BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Monday, 26 April 2010 12:27 UK

What is a life without sex like?

Couple sitting on sofa

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The recent scandal over the handling of child abuse in the Catholic church has again focused attention on celibacy. But away from the arguments, what is it actually like to lead a life without having sex?

This is, we are told, a highly sexualised society.

"The roots of celibacy are in all major religions except Judaism and Islam, and even these religions insist on pre-marital virginity, at least for women," says Elizabeth Abbott
For the Catholic Church, celibacy grew up for three reasons
In interpretations of the Scriptures, celibacy was more perfect and desirable in God's eyes
Celibacy allowed priests/nuns and other devotees to consecrate their lives and thoughts to God
Celibate priests were not a financial drain on the church
There have been notable examples of Catholic clergy who did not abstain from sex, eg Pope Alexander VI
Source: Elizabeth Abbott, A History of Celibacy

In the 21st Century UK, indeed in almost all of the West, sexual imagery can be found in many places, and many young people expect to have a number of sexual partners before eventually settling down.

This perhaps may explain why the idea of a celibate lifestyle, as practised by the clergy of the Catholic Church, as well as adherents of other religions, causes a great deal of puzzlement among non-believers.

"In our sex-dominated society, people tend to view celibacy as a form of sexual anorexia - a sad and lonely state at best, unnatural at worst," says Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Celibacy.

Jimmy O'Brien was a priest for the best part of a decade before deciding he had to leave his vocation. He has now been married for 20 years to a woman he met while still a priest, and he has two children.

Born in Tipperary, Ireland, he started his training at 18. From a Catholic background, he completely accepted the idea of celibacy. But after several years as a priest in the south of England he began to change his mind.

Entering a life of celibacy - ordination of new priests at St Peter's Basilica, Vatican

"Accepting it was one thing and living it was another. Four or five years into it, it's only then the implications of the decision you made were questioned.

"It isn't so much the celibacy aspect, it is the loneliness. At 28 or 29 a lot of my friends were settling down and having children, my older brothers and sisters were having children. There was no significant other there for you."

By the time he was 34, Mr O'Brien felt he had to leave to preserve his "own personal sanity". Although he says he did not break his vows while a priest, he had already met his future wife by the time he left.

"By this stage I had kind of got myself into a relationship with a woman and was having to make that decision. It was a friendship that developed. When I did leave, the relationship I was in went onto a different level."

Derived from Latin, meaning unmarried, so a life without marriage
As sex outside marriage is discouraged in traditional Christianity, this also means a life without sex
Hence the modern secular usage of a long-term, self-imposed abstention from sex

Even in slightly more conservative times, there have always been many for whom celibacy was not easily understood. Former nun Mel Baird encountered many baffled people in the late 1960s and 1970s.

"People thought I was completely mad," she notes, and there were some who made wild allegations - that she was just odd, a lesbian, or even not celibate at all.

"Some people couldn't understand it was possible to be fulfilled and to enjoy what you were doing without being sexually active. It didn't mean I wasn't a sexual being."

But the times were certainly different when Mrs Baird began training to be a nun in 1965.

No imposition

"We are actually looking at quite a different climate. I had been brought up in a Catholic home in a Catholic school, educated by nuns.

"I never saw celibacy as a deprivation. I never denied my femininity. I was still a woman with the same feelings. It doesn't mean I wasn't interested in men or interested in having children.

"I saw my choice to become a nun as part of what I needed to do to achieve the whole. I didn't see it as an imposition."

Fr Stephen Wang
There are practical aspects to celibacy - you can get up at three in the morning to visit someone in hospital without worrying about how this will affect your marriage
Fr Stephen Wang

And while the non-believer might be preoccupied with the idea of a constant battle against multifarious temptation, Mrs Baird had support.

"You had the whole back-up of a [convent] community, unlike priests."

When the nuns were tempted they were encouraged to "pray or to go and do something positive - it is about channelling that energy".

But Mrs Baird decided before taking her final vows that she was not destined to be a nun for life.

"I was beginning to wonder whether I was in the right place. At 26 I wasn't the same person I was at 18. I had experienced life. I had grown up. I no longer found it fulfilling.

"I would have become miserable. There is such a thing as a temporary vocation."

Human intimacy

Serving priest Fr Stephen Wang - who has written on the subject - does not see celibacy as a privation.

