“The Erotics of Abstinence”

Reader: Where have you been, Schütz? You haven’t put up a post for a whole week!

Schütz: I’d like to say that I have been deeply studying the new Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, or writing my paper on NT Wright’s understanding of Justification for the John Paul II Insitute Colloquium on St Paul, but…

I have to admit that what I have really been doing is reading all four books in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. I have already posted below on my initial reaction to reading the first novel, but I want to add something more here.

Two comments from the Commentators while the port was being passed around got me thinking. The first was from Matthias who said something about Meyer being a Mormon and the other was from Mrs Doyle who said that the attraction of Edward Cullen had nothing to do with him being a vampire and everything to do with him being a gentleman who “who encourages Bella in maintaining and developing certain virtues”. And this, she points out, is “presented as [something] equally attainable for any man”.

A google search brought up this article from Time Magizine more than twelve months ago. As I mentioned before, the unusual thing about the Twilight novels is the very restrained and decidedly traditional attitude it takes toward sexual ethics. Bella is a seventeen/eighteen/nineteen year old who has only ever had one boyfriend. Edward insists that they get married before they have any sexual relations beyond kissing, hugging and holding hands. After their marriage (plot-spoiler here) comes the baby and then the house. All in the traditional order – but absolutely NOT in the order that it generally happens today. (Is there any marriage celebrant out there who can say that you have married more than one couple in the past twelve months who – to your knowledge – did it this way?)

Now, I know that these novels are written for teenage girls, but it is still very unusual for a series of novels in which sexuality and romance were so front and centre not to stray from the straight and narrow in this way. So what’s going on? Here is what the Time article has to say:

But it is the rare vampire novel that isn’t about sex on some level, and the Twilight books are no exception. What makes Meyer’s books so distinctive is that they’re about the erotics of abstinence. Their tension comes from prolonged, superhuman acts of self-restraint. There’s a scene midway through Twilight in which, for the first time, Edward leans in close and sniffs the aroma of Bella’s exposed neck. “Just because I’m resisting the wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the bouquet,” he says. “You have a very floral smell, like lavender … or freesia.” He barely touches her, but there’s more sex in that one paragraph than in all the snogging in Harry Potter.

At first I was a bit shocked to hear from a friend that their 12 year old daughter had read all these novels. After all, as the article points out, this is not Harry Potter (side comment – I saw film no. 6 with the kids yesterday – Cathy and I are doing a review of that at the moment which I will post soon). But the more I think about it, if the Twilight novels encourage a new kind of sexual ethics in the name of true romance, then perhaps they are a good thing.

OR do they hold up an impossible ideal? Despite the fact that Meyer IS a practicing Mormon, there is no religion in the novels. Religious virtue is therefore not put forward as the motivating factor in this abstinence. So what is? Respect for one another, not wanting to hurt one another, being committed to a single permanent relationship, respect for parents, respect for all human life (abortion is an issue raised by the final book), the desire for motherhood… These are good things.

And, okay, maybe Edward is an impossible benchmark for the average teenage male to aspire to (no real man sparkles in the sunlight or can uproot whole trees with a flick of the wrist), but at least in this character Meyer has put out a challenge for young men to learn a little more about the kind of masculinity and romance that will make them attractive to a life-mate and help them to live with themselves in good conscience.

At the films yesterday, Maddy saw the shorts for the next Twilight movie, “New Moon”. She asked when she would be allowed to read the novels. Answer: Not yet. Ten is toooo young for this. But when the time is right, I don’t think reading the novels will do her any harm, and possibly a bit of good.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to ““The Erotics of Abstinence”

  1. Mike

    I am clearly more informed about this than anyone else because I haven’t even read the book – and even better – I have read about it.

    I might read it one day – but I’m put off by the same issues you highlight in the second paragraph of your last post on it.

    But I’m wondering what your reaction to this review might be:
    http://decentfilms.com/sections/articles/twilight.html

    I think it’s a complex issue, but I wonder if a book that is so sexually-charged might be indeed about abstinence, but not so much about chastity. Some of the quotes you provide from other readers seem to support this idea.

    I recall years ago, Britany Spears reportedly saying she wanted to save sex for marriage, and all sorts of Christian pastors held her up as a wonderful example of chastity – ignoring everything her music videos and dances said about the topic!

    Not saying there’s a direct analogy – I haven’t even read the books. But I wonder if people get so excited when they hear about someone who saves sex for marriage that the deeper issue of chastity gets confused with abstinence.

