Celibacy is not for everyone, and that’s good news for the survival of the human species. But for some—who may be religious or just world-weary, and whose chastity may be a short- or long-term commitment—celibacy is a very desirable state. This map leads us from Saint Paul to purity balls to discover the appeal of abstinence.
Nonbelievers may think religious celibacy—refraining from sexual relations to serve a spiritual ideal—wouldn’t be long for this world. But the faithful have practiced celibacy for millennia, mostly in the Catholic Church, the only organized religion that still demands chastity of its clergy. The devout believe celibacy on earth mimics life in heaven, where, according to the Bible (Matthew 22:30), we “neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God,” who are not only celibate but genderless. Although suggested centuries earlier, bans on clerical sex were legislated in the early Middle Ages, in part to ensure the Church could acquire priests’ lands without interference from pesky offspring. But ignoring basic human instinct is both increasingly unpopular—the dramatic decline in new Catholic priests and nuns may reflect a distaste for celibacy—and destructive. The HBO documentary Celibacy explores the well-publicized purported consequences of clerical chastity, an epidemic of pedophilia foremost among them. Yet the film’s interviews with nuns and seminarians who are about to take their vows convey that, for some, celibacy promises sanctity. A scene of two celibate Hindu monks lathering each other in the shower implies there are many ways to satisfy fleshly appetites.
For a minority of women, there’s no sex in the city—or anywhere else. Self-prescribed chastity is an increasingly popular trend among the mostly female proponents of short-term abstinence, who extol such virtuous results as being left with more energy for other pursuits. Lady Gaga is among the celebrities who have embarked on sexual fasts. “It’s okay not to have sex.… I’m celibate, celibacy’s fine,” she once insisted, opening the door for fans to think of her signature masks and feathers as a kind of nun’s habit, and indeed she wears a (sexy) nun’s habit in the video for her song “Alejandro.”
Hephzibah Anderson, a Londoner who has made the dating rounds in New York City, wrote about her year without sex in the memoir Chastened (2009). While the religious often take a vow of chastity as a means of becoming closer to God, Anderson and other sexual fasters view abstinence as yet another path to self-improvement. “Chastity would not only remind me of the erotic rewards of delayed gratification,” Anderson writes, “but would return me to a place where I could feel I was being faithful to my own instincts.”
Catholic clergy take vows committing themselves to a life of celibacy, and millions of Christian teenagers are making a pledge to remain chaste with almost the same fervor—until marriage, that is. The pro-chastity group True Love Waits claims 3 million youths have signed a card stating, “I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” Such commitments are often sealed with a purity ring, a type of promise ring worn as a sign of chastity the way Catholic nuns traditionally wore habits, wimples and, yes, rings to symbolize their celibate marriage to Christ.
Human nature being what it is, however, the young men and women who take the chastity pledge do not usually wait for marital true love. Follow-up studies show that three out of five eventually give in to premarital temptation, and more than half of those who remain technically “chaste” engage in oral sex. Such lapses should come as no surprise. Parents, take note: Britney Spears was once an outspoken adherent of the True Love Waits movement.
The father-daughter bond has long fascinated us. Consider, for instance, Agamemnon and Iphigenia, Prospero and Miranda, King Lear and his three girls. A new trend in filial relationships is the father-daughter purity ball, a promlike affair popular in pro-chastity evangelical Christian circles, at which teenage girls pledge to remain virgins until marriage, and their dads vow to protect their daughters’ “purity of mind, body and soul.” The ceremony usually includes the presentation of a purity ring, necklace or bracelet to the girl and a key to the father to symbolically safeguard his daughter’s…heart.
The balls and the pro-chastity movement raise eyebrows for reasons besides the potential creepiness factor. Studies show that kids who make virginity pledges and slip on purity rings but still have sex are unlikely to use contraception and often engage in oral and anal sex that put them at risk of contracting STDs. Then, too, some basic questions arise. Are daughters the property of fathers who determine when they can have sexual relations? Are these teens missing out on the sexual experimentation that is part of growing up? And most important: Is virginity really the barometer of a young woman’s worth?
