7 Misconceptions about Celibacy

Since starting this blog, we’ve become even more aware than we already were of how other people can misunderstand the celibate vocation. Many people have never heard of a person living a celibate life unless that person is a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As readers have been engaging with our various posts via comments and email, it has been suggested that we must be caving to religious oppression, that we are glorifying “lesbian bed death,” and that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that we are not actually living in sin…. to name a few. We understand that the call to live a celibate life in a partnership is indeed a queer calling. We knew from the beginning that people would have questions and misgivings.

We have already taken some time to answer the question, “Why celibacy?” and have made our first attempt at defining celibacy. Lindsey also talked about why defining celibacy as merely avoiding sexual acts is especially problematic. We think it would be helpful at this point to discuss some of the most common misconceptions about celibacy. Our intention in this post is to give a brief overview of these different misconceptions based on our personal experiences of celibacy, and we’ll likely expound upon these ideas further in future posts. Some of these myths have overlapping features, so please consider reading the post in its entirety as we tried to avoid repeating ourselves.

1. Celibate people deny their sexualities.

There are two main ways that celibate people treat their sexualities. Some celibate people do actively try to cut themselves off from sexual desire, treating all forms of sexual attraction and interest as a temptation that ought to be resisted. Other celibate people work to integrate their sexualities within their broader self-understandings. When a celibate person is integrating his or her sexuality, that individual can more readily embrace moments of attraction. Attraction becomes a useful orientating tool where God connects a celibate person to other people, to professional pursuits, to times of spiritual growth, or to opportunities for recreation. Both the specific instant of attraction and the underlying sexual orientation and gender identity that fuels attraction are treated as a great mystery, wherein God orchestrates the diverse relationships that enable a celibate person to live a richly connected life.

Both of us tend to be very outspoken when advocating for celibate people to pursue a pathway of integrating their sexualities. We have known far too many people harmed by the more surgical approaches, and we grieve deeply that so many “ministries” have encouraged LGBT people to adopt an approach of trying to excise their sexualities altogether.

2. Celibate people are only celibate because of oppressive, conservative religion.

We can definitely appreciate that some people feel forced into celibacy because of their religious convictions. However, nothing could be further from the truth for many celibate people. Often, celibate people who have chosen celibacy because of religious convictions feel that this decision is exceptionally life-giving. We plan to address the topic of involuntary, forced celibacy in a future post. Taking a brief look at history, we can see that religion has created pathways that allowed people (especially women) to choose to live celibate lives. It used to happen that families would marry off their daughters in arranged marriages. The rise of celibate communities gave an alternative to that reality. We may get back to that point in a future post as well. This particular misconception about celibacy also downplays the reasons why people might choose to live celibate lives. Many celibate people we have met report choosing celibacy because a celibate life has enabled them to love and serve the world differently than if they were married. They wanted that different way of life.

3. Celibacy is unnatural.

This misconception is quite paradoxical because it assumes that a “natural” vocation necessarily involves sex. It is sometimes pointed out to us that celibate communities cannot reproduce, eventually die off completely, and are therefore living exactly the opposite of how nature intended. One of the most common examples of this is the Shakers, who were once a thriving community of unmarried men, unmarried women, and adopted children, but have vanished almost completely in the modern world.

The claim celibacy is unnatural places the natural order of reproduction as humanity’s highest concern. However, a population of people cannot die off because a fraction of people are called to live celibate lives. If a person places an emphasis on the “natural” order of reproduction to decide what sort of relationships are permissible, then we’d like to know if and how they think about contraception and sexually active same-sex relationships. We would especially like to challenge those people who use a liberal sexual ethic to say that celibacy is unnatural because, all too frequently, many people holding a more conservative sexual ethic are quick to decry sexually active same-sex relationships as unnatural. We would venture a guess that many who dismiss celibacy on the basis of its “unnaturalness” would not say the same about homosexuality.

4. A loving God would not ask people to be celibate.

Many people, both Christians and critics of Christianity, have somehow adopted the notion that if a person feels called by God to be celibate, then that call is inherently oppressive. A lot of people think that God’s calls come in the form, “If you don’t do (insert kind of call here), then you’ll die.” In this paradigm, everything God might call a person to do would be experienced as oppression.

