camera how he was just a boy they befriended on their holiday – when she finds herself unexpectedly aroused by the beauty of his naked black skin as they lie sunbathing together on a rock. ‘I literally threw myself on him, she admits to camera.

Three years on, Legbo is making a career of his looks and Brenda returns to find him now the plaything of the mysterious Ellen – and of how many others? All the women seem to be vying for Legbo’s favours, more or less overtly, oblivious to the fact that he has any other life. For these women, Haiti is a carefree paradise of sun and sea, of simple ‘natives’ and colourful markets. Haitians obligingly smile for their cameras, and the deferential poolside attendants flatter the women’s egos, while massaging their sagging skin. Legbo’s youth, smile, sweetness belie the dark world from which he comes, in which his mother lives in a shack, the police persecute poor street vendors just for kicks, and pimps and gangsters roam the streets in shaded limousines. He is the women’s plaything. Their money protects them from his reality, but it cannot protect him from them. The Haitian twilight world engulfs them all when Legbo’s body is found dumped one morning in the hotel garden. He has been murdered by the henchman of his rich, jealous Haitian former girlfriend. Paradise is lost. Ellen returns to America; Brenda decides to continue her depredations on other islands – ‘their names are all so beautiful’, she says madly at the end as she sets sail for new conquests. Whatever your age, there is no consequence-free sex – though the consequences may remain out of sight and beyond the consciousness of those with money enough. ‘Tourists never die, comments the police inspector bitterly, as the body of Legbo is carted away. And yet these women, displaced, rootless, hopeless, are already soul-dead.

Exploitations compete in the film. Self-loathing and contempt form the film’s sub-text. The barman Albert comments: Americans have worse weapons than cannons. Dollars. Everything they touch turns rotten: American sex culture, driven now increasingly by women, is blind to itself, and destroys what it loves. The real message in Heading South is that sex, even post-menopause, is, for the unattached woman, a fool’s paradise. Sex and death are linked. The arousal of old, fat or wrinkled white bodies by young, virile black ones, comes as a kind of a miracle of resurrection. But the miracle is illusory. Such sex, the film suggests, brings not life but death.

Yet, active sexuality among once ‘respectable’ middle-aged and elderly single women is increasingly flaunted. The largest relative increase in all the categories surveyed in the Natsal Survey was the number of heterosexual partnerships in a woman’s lifetime, a figure that is still increasing. Nearly 20 per cent (19.4 per cent) of women in the 35-44 years age range reported having had more than ten partners, and nearly 10 per cent of 16-24-year-old women had had more than ten partners in the past five years alone. In 2000 nearly double the population than in 1990 now lived with a partner to whom they were not married – 17.3 per cent as against 9.6 per cent, despite the warning signs of instability in such relationships.

Where once it was considered surprising to discover older people had sex lives at all, now active extramarital sex among the over-50s is publicly celebrated. The Daily Telegraph announced with grim breeziness that ‘reaching the age of 50 marks a fresh start for women who know what they want in the bedroom’ (17). ‘Farewell frumpery, hello frolics’, trilled Nicola Tyrer in a two-page Weekend feature about a new book – from America – called Sex and the Seasoned Woman. The paper accompanied the article with a coquettish picture of an elegant woman, naked but for pearls, lipstick and a scarlet hat, breasts demurely hidden behind the headline ‘Sex at 50’ and 2,000 words of prurient nonsense that would once have seemed more appropriate in News of the World. ‘A great many women are finding “middlesex” more enjoyable than married life ever was in their thirties and forties, when juggling jobs, motherhood and what’s-for-dinner guilt made for mostly
exhausted sex.’ There is The Widow who has since ‘slept with six men, three of whom are up to 20 years her junior’ and ‘discarded’ all but two, both of them considerably younger than her, and who met them all on the internet. And there is The Adulteress of whom Tyrer writes with relish that ‘research shows that the best aphrodisiac for a menopausal woman is a new partner’. The article, which includes a side panel of pictures of ‘models in their fifties’, jokes that ‘older handsets are more in demand than new ones’ The revival of model Twiggy’s career in 2005 is cited as putting ‘a spark back into Marks and Spencer and 50 back on the style radar’. Older women of the 1960s baby boomers generation have come back into focus because someone realized they are still ‘hot’ – mostly chemically induced by HRT. If you’re not having sex with someone – anyone apparently – you’re a frump. Sheehys stories, says the standfirst, reveal that women who, a generation ago, would have been into knitting and doing good works are now into sex.

If this is equality, it is as usual equality on male terms. ‘To make it in a man’s world, you have to be one of the guys’, concludes Ariel Levy in her brilliant Female Chauvinist Pigs published in 2005. Raunch culture, she writes, is about women out-manning the men. Where once only men could ‘play the field’ to the grave, now thanks to the Pill and HRT, women can too. Women don’t want to be excluded from anything. And what’s more, it’s no good just bedding your pubescent hairdresser, young enough to be your son – you’ve got to make sure you get written about doing it. Appearing shitty and getting recognition for it are the fast track to heightened female stardom’, writes Levy (18).

British middle-class female exhibitionism still has a way to go – the British movie Calendar Girls showed no nipple, for all the scantily-cladness. But the elusive search for consequence-free sex fuelled by the media is likely to increase. One of the indicators is recent research into heterosexual anal intercourse. It has increased according to the 2000 Natsal Survey; 12.3 per cent of men reported having experienced it in the past year, as against 7 per cent in 1990 and 11.3 per cent of women as against 6.5 per cent. Anal sex is widely considered to be a good indicator of media influence on sexual behaviour, since it is not something people tend to speak about to each other.

Statistical evidence of reduced stigma and loss of shame attached to all forms of sexuality arising from economically driven patterns of social disengagement and media-induced conformism is borne out in conversation. In the following vignette, ‘Celia’, a 76-year-old bishop’s daughter, describes the surprising turn her virginal life suddenly took, and her lack of regret for it, shored up no doubt by the view of her peer group in a once impeccably respectable church, some of whom told me that `everybody does it’ and ‘chastity is such an old-fashioned idea’ (19).

Celia was already in her 40s when she met Lex and began an affair that was to span a quarter of a century – up to his death. A nursery school teacher who had failed to marry (as she puts it), Celia embodies the intimate connection between money and gender, the crude economic marginalization of women that impinged in a very practical way upon their emotional prospects. Celia’s generation was the last to suffer this kind of victimization. Now 76, Celia came from a ‘good’ family – her father was the Principal of a leading Anglican theological college and later a bishop in the episcopal church in Scotland. Yet, she was nonetheless forced to live in a twilight world of tied lodgings, digs and borrowed flats with almost no money, and even less social cachet. Unable through dyslexia to acquire more than a rudimentary education and then unable, as a single woman, to acquire a mortgage, she was forced to make a life on the scraps left over from the family table. With a small legacy once her parents died, she was eventually able to set herself up independently running a nursery – but by then it was too late to marry. In many ways she was lucky. Other respectable single women who lost their fiancés or husbands in the war and had no other family means to support them, were forced to enter service or seek menial jobs in old people’s homes and mental hospitals with accommodation attached.

Celia got a post in the country at first, as nanny to a family friend, miles from the nearest town. She never met anyone vaguely interesting. Later, she lived rent-free in another well-to-do friend’s unwanted flat in Edinburgh, looking after his child, but again, quite isolated. She was very poor. ‘I used to take his gin bottles back to the shop and get tuppence. Three bottles of gin would buy you a loaf of bread: ‘Then she went to Beirut to child-mind for a British diplomat. She was expected to socialize with the other nannies, and again found it impossible to meet a potential spouse. Despite her background, she was never invited to the embassy parties. She remembers going to tea with one of the other nannies, and being shown the girl’s latest purchase – a corset. ‘I rebelled at that point. It was better just to be lonely.’

Her parents left her a little money when they died, and with it she set up a small nursery school, and for ten years she ran the school on her own. But by that time she was in her 40s, decidedly ‘on the shelf’ and wishing she weren’t. Chastity was enforced – and resented. ‘Everyone around one was quite happily having affairs, but not me.’

