Exit to Eden
In 1991 -- "eight years before my conversion," she says -- Dawn Eden was 23 and, ahem, sharing a bed with Buzzcocks Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle.
Dawn Eden is taking the train to Washington, D.C., and we are talking about masturbation. Just before the connection goes bad, she suggests that we tone down the conversation a bit. A man across from her has just licked his lips lasciviously. As her phone cuts out, all I hear is the word "Gross!"
We pick up the conversation later and get disconnected several more times, but along the way I hear about Eden's journey from agnostic Jew to born-again Protestant to Roman Catholic -- is that what it means to hit for the cycle? -- and this former music writer's most famous transformation of all, from a casual sex-indulgent hipster to, in the various memorable epithets of Gawker, "chastity slut Dawn Eden"; "Catholic loonytune Dawn Eden"; "relentless self-promoter/professional hymen-regenerator Dawn Eden"; and, my favorite, "Crazed Christ-Loving Re-Virgin" Dawn Eden.
It's been a year now since Eden's book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, hit stores, and the 39-year-old writer and former print journalist is traveling the country anew talking about chastity, which, I find out, isn't to be confused with abstinence. (Later.) Tomorrow she'll speak to Catholic ladies at the Women for the Third Millennium breakfast at 9:30 a.m. at the Cooper Guest Lodge Hotel in North Dallas. Then it's on to numerous other engagements, including one in Dublin, Ireland -- she rattles off a long list of stops. Dawn Eden, evidently, is hot.
"Who knew that so many people around the world would be interested in learning not to have sex?" she says.
I wouldn’t have thought I’d be interested in reading about it myself. I’m pleased to say that, after 17 years of marriage (In spite of it? Because of it?), it’s still sexytime in the Lyons household, and the discipline of abstinence is -- thank you, Jesus -- a rather distant memory. But I was so wrong. Eden’s book, apart from being exceptionally witty and well-written, has such extraordinary insight about sex and intimacy and the reasons we look for love in all the wrong places and end up suffering for it, that I couldn’t wait to tell a dear married friend all about it.
I learned something, y'all. I told Eden, unable to constrain the whoopin’ and hollerin’ Pentecostal in me, “The Holy Spirit is all over your book!” So, I admit, what follows is fangirl stuff. Just trust me and buy the book. That’ll shut you up.
Eden’s isn’t the first Christian book on chastity, but her perspective is decidedly different. As Eden told me, “I found books with titles like Lady in Waiting that were so flowery, and they were all written by virgins till marriage for virgins till marriage. And there was nothing written that said, 'OK, you’ve been there and you’ve done that, well here’s how to get your life right.' So I wrote the kind of book that I wished had been out there for me.”
The result is the bad girl’s book on chastity. In it -- without getting yucky or overly explicit -- Eden chronicles her sexual past, her longing for a life mate and how each sexual encounter actually drew her further and further away from marriage, let alone intimacy. “Once I became more experienced,” she writes, “instead of becoming supremely self-confident, I only became more insecure. I learned that if I played my cards right, I could get almost any man I wanted into bed -- but when it came to landing a boyfriend, the deck was always stacked against me.
“No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t transform a sexual encounter -- or a string of encounters -- into a real relationship. The most I could hope for, it seemed, was a man who would treat me with ‘respect,’ but who really wouldn’t have any concern for me once we split the tab for breakfast.”
Eden’s embrace of chastity -- a lifestyle of sexual purity, in thoughts as well as actions, in contrast to merely abstaining from sex for a day, or a month, or a year -- wasn’t instantaneous after she experienced a “born-again” Christian conversion at 31. Eden is open about the fact that she’s been chaste for only four years -- meaning refraining from sexual intercourse as well as the “everything-but” practices that so often pass for abstinence among Christians today. “It’s been going on four years since I stopped pushing the limits and got serious about keeping my clothes on,” Eden says. “But staying clothed is only half the battle; chastity starts in the head.”
Here’s where Eden gets deep about the meaning of sex and intimacy in a way that speaks to anyone, married or single, with these God-given desires. “Chastity is seeing your sexual nature as part of a three-way relationship -- and no, that isn’t what it sounds like,” she writes. “The relationship is between you, your husband -- or, if you’re not married, your future husband -- and God. That means if you have sex without one corner of that triangle in place -- with a man who isn’t your husband, or with your husband but without faith in God -- the act becomes disconnected from its purpose … When you’re not having sex within the essential union of yourself, your husband and God, you’re really having sex only with yourself. You’re projecting your own hopes and dreams onto your sex partner -- and setting yourself up for heartbreak.
“I know this because the best sex I ever had was with a man who didn’t love me -- and who lost interest in me immediately afterward.”
Eden writes of how, in casual sex, or even in a self-centered marriage relationship, we unconsciously objectify our partner, reducing him or her to an instrument to satisfy our own wants and desires, “considering another person’s mind, spirit, or body as something to possess … rather than the whole person as someone to actively love.”
That kind of sex has little to do with love. Real sex, she says, is “the fruit of a loving relationship.” And real love, she says, only comes from God.
It requires pure motives.
