Queering Celibacy amid Fixation on Sex

We live in a time and place when people are more comfortable with talking about sex than perhaps ever before. As for our own experiences in talking about sex, we’ve realized that we come from very different backgrounds. Lindsey grew up in a home that fully acknowledged and embraced sex as a gloriously fun activity shared by two adults who loved each other. Sarah could always approach Sarah’s parents for information about sex, but Sarah understood that information would be conveyed more along the lines of biological processes. It was clear that Sarah’s parents viewed sex outside a husband/wife relationship as inappropriate. The cultures around us also gave us messages about how to approach conversations about sex. For Lindsey, that message was, “Ask your parents.” For Sarah, it was, “Polite people don’t talk about sex with anyone other than perhaps their spouses in private, and maybe not even then.” However, with all this talk about sex, both of us have rarely encountered anyone saying anything positive about celibacy apart from some isolated conversations about religious life.

Blogging about our lives together as a celibate couple is interesting. We’ve met several people who wish we would simply disappear from the blogosphere, another group that seems oddly enthralled by our way of life despite themselves, and still another group of people who have appreciated being challenged to question their assumptions about companionship, sexuality, and faith. In the first group, it seems that a number of these individuals feel threatened by the fact that we live celibate lives as LGBT Christians. We want to spend some time in this post unpacking some of the dominant cultural assumptions that can leave people feeling confused, perplexed, or even appalled that another person, particularly an LGBT person, might openly discuss his or her celibacy. We’ve previously discussed some of these misconceptions in our 7 Misconceptions about Celibacy post, but we wanted to spend some time talking about how these they can be problematic when trying to help guide people towards their vocations.

It’s inappropriate to talk about celibacy because it is unnatural or abnormal. Many people who are appalled by our choice to live celibate lives want to know if we think that sex is a natural part of human experience. The reasoning goes something like this: if sex is a natural part of human experience and it feels good, then who in their right mind would pass up an opportunity to enjoy this activity? Whether a person is sexually active also plays a role in how others view him or her socially. People frequently use sexual innuendo to cast judgment on another’s personality: He’s so uptight. He really needs to get laid; or Gosh, she’s just a killjoy. When did she become such a prude? Clearly, she’s not getting any. If you are a reader who has been reading the comments on our blog regularly, then you might have also noticed trends where some commenters try to diagnose why we’re celibate. In the comparatively brief life of this blog so far, we’ve had people suggest the following mechanisms: we’re oppressed by religion, we’ve had bad sexual experiences in the past, we have had no sexual experience so we have no idea what we’re missing, we haven’t yet come to accept our sexual orientations, we are impressively asexual, and many more.

When the “unnatural or abnormal” assumption comes into play when seeking spiritual direction, a person trying to discern whether God might be calling him or her towards celibacy is having to sort through the questions, “Am I freak? Am I only exploring celibacy because I don’t have an appreciable sex drive? Would it make more sense to do the ‘normal’ thing of finding a spouse to whom I’m sexually drawn? How do I know if I’m one of the very few people who actually has the spiritual gift of celibacy?” Equally, this assumption can cause people to limit their discernment to the vocation of marriage. If marriage is the only natural vocation and celibacy is only for the abnormal, then how can a person be afforded any space to discern differently? Who wants to be known by his or her family, friends, and acquaintances as ridiculously stunted and out of touch with natural bodily functions?

Openly discussing celibacy is undesirable because marriage and sex are rites of passage. We’ve encountered people who have suggested that we just haven’t grown up, that we’re late bloomers, or that we haven’t explored our sexual potential. These people allege that in choosing celibacy, we are avoiding growing up and are dangerous because we encourage people to shake off adult forms of responsibility. We do acknowledge that sex has plays a role in many different cultural rites of passages, especially as it relates to various marriage customs around the world. However, we note that scholars and journalists who write on American culture frequently lament the lack of coming-of-age rituals for adults, especially as more and more college graduates find themselves struggling to find work and move back in with their parents. Amid this economic uncertainty, one might argue that marriage, and its requisite parts of entering into a consensual sexual relationship and founding an independent family life, seems to be the last stable form of marking the transition from child to adult.

