Giving it up

The new cult of celibacy claims to offer an escape hatch for lovelorn, messed up women, but can not having sex really change the world we live in?

By Lily Burana

Published August 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Who hasn't gone through a period in their adult life when they thought about sex and then thought, "Eh, why bother?" There are many compelling reasons to have sex -- the need for affection, arousal, the desire to get pregnant, to get off, to get over someone by getting under someone else. Sex can be sublime and meaningful, or at the very least, something to do to pass the time. Sometimes, though, it just doesn't seem worth the effort -- either the motivations aren't clear, the feelings aren't there or the potential hurt and disappointment outweigh any potential heat-of-the-moment benefit.

Is celibacy a solution for sexual ennui and confusion?

Author Donna Marie Williams thinks so. In her book, "Sensual Celibacy: The Sexy Woman's Guide to Using Abstinence for Recharging Your Spirit, Discovering Your Passions, Achieving Greater Intimacy in Your Next Relationship," she makes a case for consciously curtailing sexual activity for better peace of mind. Not that everyone needs that. We all know that some people can just naturally balance love, sex, work, family, friendship and spiritual growth. Others, however, find that time and time again, their lives are totally eaten up by their romantic and sexual pursuits -- even when they're certain to be dead ends. Those are the people Williams is trying to reach in part because she's been there herself.

Williams, a stunning 40-ish African-American woman, is candid enough to admit, "I had no identity or sense of worth outside my male-female relationships." Without several periods of celibacy, she writes that she "could never have developed identity and self-worth within a relationship. I needed the time alone. Although I perceived celibacy as sexual famine and karmic punishment, the times alone were gold mines of opportunities to discover the real me."

Williams is hardly the lone wolf of modern celibacy -- her contemporaries include authors Wendy Shalit ("The Return to Modesty") and Wendy Keller ("The Cult of the Born-Again Virgin: How Single Women Can Reclaim Their Sexuality"). While statistics about the increase in celibacy-by-choice are sketchy at best (none of the aforementioned authors can cite a definitive study), its proponents insist that a whole lot of people are opting out of sex, and that an "underground movement" is indeed afoot.

The rise in American fundamentalism -- Jewish, Christian and Islamic -- is no doubt fueling much of the new passion for celibacy. From screaming girls at Christian rock concerts claiming they are reborn virgins to Shalit's orthodox long-skirted "refusniks," pockets of women are being touted in the media as scions of a new sexual conservativism. But what's interesting is that none of these writers comes from a religious perspective. They may admire the attitudes of certain religions toward erotic restraint but they're not practicing religious people themselves.

Is this the rise of a celibacy that defies its spiritual roots? In the past, celibacy has been a tool for transcendence to another world -- a way of getting away not only from the body but the self as well. But without its religious underpinnings, celibacy becomes a different kind of tool. For Williams it's a tool to self-knowledge; for Keller and Shalit it's a tool to make men behave until the right guy comes along. All three women argue that it is often a path to higher self-esteem.

When you consider the visibility and cultural weight that the sex-positive feminist ideology had in the early '90s, it makes sense that now women who are more inclined to show their sexual power via restraint should step up to have their say. Unlike Shalit, who in her book lapses into predictable soapbox dismissal of all those icky exhibitionist women, Williams doesn't dis her more sexually active sisters. Instead, she focuses on creating guidelines for women who wish to redirect their attention from all-consuming sexual relationships to themselves. With that goal in mind, she outlines a Dating Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Sensual Celibates.

Every woman:

Has the right to pursue love, liberty, and happiness.

Must have a strong sense of her own boundaries.

Must have the courage of her convictions.

Must respect a man's decision if he doesn't want to abstain from sex.

Has the right to forgiveness if she falls off the wagon.

Has the right to date as many men as she can manage.

Has the duty to continue her self-improvement program whether or not she is in a relationship with a man.

Much of the book follows in the same self-help vein. She offers the affirmations, quotes, exercises and personal testimony that we've come to expect in the Oprah age. She also lays out the different manifestations of contemporary celibacy -- from Ten Commandment Celibates (people who are saving themselves for marriage) to Healing Celibates (people who abstain to heal from past sexual trauma) to Technical Celibates (women who are involved with someone but refrain from actual sexual intercourse).

While such celibacy trends are largely espoused by, and aimed at, women, Williams also mentions the more elusive trend toward male celibacy. The stigma for celibate men is greater, for obvious reasons. So much of male power is equated with male sexual potency (virility, frequency and so on), that any man who is not a member of an abstaining religious order is seen as something of a social mutant if he consciously abstains. Still, Williams maintains that men can be healed by celibacy just as much as women.

