The Slippery Slope

As people learn about our vocation as a celibate couple, another of the many questions we receive on a regular basis is, “How do you deal with temptation?” The people asking this question are interested in learning how we avoid crossing over “the line” into sex. Some people have been counseled by their own spiritual directors to avoid certain forms of physical intimacy lest these forms of intimacy increase the temptation to have sex. Indeed, it seems that many people view sexual intimacy as a giant cliff, where sharing any degree of physical closeness has the potential to push people towards sex. But as we see it, the idea that physical affection is a slippery slope that will push people towards violating their celibate vocations is highly problematic for many reasons.

Not all people experience touch in the same way, and touch is not necessarily sexual. The slippery slope argument depends on the idea that specific forms of touch have an exceptionally high likelihood of activating a person’s desire for sexual intimacy. When spiritual directors say things like, “No frontal hugs” to young LGB Christians who want to cultivate a celibate vocation, what these spiritual directors are saying is that there’s something about a frontal hug that causes the people sharing that hug to start automatically undressing one another, or that there’s something about a frontal hug that causes the body to yearn for more skin-to-skin contact. While we can acknowledge that some people do experience frontal hugs in this sort of way, we personally think that a majority of celibate and sexually abstinent people are able to share healthy hugs that have not spurred a desire for sexual intimacy. Some people, like Lindsey, experience hugs as a language where it is exceptionally comfortable to speak “hug” in many different situations. When spiritual directors use the slippery slope argument, they can intentionally or unintentionally pathologize a person’s natural predisposition for using touch to communicate nonsexual love.

People using the slippery slope argument tend to have a common list of “don’t”s used to establish clear boundaries in relationships and consider these to be common sense. However, these people often forget that standards for appropriate touch are set within communities and cultures and are not necessarily universal. For example, many Muslims and Orthodox Jews would be uncomfortable shaking hands with a person of the opposite sex. Most western Christians would not perceive that sort of touch as inappropriate. What’s taken as “common sense” regarding boundaries in relationships isn’t so common at all. Moreover, the boundaries seem to reflect the spiritual director’s sensibilities about what sorts of affection between two people of the same sex he or she can handle witnessing. The spiritual director asks the LGB person to conform to patterns of affection that he or she has no problem “signing off” on as appropriate. The different comfort levels might explain why some draw “the line” at frontal hugs while others place the boundary at kissing on the lips.

Many people offering advice on this topic filter questions of intimacy in celibate relationship through their own experiences of trying to maintain sexual purity standards before they were married. They will say things like, “When I was younger and unmarried, I had trouble keeping myself chaste.” They tend to compare the LGB person desiring celibacy with their own experiences of trying to remain sexually abstinent through their teen years (or maybe their 20s as well). We think it’s worth pointing out that most teenagers tend to be raging balls of hormones as they are getting a handle on their developing young adult bodies, but that different people come to grips with their hormones in different ways. The experience of a 17-year-old trying to remain sexually abstinent often differs significantly from that of a 38-year-old who has spent 20 years cultivating a celibate vocation. When spiritual directors forget that people experience sexuality differently throughout their lives, they often come down hard, saying that it’s impossible to pursue lifelong celibacy within the context of a relationship. After all, these people profoundly struggled to maintain their own senses of chastity before they married in their early or mid-20s. Sometimes, this can also be true for spiritual directors living their own celibate vocations who may have struggled with remaining chaste as young people. In this case, a spiritual director might also assume that the boundaries associated with his or her particular celibate vocation are the appropriate boundaries for all people pursuing celibate vocations.

More profoundly, the slippery slope argument misrepresents how we cultivate chastity. Often, chastity is understood in terms of purity, virginity, and untouched landscapes. When this term is framed as being only about touch and purity, it is easy to forget that chastity begins with learning to control one’s tongue. On how abstaining from certain kinds of acts can help people cultivate virtue, Tikhon of Zadonsk offered this wisdom: “Let thy mind fast from vain thoughts; let thy memory fast from remembering evil; let thy will fast from evil desire; let thine eyes fast from bad sights: turn away thine eyes that thou mayest not see vanity; let thine ears fast from vile songs and slanderous whispers; let thy tongue fast from slander, condemnation, blasphemy, falsehood, deception, foul language and every idle and rotten word; let thy hands fast from killing and from stealing another’s goods; let thy legs fast from going to evil deeds: Turn away from evil, and do good.” The Roman Catholic Catechism opens with its discussion of chastity with this exhortation (para 2348): “All the baptized are called to chastity. The Christian has ‘put on Christ,’ the model for all chastity. All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life. At the moment of his Baptism, the Christian is pledged to lead his affective life in chastity.” It seems to us that chastity, rightly understood, involves cultivating virtues that allow people to reflect the image and likeness of Christ more fully.

The slippery slope argument falls short of sound spiritual direction for many reasons. It begins by pathologizing natural expressions of physical intimacy. Often, spiritual directors use it to draw the line according to their own boundaries rather than help people discern what kinds of actions promote developing a celibate vocation.  When spiritual directors rely on their own experience of maintaining a state of sexual abstinence, they are usually reflecting on their experiences of being teenagers or young adults and “waiting until marriage.” This focus overlooks that celibate people develop vocations throughout their entire lives. Lastly, the slippery slope argument frames the celibacy question almost exclusively in terms of physical touch. Instead of using the slippery slope argument, we encourage spiritual directors to present celibacy as a vocation that allows people to cultivate virtues associated with imagining Christ-likeness to the world.

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