To side with Anscombe, or not to side with Anscombe: in regards to the controversial chastity debate, that seems to be the question flitting around campus conversations these days. For most, the question remains a simple one. After all, the dialogue – Anscombe versus the Rest of Campus – has been marked by a noticeable backlash mentality, sprung from personal offense and strong, if biased, conviction. But, dare I ask, when it comes to the assertion that chastity is a “way to find a much more fulfilling relationship,” does the conversation go beyond the simple, “Yes, of course” and “Hell, no” responses that the argument has elicited?
Anscombe members have repeatedly stressed that although some may reach the decision to be chaste through religious conviction, it is equally sustainable through secular thought. (They seem to particularly relish the phrase: “eminently reasonable.”) Though some argue that the secularized language the group employs merely acts as a façade to mask the religious ideology beneath, Anscombe attempts to draw on a range of interdisciplinary academic fields to prove its ‘eminent reason.’ In fact, members of the group do not even cite a single religious background: though they are predominantly Christian, the group includes Jewish and Muslim members. That said, the president and vice-president of Anscombe are both Catholics heavily involved with the Aquinas Center, and the name ‘Anscombe’ was itself inspired by British analytic philosopher and Roman Catholic convert Elizabeth Anscombe, whose treatise “Contraception and Chastity” was written in defense of the Catholic Church’s position.
Chastity advocates maintain that pre-marital abstinence is ultimately in accordance with an individual’s best welfare. Their argument goes like this: in choosing to engage another’s body, one must commit to and embrace that entire individual, not just her or his physical manifestation. To do otherwise would be to “instrumentalize” the body for the mere pursuit of pleasure. Thus, sexual union should only occur when it can mirror the deeper union that marriage symbolizes. Sex “actualizes” the marital union and “concretizes” the mutual gift of self.
Where the argument falls short, however, is in the concept of marriage itself. If this argument is taking place in a secular sphere – and Anscombe has consistently tried to place it there – then marriage exists merely as a social institution – not, for instance, as a religious sacrament. Considered outside of a religious context, then, it is simply the official notation and legalization of a commitment a couple has already accepted. Marriage itself does not join two individuals; they make the decision to marry because they have already committed to each other emotionally. The union exists prior to marriage. Thus, marriage is simply a term used to socialize the concept of monogamy, and while the desire to establish a meaningful, monogamous relationship may be natural, marriage, as an institution, is not.
In an attempt to substantiate their argument, Anscombe members have turned to history to provide a long-standing precedent for the ‘eminent reason’ of marriage. The marital union of man and woman has been recognized since pre-Christian times, they insist, as the best expression of love and a fundamental cornerstone of society. Why do we question its primacy when it stood essentially unchallenged until circa 1968?
Well, Greco-Roman law, for instance, did uphold the primacy of marriage, but not because it was seen as the preeminent expression of commitment and love. Rather, marriage evolved out of purely economic, social, and legal circumstances. In Roman law, strict guidelines decreed marriage of patricians only within the patrician class in a ceremony known as confarreatio and upheld the doctrine in manum viri (literally, “into the man’s hand”), which acknowledged the husband’s authority and woman’s subjugation. Marriage was hardly the free and passionate union Anscombe likes to paint, but a circumscribed, master-servant relation. In fact, a man could ‘sell’ his daughter as repayment for debts to the groom or groom’s family. In such cases, marriage restricted human freedom; it wasn’t the couple’s choice as much as it was their parents’, and the institution’s origins had nothing to do with love.
Of course, these notions of arranged marriage continue in numerous societies to this very day. And so the question raises itself: just because we call it ‘marriage’, does the union between man and woman really signify the “comprehensive commitment” that Anscombe purports? And if it doesn’t, isn’t it possible – and in certain societies, perhaps, probable – that “comprehensive commitment” can exist outside marriage?
