“Forced or freely chosen celibacy: how can I tell the difference?”

Last week this question came in from a reader. It relates to a broader issue that we discuss regularly: how people involved in discussions about LGBT issues in the Church use the descriptors “forced” and “freely chosen” when talking about celibacy. A reader who identifies herself as Mariya expresses uncertainty about how she sees non-celibate LGBT people and straight allies commenting on the lives of celibates:

“Congratulations on making the Washington Post! I’ve been reading responses to the article and I keep coming back to comments like this one: ‘If these people choose celibacy for themselves this isn’t a real story. It’s a story because the ex-gay movement is dead now and these people are its replacement. They’re brainwashed into celibacy and they want to brainwash the rest of us too. It would be different if they didn’t want to make us all deny our sexuality.’

I see those comments but then I see other liberal blogs like New Ways Ministry writing about having respect for people like Eve Tushnet because she doesn’t insist that everyone embrace celibacy. As a heterosexual woman who cares about the gay people at my church, I wish someone would tell me how to tell the difference between someone who is forced into celibacy and someone who chooses it because they want to be celibate. I also want to know about the difference between celibate people forcing others to be celibate or just believing in and practicing what the Bible says without shaming anybody else for not doing that.

Some people see it as the same thing, but is it? Can someone like Eve for example be both forced and not forced, forcing others but not forcing others all at the same time? It’s not just Eve. I see people saying the same things about you two. Can you help me understand?

This is a heavy topic. We’ll begin by saying that most of the time we are also confused by what other people on the internet say about “forced” and “freely chosen” celibacy. We think a great deal of the confusion stems from disagreement about the basic meanings of these two descriptors. Some people would begin a discussion on this topic by asserting that in a truly free society, no one can be forced into doing anything. One might engage in or avoid a particular behavior because of legal, social, or other types of consequences, but the existence of these consequences does not mean that the person is being forced to behave in a certain way. Example: if you are an adult who lives in a free society and is not required to belong to any religious group, pressure to remain celibate within a conservative Christian tradition does not mean that anyone is taking your freedom away or forcing you to to anything. However, others would argue that the presence of any kind of pressure concerning what to do or not to do means that the person making the decision cannot make it freely. Example: if you are part of a religious tradition and that tradition is clear in its teaching that celibacy and heterosexual marriage are the only two vocations, gay people who want to be faithful do not actually have free choices when it comes to vocation.

Both perspectives have a strong presence in the LGBT Christian conversation, and both are represented by very loud advocates. We’ll use a fairly benign example to illustrate our own perspective: in almost every society where vehicles are used, there is some kind of regulation on speed of travel. In the United States, nearly every driver we know has some gripe about speed limits. No one likes them, and most experienced drivers have been pulled over for speeding at one time or another. It is an expectation that drivers obey speed limits, even if most of us know that it’s unlikely to be pulled over for speeding unless one is driving 10+ miles per hour over the speed limit. We know that we have the option of disobeying, and that regardless of reason this decision may result in consequences such as fines, driving sanctions, car insurance rate increases, and traffic accidents. Yet two of us have never met a driver who would claim to be forced into obeying posted speed limits. If you think speed limits are ridiculous, unnecessary, or oppressive, you can break them even when faced with consequence after consequence. You also have the option of giving up on driving entirely: you can choose not to drive or even have a driver’s license. If you are unhappy with traffic laws in this country to the point that it makes your life miserable, you can move to another country where maximum speeds are higher or almost nonexistent. You could also continue living here and attempt to debate the matter with the powers that be. Oppositely, if you are intent on obeying the speed limit exactly as posted and find yourself frustrated with all the speeders along your commute who expect you to give into their pressure, you can stay in the slow lane as everyone else honks and blows past.

We find this comparison helpful for breaking down the false dichotomy between “forced” and “freely chosen” celibacy because most of time when people claim to be forced into something, there’s actually more to the story. Not long ago, the two of us were talking about a speeding ticket that Sarah had received on the way to work. Sarah’s first reaction to getting the ticket was, “I had to break the speed limit. Otherwise I would’ve been late for work. My students would have left the classroom by the time of my arrival, the class would have gotten behind, and it would have ruined my plan to spend two whole weeks on the next unit.” All of that is true, except for one sentence: the first. Sarah had the option to obey the speed limit but chose not to because in the balance of things, the possible consequences of being late for work seemed to outweigh the possible consequences of speeding. Being behind normal commute schedule and needing to make a difficult decision is not the same as being forced and having no options. In the same way, belonging to a Christian tradition with conservative teachings on sexual ethics is not the same as being forced into celibacy as an LGBT Christian. You can stay within the tradition and disobey its teachings, you can leave the tradition for a different one, you can take your disagreement up with a pastor, priest, or bishop, or you can be like the person in the slow lane on the freeway who obeys the law even when all other drivers are blaring their horns and giving you the finger. The last option is not the one most people choose, but it is an option nonetheless.

Now for the other part of our reader’s question: from where we stand, it doesn’t make sense to say that a person voicing a desire to live into a traditional sexual ethic is necessarily attempting to force beliefs or practices anyone else. That goes for major voices in the discussion as well as the average Joe or Mary in your parish.

Some celibate LGBT people do engage with non-celibates primarily through aggressive proselytization for celibacy. We’ve run into celibate people who are ready to condemn and make non-celibate people’s sex lives their business. We do not support this approach to discussing celibacy. But there are also celibate LGBT folks who do their best to obey the teachings of their Christian traditions while speaking publicly about their experiences for the benefit of anyone interested…and that’s all: no intention of insisting that every person make that same decision. These people understand that obedience cannot be forced because it is, by definition, a gift freely given. Most likely if asked, they will tell you about their convictions in a way that is neither self-righteous nor condemning.

These two approaches have almost nothing in common except that both are talking about celibacy. Conflating the two is no different from conflating the perspective a gay person who is openly involved with hookup culture and that of a gay person who is waiting until marriage to have sex with his/her partner. Both believe same-sex sexual activity is morally acceptable, but no one on the more liberal side of this discussion would ever argue that these two people are the same in ideology and approach. It would be equally ridiculous to argue that every celibate LGBT voice is part of some broader agenda to oppress everyone else in the LGBT community.

It’s important to discuss the very real problem of churches issuing celibacy mandates and having no further discussions about what it means to live celibacy as a vocation. We hope that conversation will happen within all Christian traditions. However, dwelling on descriptors like “forced celibacy” and “freely chosen celibacy” does more to hold back productive dialogue than help people who are sorting out sexual ethics questions in real life. We would encourage everyone involved in these discussions to stop fixating on “forced” or “chosen” and instead ask, “What can I do to support people in my parish who may be discerning a celibate vocation? If I am one of those discerning, how can I invite my faith community into this journey so they can support me?”

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