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Chastity is the state of being chaste or pure. The term was originally used to describe the sexual behavior of a man or woman as it conformed to the moral standards or guidelines of their culture or religion. However, the term is currently used to describe sexual abstinence particularly before marriage.
The words chaste and chastity both come from the Latin word castus meaning "pure." When these words became part of the English language in the mid-13th century, chaste meant pure from unlawful sexual intercourse (or extramarital sex), and chastity referred to a woman's virginity. However, by the end of the 16th century, the difference between the two terms became less distinct.
Because of its modern definition, sexual abstinence is often used as a synonym for chastity.
In a modern context, chastity is a term used to describe a state of purity or moral cleanliness as demonstrated by an individual's actions, thoughts, and words. More specifically, chastity prescribes that individuals not have any sexual relations at all until they are married.
Some people argue that chastity has little to do with abstinence and the repression of sexual acts and desires. These people, who look to the original use of the term, say that chastity is simply about rejecting impure sexuality. They believe that while abstinence is about the habit of saying no, chastity is a virtue. Followers of true chastity value sexual fidelity, and believe that behaving in a chaste manner means directing all sexual desires and emotions towards their true love. It is about treating their partner with respect and putting their partner's needs over their own personal gratification.
A vow of chastity is often taken by members of Christian churches. Early church fathers felt that chastity had three grades. The first, virginity, describes the point at which a person has no experience of sexual activity. The second, continence, describes a state wherein individuals control their sexual activity (through abstaining from ejaculation, for example). The final stage of chastity is matrimony, wherein individuals restrict sexual activity to interactions with their spouse.
Chastity is also celebrated in Buddishm, Daoism, Jainism, and Hinduism.