"Sensual Celibacy" is the benchmark of quality counsel for the would-be celibate -- recommended reading for anyone who is considering putting away the black satin sheets and bachelor- or bachelorette-pad music for a period of erotic introspection.

Where Williams comes across as a reasonable, earthy friend, Keller, author of "The Cult of the Born-Again Virgin: How Single Women Can Reclaim Their Sexuality" sounds like a cheesy celibacy guru twittering out platitudes at a seminar held at the Red Roof Inn in hell.

Never mind that the writing in Keller's book smacks of self-important inanity ("Saying nice things about yourself and others TO yourself and others is like putting Miracle-Gro on the flowers in your soul"); her solipsism and lack of cogent thought are downright insulting.

Consider her pitch for personal responsibility and motivation. First she likens an affection-starved woman with bad sexual habits to a bum, then she extends her metaphor obscenely:

Billions of dollars are funneled into the social services every year. If the bum really, really, really wanted a place to sleep, a shower, and a warm meal, not only could he go to a shelter, but he also could choose to get free training in job skills, break the cycle of drugs or alcohol (if applicable) and find work ... The bum could choose a different life if he wanted. At any moment, he could decide his life isn't working for him and move physically to create emotional changes in his life.

Thank you for that informed, compassionate analogy, Newt.

It's unclear whether Keller advocates celibacy (or, in her terms, "being a Born-Again Virgin") for reasons of self-preservation, healing, image enhancement, being a presentable role model for your children or just holding out for the "right" man. What is clear is that she sees the world in a profoundly hierarchical way. At times, she invents an entire cosmology based on celibacy:

Different levels of varying kinds separate people on this planet. In this new millennium, we need to be very clear about the psychospiritual caste system we have collectively created. It appears that the people who are ready to honor their bodies and their hearts by choosing appropriate sexual encounters for themselves are the ones who are moving most quickly to the highest planes of existence.

In her pitch for modesty and sexual control, Keller shows scarce intellectual control, indulging in gushy New-Ageism one moment and overwrought arguments on behalf of women's liberation the next. Like Shalit, she propounds the theory (often quoting Shalit chapter and verse like a prophet) that feminism has made young women more emotionally and sexually weak than centuries of unequal treatment between the sexes. Most outrageously, Keller links women's liberation with increased sex crimes and petty harassment. "We now accept we must be afraid of rape, stalking, harassment, and in every other way used, manipulated, discarded and unloved," she writes. "We literally have created our own bed and now we lie in it."

Despite such absurd leaps in logic, Keller's loopy self-righteousness speaks to the heart of the so-called cult of the reborn virgin. Although she doesn't seem to be a Bible thumper and she never inveighs against premarital sex, she nevertheless is a missionary, even if she isn't much of a thinker. Beneath her soothing self-help salves, it's clear she wants to spread the word and build a movement. Just as feminists like Germaine Greer espoused sexual libertinism for all women, so too these moralistic proponents of celibacy push it as the best possible solution. But that's just the problem. Sex movements -- especially those aimed at curing female ills -- often seem to be more based upon the private needs and desires of their leaders than their usefulness or value to all people. Ultimately, how and when and if we have sex remain deeply private, idiosyncratic choices. They defy simple formulations of good and bad, healthy and sick, spiritual and base.

In a world of profoundly conflicting messages about -- and consequences surrounding -- female sexuality, it's easy to get frustrated and just opt out of the whole enterprise. But while celibacy may seem like a safe boat for someone in a sexual identity crisis, the problem doesn't always lie within the act -- or suggestion -- of sex itself. Identity is dynamic -- how you see yourself is most of it, but how other people see you is also, to some degree, part of who you are. Many women still feel damned if they do and damned if they don't. In some cases, perhaps the problem isn't so much sexual activity as environment. Therefore, the solution might be more a matter of positioning than abstaining. Weeding out hectoring, judgmental anti-sex jerks on the one hand or sleazy manipulators on the other might be just as effective in recovering one's dignity.

Celibacy is a perfectly valid means of sexual expression. Sometimes refusing sexual activity says more about your self-respect and sense of worth than the most extravagant erotic acrobatics. If only its advocates were so reliably eloquent. The benefits of celibacy -- focus, moral rectitude, healing -- can be all-too-easily distorted from personal choice into political platform. That, in and of itself, is a caveat to consider when deciding whether or not to Just Say No. Let the impetus be a sense of propriety, not self-righteousness.

Lily Burana

Lily Burana is the author of four books, most recently, “Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith” (W/Harper). Follow her @lilyburana

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