An Argument in Defense of Celibacy
Michael J. McClymond
Theology Today 57
no.2,  217-31 (July 2000)


 St. John The Evangelist, El Greco, 1540

WE live in a tolerant age, but even tolerance has its limits. Or so it seems.

    Against a backdrop of blue skies and white-capped waves, in a rustic seafood restaurant in southern California, I was sharing a meal with a Hollywood screenwriter, and as the lunch progressed, so did our acquaintance with one another. He was and is an engaging fellow, who, as it happens, wrote the script some years back for a network television docudrama on the life of Amy Fisher, the “Long Island Lolita” who was convicted and jailed for shooting her lover’s wife. So I suppose the subject of sex was bound to come up eventually.

    Since neither of us is married, we discussed the females in our lives. Soon it came out that I was not having sex with the women I dated. “So you weren’t really interested?” he probed, looking up quizzically. “No, I was interested.” “But you didn’t sleep with them?” “No.” I tried to explain that I believed that sexual relations should be confined to marriage, and added that I expected that in time I would marry someone who held to the same principle. There was a pause, and he said something memorable: If he had learned that a woman he dated had not had sex with her previous boyfriends, then he would assume that something was wrong with her. A woman who practiced sexual abstinence outside of marriage would have little interest for him.






THIS conversation has stuck in my mind because it opened my eyes to the startling new views on sex that have emerged during the last generation or so. The traditional policy of I-will-only-marry-a-virgin has given way to I-will-only-consort-with-the-orgasmically-adequate. The new views did not appear at once. Rather they evolved through a century-long process of mutation. Sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, Margaret Mead’s book on Samoa, the Bloomsbury circle, the “lost generation” of the 1920s, Freudian psychoanalysis, self-actualization and pop psychology, Kinsey’s studies of male and female sexual behavior, the invention of the contraceptive pill, 1960s radicalism, and 1970s hedonism all played a role. The changing outlook was aptly described by Graham Heath:

Evidence was produced (or popularized) almost simultaneously from zoology, anthropology, history, psychiatry and sociology to show that the sexual morality of the Western world over the previous two thousand years had been a terrible mistake--unnatural, destructive of human happiness, repressive; that it had been sustained by hypocrisy; and that it had in fact been abandoned in practice by a great part of the population. The evidence was brought forward by distinguished academics, whose researches had in many cases been supported by prestigious foundations. The new doctrine was immensely attractive and seemed absolutely logical: the age of freedom had dawned at last; there was no such thing as normality--everyone had different sexual needs; there were no guidelines for sexual behaviour, provided that all parties consented and no conception took place; there was no need for any social control of the influences affecting sexual behaviour. And at this moment, playing the role of the fairy godmother, the pharmaceutical industry produced the first really effective means of contraception--the “pill.” Within less than a generation the new orthodoxy replaced the old. Parents and educators who suggested love, faithfulness and restraint as ideals found themselves regarded as joyless, under-sexed, anti-life, anti-youth, and anti-progress. The sexual “revolution” had taken place.[1]

    If this revolution had a manifesto, a party platform, it was the free discussion and open practice of an almost unlimited range of sexual options. Yet, as the twentieth century has ended, it has become clear that the movement for sexual freedom was not as open as its rhetoric suggested. It repudiated restraints. As indicated by Heath’s pejorative terms--”joyless, under-sexed, anti-life, anti-youth, and anti-progress”--the movement advanced its cause by denigrating those outside of it. Everyone not in the party was a party pooper.

    Those looking for a different point of view may be disappointed with the literature favorable to celibacy. Most of the texts are badly out-of-date and seem to be based on the assumption that people either marry in their early years or else (in the Catholic context) consciously enter into a lifelong and covenanted celibacy within a supportive community. The books on celibacy, in other words, are for teenagers and monks. They have little pertinence for many people today, such as a thirty-year-old, never-married, professional woman who wishes to marry but finds it almost impossible to find an appropriate mate, a forty-year-old single mother who has been left behind by a philandering husband, or a fifty-year-old widower who may have thirty full years of life ahead of him.

