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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24 thoughts on “The challenge of drawing “the line”

  1. “I craved authentic memoirs of LGBT people who had run the race and found life within a celibate vocation.” Me, too! Recommendations?

    • Hi Melinda. One of the best that Lindsey has found is “My Song is Of Mercy” by Fr Matthew Kelty. It’s part memoir, part a collection of sermons, and an essay written at life’s twilight. Throughout the entire book, it seems clear (to Lindsey) that Fr Matthew was incredibly comfortable in his own skin and could discuss LGBT issues within organic contexts of his sermons. For example, he made an explicit reference to the AIDS Quilt in one All Souls’ Day sermon in the 80s when the disease was rampant and shared his experience caring for people who suffered.

  2. I think this is a very insightful and helpful post, not just for people pursuing celibacy, but for anyone pursuing chastity. I think that “lines” can be helpful in some circumstances, but overall I quite agree. In Christian circles, we are too often taught, either explicitly or by osmosis that we have fulfilled the demands of chastity if we are a) in a heterosexual relationship and b) we don’t touch each other’s genitals until after the wedding. But it is certainly possible to be lusting after, using and generally objectifying a person without having anything that typically counts as “sex.” Instead we ought to be teaching people to pursue genuine chastity, which I don’t have a short definition of, but which seems to involve a far more complete approach to the object of our affection. Anyway, that’s probably just a restatement of your post, when all I really needed to say was “Great post!”

    • Thanks, Paul! We hope you will keep visiting us and reading. We really appreciate your raising the issue of chastity. It’s not only LGBT Christians who often try to draw these artificial lines on what counts as sex, but it’s a problem for many Christians in general.

  3. I’ve recently decided to start down this path myself. As I continue to learn about myself, openly accept things about myself and reach for a higher standard of close relationships, I feel it is my duty to not only myself but to whomever else I may become involved with to focus more on the mental aspect of a relationship and not so much the physical facet. I find that I move swiftly from one relationship into the next, never allowing myself time to heal or grow. As a result, I feel as though I did not know myself well at all. I was conforming to whoever I was around and my very identity became circumspect. Everything from the type of music to which I would listen to the programs I chose to watch on TV was decided by that other person. Not me. After my last relationship ended a couple weeks ago, I decided to take a hard look at myself. I discovered that I am a mosaic of little bits and pieces I have carried forward from my past relationships. I let others define me. I resolved to stay celibate until I really know myself. Celibacy, whether in a relationship or single, can be an empowering thing. The notion that we can turn something innocent into a sexual act is somewhat concerning to me, though. However, I understand it. Isn’t that why women are more likely to have emotional affairs than physical ones? Women have a deep intrinsic need for mental stimulation and emotional involvement. While becoming extremely close to another person without physical contact is not a sexual act, it can begin to give the desired effect that one would receive from sex: a sense of closeness, openness, shedding every layer of our being and bearing ourselves to another person. Emotional involvement can definitely become a catalyst for those feelings of intimacy. In the real world, sex is a biological process for the continuation of life. It’s everything else that really matters.

    • Hi Josie, thanks for your comment. We appreciate your observation that people need to spend time getting to know themselves. Self-awareness is an essential part of being able to discern one’s calling.

      Many people will generalize and say that men are drawn to physical intimacy and women are drawn to emotional intimacy. We think some of this generalization may come to cultural conditioning that encourages men to disconnect from their emotions. Studies of male friendship show that men are just as likely to desire close emotional connection with their closest friends:

      We look forward to hearing more from you!

  4. As a naive, silly, straight chick, I have been curious how the two of you navigate your relationship. Considering I never dated before I met the man I married, so I didn’t have a lot of personal experience with relationships. I’ve always been curious how others navigate theirs. So this post, and the entirety of your blog so far has enlightened me in relationships in general. I enjoy hearing about others experiences, and they two of you seem to be very happy, and doing a pretty great job! The way choose to navigate your relationship with each other is more conscious, more thought through than others, with the intent to be happy with yourselves and each other. I think more people, gay, straight, what-have-you, need to make more of a conscious effort to think about what they want, in order to find what’s best for themselves and the person they’re with. 🙂

  5. This certainly seems like a much more respectful, grace-filled and actually sensible path towards celibacy than that advocated by many in the church (the “list of rules” approach). I’m curious, do you find that people in church/life in general attempt to define “the rules” for you, or interrogate you on whether you are fulfilling “the rules” as they see them? I ask because I was once asked to be celibate in order to continue with the work I was doing in a particular church, and the curate there had a whole set of rules she wanted us to follow (pretty much nothing was “allowed” apart from holding hands, “because straight female friends might do so”). Have you experienced a “policing” of your relationship, a set of expectations so that you are considered “good enough” at celibacy to merit a place in church? If so, how do you negotiate your approach to celibacy with those who have this very “black and white” approach?

    • Forgive our slightly scattered reply. We hope there’s some good food for thought below:

      Our general approach has been to maintain ownership of celibacy’s definition. When many married people think about celibacy, they default back to their experiences before they were married. Before they were married, they likely experienced great temptation relative to having sex with their spouse.

      One thing that we have been able to tell people in leadership is that we desire to live fully into the church’s teachings in every area of our lives. This statement helps move the conversation away from a single legalism into a more holistic framework.. For people who are particularly legalistic about the concept of celibacy, we recommend shifting the conversation to the topic of chastity. Many people don’t realize that chastity is something required of all Christians, regardless of their state in life.

      When it comes to the very specific issue of policing, we haven’t yet had to face that directly as a couple. Our general approach to particularly invasive questions is to redirect them back at the questioner. “Would it be appropriate for me to ask you about your sex life in that level of detail?” Typically the answer is no. For us, the issue of policing indicates a profound lack of respect and highlights the double-standard applied to LGBT individuals.

