Celibate here, celibate there…

Today, the BBC asked, “Is it realistic for someone to permanently go without sex?”. I think they’ve asked the wrong question.

First, it’s important to recognise that asexual people exist, who simply don’t have any interest in sex. In an age where early marriage and many children were the norm – and variation would have been suspicious – people who were asexual would have found escape in religious orders. One of the contributors (Vishvapani) suggests:

Modern life is sexualised and individualistic, he says. People in past centuries were either married, in which case they could have sex, or celibate if they were not. Now the options are more varied.

(BBC News Magazine)

As if people were different in the past: as many studies have shown, sexual behaviour doesn’t change so much as sexual mores. People have just been able to be more honest about their sexual behaviour in the last fifty years or so. Gay people can be gay; women can be sexual; single people can have sex. This doesn’t mean any of these didn’t happen in the past.

However, I don’t consider people who are uninterested in sex to be celibate: celibacy requires a conscious decision to abstain from sexual activity and thinking; for asexual people this is no more a choice than being straight or gay.

Even those of us who are sexual aren’t sexual at the same level all of the time: our interest in sexual activity waxes and wanes depending on the weather, health, emotional context, social situation and access to willing partners. If one is not having sex because of a lack of opportunity or temporary lack of desire, this is not celibacy, it’s just bad luck, abstinence or a health problem.

So the question is: is it possible for sexual people to remain celibate? The BBC in their article note that both Roman Catholic and Buddhist celibacy includes abstention from masturbation. However, they seem to have missed out what Jesus said: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, NIV). In other words, a successful celibate, at least in the Catholic tradition, should not only abstain from sexual activity with other people and with themselves, but should not even entertain sexual thoughts.

And for me, that’s where the entire expectation falls down: if you are a sexual person, regardless of how chaste you are, you still find people sexually attractive. It’s how we’ve evolved: we need our genes to survive to the next generation, therefore we seek to distribute them in ways which ensure this. This is a basic biological urge in the majority of the population.

In other words, if a person is sexual, I do not believe they can be celibate. Of course, the Church would argue that we’re all flawed, and that if offenders confess, say a couple of Our Fathers and Hail Marys then all is reset.

Then we see the arguments from the proponents:

  • “You have to fight the urges. For a lot of people it can be a daily battle, others are not so affected.” (Jimmy O’Brien, ex-priest and married man)
  • “There’s no doubt in my mind that some people are able to practice it quite happily. It may sometimes be a bit of a struggle. But the idea that biologically you can’t – that’s false.” (Vishvapani, married man)
  • “‘It’s possible when people have an inner maturity and the faith and support structures are in place.’ For him it is no different to the challenge of a husband trying to be faithful to his wife.” (Father Wang*, dean at a seminary)

I’m sure that many priests do abstain from sex, but there is plenty of evidence that many do not. David Ranan in Double Cross: The Code of Catholic Church documents the sexual “misbehaviour” of priests over time. From Pope Hormisdas begetting a son who also became a pope to Innocent X who was far from innocent with his sister-in-law, and Julius III (whose various male lovers were elevated to the college of cardinals), there are plenty of examples of consenting sexual relationships in just the papacy. Whether it’s possible or not, it’s clear many allegedly celibate persons simply aren’t.

For me, a more pressing question is whether celibacy is desirable in sexual persons. We know of many, many examples of unconsenting relationships, both between priests and women (including nuns), between priests and men (including monks and priests) and between priests and children.

The problem is that in an environment in which all sexual activity is condemned, no sexual activity is healthy, and any outlet which won’t reveal their guilty secret is going to become an outlet, however legitimate. When that – and ensuring that society doesn’t find out about how human priests are – becomes institutionalised, you have a recipe for the disasters we’ve seen.

Wang counters this:

It’s not just priests who are called by the church to be celibate, it’s everyone outside wedlock, he argues. He rejects the link, commonly made in the media, between celibacy and scandal.

“It’s not true to say that celibacy leads to sexual dysfunction or abuse. Unfortunately sexual scandals are occurring across society in various organisations, and feature married men not just celibate people.”

(BBC News Magazine)

He’s right, of course, sexual scandals *do* happen across society, in a wide range of institutions, and offences are committed by a wide range of people – male and/or female. However, outside of families, it’s vital for offenders to create a relationship of trust between themselves and their intended victims and families. Positions of respect are ideal for this: social workers, doctors, police officers, youth workers, teachers and even dodgy seventies DJs have all been implicated in sexual abuse, as have priests. The problem is that most of these institutions don’t hold themselves up as moral authorities.

In addition, outside of abuse cases, there is plenty of research which links social condemnation of sexuality with unhealthy relationships with sex and increased rates of mental health and social problems. An unhealthy obsession with sex – or not having it – is strongly correlated with behaviour that deviates from what is socially normal or acceptable.

So we start with a question as to whether celibacy is possible, to which the answer is a resounding “no” from everybody except people with a vested interest in the status quo, including arguments from them which are founded on clearly false predicates.

We have a follow up observation that not only is the answer generally considered to be “no”, but that even the proponents of celibacy are particularly successful at being celibate, but even two of the three people arguing in favour of celibacy are in fact married.

Finally, we have evidence that imposing unnatural sexual norms on people results in unhealthy responses. I’m not suggesting that all religious celibates are abusers or are even unsuccessful in refraining from sexual activity. We do however know that bad relationships with sexuality lead to unhealthy relationship with sex.

In conclusion, not only do I believe it is exceptionally rare for people to be truly celibate, I think that it’s undesirable, both in terms of a moral imperative and in terms of the effects on behaviour.

* Yes I know, unfortunate name given the subject. The Wang-Daddy also has some kind of special insight from God about what is and isn’t acceptable from True Christians: apparently “For every Christian, masturbation, sex before marriage and sex outside marriage are wrong and something you shouldn’t be doing.” So if you call yourself Christian and don’t tick those boxes, you’re deluding yourself. Or the Wangmeister is a bigot not afraid to impose his views on thousands of people who don’t agree with him. Your call!


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

2 responses to “Celibate here, celibate there…”

  1. Sarah Waldock says :

    A nice balanced summation.
    It is interesting that until the Synod of Whitby [er, 679? ish?] the Celtic Catholic church encouraged priests and nuns to marry and raise children in Christ. It was the rule of the Church of Rome which imposed celibacy.

    I’ve always found it extraordinary to consider that in a sin-fearing culture the unrighteous might breed as they chose but the supposedly Godly should fail to be permitted to rear another generation who might be supposed to be brought up in a righteous fashion [well we’ve seen the strangleholds some religions have on their children but it still seems a good idea in theory….]

    Just remember, celibacy is not hereditary.

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