From the July/August, 2007 issue of Touchstone

Retro-Sexual by Mike Aquilina


The Thrill of the Chaste
by Dawn Eden
W Publishing Group
(224 pages, $13.99, paperback)

reviewed by Mike Aquilina

The Thrill of the Chaste is a chick book. The author is clearly addressing female readers woman-to-woman. So why am I putting my masculinity on the line by admitting that I read it? Because I, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, have five daughters.

And, like Tevye, I know that things can go very badly for young women today, even those who come from doting parents, a loving home, and the best shelter a pious-ghetto upbringing can offer. I believe that The Thrill of the Chaste can rescue young women from real danger, and so I want the world to know about it.

A New Confessions

I’m not exaggerating when I compare Dawn Eden’s book to St. Augustine’s Confessions. The Thrill is, as the Confessions was, introspective, hip, a gorgeous piece of writing, and so brutally honest and self-revealing that it’s sometimes painful to read: “In a vicious cycle, single women feel lonely because they are not loved,” she writes, “so they have casual sex with men who do not love them. That was my life.”

She speaks of the gradual move from premarital sex to promiscuity, of “learning to detach, to feel as though I could separate the physical actions of sex from its emotional consequences.” She came to see lust as “a way station on the road to love.” “I had blunted my emotions for the sake of physical pleasure.”

She draws an analogy with eating disorders, calling her own promiscuity a sort of “spiritual bulimia.” “Trying to escape loneliness, we accept a sexual act devoid of spiritual nourishment. Such nourishment can come only from the union of two permanently committed souls . . . [F]or a woman, the disconnected feeling that premarital sex brings can be emotionally disastrous.” Indeed, she says, “the same armor that enabled me to tolerate casual sex made me less attractive to the kind of man I most desired.”

For her as for so many others, traditional morality was turned on its head: “Good and evil themselves are redefined. No longer is it bad to allow oneself to use and be used sexually. The only sin is failing to ‘protect’ yourself by using a condom.”

The author recalls that her relationships, devoid of love, often turned on “games”—the desire to control the other or to produce jealousy. In all cases, sex became a useful tool: “The main way I thought I could control a relationship was by either introducing a sexual component or allowing my boyfriend to do so.”

In either case, “I would end up alone and unhappy—but I didn’t know how else to handle a relationship. I felt trapped in a lifestyle that gave me none of the things that the media and popular wisdom promised it would.”

Subverted Desires

The Thrill is very much a New York book, written by a New Yorker. Miss Eden’s constant foil is the character Carrie Bradshaw from the television show Sex and the City.

New York needs the book, but I hope it will reach far beyond the city and even past the suburbs—because there’s not a corner of America that hasn’t bought into the “Sex and the City” ethic. It’s as universal as Cosmo in the supermarket.

One of the historical ironies is that the lifestyle has been promoted most ardently by women. (Eden discusses Erica Jong and Helen Gurley Brown, among others.) They pitch it as liberationist and as a return to nature. As it’s played out, however, it has de-natured young women, objectified them, and locked them in cramped emotional prisons.

Our author puts it in vivid, personal terms. Their “misguided, hedonistic philosophy” hurts men and women, but women more, “as it pressures them to subvert their deepest emotional desires. Women are built for bonding. We are vessels, and we seek to be filled. For that reason, sex will always leave us feeling empty unless we are certain that we are loved.”

When I was having casual sex, there was one moment I dreaded more than any other. I dreaded it not out of fear that the sex would be bad, but out of fear that it would be good.

If the sex was good, then, even if I knew in my heart that the relationship wouldn’t work, I would still feel as though the act had bonded me with my sex partner in a deeper way than we had been bonded before. It’s in the nature of sex to awaken deep emotions within us—emotions that are distinctly unwelcome when one is trying to keep it light.

Somebody’s Daughter

It was hard for me, as a father, to read those paragraphs and think of the author as somebody’s daughter. And that’s probably as it should be.

Miss Eden traces “the lifestyle” as we know it back to the divorce culture. She traces many of her own difficulties to her parents’ divorce when she was six, and to her diminishing relationship with her father.

My past experiences with men . . . both the one-night stands and the attempts at relationships . . . were based around the idea of choosing the lesser pain. My big fear was that boyfriends would leave me—just as I feared as a child that my father would lose interest in me if I failed to earn his affection.

She does not, however, blame her parents. And not surprisingly, it was the healing of her relationship with her father that “jump-started” her decision to live chastely.

In any event, Eden did not write this book for fathers. She has written a powerful apologetic addressed primarily to women who are having premarital sex or are strongly tempted to have it. And she is putting a name on emotions they’ll recognize immediately, but maybe have never possessed the words to describe.

I don’t want to give the impression that the book is negative or a downer. It’s not. The bulk of the book recounts the author’s growth in chastity and her discovery of Pope John Paul’s “theology of the body.” It’s overwhelmingly positive.

And it’s deadly funny, too. Miss Eden savages women’s magazines, for example, for saying that “all you have to do is . . . learn a new ‘sex trick’ (as if you were some kind of X-rated poodle), and then ‘he’ll fall in love with you.’”

Two Paths

The Thrill of the Chaste will win readers over with its satire and its positive apologetics. Nevertheless, it’s the book’s confessional beginning that will establish a common bond between author and reader, and that’s where this book has the potential to change the world.

I don’t recall a gratuitous word or a salacious line in the entire book. Still, the telling of the story requires that Miss Eden give some detail, and it’s probably too much detail for the innocent. But it’s not too much to scandalize the open-minded or the sincerely repentant. It’s a tight line to walk, but this author gets it just right.

A father hopes his daughters won’t detour down the path Miss Eden took at age twenty. But, if they do, we can hope they’ll come round to the path Miss Eden took at age thirty-one. If they do, they’ll be the kind of women we hope and pray that our sons bring home.

Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology ( and a general editor of The Catholic Vision of Love catechetical series.

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