"There are struggles. Times of loneliness; sexual desires; dreams about what marriage and fatherhood would be like. I don't think most of this is about celibacy - it's about being human."

Fr Wang sees practical arguments for celibacy, but is more moved by the idea that as a single person, Jesus and the parishioners have a central place in his life. And, most importantly, he is happy.

I don't think you would want to commit someone to living their life in a fish bowl
Jimmy O'Brien
Former priest

"You need affection and human intimacy. I've got some wonderful friends. I get home to see my family every couple of weeks. I escape to the cinema now and then. And I pray. Not to fill the gaps, because some of them can never be filled, but because the love of Christ is something very real and very consoling.

"I'm aware that it gives me a freedom of heart that is a unique gift. It helps me stay close to Christ, and draws me closer to the people I meet each day."

Neither Mrs Baird nor Mr O'Brien left their vocation to pursue a hedonistic lifestyle.

Both married and had children. Both are in professions that represent a continuity from the caring side of their previous calling - Mrs Baird has pursued a career in psychiatric nursing, while Mr O'Brien has worked with vulnerable children and now runs children's homes.

Both are still active and dedicated Catholics. Neither were condemned by fellow Catholics for the decision they made.

Mrs Baird does believe that those in a religious community, monks and nuns, should have to accept celibacy, or leave as she did. But she says priests should have a choice about whether to be celibate, at least in part to stop the church losing otherwise devoted clergymen.

For Mr O'Brien there is an argument for married priests as there is an argument for women priests, but from a personal point of view he would not necessarily have stayed as a priest were he allowed to marry.

"From a personal choice I don't think you would want to commit someone to living their life in a fish bowl."

Additional reporting by Clare Spencer

Send us your comments using the form below.

We in the UK live in a society where instancy is almost mandatory. The most pernicious advertising slogan ever was the first strapline of Access cards (now part of Mastercard) : "It takes the waiting out of wanting." Doesn't that sum-up, in a phrase, what's wrong with the majority of human behaviour?
Jeffrey, Sheffield

I totally agree with Michael's view. Our society made it hard on everyone to stick to values we once believed in maybe. I believe also that relationships breakdown, rise in STDs, dysfunctional families and even criminal behaviour have been influenced in the way we conduct ourselves when it come to sex matters. Why? because sex is such a unique expereince, such a fusion betwen 2 people, can create such a bond that it can not be taken lighlty. The very notion of sex has been distorted by our society through media, shift of mindsets etc. My onw belief is not only based on my christian living and relationship with God: having had sex before - before marriage - and knowing the consequences that has had on me and on so many other people that I know, I know now that sex before marriage makes sense. Saves a lot of heartache. Helps keep your sanity in check. Can litteraly save lives.
OyeO, Southampton

You know, like all articles about lives "without" sex, this one makes me wonder if I live in the same world as the one in which the news reports. I live surrounded by single, atheist 20-somethings and the idea that in "our society" the majority live lives of rampant promiscuity is as much a myth as the sweating, madly repressed Christian. For a great many people, "life without sex" just sort of happens, even if they used to have relationships which then ended, and while they've never ruled it out, they're not actively prowling for partners. Just as, historically, there was never a period when "everyone" was married, for all of their lives. Call it Darwinian selection if it makes you feel better- but "selfish sexual hedonism", even for people our age, is the preserve of a very noisy minority (and I'm guessing not really a new one either, just one that modern media makes more visible than they used to be, and who are no longer confined to one social class). There may be a lot of single people around, but Sex and the City is as much of a myth as Pride and Prejudice.
Lindsay, Sheffield

Mel Baird's argument that celibacy should be retained in religious communities like convents and monasteries and be a matter of choice for priest in parishes is already part of the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions. It could be a meaningful compromise solution if this matter was raised in any future general council of the Church.
Sarah, Lyon

"I don't think most of this is about celibacy - it's about being human." Indeed, the reverend has hit the nail on the head. Humans have desires, and a strong selective urge to do things that allow them to procreate. Denying those urges is inhuman, and expecting that they can be successfully denied is as silly as thinking that the urge to breathe can be successfully denied. Celibacy goes against biology, and biology wins most of the time.
Dave, Manhattan, KS - USA

Whilst I may not be particularly religious I respect anyone who sacrifices and devotes themselves to their passion. We live in a world of instant gratification and to see an example of such dedication to principles can only be a positive thing. To meditate you need to cut out all distractions so if you live a life of meditation and contemplation then I can see why sex could get in the way.
James, Tunbridge Wells