Eden -- whose birth name is Dawn Eden Goldstein -- began inching toward an understanding of sexual purity after her conversion, which I’ll write about in another post. Her book vividly describes the stages on her journey to chastity, and how her friends and colleagues in the news business handled her metamorphosis -- Eden has worked for New York Daily News, The New York Post (from which she was notoriously fired some time after blogging about her Christian, pro-life beliefs, New York Press and even the The Village Voice (for which she did a “teeny” amount of writing).
“My friends didn’t really think I’d made this shocking change, probably because my transition to chastity was not too discernible immediately,” she says. “I didn’t know a lot of Christians right off, so I was still hanging out in a lot of the same circles. I only gradually stopped taking part so much in the nightclub scene, going out to see bands and that sort of thing, because what I found is that the friends I had from the music scene, I just had less and less in common with them.
“I also got kind of frustrated … because I would see that they’d still be living with boyfriends, or having sex outside of marriage, and I could see that it never brought them what they really wanted, and I wanted to be able to tell them there’s this better way. And I felt very strongly that they didn’t want to hear it from me.”
And what is this better way, in rubber-meets-the-road reality? Eden is dead honest in her book, one of the reasons why it’s so endearing. Before she fully embraced chastity, Eden struggled with sexual fantasizing, masturbation, encounters that stopped just short of the deed and a lot of “climbing the walls” punctuated with a few months of feeling pretty good about her new life choice.
The good news, she says, is as she’s focused on developing her relationship with God, living a chaste life has become easier, and she’s discovered new pleasures -- like female friendships that don’t have an undercurrent of competitiveness.
“I’ve gotten more of an understanding of what’s really important,” she says. “I used to be so focused on the lack in my life -- on the man-sized hole in my life … Because the thing is we are made for union, and it’s perfectly natural to long for that kind of union with someone special. But once you realize that you have that longing, you just can’t allow it to be the center of your life. God has better things for me to do that will help both me and humanity more than if I spend every day thinking, Where can I go to meet men?”
Keeping a chaste mindset, she says, is much less of a struggle today. “At the same time, temptation is always a danger,” she says. “By its nature, it comes when we least expect it. The more that I pray and the more that I work on myself spiritually so that I’m not objectifying people, the less likely I am to put myself in situations of temptation.
“I always have to be on guard,” she adds, “particularly if I feel lonely and lacking … One can never stop being careful. Particularly if someone appeals to me in a way that I’m specifically sensitive to, like if he reminds me of the boyfriend who dumped me. Then I’m much more vulnerable.”
I asked Eden -- who definitely would like to get married some day, but doesn’t have a boyfriend right now -- how she deals with sexual fantasizing. Eden admits she’s still learning to cope. Well, I asked this because I do remember what it was like to live a sexually abstinent life before I got married, and it was rough. Really rough. I realize now that’s because I was abstinent but not chaste. My brain was buzzing all the time with Technicolor fantasies. I was able to exercise more control over my thoughts after I had a supernatural experience with the Holy Spirit at the time of my water baptism.
Lately, when tempted by fantasizing, Eden has turned to some simple solutions -- like the advice an older priest gave her: Say, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help me!”
“It certainly works at least as a distraction,” Eden says, “because it brings Jesus into it, and it reminds me that I’m not alone and that God is with me.”
(Oh, I can feel the haters brandishing their knives already. Answer me this: What is so troubling to us about a woman who is trying to live a life of sexual purity in faithfulness to Jesus Christ? What is so threatening about this to so many people?)
Eden is convinced that sexual fantasizing is “at the very least counterproductive” to chastity, “because in order to be successfully chaste, you have to learn how not to view other people as objects. And fantasizing is simply reinforcing the idea that these people exist for my pleasure.”
Well, I had to ask about masturbation too. Hey, if Dawn Eden can bare her soul, I’ll bare mine too: This was a big problem for me before I got married. And even afterward, for a while. Both Eden and I believe it isn’t God’s ideal. In other words, it’s sin.
At first, Eden tried to dodge calling it sin in her book. She desperately wanted to avoid a tone in her writing that sounded like “You’re Going to Hell, Slut” -- 0one of the alternate titles suggested for her book by Gawker, in fact. She wanted her book to come from “a loving place,” as she describes it. Here’s how she handles masturbation in the book: “I don’t do that anymore,” she writes. “Not because it’s sinful—though that’s a good enough reason -- but because I’ve come to realize that it’s harmful to me.”
Masturbation, she says, caused her to focus solely on orgasm. “So, through masturbation, I was teaching myself to be a selfish and superficial sex partner -- and for what?” she writes. “A few seconds of orgasm -- after which I’d feel lonelier than I did before.”
Today, Eden tries to focus her thoughts on God’s love and joy, concepts that sound ridiculous if you’ve never experienced them. Could this possibly be better than good sex? Yes, Eden suggests, because she’s anticipating something much greater -- true intimacy with her husband.
“I’m not walking around in a constant walking-on-air state,” she says. “But if I compare how I feel now with how I used to feel, you know, it’s miles above how I used to feel, because I used to long for a sense of purpose, and I used to seek pleasures physically because I couldn’t have joy.
“And I may not always have the pleasures I want, but I have joy, and that’s really more important.” –Julie Lyons
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.