As to chastity, this is one of the most challenging concepts to get across in this very permissive age, but Bahá’ís must make the utmost effort to uphold Bahá’í standards, no matter how difficult they may seem at first. Such efforts will be made easier if the youth will understand that the laws and standards of the Faith are meant to free them from untold spiritual and moral difficulties in the same way that a proper appreciation of the laws of nature enables one to live in harmony with the forces of the planet…’ (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 361)
I believe that Bahá’í laws and ordinances, including chastity, are prescriptions from our Divine Physician for leading healthy spiritual and marital lives. Having said that, sometimes I wonder if anyone has any moral principles around chastity anymore. I think being chaste before marriage and absolutely faithful in marriage have lost their meaning, in the cult of individualism. No one seems to consider it a sin to have sex with people they aren’t married to anymore, and anyone who has the courage to be chaste, is just labelled a misfit, in our society.
One thing I’ve noticed is that Baha’is who are trying to be chaste usually refrain from talking about their struggle, so no one knows there are others who want to know how to put up good boundaries in a relationship in order to remain chaste.
I was in a gathering of assistants to the auxiliary board one time, and we were taking a course on something or other. Somehow the topic of sex was brought up and the whole discussion got sidetracked. Everyone was longing to talk about sex. Every single one of those assistants had a struggle with it at one level or another. It was really good to see that – but we didn’t get to talk about it for very long. And of course, by the time lunch was served, everyone had gone back to “Baha’i-mode” and we couldn’t finish the discussion.
My goal as a teenager was to wait till marriage to have sex, and in the end, I had sex hoping it would lead to marriage, and after a couple of misses, it worked. But the marriage wasn’t based on spiritual foundations and eventually floundered and died. As a Bahá’í, I learned why. Shoghi Effendi, in Lights of Guidance tells us: “Briefly stated the Bahá’í conception of sex is based on the belief that chastity should be strictly practised by both sexes, not only because it is in itself highly commendable ethically, but also due to its being the only way to a happy and successful marital life.”
I tried to teach my son about the importance of waiting till marriage, but he saw hypocrisy when my deeds did not match my words. I think all parents (including me) can take some of the blame for young people today not even having the concept of waiting till marriage – as the Universal House of Justice points out so clearly in its 28 December 2010 letter to the Counsellors:
What needs to be appreciated in this respect is the extent to which young minds are affected by the choices parents make for their own lives, when, no matter how unintentionally, no matter how innocently, such choices condone the passions of the world – its admiration for power, its adoration of status, its love of luxuries, its attachment to frivolous pursuits, its glorification of violence, and its obsession with self-gratification.
In the same letter, the House says:
Exhortations to remain pure and chaste will only succeed to a limited degree in helping them to resist these forces.
While I was struggling with how to encourage my son to make different choices than I made, in a world where no-one is modeling chastity, I was at a conference where Sue Johanson was the guest speaker. She won the distinguished “Order of Canada” for being Canada’s foremost sexual educator and counsellor. For over 35 years, she had a live radio talk show called “Talk Sex with Sue Johanson”, where listeners could call in and ask any question they wanted about sex. She was in her 70’s when I met her and was still on the air. I was both uncomfortable and disturbed by the explicit nature of her discussions, which sounded pornographic to me. I had an opportunity to talk to her at the break. I told her as a Bahá’í, I was trying to teach my son about abstinence, and she was encouraging young people in their desire to experiment. She said something I’ve never forgotten: She said “We have to teach them how their bodies work, so that they understand when they are starting to get into the danger zone. If no one gives them a vocabulary and teaches them what’s going on in their bodies, they won’t be able to say no, but will just get caught up in the moment.” This made a lot of sense to me.
Because of the sexual abuse I experienced as a child, I was left with a belief: “If you touch me, I’ll have to sleep with you.” So (without making excuses) I had two relationships outside of marriage. One gave me an opportunity to claim back my body, and the other taught me that I could have a healthy sexual relationship with another human being.
Now I understand the wisdom behind the law of chastity, I plan to be chaste in the future. In the meantime, I’m not in a relationship, not tempted and very grateful. But even though I intend to be chaste the next time round, part of me is OK with the idea of never having another relationship if it means I have to be tested again. I’m not sure if, in this culture, I’d ever find a man willing to respect my boundaries. Who can I talk to for support in this area?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could share our struggles around sexuality with each other? My hunch is that if we started doing more home visits we would have the 1:1 time to get to know each other, that’s currently missing when the only time we get together is for Bahá’í activities. In the absence of clergy to tell us what to do, I’m gaining a much better appreciation of the importance of home visits to help us get to know each other better and share our burdens. Perhaps then we’ll truly begin to learn how to do as Shoghi Effendi suggests in Living the Life:
“draw on each other’s love for strength and consolation in time of need. The Cause of God is endowed with tremendous powers, and the reason the believers do not gain more from it is because they have not learned to fully draw on these mighty forces of love and strength and harmony generated by the Faith . . .
It’s not easy to find the courage to be chaste. Let’s start a dialogue where people can feel safe to talk about their struggles and support each other. What do you think?
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