For people discerning celibacy, especially outside of religious life, the emphasis on sex and marriage as essential rites of passage deprives them of the opportunity to explore celibacy as a meaningful way of life. Celibacy is often seen as a default option for the young, the weird, or the otherwise undesirable. According to most people we know, the only folks above a certain age who aren’t having sex are those who lack the coordination and the resources to ask for sex. When communicating with discerners of celibate vocations, family and friends can start to turn up the pressure with questions like: “Don’t you want to have a family? Aren’t you going to settle down? When are you going to start acting like an adult? Why hasn’t your wanderlust begun to quiet down so you can live a normal life?” And when having a family and children is a part of being a “normal” adult, celibate people can encounter an additional barrage of shaming: “You don’t know what it’s like to be stressed out. You’ve never had to deal with the stress of tending to a sick child before a major deadline at work or having your in-laws in town to critique your housekeeping (feel free to insert family stressors of your choosing).” The assertions assume that since a person has chosen a celibate way of life, that person has gotten off easy in life, and is perhaps lazy with no sense of difficulty in living out a mature adult vocation.

As a result of the “marriage and sex as rites of passage” assumption, many people chose to limit their vocational discernment to marriage alone. If marriage alone can be an identifiable ritual where a person creates a family with a sexual partner of his or her choosing, then why would a person consider forgoing this opportunity in exchange for accusations that he or she has never grown up and is irresponsible?

It’s not okay for an LGBT person to talk about celibacy because mandated celibacy has been and is still used to harm LGBT people. To be honest, we prefer dialoguing with people holding the first two assumptions because we think they might be interested in hearing more about our story if we can get past their initial perception that celibacy is just weird. This last assumption is particularly hurtful because we hear people telling us that we should just shut up about our story altogether. Sometimes people, most  often Christians holding a progressive sexual ethic, assume that because we’re celibate, we have no idea how different Christian attitudes about celibacy have hurt the LGBT community. Quite honestly, we started this blog from a deep and abiding awareness that few Christian churches (much less full on Christian traditions) care to consider how to point all people towards vocations in healthy ways. We are profoundly aware of the harms produced when a church wags a finger and tells an LGBT person “You have to be celibate and there’s nothing else to say about it,” even in instances when that LGBT person has already decided to pursue a celibate vocation. Collectively, the two of us have over a decade of experience walking alongside a plethora of LGBT people trying to find their way through a confusing, shifting landscape of sexuality, gender, and faith. Without LGBT voices talking about celibacy, it is impossible for straight, cisgender voices to capture the full diversity of celibate vocations and of LGBT people.

The “it’s wrong to talk about celibacy because it has been used to hurt others” assumption effectively shoves socks into our mouths. It silences and limits the theological exploration we have done to sort through the noise we have encountered living life were rubber meets the road. We have already eaten enough shoes, so please cut us a break when we share our stories. We are talking about LGBT experiences of celibacy because these experiences are our lived experiences.

This assumption also limits vocational pathways available to LGBT people, viewing celibates as victims of fundamentalist religion who have missed the memo that the “gift” of celibacy should not be celebrated, but kept shut away within one’s private life. Ultimately, it creates a lack of safety for LGBT folks who are interested in exploring celibacy. In our experience, those who hold this assumption have strong initial reactions upon meeting celibate LGBT Christians. The vast majority of time we try to interact with folks of this mindset who are involved in the LGBT Christian discussion, we are met with suspicion and hostility because it is assumed that we have some covert agenda in talking openly about our celibacy. From what we have experienced, it does not matter how or why we came to the decision to pursue this vocation: in the eyes of many, the only possible reasons an LGBT person might speak openly of celibacy are self-loathing and the desire to proselytize for internalized homophobia. Knowing that at least some people are likely to react to discussions of LGBT celibacy in this way, we ask, why would any LGBT person who thinks he or she might have the gift of celibacy want to explore it further?

In order to create spaces that affirm diverse vocational pathways for Christians, people from many Christian traditions would do well to reflect on the unwitting assumption that every Christian is called to marriage. We believe that the Church can do better in affording people called to celibacy an opportunity to commit to a celibate way of life and explore possibilities for such outside of monastic vocations. We also hope that discussing celibacy as a queer calling encourages more thoughtfulness of how to affirm celibate vocations in diverse Christian traditions. It’s important for LGBT people to be able to share their stories of life at the front lines. There are LGBT people who have done impressive theological work to reclaim celibacy as a vocation, even if some began these theoretical explorations by realizing that they didn’t see their vocational desires manifest in how their Christian traditions define marriage.

