by Elizabeth Abbott
My book A History of Celibacy describes a colorful world of celibates — saints, prisoners, eunuchs, schoolteachers, Vestal Virgins, nuns, priests and Olympians — but the most persistent questions I'm asked by readers concern my personal decision to adopt celibacy as a way of life. When A History of Celibacy first appeared in Canada in 1999, even my publishers were amazed by the frenzy of interest that propelled it onto bestseller lists; inadvertantly, amid all our society's sexually suggestive ads and assumptions, I'd touched a nerve.
When I began my research, I was not celibate. Indeed, I had no more contemplated becoming so than I would have considered killing someone to research a book about murder. For six years, I researched and reviewed countless books, manuscripts and binders overflowing with information about such notable celibates as Ovid, Mahatma Gandhi, Florence Nightingale and Dr. Harvey Kellogg, who invented Corn Flakes as a blandly healthful sex-drive suppressant. Still, it never occurred to me that this had anything to do with my life. In fact, I used to jokingly refer to my book as The Dry Season.
And then, at last, I sat down and began to write — a lonely, all-encompassing process that further immersed me in the material. It was during the summer, when the heat and solitude heightened my own longings. I wrote that first summer in the haven of a friend's sunroom, shaded by centuries-old trees overhanging a garden. In the background, an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, Hildegard of Bingen, Gregorian chants, baroque and gospel steadied and uplifted me. The images I described, analyzed and evaluated every day began to take over my imagination.
It was then, three years ago in that sunroom, that I decided to become celibate.
I was sitting at my computer keyboard, staring out into the garden, and thinking about all the celibate women through history, really trying to get into their skins. I was trying to relate to them, to understand what they got out of being celibate. Often, it was the civil and legal rights previously denied them; women with whom men had no prospect of having sex seemed to hold a special place in many cultures. Melania, for instance, who lived in early Christian times, was a confident and wealthy woman who made a vow of celibacy in mid-marriage — also giving up her jewelry and finery — and forced her husband to accept it. She banded together with other ascetic virgins, travelling around North Africa and teaching other women her way of life, eventually founding an anti-patriarchal, all-female commune.
As I learned more about Melania and other women in history, like Florence Nightingale and Rome's Vestal Virgins, I began to wonder about myself. What might I get out of living a celibate life? Well, I thought to myself, you're divorced and haven't had sex for a couple of years, and you've gotten through it day by day. If you simply accepted your celibacy, you would be so much more in control, so much less tentative. I began to see celibacy as a way of lifting the constraints of my life, like long-term plans about where and how to live and spend my time and who I could spend it with.
At middle age, with a twenty-four-year-old son, I have already known the fierce joys of passion and sexual fulfillment as well as motherhood. Celibacy would mean that, for the first time, the advent of an appealing man would not disrupt the fabric of my existence, or the intensity of my friendships, including my friendships with other men.
But then I thought, I've been sexual for decades, and now, to make a definitive decision to abstain . . . I pondered the possibility for days, wondering whether one morning I'd wake up to find it nothing more than a scholarly whim. Then one morning, I arose with an incredible sense of calm. The idea seemed . . . sensible. I would never have considered celibacy if it weren't for my book, but now it seemed the idea had been floating around in my subconscious all along — and I had only to articulate it.
Melania and Florence Nightingale and the rest weren't deprived women. They weren't ugly, hideous women who couldn't get a man, or anything like that. They were attractive, vibrant and lively women, with intellectual lives and, often, children.
There's a fundamental difference between happening to be celibate and accepting one's celibacy. When you only happen to be celibate, you are still looking and waiting, tentative about life because you are not living the way you wish to be living. And women are always looking. It's almost a given: every man is a potential mate. When two gay men moved into my neighborhood recently, a friend said to me, "That's two more men I can't get."
For myself, what it comes down to is a matter of time: building a meaningful sexual relationship takes a lot of it; the process can be both rewarding and exhausting. I am less willing than I once was to make the investment — to begin again. It's not that sex is unimportant to me; in many ways, I value it far more than I did when I was younger, now that I comprehend its power.
Still, the avowedly celibate life was painful to bear at first. I longed for the gasping climaxes I once considered the height of human rapture. After all, I grew up on the cusp of the sexual revolution, when sex was tantamount to a spiritual practice. Yet, ever since I'd been born again as a Christian at the age of twelve, I'd been attracted to the notion of spiritual purity as well. I was raised in Franco-Catholic Montreal, in the shadow of St. Joseph's Oratory, a huge shrine founded by a since-canonized monk named Brother Andre Bessette. Often on the weekends, I biked up the mountain to ride the Oratory's steep gold escalators, as pilgrims crawled up the entire staired mountainside on their knees, stopping to pray the rosary on each hard riser. For decades afterward, I associated this extreme religiosity with Roman Catholicism, and celibacy with the abstemious existence of monks like Brother Andre. While I don't necessarily feel more connected to God through my celibacy and am less trustful now of religious institutions than I once was (I was inspired to write A History of Celibacy after reading about Canadian monks who, for years, had been sexually abusing young boys in their charge), contemplating celibacy throughout the ages has brought me close to its liberating possibilities. Celibacy arose as a way for women to shun the misogynistic stereotype of the depraved temptress, yet though the limitations of previous centuries clearly do not apply to me, I also feel freed.
Until a short while ago, most Western religions considered sex a "problem," stamping it out through sometimes torturous and extreme means; but today, at least in the secular world, the tables have turned. Celibacy has become the "problem." Now, the fear of not having sex is a driving force in all our lives. Young teenagers write to advice columnists, "I'm not having sex. What's wrong with me?" while grownups take pills, go to therapists, attend classes, read books and spend billions of dollars a year, in an effort to amplify their sexual lives and prevent the merest possibility of going a week without having sex.
But amid all the clamor, we've forgotten that a person does not have to feel diminished in abstaining from sex, that having an active sex life is not integral to being a healthy, sane, well-rounded person. When I began discussing my decision to become celibate with my friends, I was surprised at how few scoffed; some burst out with confidences about their own celibacy or their interest in it. In our resolutely sex-obsessed society, a quiescent but important segment of people prefer abstinence. Myself, I do feel the occasional regret — missing simple things like walking hand-in-hand on a hot, mellow summer night, looking forward to peeling off damp clothes together afterward — but life, I've found, can be a richer place when some lusts are left unrequited.