Of all the eager young people filing into the Mosi IMAX in Tampa on September 25th, 2009, only one had just had her most personal newspaper article printed on the Tampa Bay Times website. 23-year-old Arleen Spenceley met a friend in the lobby of the theater and asked if she had read the article. She had. She said it was good.
Neither this affirmation, nor the (totally OK, I guess) Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince spread across the 10,500 square foot dome helped calm Arleen's mind. She remembers this night clearly.
“I was kind of distracted throughout the whole movie," she told me. "I remember thinking that, oh my gosh, it’s out there, there’s no taking it back and I don’t know how people are going to react. But there’s nothing I can do now…” When the print edition was distributed that Sunday, there was truly nothing she could do.
“My virginity was in the driveway of over 400,000 people.”
The name of the section of the Tampa Bay Times that ran Arleen's piece was Perspective, dedicated to opinion and thought. She had written for it before, but never about a part of life so private.
A few months earlier Arleen sat at her desk, opened the Time's intra-office instant messenger, and began writing to the editor of Perspective, who worked in a different Times newsroom. "I said, 'I am Catholic; that means I practice the virtue of chastity; that means I’ve never had sex before... and I want to put that in print.' He told me to go for it."
But after a couple of weeks of interviews and writing, Arleen got cold-feet. The more she wrote, the less desire she had to actually see this in print. Besides the expected concern over what her friends and colleagues would think of her, Arleen had also been accepted to graduate school at the University of South Florida in Tampa to study mental health counseling. "I thought: if I'm a therapist one day and my clients look back and Google me and see this piece of my private life, how might this affect the therapeutic relationship?”
She sat down at her desk again and opted to email the editor this time. In response, she received a list of reasons to continue writing the article, eventually given the headline "Why I Am Still A Virgin."
Three sex-essays, five years of chastity blogging, and one successful chastity book later, Arleen has much to thank the editor for.
She still has yet to meet him face to face.
The first sex-essay (now unavailable online), Arleen admits, was not great in terms of content.
"The first sex-essay was more of an abstinence-centered essay. At that age I had not yet grasped what the virtue of chastity is and I did the best with what I had."
In fact, this "abstinence-centered" perspective that Arleen offers in her 2009 essay is precisely the sort of approach she spends most of her time working against today. Arleen's closest allies in attacking the so-called "Purity Culture" offered by the evangelical right are typically not other conservative voices, but far-left, non-or-fallen-away Christians:
"I am just as concerned by purity culture as they are. One of my all-time favorite books is The Purity Myth by Jessica Vallenti. It is mostly fantastic in the sense that she decries a lot of bad stuff that is happening in our culture... While I agree with her book, and decry a lot of the stuff that she also decries, the problem is that she associates those things with chastity—she uses the words ‘purity,’ and ‘abstinence,’ and ‘chastity’ interchangeably when the reality is there is a difference between them."
It is precisely this age-old problem of defining one's terms that lies at the heart of Arleen's criticism of the virgin-skeptics who propose doing away with the very concept of virginity. "My ultimate response [to them] is: before you get up in arms when you see what it is that I, or other Catholics, write about, when we use words like ‘virginity’ and ‘chastity’—make sure you know how we define those words, because we don’t necessarily define them in the same way that the culture around us does. Especially in relation to 'chastity'...one of my greatest pet peeves as a chastity speaker is how interchangeable people think that word is with abstinence when it really isn’t.'"
This issue of terms particularly hurts young people.
“When you (tell teens to) ‘save sex for marriage’ and then refuse to tell them what sex is, you have kids who, because they don't know how the church defines sex, think that sex is [just] for fun, and... for gauging chemistry with a person. And they’ll begin to think, “Who in their right mind waits for marriage for these things?” But the thing is that those aren't the purposes of sex, those aren't what sex is for. But kids don’t know that."
Whatever the first essay may have lacked in content, it succeeded as a witness. The emails began pouring in on Friday evening, and when the print edition of the piece arrived in driveways on Sunday morning, the voicemails immediately began to pile up.
"It sort of exploded," Arleen recalls.
