How Not to Chastity
If you will not take this Counsel, and persist in thinking a Commerce with the Sex inevitable, then I repeat my former Advice, that in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones.
- Benjamin Franklin, Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress
The Letter, or maybe treatise, “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress” is regarded as one of Franklin’s more humorous writings. Ostensibly written to a friend, Cadwallader Colden, it details the benefits of taking an older woman as a mistress over a younger woman. Among the 8 reasons, this one is my favorite (1):
Because there is no hazard of Children, which irregularly produc’d may be attended with much Inconvenience.
This is wish fulfillment on Franklin’s part. By his own decree, Chastity is about sex only for health and procreation. A post-menopausal woman means sex without consequences. I find that kind of an interesting way around his own edicts towards betterment.
In a grander sense, creating for yourself standards and rules that don’t jive with who you are seems a silly exercise. Partly because it becomes increasingly unlikely that you’ll achieve your goals - flailing into the ether, consciously or unconsciously, against your own desires. Mostly because doing so is no way to increase one’s happiness, let alone one’s moral perfection (3).
It’s possible, written at the age of 40, Franklin had abandoned his project and this was fatherly advice to a friend, something he certainly doled out… religiously to his friends. And in tis advice, in fact, intimating that sleeping with an older mistress “Because the Sin is less” than debauching a virgin for the way that ruined young girl’s lives.
In that nugget, at least, some acknowledgement of the sexist nature of virginity as a commodity but the letter otherwise, while praising some traits of an older woman, undercuts most of said praise with what amounts to a collegiate boy tittering about an ill-reputed conquest. “…regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one” this positive comparison achieved after “covering all above [the oder woman]with a Basket.”
I fear this sort of objectification and commoditization was normal and that Franklin acknowledging the good of older women would be considered the radical thinking. In that, there’s is some benefit, even of you have to throw out the rest.
This is to say that Chastity or Chasteness stems from a deeply religious and oft blatantly sexist religious roots. A woman is expected to remain chaste and pure for her future husband where men have no such compunction. And any trysts result in the besmirching of the lady’s honor and a light swat of the man who effectively ruined the girl’s life. Sex is not so powerful nor should it be something considered so much more sacred than the life to which you attach virginity.
All of this is to say that denying ourselves - either Franklin pantomiming chasteness or society championing Puritanical denial of pretty much anything fun - is a quick way to unhappiness. If we believe that all human pursuits are intended to bring us some sort of happiness - either in tis life or another ever after in accordance with your beliefs - then acting so thoroughly against understanding ourselves can only result in broken promises.
When we’re talking about Chastity. Much of the letter is a little… sexist. Maybe good natured sexism, like respectful sexism (2)?↩︎
This is not a thing. I’m not being serious. The letter is sexist.↩︎
The latter being the stated goal for Franklin’s project which was likely an indirect way of getting to the former.↩︎