Thursday, September 4, 2008

What is celibacy?

In order to examine more closely the insistence often made that asexuality is different from celibacy, I want to take a look at some ideas about what asexuality and celibacy are. Whatever the term celibacy assumes, connotes or suggests, it is clear that it definitely involves not having sex. When it is insisted that asexuality is different than celibacy, this much is assumed, and one additional point is made: celibacy (unlike asexuality) is a choice. In my last post, I mentioned a point raised by Eunjung Kim, who is doing research on asexuality: One problem with this attempt to distance asexuality from celibacy is that it seems to assume that only sexual people can be celibate and thus denies the existence of overlap. In trying to think about this, I'm not sure whether to agree, to disagree, or to not quite do either. I realized that I'm not really sure what the word 'celibacy' means. This post is part of my own attempt to sort out my thoughts on this subject.

The most obvious place to start would be the dictionary. According to, celibacy is

1. abstention from sexual relations.
2. abstention by vow from marriage: the celibacy of priests
3. the state of being unmarried.

When I first read the third one, it seemed rather archaic because these days we don't tend to assume unmarried people aren't having sex. After further reflection, it does make some sense. The largest institutionalization of celibacy in the western world is clerical celibacy, and in that case, I think it is just as much a decision not to get married (definition 2) as it is a decision not to have sex (definition 1.) Of course, in practice it sometimes amounts to more not getting married and less not having sex, and some have done better than others at following their vow of celibacy.

With regard to these definitions of celibacy, a comment by Myra Johnson in her chapter "Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups" seems appropriate. After briefly looking at dictionary entries for the words celibacy, chastity and virgin, she notes, "These various definitions suggest that people are restrained from sexual relations with others either by physical or psychological damage or by devotion to certain religious tenants. The implication being, of course, that if it were not for these constraints, sexual interaction would occur.” The very concept of celibacy seems to assume some kind of universal sexual desire.

After looking at the dictionary, the next question is how people actually use to word celibacy--in principal, this is what dictionaries are designed to do (ironically, many people think that dictionaries tell us how we should use language--and to a degree they do--but the lexicographers who actually write dictionaries attempt to describe how words are actually used rather than how they feel words should be used.) So I did a google search and looked it up on Wikipedia (which was also the first page the search gave me.)

Google wasn't all that helpful. It mostly has links to pages dealing with clerical and other forms of religious celibacy, though it did have some links to sites dealing with involuntary celibacy as well. Wikipedia was revealing and fits well with my claim that the term is not clearly defined and usages varies rather idiosyncratically. According to Wikipedia:

"Celibacy refers to being unmarried. A vow of celibacy is a promise not to enter into marriage. The term involuntary celibacy has recently appeared to describe a chronic, unwilling state of celibacy. Celibacy is not the same as chastity which refers to an abstinence of sexual intercourse, although it is commonly misused this way. This comes from the idea that being celibate includes being chaste, but they are not at all synonyms."

One thing to note is the internal contradictions in the paragraph. If we link to involuntary celibacy, we find that this is not so much an inability to marry but an inability to acquire a sexual/romantic partner, which, for some people, means that the word 'celibacy' is used to mean precisely what this paragraph says it doesn't mean. Moreover, if you click on the link to "chastity" you will find that they don't use the word at all in the same way as this paragraph. That page notes this usage of the word chastity, but then goes on to use it's historical meaning which was the opposite of sexual immorality. (A few centuries ago, it made perfect sense to call someone who only had sex with their spouse chaste.) Also, the way that 'celibacy' is used in the rest of this article doesn't fit with the definition given. In the list "notable celibates," some of them specify that some individual never had sex--not that they were never married: "Isaac Newton, the mathematician and scientist was a virgin all his life." And in another case, it uses celibate in a way that directly contradicts the definition in the introduction: "Carol Channing, the Broadway musical star of Hello Dolly fame was celibate in her marriage to Charles Lowe for 41 years."

I'm not sure why the people are claiming this meaning for celibacy. The OED defines celibacy in this way, giving only a single definition, "The state of living unmarried," and makes no mention of sex. I'm not entirely sure for the reason of this. I don't know if the meaning has changed over time or if social mores at the time the OED was written caused those lexicographers to avoid mention of sex, or if there is some other reason.

According to celibacy is " Abstinence from sexual intercourse, especially by reason of religious vows." (They also have a second definition about not being married.) They go on to discuss celibacy in a variety of religious traditions.

One usage of celibacy, however, doesn't fit at all with the definition that includes not getting married. Sometimes people talk about being celibate before marriage. I googled this and similar terms and found that they are used. Also, on the site Celibate Passions, which I referred to in a previous post, one of the categories is "Celibacy until Marriage." I can understand people choosing not to have sex before marriage, but there's not much point in deciding not to get married before marriage.

There is also a use of 'celibacy' that directly challenges asexuality's claim that unlike asexuality, celibacy is a choice. There are people who consider themselves involuntarily celibate, or incel for short. Often these are people who are very shy or didn't really fit in in high school when their peers were figuring out sexuality, or they feel that they just don't have a lot of opportunities to meet potential partners. Denise Donnelley et al., in a study on involuntary celibacy, write, "Certainly, some persons are celibate because they have chosen this lifestyle for religious or personal reasons. Others, however, would like to have sex but lack a willing sexual partner. For them, celibacy is not a choice." In their study, they dived involuntary celibates, recruited online, into three groups: people who have a spouse/partner who doesn't have sex with them, people who have never had sex (and are distressed about this), and people who have had sex but are presently unable to find a partner.