The responses came from all demographics. "Some elderly men began writing me because the women they had hurt in the past weren't around for them to apologize to." A younger reader, not quite as moved, wanted to be sure she knew how he felt, commenting, "You're a virgin because I can't tell if you're a man or a woman."
The emails and voicemails would continue for two years.
In some ways the second sex-essay began during the first. During an interview with a married couple as part of her preparation for the first essay they name-dropped Love And Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla's acclaimed philosophical and theological analysis of love, sex, and marriage. It took three years of picking up and putting down, but eventually Wojtyla's words clicked.
In the meantime, realizing that there was going to be continued feedback and wanting to create a space for the conversation to continue outside of the comments section, Arleen started her blog.
Beginning to grasp that "chastity has a lot more depth than abstinence," Arleen eventually pitched a second sex essay.
The 2012 sex-essay (this time, "Why I'm Still A Virgin At Age 26") is notable for its depth and nuance regarding the virtue of chastity and the purposes of sex, something plainly missing from the initial effort. "The sex I save is rooted in chastity, which isn't the same as abstinence, but requires it until marriage. For some who save sex, the decision is underpinned by a moral code uninfluenced by faith and for others, by various religious affiliations," she writes.
As she continues, the three years of reflection and reading are evident.
"Chastity shifts a person's focus from self to others, from what a potential husband could do for me to what he and I could do together — what we, as a unit, could contribute to the world. It is less about whether sex with him will be awkward at first and more about whether it would be a good thing for our future kids to grow up and turn into one of us.
For us [Catholics], sex serves two purposes: procreation and unity. We don't believe we're supposed to decide to unite because sex is pleasurable, but to create a pleasurable sexual relationship with the person to whom we are permanently united."
She concludes by sharing some of the "deeper conclusions" she has come to since the first essay was published two year previous:
"Like how the self-denial of waiting is good practice for some of the difficult but necessary parts of marriage: not always getting what you want, making unanticipated sacrifices, eradicating self-absorption.
How people who save sex for marriage have apprenticeships in patience, definitive love and fidelity.
How we are opposed to reducing a person to a means to an end, and to giving only so long as we get something out of it.
How starting a marriage without an established sexual routine will require patience and courage, compassion and creativity. And probably a sense of humor."
Unlike the first essay, the comments and emails for number two didn't last two years. They simply haven't stopped.
Today, you don't have to travel to Florida to meet Arleen Spenceley. You're far more likely to meet her at one of her many speaking engagements around the country.
Arleen began preparing and practicing for her side-career as a speaker during those crucial two years following the second essay, as she worked even more diligently on an even greater project. In November 2014, Arleen's book Chastity Is for Lovers was published by Ave Maria Press. The fruit of years of writing, reading, blogging, and living, it immediately rose to the status of "#1 New Release" in Amazon's "Gender and Sexuality in Religious Studies" category.
3000 copies and a second print later, the same misconceptions about her message persist.
"A lot of ladies will walk by my booth at conferences and say, 'This is really great, but it doesn't apply to me because I'm married.' I tell them to listen to my talk and come see me again after if they really still think it doesn't apply to [married persons]."
At the end of the day, Arleen is simply driven by virtue.
"A virtue, according to the Catechism [of the Catholic Church], is a habitual and firm disposition to do good, which in my mind is a decision we make every day over and over to do the right thing… [And] chastity is the successful integration of sexuality within the person, which means the virtue of chastity is a decision we make over and over every day to do the right thing regarding sex. Then every human is called to it, because there’s no one on earth who is not called to virtue, and therefore to do the right thing regarding sex."
Arleen is committed to calling others on to the virtuous life. I know this personally: I tried selling Arleen on writing for THE DIGITAL CONTINENT by pitching that she could finally have a creative space to write about anything other than chastity. After nearly seven years of this, I figured, she must be itching for another outlet.
"The thing is, I still want to write about sex and relationships," she responded. "I'm trying to think of what other subjects I could get passionate about right now."
In the years still to come, Arleen hopes to get her name on a second book, as well as marry and start a family. Even then, she'll continue to promote--and practice--chastity.