Arleen Spenceley is a writer for the Tampa Bay Times. She has made waves with an opinion piece called "Why I'm still a virgin at age 26." A couple months ago, she and I colloborated on a conversation about love (among other things), which she published on her blog. We decided to give it another shot on a slightly different topic, this time on my blog. You read our conversation below.
Chris: “Arleen, you're a writer, and it seems that that your work shows that no topic invokes quite the response that sexuality does. Why do you think that is?”
Arleen: “You're absolutely right. Nothing I write receives more web traffic or results in more feedback than what I write about sex. I think the reason for it is multiple-fold. Part of the response is because what I write is controversial. I say stuff the majority of American adults either don't want to hear or haven't heard before (that I'm a 26-year-old virgin, for instance, or that marriage is supposed to result in the destruction of self absorption). A lot of the negative feedback I receive is angry ("Who gives a damn why you've never been laid?") and mean ("I can't tell if you're a man or a woman."), and I think it's indicative of an active effort to avoid doing what I ultimately ask readers to do: think critically about sex. Another part of the response is the flip side of this: There are plenty of people who haven't had sex, or who are saving sex from now on for marriage, or who are trying to instill that value for sex in their kids. It's a struggle in a culture like this one to do any of those things, so when somebody in that position stumbles upon something I've written, it's like an unexpected breath of fresh air in an incredibly polluted world. When something strikes a chord like that in the ones who agree with me, or strikes a nerve in the ones who disagree, readers always seem compelled to express it to me.”
Chris: “I, too, am an unmarried person in his twenties, a person of faith, and someone who has tried to think and live into some of these values. It seems to me that some of what makes it so difficult is that deep longing for another person with which we've been created. It's definitely tempting and easy to just despair and indulge. How, if at all, does that play into your own life and story?”
Arleen: “My temptation more frequently is to despair (although when that hits, I thankfully pretty quickly snap out of it). It really is easy. Especially after a relationship ends with a guy, I do pout and ask stuff like, "How many years will it be this time before I meet another guy who believes what I believe about sex?" (let alone who, in a slue of other ways, would be a good partner, and a good parent for our future kids). Sometimes feeling alone tempts me to despair -- alone as a single woman, and also alone as part of the tiny 2% of women ages 25-44 who haven't had sex (and it's 3% of men in the same age range, if you're curious). To indulge is less of a temptation for me. I'm vigilant not to wind up in situations in which it's easy to be tempted to have sex. And I think there is a longing in us, for a partner and companion, for somebody to love and by whom to be loved. And I watch the world around me, and what most people do in effort to fulfill that longing in us is indulge. But if there's one thing I've learned from that, it's that when the goal is fulfillment of that longing, indulging doesn't work. Somebody who commented on a sex essay I wrote for the paper put it better than I could: "Funny how (readers) call (Arleen) naive and assume what she's describing will never work. Look around...the 98% by-and-large aren't doing that hot. Might be time to change things up."
Chris: “Maybe this is extreme, but do you worry at all about waking up and being 45 one day, still single, and your sexual prime long gone?”
Arleen: “I actually don't! I think in order to worry about that, I'd need to believe the purpose of sex is pleasure, and that we all better get it while the gettin' is good. (And I believe neither.) I think when and whether a person has sex is irrelevant, or, at least not as relevant, as why and in what context. I worry more about whether I write about this stuff with enough clarity. Because if I don't, and a couple decades from now I'm a 45-year-old virgin, I'd guess many who've read what I've written would call my single life "proof" that this lifestyle doesn't work. That people will think that is conjecture, of course, but if they do, I'd want to point out that their point of view implies that the goal of saving sex is marriage. It isn't. The goal of saving sex is saving sex. Some people who save sex get married and some don't.”
Chris: “But wouldn't you at least concede that it doesn't seem accidental that sex is pleasurable?”
Arleen: “Absolutely! I don't believe it's by accident that sex is enjoyable. I believe the purpose of sex is equal parts procreation and unity (in no particular order), and that we aren't supposed to have sex because it feels good, but to create a pleasurable sexual relationship with the person to whom we are united.”
Chris: “One of the distinctions I've seen you make in your writing is the difference between chastity and abstinence. What's the difference?”
Arleen: “Abstinence is abstaining from sex. It may or may not be underlain by convictions other than the ultimately superficial (albeit true) one than "sex is for married people." For people who save sex, abstinence ends at marriage. Chastity is not the same as abstinence. It involves abstinence until marriage, but to quote what I once wrote for the paper, chastity is "a decision to die to self and to selflessly love (or to die trying). People who practice it regard all people as intrinsically valuable, reject their objectification and uphold love as a choice in a culture that calls it a feeling." Chastity never ends (that is, a person can be chaste simultaneously as he or she is abstinent, married or celibate).”
Chris: “Thanks for all that, Arleen. I so appreciate someone who's willing to talk about sexuality in a serious way. And yours is certainly a counter-cultural view. Before we finish up, can we switch gears for a minute? In additions to your writing, I know you are currently finishing up some graduate work in mental health counseling. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What's your interest there? And how, if at all, does it connect?”
If you want to learn more about Arleen and her work, check out her Facebook page here.