    The United States has many people in these kinds of situations. As of 1990, there were about forty million single men and women, fifteen million divorced, and fourteen million widows or widowers, for a total of sixty-nine million unmarried persons.[2] Postmarital sex is now as big an issue as premarital. Even assuming the legitimacy of remarriage in many cases--a matter of controversy in the churches--a divorced person may still face considerable difficulty in the area of sexuality. He or she will lose the sexual opportunity that marriage afforded, and postmarital celibacy will often be more difficult than premarital. There may be inducements to engage in a short-term sexual liason during separation or when divorce is still a fresh wound--a time of fierce and yet conflicting emotions. Divorced or bereaved persons may be tempted in yet another way, namely, to enter into a premature and potentially disastrous second marriage. They can easily err by making a long-term decision on the basis of short-term emotional compulsions.

    If, for the sake of argument, we assume that our postmarital individual does not rebound into remarriage and wishes to avoid nonmarital sex, then he or she will become celibate for a period of indefinite duration. Though the celibacy of the Catholic monk or nun is hard, this kind of celibacy may be harder. First, the postmarital person has had full experience of sexual life. (A recovering heroin addict, interviewed in Rolling Stone, spoke of the problem of “euphoric recall.” He still dreams about his “highs”--somewhat as postmaritals dream about their sexual pasts and their former partners.[3] Second, the celibacy of the divorced or bereaved person is not stabilized by any vow of continuity or encouraged by a supportive community. This can make it a lonely business. Third, the postmarital person who is open to the prospect of remarriage may find temptations amid the opportunities for a new relationship. The singles scene today is glutted with people who are not committed to extramarital celibacy, and a great deal of prudence, tact, and self-control is needed by anyone who wants to have a nonsexual dating life.

    A good case can be made for extramarital celibacy. Those who abstain from sex are not “joyless, under-sexed, anti-life, anti-youth, and anti-progress,” as alleged. In fact, in the long run, they may be enhancing their erotic life considerably. The arguments, when carefully considered, suggest that celibacy is preferable to promiscuity or a series of transient sexual liasons. This should not be taken to mean that celibacy is an unmixed blessing. Among other things, celibacy involves the forfeiting of pleasure, and this is negative per se. Some celibate persons may experience psychological and physical symptoms that range from irritability to insomnia or low spirits. Sexual deprivation never killed anyone, to be sure, but this does not mean that someone’s general sense of well-being is not diminished by celibacy. Yet, having said this, celibacy outside of marriage is preferable to promiscuity and its associated jealousy, guilt, hurt, and general deadening of emotional sensibility. While the pains of celibacy can soon be forgotten, the wounds of promiscuity may linger for a lifetime.

    The focus of this essay is on unmarried heterosexuals, and it does not specifically address either homosexual practice or adultery. Rational argument alone is unlikely to change anyone’s sexual behavior. One moment of intense sexual arousal can demolish just about anyone’s moral resolve, like a five-foot wave hitting a sand castle. Yet action is molded by thought, and this includes sexual action and sexual thought. Moreover, the Christian community, past and present, can and does support those who practice sexual self-denial. I believe this because I have experienced it--faithful prayers, listening ears, and mutual accountability have all been integral to my own experience of celibacy. Above all, Christian celibacy is rooted in the grace of God and the God of grace, who transforms human beings at the very root of their existence. One must therefore reject the notion that an argument for celibacy is a futile gesture, foredoomed to failure. What might be foredoomed instead is the outlandish conception of “free love” as propounded in the sexual revolution.








IMAGINE, for the sake of argument, that you have been stranded on a desert island, a veritable tropical paradise. As the sole survivor of a helicopter crash, you come to consciousness surrounded by extraordinarily attractive members of the opposite sex. It is as though Robinson Crusoe had met half the cast of Baywatch. (No, this is not a late-night movie on the USA network. It’s real.) There they are--tall and short, slender, muscular, well-formed, blonde, dark-haired, red-headed--each one differing from the rest and yet each a nearly perfect specimen. All of them are fascinated by you, eager to embrace you, and willing to share you with all the others as well. The clouds of jealousy and mistrust never darken the tropical sky. Since they know no envy, they will not wrangle over you. Since you are the only man, or the only woman, on the island, you have no competitors for their affection. What is just as amazing is that these islanders aim to please. The word “no” or its South Seas equivalent does not seem to be in their vocabulary. Whatever you would like to do, they would like to do too.

