The Bedroom Scholar: Abstinence

31 October 2012

After discussing sex all year, it seems the time is ripe for some abstinence. And I don’t mean the I-couldn’t-get-a-date-so-I-dated-myself brand of abstinence. I’m referring to a binding vow of celibacy in which one willingly, even wilfully, goes without intercourse. In our current sexualised and romanticised society the subject feels almost taboo.

A feeling of unease at the idea is understandable: slut-shaming is rife, US government funded abstinence-only education in high schools has been highly controversial and mandatory religious celibacy has caused many problems for society. All of this combined with the availability of cheap, efficient contraceptives means that the modern-day celibate has a lot to justify.

Historically ‘celibacy’ referred to refraining from marriage: but it’s now more of an elaborate term for abstinence. From time to time celebrities go through phases of advocating celibacy, bringing it into the public sphere. The Jonas brothers wore purity rings for a while, and Lady Gaga went celibate in 2010 and told fans that “it’s okay not to have sex”.

But many would still proclaim the idea of a celibacy vow to be draconian, even in the short-term. Certainly it goes against ideas of sexual freedom and is contrary to the lauded drive to maintain our species. The concept of the stereotypically ‘pure’ virgin is fairly outdated and heavily criticised, but perhaps there may be some truth to the idea that to live without an active sex life is to be pure of mind and dedicated.

The pope certainly supports the idea; he and many other members of the church proclaim that in abstaining from sexual relations and earthly love one is free to experience the love of heaven and god. Without delving into religious debates perhaps there is a truth to the concept that if you are not spending your time focused on your significant other or ‘getting some’ that you are free to love all people as equals.

This belief is similar to the Hindu concept of Brahmacharya which can be translated as ‘dedicated to the Divinity of Life’. The term refers to sexual abstinence, usually undertaken for religious and spiritual purposes. Brahmacharya can also refer to the stage in life of the Vedic Ashram system (from childhood till 20s) in which a person spends their time studying and learning the ways of life. Here I like to imagine a world in which Australian high-school students take a vow of celibacy to better focus on their studies.

The overwhelming nature of love and sex is incontrovertible, and the benefits of a healthy love/sex life hard to refute. However, celibacy is a phenomenon that appears so frequently throughout history and culture that it would be remiss not to try and understand the benefits of its practice. Celibacy can be an identity, rather than something that you do or rather, don’t do. Many contend that through this identity one can instill a greater focus on life goals as erotic energy is redirected. From experience I can say that it is not without merit: celibacy means that you are at once infinitely more engaged with the world and yet slightly removed from it. It is not for any one person to label it as a better way of life, merely a different path to traverse.

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