The challenge of drawing “the line”

A reflection by Lindsey

Many people begin exploring celibacy by trying to answer the question, “What counts as sex?” After all, if one defines celibacy as abstention from sexual acts, then it makes sense to spend time trying to figure out when a particular gesture of affection crosses the line into sex. However, I believe that actually making a celibate vocation work involves throwing this particular question out the window.

To say things a bit candidly, many definitions of sex focus on the location of the genitals. Sex can be “defined” when Part A interacts with Part B. In these definitions, sex is entirely mechanistic. <Please say this next sentence with a good deal of snark.> All the celibate person needs to do is mind his or her genitals. </snark>

I see many problems with this approach to celibacy.

Drawing “the line” at the genitals moves the line away from the heart, into a quantifiable legal idea, and asserts that one person can rightly judge another person. Celibate couples can make odd rules that seem arbitrary or artificial. “We will never look at each other’s bodies barring a reasonable expectation for medical care.” “Never touch a person in areas covered by a swim suit.” “Maintain separate bedrooms.” For some people living celibate vocations, these sort of boundaries may naturally emerge as they settle into their understanding of celibate life. For other people living celibate vocations, these sort of boundaries may hamper and impede extremely authentic expressions of caring. Can you give a person a hug if you’re trying to avoid touching areas that might be covered by a one-piece swimsuit?

Another huge problem with trying to live this way is that everything before “the line” becomes a new line. If you know the most physical contact you will have with a person is holding their hand, then “holding hands” can take on an incredibly sexual dimension. If two people “decide” that kissing is permissible, where is it permissible? Is it on the lips, on the neck, and/or on the cheek? If a person talking about a particular topic (completely unrelated to sex) is so intellectually stimulating and just flat out sexy [Yeah, just imagine an American’s reaction to someone saying anything with a strong English accent….], is that conversation topic (or style) off-limits on the grounds that it introduces “too much temptation”? It doesn’t take too terribly long to see that this sort of exercise quickly delves down to reductio ad absurdum.

From experience, I can also say that focusing on the “NO sexual ACT-ion!!!” mandate has a lot in common with the “Don’t think of a pink elephant” command. Whatever you do, do not think of a pink elephant! I said, DO NOT think of a PINK elephant!! I even put it in bold! Why did you think of a pink elephant?!? Our thoughts are entirely malleable, based on our environment. When a person trying to explore a celibate life is thinking, “Don’t have sex, don’t have sex, don’t have sex,” there’s not room to think about what one should actually do. There’s nothing in the “Avoid sexual acts” command that helps a person learn how to extend hospitality, be vulnerable, pray, or commit to a particular way of life.

I’ve previously shared that my sexual experiences came from difficulties in knowing how to navigate these lines. Even though I didn’t break any of my “rules” about avoiding sex, I didn’t have control over how my heart would connect a sexual meaning to actions previously deemed “safe.” My previous sexual education had me convinced I was in no danger of crossing “the line” into sex. In reality, that sexual education was more focused on defining sex as the action that preceded pregnancy. I don’t regret learning that sex can be complicated, consent is especially tricky in a world that constantly promotes the pursuit of sexual pleasure, and people can connect intimately in surprising ways. But I do wish someone somewhere would have told me that zooming in on mechanics can undercut the development of a healthy sexuality.

In order to discover how to live a celibate life, I had to throw the “NO SEX!” command out the window. I had to see how people actually lived a celibate life. I needed time and space to practice finding my own rhythm as a single person trying to live a celibate life. I craved authentic memoirs of LGBT people who had run the race and found life within a celibate vocation. I also had to learn to extend myself grace for the times I had shared an intimate experience with another person and unexpectedly found myself feeling like, “You know, I really think that particular thing was not aligned with cultivating a celibate vocation.”

Trying to stay on the “right” side of “the line” nearly brought about the end of me. I had spiritual guides and mentors telling me that if was intentionally deepening a relationship with another person, I needed to look out for any signs of developing inappropriate desires. My job was to search my heart to see if there was any offensive thought within me…. and so on, and so forth….

That kind of living requires navel gazing of the worst sort, especially when any failure on my part would justify God excluding me from participating in the life of His kingdom. I’d contend that no one can live life if they are under that sort of pressure. Equally, I’d say it’s heresy. It’s heresy because it’s GOD’S JOB to search our hearts. It’s GOD’S JOB to guide our paths. And it’s GOD’S JOB to prune off the various parts of our life that are not pleasing to him.

And I’ve found a great deal of release as I’ve asked God for His help in trying to discern what my celibate vocation looks like.

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