    This libidinous fantasy is amusing because it is obviously fanciful, palpably self-serving, and decidedly implausible. Yet the picture just sketched is not unlike that presented by one of the century’s best-known anthropologists in her best-selling book, Coming of Age in Samoa. A day in Samoa, wrote Mead, begins as “lovers slip home from trysts beneath the palm trees or in the shadow of beached canoes.”[4] While the Westerners who came during the nineteenth century valued chastity outside of marriage, “the Samoans regard this attitude with reverent but complete scepticism and the concept of celibacy is absolutely meaningless to them.”[5] “The Samoans,” Mead continues,

laugh at stories of romantic love, scoff at fidelity to a long absent wife or mistress, believe explicitly that one love will quickly cure another ... although having many mistresses is never out of harmony with a declaration of affection for each ... Romantic love as it occurs in our civilisation, inextricably bound up with ideas of monogamy, exclusiveness, jealousy and undeviating fidelity, does not occur in Samoa ... Adultery does not necessarily mean a broken marriage ... If, on the other hand, a wife really tires of her husband, or a husband of his wife, divorce is a simple and informal matter ... It is a very brittle monogamy, often trespassed and more often broken entirely. But many adulteries occur ... which hardly threaten the continuity of established relationships ... and so there are no marriages of any duration in which either person is actively unhappy.[6]

    Mead’s idealized picture of South Seas sexuality was avidly received by the American public. Coming of Age in Samoa sold millions of copies and influenced the way people were brought up in this country.[7] It was the kind of book that college students were likely to quote against their parents during the 1960s. It not only launched Mead’s fifty-year-long career as an anthropologist but also turned her into a household name and provided her with a popular audience for her opinions on a wide variety of topics. There was just one problem: The evidence for her assertions about the Samoans was flimsy if not fraudulent.

    Mead’s many shortcomings as a social scientist have been documented in Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth.[8] She plunged into her field research in Samoa after only six weeks of language study. Mead left Samoa some nine months after she arrived, claiming that she had enough material to generalize about Samoan life and even about human culture generally. When challenged about her claims, Mead persisted and even became more rigid over time, although she never returned to Samoa to confirm her data. By Mead’s own admission in Coming of Age in Samoa, the majority of her adolescent informants were still virgins, and so it is hard to understand how she wrote as she did.[9] Freeman, in contrast to Mead, passed a government proficiency exam in the language, and was even made a Samoan chief. His book cites accounts of missionaries and travellers, public documents, and points out contradictions on the part of Mead and her defenders.

    Countering Mead’s claim that the Samoans knew no sexual shame, Freeman documents twenty-two cases of suicide, six by individuals who were caught in illicit sexual relationships and two by persons who had been jilted by their lovers. Freeman also demonstrated that the Samoans place a high premium on the virginity of the bride at the time of marriage. A brother will often fly into a “killing rage” at any attempt to seduce his sister. In 1959, there was a twenty-year-old man who, when seen sitting under a breadfruit tree with an unmarried eighteen-year-old female, had his jaw broken by an irate brother. In pre-Christian Samoa, adultery was a crime punishable by death, and in time the punishment was lessened to a fracturing of the skull or the severing of the nose or ear.[10] One might say with E. Michael Jones that Coming Age in Samoa has about as much historical accuracy as the screenplay to The Blue Lagoon!

    Mead’s book was a flawed work of social science and a mistaken argument for sexual libertinism. Yet the twentieth century witnessed other appeals to social science that were no less dubious, and where a veneer of scientific respectability masked the personal agendas and/or methodological flaws of the sexual researchers. Havelock Ellis, one of the important early sexologists, assembled an immense body of information on human sexuality. Yet the data was unrepresentative because it came from people from whom he happened to receive correspondence. It is not surprising that Ellis’s material included a large number of persons who had sexual problems or who were otherwise obsessed with sex. Ellis, in his autobiography, acknowledged his own preoccupation with urinating women, his wife’s lesbianism, and his failure to achieve potency until he was above the age of sixty. He concluded that sexual misery is almost universal. The outwardly happy married couples, he wrote, are “for a large part dead, with boredom gnawing at the core, unreal, paralyzed, corrupt, selfish, fruitless. How few must the exceptions be.”[11] Ellis, to put it mildly, had an axe to grind. He wanted to show that there was no such thing as sexual normality.

