Globe and Mail

The new celibacy

Like so many things in our performance-oriented world, sex is becoming a depersonalized athletic activity. More and more men and women are choosing to forgo it altogether.

Saturday, March 6, 1999
Special to The Globe and Mail

Toronto -- In the vast secular world, a new celibacy is casting down roots. Decades after the sexual revolution stormed the puritanical primness of the postwar world, people began to take stock of its impact and to tally their losses. Women who did not feel orgasms resented having to fake them, a direct result of the revolutionary fiat that the long-neglected female must now be brought to suitable sexual pitch. Some men, previously unaccountable for their amorous performances, agonized about their inadequacies, often brought to their attention by newly critical, score-keeping, note-comparing female partners.

As these nervous lovers have remarked, sex itself seems to have become a revolutionary casualty. Certainly it has been depersonalized and relegated to the category of other athletic activities. Popular magazines routinely feature how-to articles about it: how to achieve orgasm, how to excite him/her, how to avoid the sexual blahs, how to tease, tantalize, titillate and tempt. Increasingly, sex is portrayed as a complicated, mechanical skill unrelated to tenderness, intimacy and affection.

Sex -- the New Sex, that is -- is also demanding of its participants. Like other serious competitors, they must be in superb physical condition, with nary a flaw visible to their partners. Women's bodies especially must be thin and lean, fragrant and odorless, shaven of armpit and shin, glistening, moisturized, coiffed and toned. Men are judged by slacker standards, but flabby bellies, jiggly breasts and unimpressive penises are serious flaws, sometimes even shameful or risible. No wonder that the cosmetic, diet, fitness and fashion industries reap windfall harvests, while plastic surgeons vie to lift or augment breasts, excise blubber, reshape limbs and torsos, and implant devices into small, unloved penises. No wonder, too, that anorexia stalks young women like a fiendish vampire bent on bleeding them of self-esteem, health and ultimately, the ability and desire for sexual relations.

For men and women enmeshed in these debilitating and destructive realms, where is the revolutionary liberation? The exuberant freedom? The joyous self-expression? The heartening equality? Insofar as they see sex as an arduous, risky and competitive drill rather than a loving intimacy between caring, responsive and uncritical partners, they are increasingly unmotivated to venture into the erotic encounters they would much prefer to avoid. For them, celibacy takes on the image of a haven, an escape from a chore that affords them little pleasure, considerable vexation and endless anxiety.

So, too, those (usually women) who reflect deeply about the sex that permeates their world and then decide to forgo it. The act of coitus, they conclude, ought to transcend physical boundaries to touch the heart and soul. It should be a true coupling, a manifestation of affection, tenderness and respect. If it cannot offer these essential dimensions, best forswear it as an unsatisfactory, sometimes demeaning pastime or sport.

These abstainers make a considered and purposeful choice, that at least for the short term (the New Celibacy is still too new, too recent to permit longterm analysis) vindicates their chaste lifestyle as an enrichment rather than a privation. Few of these New Celibates are virgins. They know what they are renouncing and why. They seek, and most find, empowerment and control over their lives, and more emotional passion in relationships. Some also achieve the heightened spirituality they formerly craved to erase the emptiness of their sexually active lives.

Enough New Celibates exist to speak of a trend if not a movement, and their spokesmen and advocates have begun to produce literature for and about them. Three of the best known are Gabrielle Brown's The New Celibacy: A Journey to Love, Intimacy, and Good Health (out of print, 1980), the first of this genre; Celia Haddon's The Sensuous Lie (Stein and Day, 1982)and Sally Cline's Women, Passion and Celibacy (Carol Southern Books, 1993).

Thanks in part to AIDS and much more to a stultifying surfeit of mindless sex, celibacy has emerged from clandestineness and has crossed back into the mainstream.

Statistics confirm this. In 1986, Ann Landers, North America's doyenne of mores and morals, published the results of an immense survey of 90,000 women. The world, but not Gabrielle Brown, was stunned to learn that 72 per cent of the respondents preferred "being held close and treated tenderly" to engaging in sexual intercourse. Nor were they mostly postmenopausal crones: 40 per cent were under 40 years old.

Two years later, Maclean's magazine reported that its annual Canadian "sex survey" revealed a 20-per-cent decrease in the category of the "somewhat (sexually) active," a 50-per-cent increase in those reporting less frequent sex and a 25-per-cent rise in the number who had forsworn intercourse altogether.

Penthouse magazine had earlier polled its readers for its Celibacy Survey, which revealed that celibacy was "taking on a new respectability" -- and seldom because of the lurking menace of AIDS. Less than half the men and fewer than 40 per cent of the women had chosen celibacy because they feared disease. Instead, their concerns were emotional and spiritual. Further, more than half these celibates viewed their experiences as healthy, and 74 per cent of the women and 68 per cent of the men believed they had broadened their views about the opposite sex.

These widespread and highly credible surveys bolstered Ms. Brown's view that her contemporaries could choose and practice celibacy without fear of ridicule and that celibacy had a great deal to offer them. First of all, coitus is about much more than mere physical expression. As soon as people realize that they are expecting sex to bring them something quite apart from the physical act, they may well begin to concentrate their attention elsewhere.

My own newfound celibacy, which I am so often asked about, differs slightly from most of these experiences. This is undoubtedly because I have been deeply influenced by what I learned as I reflected on and wrote A History of Celibacy, which was the major impetus for my decision. I was not a dissatisfied person seeking spiritual growth or any other sort of inner illumination. I was, as I remain, a writer and a dean of students with a fulfilling and intense professional life. When I began the final stages of this project and understood that at this juncture of my life, celibacy had a great deal to offer me, I happened to be celibate because I was not in a relationship.

From the outside, my decision changed precisely nothing. Yet to me, the transition from circumstantial to convinced celibacy felt transformative. As for so many others, in history and in the present, the element of choice made all the difference in how I experienced celibacy. Instead of burdensome and frustrating, it now felt joyous and liberating.

This is because for me, as for most women, celibacy has major tangible benefits, namely respite from the time-consuming burdens of housewifery to which even liberated professionals succumb. I am particularly grateful to be relieved of that aspect of previous relationships. No longer do I need to plan, shop for, cook, serve and clean up after a week's meals, or iron the shirts I once foolishly boasted I could do better than the dry cleaner, or answer that infernal question, "Honey, where are my socks?"

For this privilege of living according to my own rhythms and rationing my days to suit my own needs, I pay the price of sex. I could, of course, indulge in fly-by-night affairs, without having to iron a single shirt or locate even one elusive sock, but that solution is unappealing. I prefer the simpler path of renouncing sexual relations altogether. At the same time, I have several close male friends and feel even safer in our emotional intimacy now that I know nothing more complicated will evolve.

However, my personal experience is not a blanket recommendation for others. Without marriage and childbearing behind me, I know I would not find celibacy so rewarding. For me, celibacy has not meant sacrificing the incomparable joys of rocking a tiny baby, and shaping and sharing the life of this beloved flesh of my flesh. There is no question in my mind that as a younger woman, I could never have chosen celibacy.

Countless people have chosen celibacy and found it empowering, liberating and energizing. Creative contemporaries may reclaim the phenomenon and redefine celibacy in unique ways. Then, according to their own individual needs, drives and desires, they can choose either to practice or to reject it. Either way, the element of choice is crucial.

Elizabeth Abbott is dean of women at University of Toronto's Trinity College. This article is adapted from her new book, A History of Celibacy published this month by HarperCollins.

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