In particular, once people start talking about a call to celibacy, some also seem to conflate understandings of different kinds of love. Some assume that a celibate person is incapable of experiencing and expressing eros and simultaneously neglect how God might provide opportunities for experiencing and expressing agape within the context of celibacy. These people conclude that because celibacy does not provide an outlet to express eros, then a God who is love would never call a person to a celibate vocation…. or that God only calls people to a celibate vocation if those people are not particularly inclined towards eros.

However, God has infinite perspective on what will bring abundant life to every person who finds himself or herself in Christ. With regard to those living a celibate vocation, many celibate people experience a profound sense of loving connection to the world. Elder Porphyrious devotes an entire chapter in his book Wounded by Love (so named in honor of the mythical pelican who pierces herself in order to nurture her young) to the experience of Divine eros. One way the two of us think about the role of eros in the celibate life is that the Divine eros overflows and makes radical hospitality possible.

5. Celibate people are afraid of sexual intimacy.

While this misconception is not without basis because some celibate people do become so in order to avoid having sex, the majority of celibate people are not afraid of sexual intimacy. Based upon when and where we frequently hear this objection to celibacy, we think that most people who promulgate this particular misconception are sexually active themselves and do not have personal experience with living a celibate vocation. Some sexually active people may see their sexual lives as adding a necessary spark to other aspects of their lives and will go to great lengths to preserve their ability to have and enjoy sex. When a person is making a significant investment in preserving his or her sexual life, then the presence of a celibate person could be perceived as threatening.

Many organizations that are a part of the ex-gay movement also rely on this myth to challenge an LGBT person’s statement of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Ex-gay organizations can be quick to say that gay people are simply afraid of having sex with a person of the opposite sex, gay people are trying to cope with a history of traumatic sexual experiences, and gay people are unable to deal with having experienced other types of negative sexual encounters.

At this juncture, we think it’s worth mentioning that celibate people choose to become celibate at different stages in their lives. Part of the misconception that celibate people are afraid of sex comes from the assumption that all celibate people are virgins. This assumption simply does not hold true when considered against verifiable evidence. Many people choose celibacy much later in life than many people might expect. For example, there is a well-established tradition of widows and widowers embracing a celibate, monastic life after their spouses repose.

6. Celibate people judge sexually active people.

People choose celibacy for a plethora of reasons. Those reasons may or may not include the idea that sexual activity (same-sex or otherwise) is inappropriate. Even if a person’s choice to embrace celibacy is partly motivated by a belief that sexual activity is inappropriate, that does not mean he or she is intrinsically judging another’s sexually active relationship. Many celibate people affirm the role that marriage can play in drawing people towards God and towards a holy way of living.

7. Celibate people are asexual or have low sex drives. For such people, celibacy is easy.

This misconception actively defines celibacy as merely the absence of sex. People who share this misconception are often looking for some sort of mechanism that makes it possible for an individual to live life without having sex, which many believe to be an impossible reality. However, this misconception makes a blanket assumption about the kind of person who chooses celibacy without being informed by the experience of celibate people. As we have talked with many different monastics about the intersection of celibacy and sexuality, almost all of them have remarked that they expect to navigate various kinds of sexual attractions and desires until they have been lying in their grave for a few days.

Both of us know a significant number of people trying to live celibate lives. At our recent workshop at the Gay Christian Network Conference, all of our nearly forty attendees agreed that celibacy is hard. We think it’s worth pointing out that most people we know who feel especially called and gifted towards marriage would be equally inclined to say that marriage is hard.

In conclusion, we’ve tried to expound a bit on 7 misconceptions about celibacy and explain why they are misconceptions. We hope this post was helpful for you in thinking about celibacy and encourage you to share your reactions, questions, and feedback in the comments. We appreciate your readership!

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17 thoughts on “7 Misconceptions about Celibacy

  1. Alot of these misconceptions are rooted in a nuanced definition of celibacy that is used by some of the older (Catholic and Orthodox) Christian communities. One of the primary tasks of theologians, articulation of the Faith, has not been met (in at least my own tradition) for a very long time. Many of these nuances in definitions are getting lost in attempts for centuries to paint Theology as a black and white science in which anything that does not conform to traditional conceptions of Truth is immediately deemed “unTruth”.

    Reality is much messier than can be informed by such a dogmatic fundamentalism. Critical thought is becoming less and less an important and foundational skill for our elementary educators, whether relegious or secular, to teach. For that, we as a society is lessened. Lists like this, in areas of life, will become more and more commonplace.

    • Hi Ed, thanks for reading. Celibacy does require more nuanced thinking than a simple black-and-white. It’s important to form people in their Christian faith so that everyone can participate in the life of the Church fully.

