During the 1960s, when the so-called sexual revolution was at its height, I believed that the world could be made a better and happier place if only we were able to shed our inhibitions, repressions and hang-ups about sex.
In those days I was truly convinced, like many other young people of my generation, that if we could reverse the narrow-minded, intolerant, fearful and sternly moralistic attitudes of previous generations we could all become more loving, more warm-hearted, more creative, vital and attractive.
Most of the sex advice books written during this period underlined the idea that the world could be saved by sex - without, of course, enduring the messy and inconvenient complications of an unwanted pregnancy. Many therapists of that era encouraged their neurotic and mentally disturbed patients to 'find themselves' and become better balanced individuals through positive experiences of sex. Sometimes, surrogate partners would be provided for the purpose. We liked to believe then that much mental illness as well, resulted from long-held repressions, and that these could be released through sex.
Now, twenty years later, I no longer believe that ever more frequent sex has the power to make the world a better place. Though I would not advocate a return to the dark days of the nervous, frightened attitudes to sex which characterized some previous generations, I am certain that human problems and difficulties can never be resolved through physical sex. Nor do I believe that sex brings people together in any real or lasting way, or that it can clear the mind and enhance creativity. I now know that sex does not and cannot contribute to either mental or physical health.
In fact, my views about sex are in many ways the complete opposite of those I held a couple of decades ago. The reason for this is that with increasing maturity I have been able to observe for myself that more frequent physical sex has not added one jot to the sum of the world's happiness. Rather, it has probably been instrumental in compounding the sum of human misery.
We now have more divorces than at any other time in history, more young people are attempting suicide, and the number of those addicted to drugs and other mind-altering substances is going up all the time. In addition, the state of people's health, in every country, is extremely precarious. The incidence of heart disease and cancer is increasing, while more and more people are suffering from stress-related conditions.
Though we cannot blame all the world's present problems on the amount of sexual activity taking place, it is the case that much modern malaise can be directly or indirectly related back to sexual attitudes. We have come to believe that we 'need' sex, that we have a God-given right to sexual satisfaction, and this has led us to exploit other people's bodies to release our own frustrations. Cases of rape and the sexual abuse of children have become terrifyingly commonplace and are starting to worry men as well as women. Furthermore, the search for sex is making us ever more restless, anxious and afraid.
As I once believed that sex was the answer to many deep-seated human difficulties, so I am now certain that a positive commitment to celibacy is the sensible way forward. Now celibacy - once exalted as a higher ideal than a sexually active existence - has in recent decades become very unpopular. So unpopular is it that there are currently moves to allow Catholic priests, almost the only celibate-by-choice people left in Western society, to marry and still remain members of the clergy.
Celibacy has come to be regarded with extreme distaste, because
we have been led to believe that sex is (a) necessary and (b) natural. In fact,
it is neither. Apart from its purpose in propagating the species, sex is no
more necessary to our daily lives than a glass of whisky or a cream bun.
All the celibate people I have interviewed have spoken of the benefits of the non-sexual life, and have claimed that it is celibacy, rather than sex, which frees the individual and confers happiness. Celibacy , according to its adherents, can make people stronger in themselves, more autonomous, more self-confident and certainly more creative and intelligent. It also brings about an improved state of physical health.
It seems to me that celibacy, rather than sex, can enhance health and general well-being. One of the most important ways it can do this is that it reduces the amount of stress and sex hormones circulating in the system. Wildly fluctuating hormone levels, which always accompany sexual activity, have the effect of decreasing resistance to many illnesses, and reducing the body's ability to withstand infections.
A few years ago, the very idea of celibacy for non-religious people
would hardly have been entertained. Now, however, things have changed dramatically.
We have all become aware that the sexual revolution has not delivered what it
promised and that we are more confused, more bewildered, more unhappy than we
were before. But also, diseases related to sex have become a frightening world-wide
epidemic. AIDS in particular, a fatal disease for which no cure has yet been
developed, has forced people to reappraise their sexual attitudes and ask whether
there are better, healthier and more satisfying ways of relating to other people
than by having sex with them.
Celibate people, it need hardly be said, do not succumb to AIDS. Neither do they catch herpes simplex, another incurable sexually transmitted disease (STD), and celibate women never have cervical cancer. In addition, the stress and blood-pressure rates of celibates are lower, and the incidence of heart disease and cancer among them is far lower.
Celibate people, on the whole, live lives that are healthier than those of people who have promiscuous sex. They smoke and drink less, are more likely to be vegetarian and are considerably less likely to succumb to any kind of addiction.
But the biggest plus for celibates is that they usally find their relationships with other people are improved. As they are non-sexual, they tend to see others as individual human beings, rather than simply as bodies which can be categorized attractive or not attractive and accepted or rejected as such. At the same time, they do not suffer to such a great extent from the negative emotions associated with an active sex life, such as greed, jealousy, lust, possessiveness, dependence and anger.
Celibacy emancipates both men and women from their dependency and over-reliance on each other, and enables them to be friends rather than enemies. George Bernard Shaw observed nearly a hundred years ago that the greatest stumbling block to female emancipation was lust, both female and male. We still have not heeded his advice, and many feminists continue to believe that more and better sex is the way to liberation.
Many people are frightened even to think about celibacy because they imagine that such a way of life is impossible. However, most people who are celibate because it is one of the requirements of their religious vocation say that chastity is actually the easiest of their disciplines and the 'secular celibates' also say they have not found giving up sex any kind of problem. We have, unfortunately, come to see wild, frequent sex as the norm whereas, in fact, a positive commitment to celibacy frees both body and spirit.
You may ask: if the whole world suddenly became celibate, what would happen to future generations? My answer to that is that the world never will become celibate, so it is a hypothetical question of little significance. But if the world were to be celibate for only a year, the global population problem would be solved. At the same time, the incidence of AIDS, herpes, cervical cancer and other STDs would instantly decrease.
When I speak about positive celibacy, I do not mean that sexual desires should be rigorously repressed and sublimated or that it is necessary to resort to a regime of cold baths and puritanical habits. If one thinks about sex all the time and has to deny oneself, celibacy has no value. It is only when there is no desire for sex that there is benefit.
A desire for sex lessens when there is understanding of what the sex drive, sexual frustration and sexual fulfillment ae all about. This I shall try to explain in the chapters that follow. We have been afraid to 'let go' of sex because we do not really understand what it is. Once we do, its hold on our lives can be reduced.
The prevailing myth has been that the only proper way to live is by having an active and varied sex life. We have not understood that its alternative, celibacy, can actually have much to recommend it. But it can never be positive while it is seen as giving something up. It is only when definite benefits of celibacy are seen that sex can be relinquished. I am sure that celibacy, not necessarily as a commitment for ever and ever, but as an option at certain crucial times in a person's life, has far more advantages than a desperate searching for bigger and better orgasms.
As we do not have to be sexual, neither do we have to be celibate if we do not want ot be. All I am saying is: why not consider it? Since sex has patently not worked any magic, or brought about any long-term contentment, it is perhaps time to think about other, possibly more rewarding, ways of living one's life.
Liz Hodgkinson is a freelance health journalist living in London. She has written a number of books and articles on a variety of health-related topics. The above article is from the introduction to her book "Sex is not Compulsory" which was published in 1986.
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