    Wilhelm Reich, a philosopher of sexuality, presents another case where we have reason to doubt the objectivity of the researcher. As a boy, he unwittingly played a part in revealing his mother’s affair with a tutor, and this led to her suicide--a fact that seems to have weighed on him in later years.[12]

    Alfred Kinsey’s immensely influential studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), were plagued by many of the same problems as those of Havelock Ellis. They were not based on sound methods of statistical sampling. In 1954, the American Statistical Association published its own analysis of Kinsey’s reports and concluded that “critics are justified in their objections that many ... provocative statements in the book are not based on the data presented therein, and it is not made clear to the readers on what evidence the statements are based.” Others criticized Kinsey for “generalizing beyond the data,” for example, basing his conclusions on too little data or on unrepresentative groups from the population--those who volunteered for the surveys, persons of homosexual orientation, the prison population, and so on.[13] The 1994 University of Chicago study of sexuality in America also emphasized the unreliability of Kinsey’s conclusions.[14] Some of his projections regarding the future were also glaringly wrong, such as his suggestion that modern medicine would substantially remove the threat posed by sexually transmitted diseases.[15] In the age of AIDS, human papilloma virus, chlamydia, incurable herpes, and many other such ailments, Kinsey’s prediction has a hollow sound.

    Like Ellis, Kinsey was concerned to show that there is no such thing as sexual normalcy, or at least that the range of acceptable sexual practice should be far more inclusive than it is in most traditional societies. He began his career as an entomologist, and by the end of his life, he had collected eighteen thousand sex histories and four million gall wasps.[16] Variation, he held, is the fundamental principle of all life, and from this principle he drew some sweeping conclusions:

Men and women in general expect their fellows to think and behave according to patterns which may fit the law-maker ... but which are ill-shaped for all real individuals who try to live under them ... What is right for one individual may be wrong for the next ... The range of individual variation in any particular case is usually much greater than is generally understood ... Our conceptions of right and wrong, normal and abnormal, are seriously challenged by the variation studies.[17]

    As an argument for sexual liberty, there is not much subtlety here: variation exists, and therefore variation should exist. One is reminded of Alexander Pope’s famous line that “whatever is, is right,” which can be used to rationalize all sorts of heinous actions. (Why not war, torture, deception, and betrayal, along with greater sexual liberty?) Kinsey’s plea may not be that “everyone is doing it” but that “a sizeable percentage of the population is doing it.” Yet in either case, the ethical questions about sexuality are not resolved by the variation studies of Havelock Ellis or Alfred Kinsey, any more than they are by the idealized picture of Samoan life presented by Margaret Mead.








AS our foregoing look at Mead, Ellis, and Kinsey should make clear, ethical norms and judgments have not disappeared from the new thinking on sexuality. Instead self-expression has replaced self-control as the supreme value. One might say that celibacy has become the last sexual perversion in America. Medically, celibacy is safe, non-harmful, and carries no risk of a sexually transmitted disease. But as a sex educator reportedly said in response to a discussion of abstinence: “It’s safe, but is it sex?”[18] Today it has become necessary to do something that traditional societies never had to do, namely, present a reasoned case for abstaining from sex outside of marriage.

    A few of the most common arguments against celibacy and in favor of promiscuity are the following: (1) “everybody is doing it,” (2) “it’s only natural,” (3) “variety is the spice of life,” and (4) “I want a test drive before I buy my car.”

    The first argument, that “everybody is doing it,” is as common as it is inane. It proves nothing. In moral reasoning, the prevalance of a certain practice does nothing to establish its acceptability. Perhaps the operative assumption is that tens of millions of Americans cannot be entirely wrong--immoral or imprudent or both. Yet experience shows that people often act foolishly. About a third of all adult Americans are obese, and many are endangering their lives because of it, and yet one does not hear the heavyset indignantly defend themselves by saying: “But everybody these days is eating a second dessert!” What is more, promiscuous sex may be habit-forming. Many persons may continue in promiscuity simply because they find it hard to stop.