For Saint Paul in the first century, virginity was the way to go. Once a guy starts worrying about how to please his wife, Paul thought, he doesn’t stand a chance of devoting his life to bodily and spiritual sanctification. The apostle faced an uphill battle in the cosmopolitan, “immoral” Greek city of Corinth, famous for its temple prostitutes. But the idea caught on in the Catholic Church, where chastity is still said to liberate people from earthly cares and allow them to serve God with complete devotion.
Religion isn’t the only reason to treasure one’s virginity. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I found it politically expedient to remain a virgin (at least in name); union with an English lord could have caused internal strife, and marriage with a foreigner might have jeopardized her country’s independence. Tim Tebow, the hunky, vocal Christian NFL quarterback, has earned one big perk in preserving his virginity: Virgin Atlantic Airlines will let him fly for free until he cashes in his V-card. He should think twice before jeopardizing that benefit. As Saint Jerome said in the fourth century, “Though God is almighty, He cannot restore a virginity that has been lost.”
Sex has been a minefield ever since Eve convinced Adam to eat the apple. “Try it, it’s okay,” she said, and he did, disobeying God and forsaking sexual innocence. So began the story of mankind, and today teens are the ones getting mixed messages. “Say no to sex” is the mantra of abstinence-only sex education, promoting virginity until participants are ready for monogamous marriage. Critics of abstinence-only approaches cite the dangers of not teaching kids about contraception and safe sex, major components of comprehensive sex education. Nor does abstinence-centered education consider kids who may not want a traditional marriage.
As Adam and Eve also taught us, it’s hard to resist temptation. Studies have linked abstinence-only education to an increased rate of STDs, because kids aren’t taught about safe sex, and research shows this curriculum is no more effective than comprehensive sex education in preventing pregnancy. But something’s working, whether it’s abstinence or contraception: The rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S. dropped 44 percent between 1991 and 2010. Yet in 2008, seven percent of U.S. girls between 15 and 19 years old became pregnant, the highest rate in the industrialized world. Clearly, sex educators need to hone a message that really works.
When it comes to relationships, abstinence may make the heart grow fonder—or at least make the sex better. We put ourselves on diets to get in shape, so why not fast to improve our sex life? Proponents of abstinence education promise a big wedding-night payoff as they tout premarital celibacy. And for the older crowd, therapist and author of Sex Detox Ian Kerner says couples who experience the “thrill of the chaste” and engage in occasional 30-day sexual fasts will reap their reward in the bedroom.
Even so, virginity of any duration is a tough sell in our sexually liberated times. The late Helen Gurley Brown, editor in chief of the sex-obsessed Cosmopolitan magazine, once observed, “Good girls go to heaven, and bad girls go everywhere,” and director Woody Allen reminds us, “Love is the answer, but while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions.” Medical science endorses regular, enthusiastic sex, which has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and boost the immune system. Saint Augustine of Hippo most elegantly weighed the benefits of abstinence versus indulgence in the fourth century A.D., when he wrote, “Grant me chastity…but not yet.”
The Amazons, a nation of fierce warrior women in Greek legend, used men for once-yearly copulation to produce children and then kept only the girls. Amazons are unlikely role models for modern women who enjoy sex with men, though echoes of these ancients surfaced in Cell 16, a militant feminist group based in Boston that arose during the 1960s women’s movement.
Cell 16 members trained in martial arts and promoted women’s separation from men, whom they believed incapable of making positive contributions to the feminist cause. They did not endorse lesbianism but advised long periods of celibacy—more or less reducing men to the role of a biological necessity. Cell 16 once staged a hair shearing in front of 600 onlookers to argue that men inflict a preference for long hair on women as a sign of sexiness and femininity. Spectators well versed in obscure feminist literature would have been reminded not just of the Amazons but of Herland, a 1915 novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman about a society of strong, competent, short-haired women who take sexual fasting to the extreme: There hasn’t been sex for two millennia in Herland, where reproduction occurs by parthenogenesis—Greek for “virgin birth.”