by Ericka Stephens-Rennie
I just started Lisa Graham McMinn’s book, Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World. I hope to post a full review when I finish the book, but wanted to comment on the concept of celibacy.
McMinn approaches the topic of sex from (what I’d call) a traditional Christian perspective. Namely, that sex within marriage is good, but sex outside of marriage is sin. McMinn acknowledges that adolescence is a time when young people begin to have feelings of sexual awakening. But more and more young people are waiting years to get married (the average age for women is 26.5, the average for men is 27.5)! So what to do about the fifteen plus years of awakened sexuality, minus an appropriate sexual outlet?
But McMinn’s concept of celibacy seems, frankly, lacking.
Before the return of our Creator, she notes, we will be unable to truly satisfy our longing for perfect relationship with others. “Sexuality,” states McMinn, “is more than sex; it is about experiencing the world through bodies that are male and female. The exploration of relational feelings, desires, and experiences is appropriate and healthy. “…We can celebrate a choice of refraining, for a time, from pairing up sexually or romantically with another. Dare I call this adolescent celibacy? (55)”
McMinn tries to transform the choice from “abstaining from sex” to “choosing to be celibate.” I suppose part of what McMinn wants to do is empower adolescents to frame their decision according to a conception of positive liberty (i.e. I am free and choose to…) instead of negative liberty (ie. I am free from…). I get that. But McMinn doesn’t develop this idea, doesn’t speak to many benefits of adolescent celibacy.
“Celibacy may close some doors, but primarily it is about opening others. To be celibate so that one can focus on attaining particular goals is an affirmation of personhood and calling. To be celibate so that one can establish deep and meaningful friendships with both sexes affirms personhood in others. Celibacy frees people to love widely, to serve lavishly, to focus on the needs of others. Celibacy ground friendship in mutual respect and warmth. For one who chooses celibacy, there is freedom t use touch to nurture and affirm friends without fear of compromising integrity, or the future relationships of those friends, or one’s on future marriage” (p 56).
Ok, what? I’m with her on the first bits – that celibacy can be an affirmation of personhood and calling. But how does celibacy allow one to establish deep friendships in a way that non-celibacy does not? Are friendships between non-celibate men and women not grounded in mutual respect and warmth? Can men and women who aren’t married not touch each other? (And what sorts of touch, exactly, can celibate people use without compromising integrity that non-celibate people can’t?)
How do “friendships, appreciating the company of the other sex, enjoying the beauty and sexual appeal of the other sex, affirming touch that is nonsexual or asexual” somehow “recognize and validate sexuality” (p 56)?
Sexual maturation comes as young as age 10, and marriage comes, on average, 17 years later. In those intervening 17 years the messaging about sex is everywhere. Let’s face it, our young people are soaked in a culture that is ambivalent (at best) to premarital sex. It’s on tv, it’s on billboards, it’s even on radio. It’s at school, it’s with friends, it’s at the mall.
Our faith communities don’t talk about it. Our families leave it to the schools. Our schools teach condom-on-banana mechanics and statistics.
It’s high time we, as people of faith, start to have conversations about this with each other. It’s high time we prayed, conversed with our God. It’s high time we, as people of faith, armed our young people with information. It’s high time, we, as people of faith, discipled our young people to own their faith.
Because, I think, if we hope to empower our young people to make redemptive choices about their sexual lives, then we’ve got to do better than this.
As I continue to read this book, I’d like to invite you to contribute to the discussion here. What do you think about the concept of “adolescent celibacy” or celibacy in general? I’d love to hear from single Christians who are engaging with their sexuality – how does that look in your life? What about the concept of saving sex until marriage – is that God’s plan or just one interpretation? And, finally, how do we work to keep our young people safe (and by that I particularly mean safe from STIs, and teen pregnancy) while at the same time supporting them and empowering them to make their own choices?