To begin the section on sexual morality, Lewis wants to clarify that there is a difference between chastity and modesty/decency/propriety, and the two ideas should not be confused with one another.
For example, a woman who lives in the Hawaiian islands in the 21st century and a woman who lived in Victorian England would have much different understandings of propriety, yet the island woman wearing hardly any clothes and the Victorian woman showing hardly any skin could be considered equally modest and proper, according to the standards of their different societies, and we really would not be able to tell just from external appearances whether the women were chaste or not.
Lewis then gives three reasons that people might break the rule of propriety:
- To excite or encourage lust (either in themselves or in others) - This is also related to the area of chastity and would be an offense against it.
- Out of ignorance or carelessness - This would merely mean they are guilty of bad manners.
- Out of defiance, to shock or embarrass (the most common reason) - This simply reveals that they are being uncharitable toward their fellow man "for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable."
It's also important to note that a strict rule of propriety does not prove or even help individuals to be chaste, so relaxing the rule is sometimes a good thing. Lewis' society had begun to do this, as has our modern society, and while it can be a positive change, he notes this:
Christianity, on the other hand, promotes and celebrates sex and holds it as something very wonderful when experienced and expressed in its proper context. "There is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself in a certain way, nor in the fact that it gives pleasure," but there is much to be ashamed of at the way we have distorted and misused and even indulged the sexual instinct. "There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips."
So the human sexual instinct has become diseased and needs to be cured. But the problem is that "before we can be cured, we must want to be cured." And there are at least three things that make it difficult for us to desire (much less achieve) chastity:
- Our corrupted natures, the tempters, and all the advertisements and selling of lust "make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so 'natural,' so 'healthy,' and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them."
Response: The idea that sexual indulgence is healthy, natural, youthful, and normal is a lie based on the truth that sex was created to be all those good things, but it has been perverted and distorted and taken out of its proper context. The lie is that any sexual urge you feel at any given moment is perfectly fine, and you can act on those urges as long as they are mutually agreed upon and no one is injured or harmed. "Now this, on any conceivable view, and quite apart from Christianity, must be nonsense. Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humor, and frankness."
- We often assume, without even attempting it, that chastity is impossible.
Response: It is certainly no easy task, but when we begin to view something as a requirement and not an option, we may be surprised at what we can achieve. But also, we ought to understand (as the Christian does) that we really cannot achieve it on our own steam, by our own willpower. We are given power and strength by the Divine Creator, who is the very author of our sexuality.
- We have misunderstood what psychology means by 'repression'.
Response: There is a difference between suppressing a desire and the technical psychological act of repression, which is a defense mechanism of the mind to protect itself from harmful, damaged material.
"I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither."