A sexual ethic – built upon the foundation of celibacy

by Diana L. Hayes

I would like to affirm the virtues of celibacy while, at the same time, acknowledging the greater freedom that the sexual revolution has provided, especially for women.

To be single and celibate without having taken religious vows, and sometimes even if you have, in today’s world is to be seen as something of an anomaly, someone out of sync with the times. The sexual revolution is usually interpreted as giving persons the freedom to engage in sexual intimacy without guilt or the fear of disapproval from others. As a vowed celibate laywoman, I believe, however, that that freedom has too often not just been interpreted as providing a sexual license to engage in any and all forms of sexual intimacy but, in actuality, as setting forth a mandate or demand that one must engage in sexual relationships or be labeled a puritan or prude. This overemphasis on "having" sex has too often forced us to overlook some of the more negative side effects to the sexual revolution. The individual need and desire for a loving committed relationship and the responsibility to be aware of the needs and concerns of others (whether sexual partners or friends, relatives and children) have been negatively impacted.

The sexual revolution: greater freedom for women

I would like to affirm the virtues of celibacy while, at the same time, acknowledging the greater freedom that the sexual revolution has provided, especially for women. Traditionally, in most cultures, but especially in that of the Christian West, a person was expected to remain a virgin until either married or firmly and irrevocably engaged. There were legal sanctions for men who "toyed" with the affections of a woman and then left her "ruined" and unmarriageable. Yet most of the responsibility to remain virtuous was laid at the feet of women while men were usually allowed to sow their "wild oats."

The restrictions applied only to some women, usually privileged white women. Women of color and lower-working-class women were too often seen as women without virtue regardless of how they lived their lives. They were the victims of societal stereotyping. Women of African descent in the U.S. were especially believed to be naturally promiscuous and incapable of living moral lives. As the victims of rape and other forms of sexual assault, first as slaves and later as domestics and factory workers, they were blamed for what they could not defend themselves against without risking their lives or employment. This labeling persists to the present day for poor women of color who are believed to have children for the sake of a few dollars. Little recognition is given to the fact that these women don’t usually have recourse to contraceptive methods available to more privileged women nor that they have often served as a sexual outlet for males of the dominant society to engage in acts unacceptable amongst their peers.

The limits of freedom

Today, access to contraceptives and even access to abortion, regardless of one’s views on their morality, is still too often decided by one’s economic status rather than one’s needs. At the same time, many persons of color see a push for contraception as a push towards limiting their numbers. These concerns, plus the growing alarm over the rise of HIV/AIDS cases among women and children of color, also have an impact on the mores of black community. There, the numbers of women who have contracted HIV/AIDS is rising in alarming proportions, while the numbers of gay white men, traditionally seen as the victims of this disease, are on the decline. These shifts are scary because they reveal that a community already negatively impacted by racism, sexism, and classism is now being disproportionately targeted medically as well.

The numbers are rising partly due to what can be called a conspiracy of silence within these communities. Young people are constantly bombarded with media depictions of the "joys of sex"; they listen to music which is graphic in its depiction of sexuality and almost pornographic in its negative and derogatory depictions of women. Public service announcements, usually screened late at night and rarely during the programs that attract young people, cannot possibly lift the almost criminal silence about the harmful and life-threatening "gangsta" and "thug" life. Little information is provided in schools other than on how to use a condom, which most can’t afford or be bothered with. Nothing is said about alternate styles of life which uphold and promote humanity while providing a positive outlet for feelings with which many young people are still grappling.

Obviously, there are many reasons why sex is attractive beyond the obvious: that it "feels good." The creation of a child, if we are honest, is usually far from the minds of those engaging in the sexual act, especially with new or even unknown partners. A sexual relationship, whether it lasts only one night or results in a more permanent relationship, answers many of the basic human needs. It conveys a sense of belonging, of being cared for, of being needed and desired. At the same time, it satisfies a longing for intimacy often lacking in today’s rushed and over-organized life-styles. Young people, especially, want to be accepted by their peers so much so that having sex becomes an act of initiation into adulthood.

Responsible freedom

I take my status as a vowed celibate laywoman very seriously. Initially my calling to the celibate life was something that I strongly felt but did not fully understand. It was, somehow, right for me. It was only as a result of serious effort that I grew in my understanding of my self and my calling. Many saw my celibate state as masking a fear of sexual intimacy while others believed I was lying about my commitment. Now, in light of the rise in sexually transmitted diseases and abusive relationships, many others are beginning to acknowledge the wisdom of standing back and attempting to discern who one is as an individual and how one relates to others, not just for purely selfish reasons but in a very intimate world of give and take.

A celibate lifestyle cannot simply be an afterthought or something you fall into until something better comes along. It is a way of life that must be chosen because it affects all that you are at every level. For me, the celibate state provides, not a selfish freedom of self-indulgence and irresponsibility, but a responsible freedom to live a life of service to God. My commitment is for life, yet others may be just as committed for only a part of their life. The ethic which guides my life is the response to the question cynically raised by Cain to God after he slew his brother Abel. "Am I my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper?" My answer is an unequivocal yes.

My single state has freed me not only to assist family members when in need, it has allowed me the singular grace of the company of my mother’s living and traveling with me for the last 10 years of her life, allowing us to forge a relationship which went far beyond that of mother and daughter. It has enabled me to provide opportunities, first for my nieces and nephews and now for their children, that their parents could not, an introduction to worlds and possibilities they may otherwise not have known. But it has also enabled me to change professions in mid-life, from law to theology, returning to graduate school for eight years without having to fear the impact of loss of income for anyone but myself.

Today, I am free to travel, to write, to work on behalf of others, to develop loving and close friendships with both men and women without the tensions that such relationships too often bring when the possibility of sexual intimacy is present. It has also required me to live with loneliness and to feel, at times, unloved and forgotten. But it has rewarded me in the end with experiences and relationships beyond compare. Thus, for me, and I believe many others, a sexual ethic of singleness built upon the foundation of celibacy is a viable way of being in today’s world, open to God’s call, and free to respond often with very short notice.

A sexual ethic of singleness is not easy to live in today’s world of instant gratification. It requires hard and conscious work, that of getting to know yourself as an individual and as part of another’s or others’ lives in a deeply responsible and responsive way. It requires openness to periods of loneliness and self-doubt but its reward is great. One is given the grace to walk into a new phase of a life of celibacy shared within a community of loving friends and/or a committed partnership with someone that you truly know and love. Either path is equally valid but both begin alone.l

Diana L. Hayes is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Georgetown University, specializing in black liberation theology, <hayesd@gunet.georgetown.edu>. A member of the International Grail, an ecumenical women’s religious organization, she is author of Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the U.S. (Orbis) and Were You There: Stations of the Cross (Orbis).