    Likewise, the assertion that “it’s only natural” does not bear close scrutiny. The argument’s apparent strength hinges on the ambiguity, often noted by philosophers, between “the natural” as a description of how people act and “the natural” as a normative statement of how they ought to act. Thus, there are two different things that one could mean by “it’s only natural.” First, that everyone or almost everyone is actually engaged in promiscuity. Second, that most or all people regard promiscuity as the way that human beings should act. In the first case, we have a pseudo-argument, just another version of “everybody is doing it.” In the second case, the argument stands or falls with empirical observation of the various human cultures. History and anthropology show clearly enough that most human societies have not regarded promiscuity as acceptable behavior. In many times and places, the punishments inflicted upon sexual malefactors have been among the most severe--ostracism, shame, scourging, and even death. (Even Samoa, as noted above, did not prove to be an exception.) So then, “it’s only natural” does not work as an argument. It is either a simple assertion of fact and not a moral argument to the effect that all or most people are promiscuous, or else it is a mistaken empirical claim that all or most people regard promiscuity as acceptable behavior.

    Another argument is that “variety is the spice of life.” This line of reasoning has an undeniable appeal. Today, many people are attracted to the romantic ideal of a life enriched through a variety of experiences. Why should we not open ourselves to a change of sexual partners? Is not monogamy monotony? Why eat only grapes when one can sample bananas, tangerines, avocadoes, mangoes, and kiwis? The fruit analogy shows both the strength and weakness of the argument. Regarding fruit consumption, the point may be conceded: variety is best. For years now, I have been “eating around” the produce bins at my local supermarket, and I have absolutely no intention of settling down anytime soon with any one fruit. Yet the pleasures of sexual intercourse cannot be likened to eating fruit without trivializing the former.

    Sex, as compared with other bodily pleasures, is uniquely person involving and bond forming. One can thoroughly enjoy eating a tangerine today and then completely leave the enjoyable moment behind. There is no risk of tangerine flashbacks when one eats a different piece of fruit tomorrow, or twenty years hence. Yet, even in this day of sexual adventurism, not many persons can conduct an active sexual life without forming attachments. Recently, an acquaintance of mine gave me a piece of unsolicited advice regarding a woman who had a track record of snagging men and then dumping them. “Don’t start seeing her,” he warned, “unless you can do it like a Navy seal. You know, put on the protective garb, get in there, do your business, and then get out right away. Don’t stay long.” Here was a strategy to get involved without getting involved. The Navy seal outfit made me think of a gigantic condom. What struck me also was the war metaphor: A nicely dressed woman opens her front door, and in steps a guy in combat gear. It did not sound fun, and there was not anything even remotely romantic about it. Did I really want to start having sex without having sex?

    My suspicion is that “variety is the spice of life” translates in actual practice into a set of imperatives such as the following:

Have sex with a variety of persons but don’t really abandon your heart to any of them. Maintain your emotional reserve. By all means, improve your sexual technique as you move from partner to partner. If it should happen that one of them seems like “The One” then immediately ignore the preceding imperatives and start bonding like crazy to this one person in the hope that he or she too will start to think of you as “The One” and you might be fortunate enough to have a committed relationship with this person.

    It does not take a Ph.D. in psychology to see all the problems embedded in these injunctions. Can anyone fully succeed in not becoming attached to his or her sexual partner(s)? And does one want to have sex without fully giving himself or herself to the pleasure and the partner? What is to be done if one senses that a deep attachment to one’s partner is starting to develop? Does one then break off the relationship, or force the issue of a long-term commitment? How does one deal with the pain of broken relationships, especially if the breakup was not by mutual agreement? Will not a history of broken relationships lead to greater difficulty in forming an attachment in the future? How does one distinguish finding “The One” from having great sex? Or is there a difference? And what if one is already committed to one person but another comes along who offers a far more exciting prospect of sexual fulfillment? When one ponders these questions, it becomes clear that promiscuity in some respects may be harder to practice than celibacy outside of marriage. In the latter, there is only one rule to remember: Give your heart and body to one person, and give it completely, but only after you have made a permanent commitment.

    The Bible teaches that sexual intercourse establishes the deepest kind of emotional and psychological bond between a man and a woman: “The two will become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). To engage in sexual intercourse while consciously withholding one’s heart is strictly unnatural, against God’s intention in creation. It is a perversion of sex, much as the ancient Romans practiced a perversion of food when they feasted for hours on end, crept off to the vomitorium, slipped a feather down their throats, and disgorged their stomach contents so that they could return to feasting again. These Romans had lost touch with the purpose of eating. Eating is for sustaining and strengthening the body, and sharing the companionship of others. Sex is for pleasure and for procreation, and forming the most intimate kind of union.