In her book A History of Celibacy , Elizabeth Abbott also uses the word celibacy in a way broad enough to include people who don’t choose to be celibate. “Often celibacy is imposed on unwilling subjects, both male and female: prisoners; nineteenth-century schoolteachers in Russia and Canada; millions of Chinese herded into work camps in the most repressive days of Maoist China; unloved Arab wives doomed to crowded marriages with husbands who love and bed newer favorites; millions of Chinese bachelors condemned to celibate existences because the nation’s ‘one child per family’ policy provoked mass destruction of unvalued female fetuses and infants and created today’s massive gender imbalance” (p. 20.) Abbott also considers eunuchs—both those who willingly and unwillingly became so—celibate. Unlike the dictionary entries, in this use of celibacy, there is no assumption of universal sexual desire.

There is one other use of the word celibacy that I want to mention. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I found it intriguing enough that I felt a need to include it. In the book Evolution’s Rainbow, Joan Roughgarden discusses gender variant people in non-Western societies. One of these are the mahu of Polynesia:

“Gender identity is more important to mahu status than is sexual orientation. In fact, the sexuality of mahu varies. One study reported that male-bodied mahu usually had sex with men, especially young men, yet several had also had long-term relationships with women and were fathers, and still other were celibate. Female-bodied mahu usually had woman as lovers, but many had had male lovers at some time, and others were celibate. This emphasis on gender rather than sexuality resembles that of contemporary American trans people, who express all types of sexual orientation, including celibacy” (p. 340.)

Here Roughgarden uses the term ‘celibacy’ as a sexual orientation. I doubt that it is because she has never heard the term ‘asexual’ to refer to some people’s sexual orientation. I suspect that she either doesn’t like the term or simply prefers the term ‘celibacy’ to ‘asexuality,’ likely favoring the term only in its context of asexual vs. sexual reproduction, which is a very important issue in the first section of her book.

Given the ambiguity that exists in how the word 'celibacy' is used, the next line of evidence I want to consider is the experience of asexual people--particularly ones who don't have sex--and how they feel about whether or not they are celibate.

On the one hand, some asexuals feel that celibacy and asexuality are mutually exclusive. On the blog Glad to be A, the author writes, "I wouldn't consider an asexual person to be celibate. Celibacy is a choice made by a sexual person not to have sex, whereas for an asexual, not having sex is the default position. Some asexuals choose to have sex, for various reasons, but I don't think we really have to choose NOT to have sex, because for us that's the baseline. So I would never describe myself as celibate (maybe some asexual people would, which I respect, but that's not how I personally would use the word)." In addition to this, I think that some of the comments that people have made on some of my recent posts do a good job of explaining the variety of perspectives people have. TheimpossibleK wrote, "I'd always considered myself celibate." Ily seemed more hesitant to consider herself celibate because of associations that she has come to associate with the term, "When I think of 'celibacy', it seems like something with a goal in mind. Every self-proclaimed celibate person I've met was doing it to achieve greater clarity, self-sufficiency, or something like that. I definitely have goals related to asexuality, but I can't decide whether that's the same thing or not." Grasexuality wrote, " I have always considered asexuals who have made the decision not to have sex celibate as well....I can see why people would want to make it clear that they are, rather than actively refusing to have sex, simply passively uninterested, but that implies that they are open to the possibility of having sex, if an acceptable situation were ever to fall into their lap. If they are asexual and also completely refuse to ever try it, then to my way of thinking, they are celibate as well. I don't see it as a contradiction because I don't think celibacy implies anything whatsoever about a person's level of desire/attraction; it's purely about making a decision." One of the main issues at stake is whether celibacy is about not having sex or a decision not to have sex.

Up to this point, I've been trying to look at different perspectives on the subject, but I feel that I shouldn't pretend that I am merely some sort of outside observer looking on. I am myself asexual and I feel that I should discuss my own feelings on the matter. The difficulty is that I'm not sure what to think. All of the positions that I've looked at so far seem perfectly reasonable to me. I'll start with my own conclusions about the matter and then move to my feelings.

I don't think the question of whether celibacy is about not having sex or a (lived out) decision not to have sex is answerable in that form. Framing the question this way assumes that the term is less ambiguous than it really is. Celibacy is about not having sex, but whatever else it may or may not involve is subject to a good deal of idiosyncratic variation and differences depending on context. In light of all of this, the definition that makes most sense to me that that celibacy is about not having sex, and, depending on context, may suggest other things as well (decision, restrain of desire, or even sexual preference, etc.) As such it makes sense to consider asexuals who don't have sex celibate, and issues of whether or not they have made a conscious decision not to have sex, while important to the person, and less important in whether it makes sense to call the person celibate.

On a personal level, this isn't where my own feelings are. I've have felt hesitant to call myself celibate, even in my own thoughts, because it suggests a sense of decision. But I don't think of myself as not having sex because of any decision. It is more of a lack of situations in which I a) could have sex b) would want to have sex. I have no opportunities, and I don't feel any real desire to change that. To me, it's similar to the fact that I've never gone sky diving. I don't feel any desire to do so, but I don't feel any strong aversion either. I have no opportunities and I feel no burning desire to try it that would make me seek out opportunities to go sky diving. So as long as no opportunities in which I would want to try out skydiving happen to arise without my intending it, I will continue to not go skydiving.

So my personal feelings are somewhat at odds with my beliefs. Since this belief is a fairly new development, I am becoming more comfortable with the idea. I have a feeling that over time I will come to feel more comfortable thinking of myself as celibate. Since many asexuals feel they aren't having sex simply by default rather than any conscious choice, it does not make sense to think of these asexuals as voluntarily celibate. Nor does it make sense to think of them as involuntarily celibate since that suggests their not having sex goes against what they want. So I propose two new terms, acknowledging their limitations, especially that it only fits unpartnered asexuals and some of them better than others: indifferently celibate, celibate by default.

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