Having an active, intimate relationship with Christ is wonderful. It is so powerful that it makes the decision not to be sexually active (unless you are married to the person with whom you are being sexually active) so much easier to make and enact. It doesn't make it a trivial burden, but it does convert it into something that is a relatively minor imposition. This is something the World cannot understand, but it is the truth. And in it's lack of understanding, the World brandishes this celibacy as unnatural - borderline-to-actually deviant. A nice, big, tarry brush to slop around without care or discrimination. The problems lie with the World's view on the place of sexual activity and the place of celibacy and not with the decision of the individual as to which model to follow.
Simon Wellicome, Woking, Surrey

No matter whether you believe in creation or evolution, nobody can deny that sex is an intrinsic part of a human being's functionality. Nature intended humans to be sexual and to reproduce. Celibacy is a perversion, pure and simple.
Andy, London, UK

I think a more relevant category for many non-clergy/lay people in this day and age, is chastity. Often this has been identified with celibacy, but as Abbot Christopher Jamison says (in his 'Finding Happiness') it should be thought of as faithfulness to one's sexual status. Sustaining long-term, deep and meaningful relationships in the twenty-first century western countries has become deeply challenging, especially for so-called generations X and Y.

We are exposed to sexually provocative images on a daily basis - on buses, in magazines, newspapers (all types of advertising), and we are often at a loss when it comes to being faithful to our partners. Just like the TV show, we are the Friends generation - a group characterised by the experience of great difficulty in making life-choices, especially in the area of relationships. The concept of chastity - and the wider narrative offered by authors such as Abbot Christopher Jamison can give guidance to the millions of people struggling to live with integrity, peace of mind, and depth and stability in relationships.
Aaron, Camberwell, London

I am 31 and have only recently come out of celibacy despite being somewhat agnostic. There are many reasons outside of religion why people choose to be celibate which you have not listed in your article. For me, I was waiting until I have found the right person. Describing your feelings for someone is certainly more convincing when you chose to come out of celibacy.
Dean Shaw, South Coast

The rules on pre-marital sex are the same for men and women in Islam.
Mamoon Razaq, Keighley, England

This is no different to smoking, drinking or gambling! If people are told not to do something, or told something is bad for them, then they will always be curious of it. It is better to let people explore and make their own decisions as to whether they want sex in their life.
Graham Davies, Aldershot

Perhaps we're in danger of equating sexual activity with being human, or abstinence with abnormality. This was the fallacy in Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code - that Jesus could only have been human if he'd had sex with someone else.
Nick, London, UK

The idea of sexual self control is entirely foreign to our society, as is the sanctity of sex itself. In age where prostitution, pornography and promiscuity are rife, people have simply lost what is special about sex. Celibacy is not just for nuns, monks and priests. Every Christian agrees that sex is something for marriage - an incredible gift to share with one person and explore it together. As we lose that uniqueness, we separate sex from love, and society travels further down the road it is on - selfish sexual hedonism.

And I say that as a 21-year-old red blooded unmarried Christian man. I'm am getting married this year. I used to be desperate to have sex - but now, I am just desperate to be with my wife. Love, not lust.
Michael, Glasgow

As an Anglican, I've always found the Catholic practice of confession to a male celibate priest a rather bizarre idea, and one that would make me feel most uncomfortable. Someone once described it to me as confessing your darkest deeds and secrets to a man who's never experienced what it is you did or felt. A married priest on the other hand, whether male or female, is surely more likely to be able to identify with you, and thus be more reassuring, than a man who's probably never experienced what you're talking about?
Anna, Bangor, Wales

I've often thought that the whole celibacy thing was more a punishment for being in God's service than a reward. Our own family priest, High Anglican, would have been Catholic had it not been for that very issue. In the interest of safety and sanity I believe the Catholic Church, especially in light of todays news, should allow those who lead it's flocks that wish to engage in normal sexual relationiships to do so, it might save a lot of innocent people a life time of grief. Or better still, do not let people into this service until they are older and have actually experienced that which they are to forever live without and see if this is truely what they want. I could have no more been a nun at 20 than President of the United States. Now, at 50 and five years of being a "born again virgin" had I the inclination, it could happen.
Lvit2Bieber, Shingletown, CA, USA

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