    The last argument to be considered seems the most sensible of all: “I want a test drive before I buy my car.” Caveat emptor, look before you leap, better safe than sorry--we have all heard plenty of cautionary maxims and so it seems fitting to apply the same notion of prudence to sexuality. Yet the analogy breaks down. How would one feel about buying the car after it has been “test driven” by half a dozen or more drivers over a period of years? Would that matter? Almost certainly it would. Moreover what would one do with a car that performed well in its initial test drive but then had major engine trouble after one purchased it? (Few marriages are altogether free from “engine trouble.”) In the automotive world, there are warranties and service agreements to minimize the risk, but not so in the matter of matrimony. A brief “test drive” is hardly a guarantee of mutual lifelong desire and desirability. If one prolongs the “test drive” considerably then one runs into the problems just mentioned of interpersonal bonds that are repeatedly formed and broken.

    Some evidence suggests that couples who do not “test drive” fare just as well, sexually speaking, as couples who do. One study showed that there was very little difference in the frequency of female orgasm in marriage among women who did not engage in premarital sex as compared with those who did. In a survey of love and marriage permanence, the same study showed that husbands and wives with no experience of premarital intercourse had a higher probability of overall marital success than those in which either the husband or wife had had premarital sex.[19] A British study, commissioned in 1972 by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, concluded that there was “no evidence that premarital intercourse significantly improves the chances of satisfactory marital adjustment.”[20] Thus the “test drive” theory is empirically challenged and lacks substantiation.

    The most authoritative study of sexual practice ever done in the United States, directed by a group at the University of Chicago and based on in-depth interviews with 3500 respondents in 1992, clearly demonstrated the benefits of limiting sexual expression to one’s marital partner. Of those who had only one sexual partner during the preceding twelve months, 63.4% described themselves as “extremely or very happy” as compared with 44.9% of those with two to four partners. Among those who described themselves as “unhappy,” the disparity was even more noticeable: 22.4% of those with two to four sexual partners, as compared with only 9.4% of those with a single partner. The reported unhappiness level of those with two to four sexual partners (22.4%) was about equal to that of persons with zero partners (23.9%). Celibacy, it seems, involves no greater level of sexual discontent than does promiscuity. Laumann and his colleagues lay special emphasis on the benefit of single-partner sex when the partner in question is a spouse: “Having one sex partner is more rewarding in terms of physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction than having more than one partner, and it is particularly rewarding if that single partner is a marriage partner.”[21] In layman’s terms: Monogamy is sexy. The researchers explain that a person committed to a long-term partnership has greater incentive and opportunity to learn how to please the partner than someone in a short-term relationship.[22]

    If promiscuity is bad, or at least worse than monogamy, then that does not necessarily mean that celibacy is good. What could be good about sexual abstinence? What arguments support it? First, one must dismiss the notion that celibate persons are somehow nonsexual. Since sexuality is not merely a genital act, but a mode of personal existence, no one could become nonsexual without ceasing to be either a man or a woman. Celibate people have simply chosen to direct and to express their sexuality in a nongenital way. The poet and essayist Kathleen Norris has written recently of her friendships with “wise old monks and nuns whose lengthy formation in celibate practice has allowed them to incarnate hospitality in the deepest sense. In them, the constraints of celibacy have somehow been transformed into an openness that attracts people of all ages, all social classes. They exude a sense of freedom.”[23] Norris recounts how some younger monks astonished an obese and homely college student when they listened to her with just as much interest as her pretty roommate. Few men would act similarly. Celibacy is thus not a private spiritual attainment, as both Catholics and non-Catholics have often imagined, but rather a form of service to others. “When you can’t make love physically,” says Norris, “you figure out other ways to do it.”[24] Friendship, in the fullest sense of the word, plays a major role in the lives of most celibate people. They are good friends and have good friends.