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16 thoughts on “Queering Celibacy amid Fixation on Sex

  1. I recently read a personal story about a gay man and why he chose to marry a woman despite having a lot of difficulty emotionally and sexually relating to her. It seemed he boiled it down to two choices – relationship with a man or relationship with a woman. Because a relationship with a man wasn’t acceptable according to his beliefs he went with a woman. It left me wondering if he even considered celibacy as way of life at all. And if not, why not? People often have more choices than they realize. The world isn’t just chocolate or vanilla and that’s it, you know?

  2. This post reminded me of one of my high school Sunday school classes (the purity one). The girls were given the standard message of not having sex before marriage because you need to save yourself for your future husband (that wasn’t the only reason, but was one of the main ones). When I told the group that I didn’t want to get married, the response was, “Oh, you’ll change your mind eventually.” Once one of the girls told us about taking a quiz to help determine her spiritual gifts, and one of the results she’d gotten was celibacy–which she presented as something ridiculous, to be laughed at. I hope that the church (and our culture, for that matter) can change so that celibacy is viewed as just as valid an option as marriage, rather than being ignored or ridiculed.

    • Tabitha, thanks for reading! Your story here illustrates what we are talking about when these assumptions are fully at work in a church.

  3. Hi Michael, your comment here points to a hazard of overlooking the celibate vocation. When marriage is the only option, many gay and lesbian people feel obligated to get married. Historically, the obligation to get married has led gay and lesbian Christians to seek a heterosexual marriage. We do think that a mandated heterosexual marriage can do great harm to both the GL person and his/her spouse. It’s all the more reason, in my opinion, to make sure celibacy is seen as a potential option. -Lindsey

  4. Your third “It’s Not Okay” is the one I hear often. Because some people have been hurt in connection with the topic of chastity or celibacy, I mustn’t talk about my own journey.

    The bottom line is that my story must be silenced — I fail to conform to the progressive norm, so I have no right to a narrative of my own. The implication is that I’m being deliberately inconsiderate of others’ feelings by being an out-of-the-closet celibate.

    • Hello, Deacon Silouan. That third point is the one we also hear most frequently. This is one reason we find it so important to share our stories and to encourage other celibate LGBT people to share theirs. Every LGBT person has a story, and I fear we are embarking upon a time in which ours will be minimized in favor of other types of stories. -Sarah

  5. Sarah and Lindsey,
    Thank you for sharing your journey. In my experience, evangelicals have difficulty understanding or accepting celibacy, period — LGBT or otherwise.
    One example is of a classmate I befriended in seminary years ago. A middle aged, apparently happy celibate man with a previously successful business career, he methodically worked his way through an M Div. In his third year, he learned his denomination would NOT ordain him because he was NOT married. And so he looked around to see who most fit the bill of “pastor’s wife” and then just as methodically dated and married her. Got ordained.

    “Discernment” by the play book…. Little wonder both marriage and ministry proved to be difficult…

    • Hi Sharon, thanks for another instance of how churches can focus extensively on being married. We have several friends who struggled to find congregations willing to accept them as single pastors. We appreciate you raising this issue!

  6. At Commencement this past weekend, I was amazed that both our college president (a priest) and our archbishop spoke to the graduates about their future spouses and children as if that was a given. It was surprising to me that the “marriage and sex as rites of passage” idea is so ingrained that even two celibate men did not speak about celibacy as a possible life path for the graduates.

    • That’s really interesting. I’ve heard the same sort of message from priests (and nuns) before. Perhaps it’s because celibacy has always been a minority way of life. We think it would be helpful if Christians stopped focusing on how rare celibate vocations are and began focusing more on how lay and consecrated celibacy can help people grow towards Christ.

  7. Sex and marriage as rites of passage otherwise largely missing in America may be a really fruitful way of thinking not only about push-back on celibacy, but about things like hooking up. It kind of makes smoking look like an emotionally benign way of declaring adulthood. I wish I’d thought of it, and hope to think about it some more.

    • That’s interesting. I do think the same idea could be applied to discussing many different changing sexual norms in American society, including hookups, open relationships, and so on. We’ll think on that some more too. -Sarah

  8. Pingback: Rites of Passage | Tipsy Teetotaler

  9. I personally find your journey fascinating, and I love your bravery in being vulnerable about it. The internet can be a cruel place, so it’s nice to see a forum that is so open and accepting of questions and opposing viewpoints. Keep writing!

    • Hi Beth, thanks so much for your comment. We like the space we’ve been able to cultivate here at A Queer Calling, and hope to see you again in the comments soon!

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