Sex is like marriage. According to the conventional wisdom, everyone wants both.
I talk about marriage all the time here. It has been clear for quite a long time that not everyone wants that. In the U.S. (and many other nations around the world), the percentage of the adult population who is married has been dropping for decades. Even among those who do marry eventually, they are taking longer and longer to get to it. Record numbers will stay single for life.
True, some aren’t married because they haven’t found The One. But for untold numbers of others, they just aren’t interested. They don’t want to be married. Others may question them or even mock them, but they are not going to be dissuaded.
Sex is a separate issue. Consider the matter of celibacy. People who describe themselves as celibate by choice are often disbelieved. If they are ordinary people, they might get told that they are just fooling themselves about not wanting sex. If they are celebrities who publicly proclaim their commitment to celibacy, that announcement will be derided as a publicity stunt.
How should we think about this? Asexuality is relevant, and I’ve discussed that many times before. Some people don’t have sex because they just aren’t interested. But even people who do have sexual desires and have enjoyed sex in the past can decide to commit to celibacy.
I’ve been thinking about this because of a passage in Fenton Johnson’s book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life. (I’ve already discussed the book at this blog here, here, and here.)
Johnson was with a small group of friends. They were all writers, all coupled, and in their thirties or forties. Conversation turned to a trio of celebrities who had proclaimed their commitment to celibacy. Here’s how Johnson described the discussion that unfolded while he stayed silent:
“Snickers all around. “Is that really possible?” someone asked. “I mean, do you think it’s possible for a healthy person to be celibate?”
““It’s a public relations ploy,” someone announced, to nods of assent. A commitment to celibacy, my colleagues in writing decided, is either a gimmick or indicative of some deep-seated psychological trauma.”
How would you critique that conversation?
Johnson nails it with one long sentence:
“I know so many people who tell me they are celibate—many within marriage—that these writers’ unwillingness to accept the practice strikes me as evidence of a failure of knowledge (how ignorant they must be of intellectual history, to be so unaware of the long list of celibate geniuses), a failure of imagination (how strange that as writers they presume their reality is of necessity everyone’s reality), how thoroughly they have bought into the myth that life organizes itself around the literal fact of who puts what where how often, rather than the richer and more complex manifestations of desire.”
Celibacy, to Johnson, is not about a lack of fulfillment:
“Counter to the avalanche of messages from popular culture, I practice celibacy not as a negation (I resign myself to a sexless life and take up needlepoint or muscle cars to dispel the energy) but as a joyous turning inward…
“…a conscious decision to refrain from sex can be a powerful incarnation of solitude. Actively inhabited celibacy represents a decision to commit oneself for whatever length of time to a discipline—to forgo one delight (the charms of dalliance, the pleasures of light company) for a different, longer-term undertaking, the deepening of the self.
“My monk friends…speak with passion of celibacy as a conscious decision to fulfill oneself through love of many rather than of one—a communion with all rather than with a particular individual.”
It is fitting, by the way, that in a book in praise of solitaries, monks get respect rather than derision. People who think in conventional ways, when explaining why not getting enough sex is leaving them frustrated, will say things like, “I’m not a monk, you know!” They sound a lot like that pack of partnered writers, discussing deliberate celibacy like amateurs.