    The nongenital sexuality that is embodied in celibacy can be a countercultural force. Sarah Hinlicky, in her intriguing article “Subversive Virginity,” argues that promiscuity is an ineffective strategy for female empowerment. She rejects the idea that a woman must engage in sex in order to gain control over men, and that a refusal to have sex puts her in the grip of male domination. “That kind of gender-war sexuality,” she writes, is “a set-up for disaster, especially for women ... The pretense that aggression and power-mongering are the only options for female sexual success has opened the door to predatory men.” Describing her own commitment to premarital virginity, she adds: “It is very simple, really: no matter how wonderful, charming, handsome, intelligent, thoughtful, rich, or persuasive he is, he simply cannot have her. A virgin is perfectly unpossessable.”[25] It is no accident that the singles’ bars are often referred to as “meat markets.” That is a coldly accurate perception of the way that men and women bid for one another’s bodies. Celibacy subverts this whole barter economy of love for sex, and sex for love, among restless and lonely people. Celibacy means this: I will not allow my body to be exploited for another person’s pleasure, nor will I exploit their body for my pleasure. I am not “for sale,” not to be bought with promises of pleasure, charming words, or hopes of a future commitment. I will intimately share my body only with someone who is already pledged to me irrevocably.

    About three years ago, I was the unwilling partner to a divorce, and some months after the final papers arrived I encountered a lovely woman who, as they say, made herself available to me. When I refused her, Dora (not her real name) was not easily rebuffed. I continued to have unsolicited phone calls of seductive intent and even a surprise visit at my university office while I was conducting a tutorial on Christian spirituality--a memorable experience, to be sure. Within a week, the harrassment subsided, and as I gained some distance on the experience I could see why it was important for me to have acted as I did. Dora was attractive, intelligent, well-educated, sociable, and, I think, profoundly lonely. Only a few months before we met, while riding in a car with her fiancé, she had been in a freeway accident that sent the vehicle hurtling on its side, and after Dora extricated herself from the wreckage and ran for help, the automobile exploded, instantly killing her beloved. Although it was not at first apparent when I met her, she was still grieving. She wanted a replacement man, a surrogate for the deceased. During our one night out on the town, she took me to the harborside restaurant that she had frequented with her fiancé. The whole evening felt scripted, except that she knew the script and I did not.

    I have included this intimate vignette because it speaks to the question: Why not take advantage of sexual opportunities outside of marriage? This is a question that weighed on me during the phone calls from Dora. Her words and actions were very enticing. Yet I could not escape the feeling--almost a physical sensation at times as she spoke to me--that there was something terribly wrong about being involved with her. Perhaps it was my underlying sense of her extraordinary neediness and vulnerability, and my repugnance at the thought that I should take advantage of that. If I did this, what other things would I begin to do? What sort of person would I eventually become? Perhaps it was also the recognition that the relationship had no future, that it would not become something permanent. If I continued to see Dora then the relationship would become sexual, and I should be purchasing immediate pleasure at the price of a heart-wrenching breakup down the line. Her charms would captivate me and make it difficult later to leave her. In the end, the decision to break off contact with Dora was a compound of ethical conviction (not to harm her by using her for my pleasure) and practical prudence (not to seek a short-term pleasure that conflicted with long-term self-interest).








IN the best of all possible worlds, all who desire marriage and sexual fulfillment will have the partners they desire and need when they desire and need them. In Dr. Pangloss’s domain, there is never a need to defer pleasure. We have the sexual equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where every impulse receives immediate and amazing gratification. It goes without saying that this world does not exist, although the twentieth-century mythographers of free love attempted to create such a place in faroff Samoa or in a coming eschaton wherein the sexually liberated will inherit the earth. In the world of my friend the Hollywood screenwriter, life is a mixed bag. There is good and there is bad, and behind every pain and every pleasure, the opposite may soon be in store for us. What makes this approach to life so attractive to many of us is its affirmation of untrammelled self-expression--among the highest ideals of contemporary culture. At the end of the day, each one can croon along with Frank Sinatra: I did it my way. Right or wrong, I made my own choices and either enjoyed or endured the consequences.

    In the world of the Catholic brother or sister in holy orders, both marriage and sexual fulfillment have been renounced in favor of a higher good. To the extent that those in religious life are faithful to their vows, their very existence testifies against the culture’s obsession with immediate gratification. And this is good. This is also why the popular media so frequently mocks them, and slyly insinuates that such persons are hypocrites, that no one can possibly live a fully celibate life, that celibacy is destructive of bodily and mental well-being, and so forth. Historically, Americans have a venerable tradition of skepticism regarding the celibacy of those in holy orders. During a time of rising anti-Catholic sentiment, there appeared Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures from the Hotel Dieu Nunnery (1834), a book that purported to be an ex-nun’s exposé of sexual wrongdoing in the convent. In fact, the book was a forgery commissioned by a number of New York Presbyterians.[26] They cast aspersions on celibacy because they thought it would score them some Protestant propaganda points. The media today do the same because celibacy does not jibe with the theory that our sexual urges cannot be denied or diverted. It can be embarrassing to meet a person who really is sexually self-controlled.