Even in Jewish law, a man was often duty-bound to marry his brother’s widow, not, of course, out of love and unreserved dedication, but rather because it was expected per the standards of marriage as an institution. Generally speaking, marriage evolved as an institution that maintained civic, social, and economic bonds within a society. It must be agreed, then, that the ‘real union’ to which Anscombe espouses itself is derived from emotional dedication and not merely from the signing of a certificate.
In many ways, Anscombe is right in asserting that marriage is beneficial to a healthy, working society, or at least convenient. It acts as the basis for the formation of most family units, a position that holds important economic ramifications and prepares children to be functional members of society. Yet it also limits the expression of love. Children are taught from an early age that the only way to demonstrate love is through marriage. (Consider the plot of most Disney movies, or the six-year-old girl whose favorite game of pretend is “Bride.”) But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. If marriage is in the best interest of society as a whole, then of course a society will teach its children to idealize it.
But Anscombe’s argument is based on the claim that marriage is “eminently reasonable” because it is rooted in the best interest of the individual. Like most generalized arguments purportedly aimed at the individual level, this simply does not hold up. History and literature abound with stories of love that is impeded, and even prohibited, because of the strictures produced by marriage. Remember Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet? The list is endless, but the message remains the same: love is transcendent – transcendent of cultures, parents, social class, and indeed of all sorts of social norms, the chief of which is marriage. That’s not to say that transcendent love can’t exist in marriage, but rather that marriage is far from its conclusive definition or fulfillment.
That said, we must ask ourselves why Anscombe feels it necessary to take the pro-chastity stance. Ideological and religious motivation aside, is it possible that they have a point? While love has been hailed throughout literature for its transcendent qualities, lust has been equally derided for its destruction of the community as well as the individual soul. Dante, for instance, reserves the second circle of hell for the overtly lustful. Just because marriage may not be the be-all, end-all of true love does not mean we can throw ourselves at every willing passerby. As lust and sexual liberation become increasingly prevalent in our society, and especially on college campuses, Anscombe’s response becomes somewhat understandable. We do need to honor the dignity of every human person. We should not instrumentalize the body for our own selfish pleasure. What we disguise as sexual liberation has really subsided into mutual objectification. Liberation is achieved through respect for the human self and its body, not in the superficial freedom of promiscuity. Ultimately, many do discover that casual “sleeping-around” isn’t particularly fulfilling. Does that mean we need to jump to the opposite end of the spectrum? Not necessarily, but I don’t think it’s too severe to say that moderation is in order.
Our society places value in sex regardless of whether it occurs in a loving relationship. If we really thought it was so insignificant, terms like ‘slut’ and ‘man-whore,’ and the common experience of feeling ‘empty’ after a loss-of-virginity probably wouldn’t exist. Sex and love matter. It’s just that marriage doesn’t always conform to the perfect union we would like to imagine.
In the end, sex should be an expression of love. But since love is transcendent, defining it solely within the confines of marriage would seem to undermine the very essence of love. What Anscombe is essentially defending is not transcendent love, but a social institution, and a social institution is not necessarily in tune with an individual’s happiness or well-being. What is in the individual’s best interest is a committed, meaningful relationship, regardless of whether that relationship is reflected in the social and legal institution of marriage. Thus, since marriage fails to act as the conclusive indication of that commitment, the argument for pre-marital abstinence becomes irrelevant. If anything, it might prevent the act of love it what is a loving, committed relationship. Anscombe’s argument, quite simply, doesn’t hold.
Where it would be sustainable, however, is in a sphere that places greater meaning on marriage; that is, in a religious sphere. If Anscombe made the argument in that context – be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever else – then the definition of marriage would be altered accordingly and the argument for chastity likely made more viable. Their attempt to secularize the pro-chastity argument to appeal to the general campus is ultimately what undermines the argument’s very basis. In the end, it becomes clear that beneath the secular rhetoric, Anscombe’s argument is entirely religion-based.
That said, Anscombe’s recognition of the need to curb our society’s reckless promiscuity is commendable. Though some might tune out the pro-chastity argument, let’s not ignore the basis for its provocation. The argument has developed for a reason, and the dialogue it creates only helps to stimulate further conversation.