The conversation suddenly takes a startling turn I had not anticipated. I had imagined this strong-minded clergyman’s daughter had been lined up to talk to me about the compensations of a virtuous life lived in the shadow of the bishop’s palace, of the joys of self-sacrifice teaching children the faith. I had imagined she would tell me about at least finding within herself a ‘stance’ with which to counter the ravages of a secular sexualized environment. So I have to ask her to repeat herself: ‘I had an affair for 25 years, and no one ever knew. But at least I waited: This said with a penetrating look: ‘I waited two and a half years.’

I try to absorb the fact that Celia is confessing, for only the third time in her life, to a passionate adultery with the husband of an invalid, that had lasted for a quarter of a century, and which she did not in the least regret. ‘It was incredibly important. I was not sorry. I adored him. I would not have stopped for anything. Even when he dropped me for two years and came back again. I just was addicted to him completely, until the day he died.’

When pressed, she admits that perhaps it had compromised her ‘slightly’ – but she sees that compromise entirely in terms of her own fulfilment. ‘I gave up a huge amount for it. I gave up having a husband, having children, having security. I don’t know why everyone comes down on that sin, when you think of all the petty meannesses that people go in for. At least it’s love and love is the most important thing.’ However, she admits she felt ‘unable to take communion’ for three months after the affair began. But a family friend – Metropolitan Anthony Bloom – once told her on no account ever to stop taking communion. ‘So I began again, and have never stopped since.’

I wonder how she would counsel younger people in the church; what line she might find herself able to take for the sake of future society more generally. ‘I don’t think I would give advice. I used to get really cross with that story of the early fathers, the one who was tempted all of one night and I thought, what does he know? Try being tempted for two and a half years!’

Of her faith, and why she is so very prominent a member of her respectable congregation, she admits: ‘I believe less and less as I get older, but I get more driven that we have got to do things for people’ A kind of salvation by works, I suggest? She is not at all keen on Christ’s saying of Mary that she had chosen the better part. ‘Oh, I always felt so sorry for Martha. I never could stand Mary.’

Then I return to the question about advice to the young. ‘I think it’s so difficult now, I really, really do. How the young with all their hormones are supposed to cope, I don’t know. But promiscuity is the thing I really, really hate. I think it does everyone harm. I don’t know what I would say. Except please, please don’t just drift into a sexual encounter, because it won’t do you any good. In fact it will do you a great deal of mental and physical harm, but I can’t say never before you are married. I think it should be thought about extremely carefully and not when you have had too much to drink!’

Celia in fact advocates exactly the same as the secular educationists who advised 16-year-old Carla.

I compliment her, before we leave, on her skin and hair. Despite her years, she is extremely pretty and still very feminine and very alive. ‘Being cherished is good for the skin!’ she smiles winsomely, as though Lex, who died nearly 20 years ago, is the love that still infuses her veins.

Celia who was pretty, well-born and unfairly spinstered, had done what she felt was her best. She tried mightily to resist the thing she felt she had been unfairly denied, and for which she longed with all her being. Her affair seems a world away from the grim reading of sexuality reports – and yet her discreet little hypocrisies and self-justifying evasions form the historic backdrop to our present discontents. Forced to battle against social prejudice and material deprivation, she survived emotionally in the only way that presented itself to her. The vaguely destructive ostracism faced by unmarried women of her generation found its compensation in a faithful unfaithfulness that is hard to condemn, even while it assaults the traditional morality of the church.

The stigma of virginity
Committed virginity is implausible in the twenty-first century, even while it makes increasingly good sense. The healthiest people in the country turn out to be never-married non-cohabiting single women – according to the government’s Focus on Families report published in October 2007 (20). Nonetheless, Kate Wharton, an attractive 28-year-old, says the fact that she is a virgin is regarded as ‘distinctly weird’, and she finds it increasingly difficult to ‘join in’. She attends a local evening class on sign language to be able to work with deaf people, and is astonished to find that girls her age and older – up to about 40 – ‘don’t have anything else to talk about than sex’. Even the way the sausage and mash is presented evokes sniggers. ‘Our obsession with sex means we miss out on community, on genuine relationships, where “family” means more than just the people you are related to, she says. Even her mother opposes her: ‘You will never get a husband if you are not prepared to sleep with a man’, she tells her.