    Recently, I have rediscovered the biblical passages that speak of waiting on God. Last year, I heard a friend present a Lenten homily on this theme, and as she cited the texts and commented on them, I sensed that God was speaking to me through her. My eyes moistened. Her words were a confirmation of God’s care for single people who live with unfulfilled desires. “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord” (Ps 31:24). “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps 130:6). “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?’ ... Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isa 40:27, 31). To wait on God is no small thing. It is enough to make even a time of celibacy seem worthwhile.

 Michael J. McClymond is Assistant Professor of American Religion at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Encounters With God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (1998).

[1] 1 Graham Heath, The Illusory Freedom: The Intellectual Origins and Social Consequences of the Sexual “Revolution” (London: William Heinemann Medical Books, 1978), 1-2.

[2] George Thomas Kurian, Datapedia of the United States 1790-2000: America Year by Year (Lanham, MD: Bernan, 1994), 12.

[3] Steve Tyler, lead singer of “Aerosmith,” quoted by John Colapinto, “Heroin,” Rolling Stone, 30 May 1996, 16.

[4] Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Youth for Western Civilization (New York: William Morrow, 1928), 14.

[5] Ibid., 98.

[6] Ibid., 104-8.

[7] Edwin McDowell, “New Samoa Book Challenges Margaret Mead’s Conclusions,” New York Times, 31 January 1983, 1; quoted in E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 20.

[8] (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). Freeman has also added to this critique a sequel, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999).

[9] Freeman, Fateful Hoaxing, 143-4.

[10] 10 Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa, 221-2, 232, 236-7, 241-3.

[11] Heath, The Illusory Freedom, 15-6, citing Havelock Ellis, My Life (London: Heinemann, 1940), 68, 79, 263, 519.

[12] Heath, The Illusory Freedom, 16.

[13] Cochran, Mosteller, Tukey, and Jenkins, Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Washington: American Statistical Association, 1954), and Lewis Terman, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male: Some Comments and Criticism,” Psychological Bulletin 45 (1948), 455, both cited in Jones, Degenerate Moderns, 101.

[14] “Kinsey’s sampling design, essentially volunteer or purposive in character, failed to meet even the most elementary requirements for drawing a truly representative sample of the population at large” (Edward O. Laumann, et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994], 35, cf. xxviii-xxix).

[15] Heath, Illusory Freedom, 61-2; citing Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, 327.

[16] Jones, Degenerate Moderns, 87.

[17] Cornelia Christenson, Kinsey: A Biography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), 6-8; cited in Jones, Degenerate Moderns, 96-7.

[18] Jones, Degenerate Moderns, 88.

[19] E. W. Burgess and P. Wallin, Courtship, Engagement and Marriage (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1953), Table 40, 363, and 370. The specific figures were that 79.6% of wives without previous sexual experience always or usually achieved orgasm, as compared with 82.4% of those who had sexual experience with their husband or with other men. Cited in Health, The Illusory Freedom, 60-1.

[20] 20 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, “Report of Working Party on Unplanned Pregnancy” (1972), cited in Heath, The Illusory Freedom, 61.

[21] Laumann, et al., Social Organization, 365.

[22] Laumann, et al. offer this reflection, which is directly pertinent to the issue of promiscuity: “While it might be nice if one could experience the breadth of sexual pleasures that might be out there with many partners and at the same time enjoy the satisfaction and pleasure that come from a long-term carefully nurtured sexual partnership, it looks like one cannot have it both ways. A choice must be made. The reality seems to be that the quality of the sex is higher and the skill in achieving satisfaction and pleasure is greater when one’s limited capacity to please is focused on one partner is the context of a monogamous, long-term partnership” (Social Organization, 365).

[23] Kathleen Norris, “Celibate Passion,” Christian Century, 20-27 March 1996, 331.

[24] Ibid., 333, 331.

[25] Sarah E. Hinlicky, “Subversive Virginity,” First Things, October 1998, 15.

[26] Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religion and Religions, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1992), 506



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