In the western world, the term has become closely associated (and is often used interchangeably) with sexual abstinence, especially before marriage. However, the term remains applicable to persons in all states, single or married, clerical or lay, and has implications beyond sexual temperance.
Assuming the observance of chastity, chastity is of particular relevance to the transition from unmarried to married status (here marriage is meant in the common heterosexual sense, not in the sense of spiritual marriage). Broadly, there are two approaches: courtship and arranged marriage.
Different cultures have implemented chastity in different ways. From the weak to the strong: Some take no objection to courtship or even casual sexual relationships. Some have implemented chastity with a double standard. Others have taken the view that marriages should be arranged and that any behavior which could be construed as courtship is taboo.
In ancient times the value of chastity was highly debated in both the homosexual and heterosexual spheres. In particular, Socrates was an advocate of chaste pedagogic relations between men and boys, in opposition to the sexually expressed pederastic relations relationships prevalent in his time. Plato, having transmitted many of these teachings, has become the eponym for this type of chastity, known today as Platonic love (as opposed to romantic love, parental love, sibling love, etc.).
"Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." (Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo.) - Saint Augustine
In the context of marriage, the spouses commit to a lifelong relationship which excludes the possibility of sexual intimacy with other persons. Chastity therefore involves marital fidelity. Within marriage, several practices are variedly considered unchaste, such as sexual intimacy during or shortly after menstruation or childbirth.
The particular ethical system may not prescribe each of these. For example, within the scope of Christian ethic, Roman Catholics view sex within marriage as chaste, but prohibit the use of artificial contraception as an offense against chastity, seeing contraception as contrary to God's will and design of human sexuality. Many Anglican churches allow for artificial contraception, seeing the restriction of family size as possibly not contrary to God's will. A stricter view is held by the Shakers, who prohibit marriage (and indeed sexual intercourse under any circumstances) as a violation of chastity.
Some Christian denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have set up various rules regarding clerical celibacy, while others, such as Lutheran and Anglican churches, allow clergy to marry or even favour it.
In all Christian traditions, celibacy is required of monastics—monks, nuns and friars—even in a rare system of double cloisters, in which husbands could enter the (men's) monastery while their wives entered a (women's) sister monastery.
Vows of chastity can also be taken by laypersons, either as part of an organised religious life (such as Roman Catholic Beguines and Beghards) or on an individual basis, as a voluntary act of devotion and/or as part of an ascetic lifestyle, often devoted to contemplation. The voluntary aspect has led it to being included among the counsels of perfection.
Acts which transgress chastity are usually intended to be a private matter. The main exception to this norm is the style of clothing worn because clothing can be used to broadcast a person's receptiveness to sexual advances. For this reason, cultures which attempt to foster chastity often employ a modest style of dress, especially for women.
Style of dress may be chosen for other reasons than chastity such as the desire to express one's individual identity, to conform to societal norms, for advertising a product, or for other reasons.