The pressure to conform to what is regarded as normal and healthy – despite the welter of statistics that prove sexual profligacy is anything but healthy – means that the non-conformists will face pressure and hostility. In a recent episode of Casualty, a Muslim doctor berates a nurse for advising an 18-year-old patient, a virgin who was nervous about having sex, to ‘just do it, just bonk him’ But it is the Muslim doctor who comes across as offensive.

Germaine Greer observes, ‘[a]mong the consequences of the loosening of sexual mores is that the single state is now less respectable than it has ever been’ (21). And Claire Evans also comments: ‘Sex becoming the norm has placed the social stigma that adultery and premarital sex once had onto celibacy. Virginity has become a spectacle’ (22).  How has this happened?


  1. ‘A Wild Constraint’, Third Way, Summer 2004, 27:6, 12- 13.
  2. This story is related in ‘An Unchosen Chastity’, Third Way, Spring 2004, 27:5, 12-15.
  3. J. John, It’s Always on my Mind (Eastbourne: Kingsway 1996).
  4. A quick trawl of the web following the BBC dramatization Miss Austen Regrets about Jane’s rejection of a marriage proposal reveals almost universal surprise that Jane was not simply a cold fish uninterested in men or relationships. After all, it was her core material. Her biographer Claire Tomlin writes: ‘As the years went by she knew that she didn’t want to become a “poor animal”, like her sisters-in-law and nieces, bearing yearly babies. her books were her babies’ (Radio Times, 26 April-2 May 2008, p. 14)


  1. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_social/Social_Trends37/Social_Trends_37.pdf.
  2. ‘Revealed Britain’s bestselling sex blogger’, Guardian, G2, 11 August 2006, p. 9.
  3. Radio 4 Today programme, 25 July 2007 interview with Denise King, Chief Executive of Girl Guides.
  4. Duncan Dormor, Just Cohabitng, p. 3.
  5. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles II, 2000-2001 (known as the Natsal Survey carried out by the National Centre for Social Research and sponsored by the Medical Research Council).
  6. Several books have recently been published in the interests of ‘optional celibacy’: Trespass into Temptation by Gordon “Thomas, published twice since 1986 is one; The Unnanatural Law of Celibacy by R. N. Eberley in 2002 is another.
  7. Dormor, Just Cohabiting.
  8. Dormor, Just Cohabiting, p, 91
  9. Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy
  10. Se Tim Jenkins’ painstaking study ‘The Kingswood Whit Walk’, Part III of Religion in English Everyday Life: An Ethnographic Approach, p.78ff. Respectability, he says, is derived from the intimate interconnection between personality, territoriality and local history.
  11. Philip Wilson, Being Single, 2005, p. 100.
  12. State Secondary School. Long Benton, Newcastle, 16 October 2006. 
  13. Dormer, Just Cohabiting, p. 2.
  14. Central Statistical Office, Social Focus on Women (London: HMSO, 1995),  p. 13
  15. ‘Beyond Bridget: A fuller view of single women’ by Kim Campbell in Christian Science Monitor, 12 April 2001.
  16. Ibid.
  17. The Daily Telegraph 11 March 2006.
  18. Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p. 144.
  19. I spent two months in 2005 attending a particular Episcopal church in Scotland, during which the clergy kindly introduced me to as many ‘singles’ as I had time to interview. These are some of the ad hoc comments of older members of the congregation to whom I mentioned my project. 
  20. Office of National Statistics data derived from a number of sources including the 2001 Census. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1870
  21. Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, p. 112.
  22. Claire Evans, ‘A Theological Response to the Issue of Singleness with 18-35 Year Olds in the Western Church Today’, Undergraduate Thesis, London Bible College, 2001, cited in Kristin Aune, Single Women, p. 6.


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