  6. Thank you for being so honest and open. I have been a Christian for sooo many years and have both straight and LGBT friends. I can honestly say that I handled the “religious” aspect of our relationships by totally ignoring it (I have such a fear i will unintentionally hurt someone with a misinformed remark). I can see I should have been embracing that angst with dialogue and honest understanding. I plan on following your blog and I am thankful for your courage and strength.

    • Hi Kay, in this post I was trying to advance an argument why we do not use “lines” to define our celibacy. We feel called by God to cultivate a celibate vocation, which requires a more holistic approach.

  7. excuse my enthusiasm but why haven’t I heard of this before? This is freaking amazing! Not the difficult drawing the lines part but the celibate same sex relationship. We shouldn’t be alone. I was just talking to a friend about that the other day. There are too many same sex attracted people living on their own and this is a wonderful way to pursue intimacy with someone you care about. I’m sure I will come down off cloud nine once reality slaps me in the face but this kind of arrangement seems hopeful for the right people. as you said ” 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. ” thanks for the fresh perspective, I am enjoying your posts.

    • Thanks for your comment. We’re glad that our blog is giving you food for thought.

      I think many reasons why people overlook the possibilities of celibate partnership concern the assumption that celibacy = singleness. Many Christian traditions lack the exemplars of celibates living together, enjoying different degrees of connection.

      For my part, I’d exercise a bit of caution before recommending a celibate partnership to all individuals who experience same-sex attraction. I think there are some “first tasks” that need to be attended to such as developing a positive theology of marriage and celibacy, cultivating the affective and spiritual maturity necessary to help people choose celibacy, and creating an environment that promotes healthy integration of sexuality in everyone (and especially within the LGBT population as so often these sexualities get marginalized). Without laying the groundwork necessary to help people choose a life-affirming celibacy, then I think well-meaning folks might inadvertently place LGBT Christians amid significant temptation and spiritual obligation.

      We’re glad to have you among our readership, and we look forward to seeing you share your thoughts in the comments!

      • I appreciate your words of caution. I agree we have to be careful and honest about what would constitute ongoing temptation in our lives as opposed to a rich relationship which involves commitment, affection and closeness. To me this is a possibility and I am looking forward to hearing more about how you live that out.

        • We’d agree that this kind of relationship is a definite possibility for some people. The question should always be first approached in prayer. May God bless you on your journey.

  8. First of all, I love reading your blogs! You both are talented writers.

    I read one of your blogs earlier this week. I posted the link on my Facebook. My friend texted me and told me that she skimmed your blog and then we started talking about how people should wait to have sex until they’re in a marriage. I told her, “I don’t think I can wait.” After some dialogue, I’ve learned that if we are tempted to do something, we are supposed to flee. It is too hard for us to fight.

    Like Sarah, I have my struggles too. I like drinking a lot. I would go to a bar and drink alone. But it isn’t good for me. I kept telling myself, “I only would order one.” But I ended up being drunk. I thought I could control how much I consume alcohol. I thought I was a superwoman. After some experiences, I realized I need to stop going to a bar alone.

    It is too hard for us to fight. It is hard for me to stop drinking at a bar. I just couldn’t stop. Like alcoholics, they have to quit drinking. We have to stop fighting. We also have to realize that it is liberating to not fight. I always told myself, “It isn’t good but it’s ok because I feel relaxed” I was rationalizing everything I did in the bar. It was crazy, but after some soul searching, I feel more free because I decided to stop going to a bar.

    That’s why I don’t understand how those couples who are called to celibacy could do it on their own. It’s so easy for non married people to have sex only if they have the house to themselves. They may not have no place to go. They are constantly deal with their temptations everyday.

    I understand this concept, “It is Gods job to search people’s heart.” I think it’s a good concept, but if we want to honor God, we have to stop fighting. I don’t know if you or Sarah fight constantly. I don’t know if you both have a low sexual drive, but I hope that you both don’t have to fight so hard. It would be like a prison, I think.

    I know I’m naive about this, but I would like to get some understanding about this concept. I mean it is too hard for me to stop drinking alone. But if you both feel it’s ok to fight, then can you explain us how you think it’s worth it? How can you deal with temptation?

    • Hi Katie. Thanks for your comment here. We’re glad to know that you’re reading our blog, sharing it with your friends, and participating in conversation with us here. We’re sorry we fell a bit behind in responding to comments.

      The purpose of my post here was not to say that lines are entirely useless. As you have indicated, some lines are very important for specific individuals. Given what you shared about your drinking habits, you might consider drawing a line of “Not hanging out in a bar.” It’s reasonable given that hanging out in a bar can lead to drinking to excess. However, I rarely experience addiction of any kind. If someone were to tell me, “Christians cannot go into bars.” then I’d consider that to be over the top. Every person has boundaries to help them in tough situations.

      When it comes to sex, so many people look for that magic line where it’s either definitely sex (and therefore out of bounds) or guaranteed to lead to sex (and therefore should be avoided). Yet that line is very individualized and can even depend on the circumstance.

      We do feel called to a celibate way of life, and we’ve been blessed in sharing our lives with others. Neither one of us is asexual. Over the course of getting to know each other and living together, we’ve been able to figure things out organically in a way that works for us. We will likely deal specifically with the issue of temptation in a future post.

    • I have not heard of that book and will need to look it up. Thanks for the recommendation! -Lindsey

  9. ”[Yeah, just imagine an American’s reaction to someone saying anything with a strong English accent….]” this made me laugh and laugh this morning – do we really have that affect on the Amercians?! 😀 Love this post. You two are so excellent at bringing a clear word that’s easy to understand and apply. I love you! And I loved the ”its God’s job” comments – so true. Thank you. A nice start to the day xxx

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