Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Stronger?

Photo by Bhumika Bhatia
Photo by Bhumika Bhatia

Kingsley Amis’s novel Jake’s Thing deals with an academic who is nearing 60 and has lost his libido. He tries to recover it by visiting therapists and attending psychological workshops. This entertaining satire ends with Jake’s decision to stop trying to revive his sex life. His doctor offers him the choice of a new treatment. After a few ranting thoughts about the women he has encountered, the novel ends simply: “So it was quite easy. ‘No thanks,’ he said.”

Jake’s choice of a celibate life comes across as a liberation. We feel that the trials Jake has been put through will come to an end and we anticipate a serene life for him from now on. In the blossoming age of sexual liberation, the decision also comes across as being regressive and this gives the ending its shock value.

Celibacy, as opposed to the sex we see displayed everywhere, has something secretive about it. It is seen as the unnatural choice. What lies behind the decision to be celibate, and what are the results of involuntary or temporary celibacy?

Religious Abstinence

It’s not easy to speak to people who practise sexual abstinence. My calls to convents and monasteries are unreturned. A dignified lady at the Tyburn Convent near Marble Arch takes my details, but no one calls me back. The Benedictine nuns have apparently decided that a pronouncement on the subject would be inappropriate.

Maybe nuns are right to be wary of speaking to outsiders. The Catholic Church has recently been linked to so many sex scandals that celibacy in this context brings negative thoughts to mind. In the eyes of the public, refusing sex is the equivalent of pressure accumulating: a valve which can only explode.  It’s reminiscent of Irish convents, of priests raging against the evils of the flesh or else giving in to them so fully that they prove that trying to fight one’s primal urges is useless and twisted.

Then I exchange emails with a Buddhist monk based in a South London monastery. Buddhists choose celibacy to attain a higher level of consciousness; physical urges like sex keep them back from this goal, drag them down to earth. The purity they aim to achieve is symbolised by the shaven head, the general air of humility. It is harder to imagine a body of flesh and blood under the deep red robes, Maybe it’s the colour of the gown that does it. Priests and nuns in their black habits look drained of colour, anchored to earth also by the myriad scandals one associates them with. Their avoidance of sex comes across more like they are bludgeoning away at a beast to keep it at bay. The celibacy of Buddhist monks appears more graceful to me, athough I suspect that denial is as hard for them as for anyone else. In the end, Trinley, the monk I have been emailing, is too busy to meet me but says that celibacy “is a great blessing in disguise.”

Much more forthcoming is Arti, from the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University. They are classified as a sect in France and run meditation centres in London. They are renunciate, which includes giving up sex. Arti says that celibacy brings clarity of mind and enables people to experience more trusting relationships based on mutual respect rather than sexual attraction. She evades my questions about procreation. In fact, the Brahma Kumaris believe that couples should not have sex as procreation is not allowed. They are said to believe that procreation will be possible through yoga practices in the new world the believe is coming.

In all these religions, sexual abstinence is what raises the most questions and curiosity from the public, which is frustrating to the nuns, priests, monks and followers I interacted with. For them, giving up sex is part of a lifestyle, one of the many temptations and riches that one must let go of to attain some kind of peace.

This idea is found in ancient philosophy. Pythagoras believed that having sex in summer was dangerous and that loss of semen meant decreased power. Superstitions still abound about the way sex drains men of their power. Some coaches believe that sportsmen should avoid sexual activity before playing a big game. Napoli football team is said to avoid having sex for two days before a match following instructions from their medic Professor Alfonso De Nicola. He believes it is better for muscles and helps prevent inflammations. No scientific theory backs this up unequivocally.

When the sex stops…

Many non-religious Londoners have stopped having sex for more practical reasons. Some couples who have been together for years and are not attracted to each other any longer are happy to cohabit and enjoy companionship rather than a passionate relationship. With them, it’s not a question of fighting any urges but rather the total lack of any wish to have sex. Such a couple, Jean and Ben (Not their real names), are happy and comfortable together, after having been married for 12 years. Jean mentions that the lack of pressure is welcome, and that she feels more content and more able to focus on other interests. However, another couple, Lee and his Spanish girlfriend Lidia, broke up after they stopped having sex. Lidia says she felt frustrated at his lack of desire after they’d been together for three years. She was in love with him but unable to contemplate a relationship devoid of sex. For her, love was very much grounded in physical intimacy.

The way these individuals react to the absence of sex in a relationship may hinge on the intensity of their sex drive. A lack of sexual desire, asexuality, is distinct from celibacy as it refers to absence rather than abstinence. An asexual community, AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network), was created in 2001 to raise public awareness of asexuality and to facilitate the growth of an asexual community. An asexual person, according to their website, is “a person who doesn’t experience physical attraction.” It is not about fighting sexual urges, because these people do not feel them, but rather bringing to the attention of the wider public that the asexual state exists.

Do the people who are most successfully celibate simply have a lower sex drive? The thought that they have better self-control is at the same time more elevating and more disturbing; they are more remarkable for overcoming their desires, yet at the same time have the potential to succumb at any time.

From the Middle Ages until quite recently, society loved to believe in the myth of abstinence and purity. Nowadays we are suspicious of it, constantly prodding at it to test its strength. . We think of sex as so strong a physical urge that bottling it up means risking explosions of inordinate crudeness. Wouldn’t it be comforting to believe that holy people have succeeded in taming their bodies and have passed on to a higher plane where they can serve as messengers between us and some kind of clean, dream concept?

The fact that people who practice sexual abstinence are so discreet about it is intriguing and probably the best advertisement for the practise. If they don’t need to push themselves forward and prefer to keep to the shadows of our hyper sexual society, maybe that’s a sign that celibacy can indeed bring serenity and fulfilment, as it does for Kingsley Amis’s Jake and his forever flaccid “thing.”

Patricia Duffaud

Patricia Duffaud

Patricia Duffaud is a writer of mixed French and Northern Irish origin. She writes short stories, features and reviews and her work has appeared in Wasafiri Magazine, the Puffin Review and Thresholds. One of her stories was highly commended in the Gladstone's library's Mystery Lady short story competition. She is currently non-fiction editor for Litro online.

Patricia Duffaud is a writer of mixed French and Northern Irish origin. She writes short stories, features and reviews and her work has appeared in Wasafiri Magazine, the Puffin Review and Thresholds. One of her stories was highly commended in the Gladstone's library's Mystery Lady short story competition. She is currently non-fiction editor for Litro online.

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