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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