  2. I like the concept of integrating one’s sexuality . “God orchestrates the diverse relationships that enable a celibate person to live a richly connected life.” Why doesn’t the church talk more about this? It is beneficial even to straight people who are single and facing chastity for long periods of time. And I agree, “We have known far too many people harmed by the more surgical approaches, and we grieve deeply that so many “ministries” have encouraged LGBT people to adopt an approach of trying to excise their sexualities altogether.” That statement is so true. This is an ongoing issue which is so hard to talk about to people about.

    • Hi Kathy! Thanks for the comment. Lindsey first came across the idea of integrating one’s sexuality while reading the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church: “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” (para 2337). We agree that a great many people could be encouraged by discussing chastity more holistically.

  3. I would agree with your statement, Mr Lorden. Currently I’m reading a book on Dogmatics which employs such ridged terminology and pure logic rather than see theology’s organic foundation in the complexity of sinful existence. In my tradition, our theologians articulate the faith in a rather divided fashion between frozen confessionalism and not so frozen confessionalism. Caught in the crossfires are those who, like myself, hold our doctrine as contitutive to our faith in so far as it is entangled with the concrete existence of contemporary life. I do applaud your effort in informing the church about such a vocation. I certaintly had a variety of misconceptions about it.

    • Hi Sergio, thanks for your kind comment here. I do think there’s some natural tension in Christian traditions trying to proclaim a robust “revealed truth” while remaining open to the Holy Spirit in the here and now. It’s a difficult pastoral matter, indeed. I’m glad that this post was helpful in understanding the celibate vocation. –Lindsey

  4. A friend at work showed me this blog. I think it’s really interesting. Just curious: what kind of people say all these judgmental things about celibacy? I never would have thought of any of them, but obviously they’re coming from somewhere. Even my coworker who showed me the blog was claiming that celibacy is unnatural!

    • Hi Erica, thanks for the question. We’ve encountered these ideas about celibacy from a wide range of people. Many people are quick to denounce celibacy because they do not know many people who are celibate. Additionally, we live in a world where sex is frequently glamorized to the point of being an idol. The question of why anyone would opt out of having sex can confound people, because the choice seems so different than the sexual choices affirmed by our culture. We’re glad to have you as a reader!

  5. Always a learning experience to read your blog! Thanks again for sharing. I am learning a lot. You’re also making me think. This is a good thing! I know I am not called to be celibate, but it helps to understand why others are and what kinds of struggles they have too.

    • Thanks, Heather. We hope that our posts will have meaning for many people beyond those who feel called to celibacy or are pursuing/considering a celibate relationship. Feel free to let us know if you have any ideas for topics you would like to learn about that we could address in the future.

  6. I definitely agree…. marriage is hard! “Eros” relationships of any type, in my experience, are difficult and complicated and require an enormous amount of time and energy. Using that time and energy to instead cultivate a relationship with the Divine which allows for the outpouring of radical hospitality that you talk about is a compelling idea. I’ve always admired communities of monastic women for that very reason… they seem to have more time to focus on things that are really important. Have you heard about the new order of Dominican sisters in Michigan? I have a friend whose cousin joined them recently, and they’ve been making news with their recording of sacred music. Below are two news clips about them plus a serendipitous recording of their reaction to the announcement of the new pope which is utterly delightful. The whole story makes me happy and I thought you’d enjoy it too.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50153341n
    http://video.foxnews.com/v/2658019849001/nuns-top-billboard-classical-music-chart/

    • Thanks Amber! We think that there’s always a divine invitation to route Eros through God. God never ceases to surprise us by enabling people who want to practice radical hospitality, independent of their state. We appreciate the links to the sacred music. Monasteries frequently have amazing choirs because the monastics devote so much energy towards praising God in song. One of our favorite monasteries recently started broadcasting their services online: http://www.orthodoxmonasteryellwoodcity.org/chapel

    • Both of us have never experienced so much confirmation that we are walking in the way God would have us walk since embarking on our life together in a celibate partnership. If anything has happened, we’ve become more convinced that God has indeed called us to a celibate way of life.

  7. Thank you! I read one post from my friend’s facebook link (about the Third World review) ans realised my knees were shaking. Not from fear or going against what I believe – from excitement of finding bloggers that sound similar to me. I had to read this after the first post, and I look forward to digging further in yalls post.

  8. Pingback: 10 Articles about Platonic Life Partners – Into the Son

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