    EG, would you normally talk about the “erotics of chastity”? (In normal use of the words, that is – I don’t mean a theological/philosophical work, eg Pope Benedict’s use of “eros” in Deus Caritas Est)

    • Quick reaction (I haven’t looked at the review link yet)? You might be onto something.

      2 things:

      1) I want to know exactly what you thought I was saying in the second to last paragraph of my post

      2) I was running with your suspicions until you mentioned the way Pope Benedict described eros in DCE. I seem to remember he described it as “that love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings”. That seems, if you will excuse me putting the author of the encyclical together with the author of novels, very “Stephenie Meyer” to me.

      • Hey, just read the review, and it is a good one – quite thought provoking at points.

        I rather agree about the “abusive boyfriend” angle – it could certainly be read that way…

        And about the school aristocracy thing? Well, she was inspired by Jane Austen, so what does one expect. And Wuthering Heights. And Romeo and Juliet. Explains a lot!

        But as far as the eros thing goes, after reading the review, I’m still with the definition of eros as Pope Benny put it in his encyclical, and in the following five paragraphs. It fits this novel to a T.

  2. Mike

    Hi Dave.
    0) Sorry about the italics gone wrong.

    1) Do you mean my comment about the second paragraph in your last post? “Okay, okay… “Trashy, horror/fantasy romance”, I hear you say. “Girl novel”, I hear you say. And yes, it is”. That’s exactly what puts me off reading it . .

    I wasn’t commenting on your *second to last paragraph* of this post. But now that I look at it, my (hostile third-hand) impression of Edward is that he’s a creepy, controlling stalker . . . which isn’t a great ideal to aspire to – but that might not be what the book really says.

    2) Okay, you have both dilligence and memory on your side here, against my offhand comment. But I wasn’t attempting to oppose Pope Benedict’s “eros” to the novel, but to ask whether a review like the one you quote could really talk about the “erotics of chastity” in the same way they could the “erotics of abstinence”. As in, in my view the former would be less likely. Just speaking off the cuff, but as I see it, “erotic” is more generally used to imply lust. Having had that thought, I immediately recalled the different usage Pope Benedict gives to the (related) word Eros, and assumed a few other readers would think of that too. So I wanted to except that kind of usage from my comment.

    Just re-read some of DCE. I think there might be some subject matter for discussion in the distinction he makes between Eros as understood by the Greeks: “a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” ” and by Christianity: “True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”

    As I said, subject matter that seems relevant there – but it’s matter for those who have read the book; not me.

    • You see, it’s just there that I asked myself the same question: Does Meyer go the same direction as Papa B. in this matter? And my answer to that is… Yes – I think so. Eros in Twilight does seem to be a rather more “purified” version of the Greek intoxication. It does express itself in self-sacrifice for the sake of the other, of “ascent, renunciation, purification and healing”. That could almost be right out of Meyer’s own vocab.

      Of course, as always, there are layers… and maybe I am missing something deeper here.

  3. Mrs Doyle

    Some interesting points here that’s for sure.

    I think it would be a mistake to take Meyer’s work too seriously and make comparisons between it and anything the Holy Father has written, these novels are not intended to be secular treatise on the virtues of abstinence and chastity – although Meyer certainly supports this.

    The only problem I have is Bella’s ‘weak at the knees’ attitude to Edward. She is so ready to do anything for him, I suspect quite strongly that if he didn’t opt for chastity we would have a very different book.

    Perhaps Meyer has deliberately done this to redress the balance often seen in the more classical works of literature where the women have traditionally been charged with keeping their virtues intact and resisting male temptation.

    While this is a nice thought, my feminist sensibilities just want to shake Bella and tell her to get a grip! Why doesn’t she want to practice these virtues off her bat rather than just to please Edward and bide her time until he says that its o.k?

    Sheesh!

    Other than that, it’s a great read, very sexually charged but funnily enough, very restrained too.

  4. I have heard arguments for and against this book. <y 14 year old daughter read the first book this year before I had even heard anything about them. She hasn't asked about reading the second one yet or about seeing the movie but I think I will be a bit more willing to let her watch them now that I have read your take on it David.

    A friend of mine told me that even though they waited till they were married for sex that they still jumped into bed together. Is that right?

    • Yes, there is a lot of lying in bed together and hugging, unbeknownst to “Dad” who is in the house at the time (vampires in Meyer’s world have the ability to quietly enter houses and quickly exit when there is danger of discovery). I’m not quite sure what one should make of that morally…

  5. the “erotics of chastity” is a phrase that makes complete sense in the context of holy matrimony.