Of Celibacy, Sex, and Silver Bullets

A reflection by Sarah

One of the arguments I hear most frequently against the idea of a celibate partnership is that in order to be healthy and “normal,” any committed, intimate relationship between consenting adults must involve a sexual union. I’ve heard it suggested that celibate partnerships like the one Lindsey and I share are, by their very nature, unsustainable because they involve denial of sexual expression. It’s understandable that most people would have this perception of celibate partnership, and I’ll be the first to admit that the way of life I’ve chosen is unconventional. Still, I find myself amazed at the frequency with which some non-celibate people will propose sex as the silver bullet solution for many difficulties that arise within celibate relationships. The past few months have been especially tough for Lindsey and me, bringing financial stress, a job search, two car accidents, one car breakdown, a street robbery, and the burglary of our home. In the midst of the chaos, I’ve been both surprised and disturbed by how often people in our lives have approached us lovingly-yet-seriously to ask, “Wouldn’t things be so much better if you just let yourselves have sex? Have you ever considered that might make your relationship stronger during this difficult time?” The most extreme example of this came yesterday in the form of a comment, positing that God is actually punishing us for being celibate and talking about celibacy, and said punishment might cease if only we would become sexually active. Not kidding here.

We spend a fair bit of time here discussing lessons we’ve learned from past celibate and sexually active relationships. Lindsey once shared the story of a failed celibate relationship in order to discuss the process of discerning a celibate vocation and developing the spiritual maturity and common vision that maintaining a celibate partnership requires. Today, I’m going to share with you the story of one of my own past relationships to illustrate that sexual activity does not automatically render a relationship normal, healthy, or good. Unlike the one described in Lindsey’s post, this relationship was not celibate and I had never envisioned that it could be. It was the most sexually charged relationship I’ve ever experienced — so much that this aspect of the relationship dominated.

For the purpose of this post, I will refer to my former girlfriend as Leah. At the time Leah and I began dating, I had already spent a few years considering the possibility of celibacy. But during this particular season of life, I saw celibacy as unrealistic and unsustainable despite my feeling a strong pull toward it from God. Due to my own fear of being ridiculed and considered peculiar, Leah and I never discussed celibacy or the possibility of exploring a celibate relationship. From the very beginning, Leah had made clear that sexual expression was one of her most significant needs. I conceded that if I was at all interested in pursuing a relationship with Leah long-term, I would have to honor that need. It never occurred to me that doing so would likely involve overlooking my own needs. We experienced a powerful attraction to each other based on some common interests and the positive energy we felt while in one another’s presence, so I came to believe that even discussing celibacy with Leah would be unreasonable and selfish.

I had told Leah upfront that although I had been in other sexual relationships before, I wasn’t comfortable with jumping into bed immediately. I asked if she would be willing to give me some time, and offered assurance that I would let her know when I felt ready for having sex. For the first three weeks, all was well. But then she began to tell me that she couldn’t understand why waiting for sex was so important to me. “This isn’t normal,” she would say. “Sexual intimacy is what makes a relationship worth pursuing. Without that, it’s dead.” I found myself feeling pressured into exploring sexual activity with Leah simply in an attempt to keep the relationship from falling apart. But within a few days after I had finally given in, I noticed a troubling change in the chemistry between us.

Almost immediately after our first time together, I felt a massive shift in our relationship dynamic. The decision to have sex with Leah was an opening of Pandora’s Box: every conversation we had became focused on sex and sexuality. Every time we had any sort of physical interaction, it became an occasion for sexual comments or actually dropping everything in the moment and taking a few minutes to engage in sex. This troubled me, and I brought the concern to Leah, who responded, “Would you rather we were experiencing lesbian bed death?” She expressed her belief that sex was the most vital of all dimensions of a romantic relationship, and that as long as sex was still occurring and was enjoyable to her, all our other needs would fall into place. It seemed that Leah understood only two possibilities for our relationship: a pattern of interactions that would always lead to the bedroom, or a pattern of interactions that would involve minimal physical contact in any way and would ultimately become impossible to continue. I considered the possibility that she might be right. Maybe sex was the most important aspect of a relationship and I just hadn’t caught up to speed on that yet.

Though I never felt comfortable emotionally or morally with what was happening in our sex life, I remained in relationship with Leah for quite a long while. As time went on, Leah’s expectations for my sexual performance increased to a level I could not possibly reach. She became critical of my body and my unwillingness to perform certain types of sexual activities. Doing something in bed that did not give her sufficient pleasure (or worse, ended up being unpleasant for her) carried significant consequences. Leah began to withdraw all affection from me after I had made “mistakes” while trying to give her what she wanted. At times when I would assert my own needs and wants, Leah would counter with a statement of her right to express her sexuality in any and every way that made her feel happy. This included attempts to convince me that my own physical boundaries were unreasonable. The relationship began to lose its meaning for me because everything was completely focused on our sexual experiences.

As this pattern continued, I noticed that Leah was losing interest in having any kind of intimacy with me that was not sexual. She began rejecting hugs and offers to cuddle on the couch. Any real conversations we were having ceased, and simply spending time together became a chore. Near the end of our relationship, even the sex stopped happening. Leah claimed that she didn’t feel close to me because I wasn’t giving her enough “good” sex, so she had lost interest in sharing any kind of intimacy with me. Though I attempted to raise these issues with Leah and was fully ready to accept responsibility for my part in them, Leah was unwilling to discuss any of this in a meaningful way. She placed all blame for the crumbling of our sex life and relationship as a whole on me for not giving her enough space and for having too high a need for non-sexual types of intimacy.

I tell this story not to condemn Leah or to suggest that this is normative pattern of all sexually active gay relationships. If you find yourself identifying with anything I mentioned above, please consider seeking help. I’m also not saying this to suggest that I am incapable of embracing my sexuality. Though I am now committed to lifelong celibacy in the context of my partnership with Lindsey, I’ve been involved in other sexually active relationships that were quite emotionally healthy. As I reflect on my past relationship with Leah, I can see that I learned many valuable lessons from its circumstances; but perhaps the most important is that sexual activity is not the magical ingredient to guarantee a relationship will be “normal” and “healthy.”

All too often, people who do not understand celibacy frame “sex within a committed relationship” as a panacea for struggles associated with celibacy. My own life experience tells me that this way of thinking is dangerous. And I’d argue it can be just as harmful as suggesting that celibacy mandates are the silver bullet for addressing all LGBT issues in the Church. In the end, Leah and I were incompatible on a number of levels, including our very different views on sexual ethics. I believe there is nothing that could have saved our relationship, and even without these serious issues with intimacy, eventually we would have seen that we were not a good match for each other. Nonetheless, I wonder if things might have ended differently had sexual activity not become the perceived cure-all for every problem that came between us.

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