The right to no sex: a case for celibacy

What the sexual revolution forgot

Celibacy is commonly associated with cloistered religious groups, or more recently with extremist incels. Yet in a world where 'Yes' to desire has dominated narratives of sexual liberation, Lisabeth During invites us to reconsider the radical potential of 'No' and examine how celibacy challenges norms and offers unique avenues for political dissent.


“We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power...It is the agency of sex that we must break away from.” - Michel Foucault

Was the sexual revolution worth the trouble? It is easy enough to make a case in its defense.  Pleasure is rare enough: we should welcome any effort to improve the conditions for its enjoyment. Before the call for liberation, sex was a magnet for taboo, for contradictory and confusing messages. Ignorance was dangerous to physical as to mental health. Drawing a veil over the world of the bedroom hindered the work of doctors, educators, and those simply desiring a better understanding of their own inclinations and imaginations. And expecting women to carry the burden of sexual morality as well as the responsibilities for reproduction and childcare was an injustice too blatant to ignore. A greater openness to sexuality removed one of the key arguments supporting the subordination of women, the worry about their sexual vulnerability, the stigma of the 'fallen woman'. The emancipation of the libido was a heady political promise. In its most radical it encouraged a principled assault on the sacred institutions of marriage and the family. Reproduction, no longer the alibi of intercourse, could be unyoked from sex; happiness, not the duties imposed by God and nature, was enough of a reason; and shorn of its reproductive rationale, heterosexuality lost its inevitability, perhaps even its power to determine the patterns of mind and culture. 

Obscured in the general rush to be liberated was the freedom to be celibate, to say No to sex and to live that No. Before improvements in the legal and social position of women, the celibate option existed as an anomaly, at times a barely tolerated exception. The unmarried woman - the feme sole - had rights and entitlements denied to the married woman - the feme covert - who was an extension of her husband, her political and economic identity swallowed up into his. The unmarried queen, as Elizabeth Tudor recognised, has authority as a virgin that she surrenders when she allows a man to share her official bed, or even to play the part of the lover with her. And the extreme rebels, the followers of wild goddesses like Diana, or the warriors like Joan of Arc, or the anchorites and nuns who leave their families to live according to a special and sacrosanct rule, they also know about the privilege of sovereign singularity. Here was a method of escaping domesticity, at least on the terms imposed by others. Historically, celibate and sexually non-playing women were crucial to reform movements, pioneers in women's education. One would think celibacy, at least among feminists, would have a good reputation. 


But however various the interpretations of pleasure, however complex the relationships and kinship networks considered by the sexual revolutionaries, they never said that it was okay to put sex aside, that it was possible to refuse what Foucault called 'the agency of sex'.


The sexual revolution said that it was okay to put marriage aside (for the sake of more adventurous personal possibilities). To be liberated was to be indifferent to social stigmas and moral scorn, to pursue sexual experiences undeterred by censorship or convention. But however various the interpretations of pleasure, however complex the relationships and kinship networks considered by the sexual revolutionaries, they never said that it was okay to put sex aside, that it was possible to refuse what Foucault called 'the agency of sex'. To be liberated you must express yourself, a new and equally demanding 'must'. And to play the game properly under the new rules, you must be desirable and you must desire. You can say No to one regime of sex: the repressed one, the regime of taboos, frustrations, silences, prurience, euphemisms. But you cannot say No to the new regime of liberty and license, or you risk being unemancipated all over again. 

One moment of the sexual revolution that was particularly optimistic was the 1920s in Weimar Germany. Even before the war and the collapse of the imperial order, a broadly based sex reform movement was active and attracting attention. Doctors and psychiatrists met to formulate demands for challenges in the laws, the administration of public health, the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality; Magnus Hirschfeld, who founded the Institute for Sexual Research in 1919, wrote in 1904 that the cause of sexual freedom is the cause of every 'humanitarian', everyone who cares about the alleviation of human woe and human pain. Fans of the Republic, especially on the left of the Social Democrats and the Communists, took this message to heart. The sex reform leagues had more than 150,000 members but many more who read their publications, wrote anxious letters to their advice columns, and took advantage of the public clinics offering counseling in achieving sexual health and happiness. Freudians helped. The 'imposition of sexual morality', Wilhelm Reich complained, was a 'plague', causing neurosis and suicide, and directly contributing to sexual brutality.  The more people know and appreciate their sexual feelings, the happier they will be, and the more likely they will be to support revolution, since class society and class oppression are intimately connected to sexual repression. The free expression of desire was healthy. It was life-affirming. It would free humanity from shame and self-loathing. And it would also enhance the German tourist industry, which benefitted from Weimar's flamboyant reputation and its tolerance of sexual minorities. Clubs proliferated in cities like Berlin to cater to every sexual taste. Prudishness about sex was meant to be left behind, as out of date as the authoritarian habits of the pre-war. Moral rigor and sexual decorum had failed to secure Germany from defeat and humiliation. Much was to be expected from the generation too young to be responsible.

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In these circumstances, the journalist Grete Ujehly published a “Call for Sexual Tolerance” in Der Querschnitt (1930). It is a great age for casting off conventions, Ujehly admitted. Yet not everything is as nice as it seems. What isn't tolerated in tolerant Berlin? Who gets shunned in progressive circles? She who says No to a proposition: “The unhappy woman who does not want to.” She is briskly told off for her reactionary and unhealthy opinions:

Have you ever said No to one of the lords of creation? . . .The result is a popular lecture for the next half hour from the angle of psychoanalysis, with primary emphasis on that nice, handy word inhibitions. When that stratagem comes to nothing, the man in his fine logical security concludes you are either frigid or stupid. Usually both. The conclusion, which despite everything remains possible, that his nose perhaps does not appeal to you, has yet to be drawn.

In the Germany of the 1920s, she writes, everyone knows we have won sexual freedom. Everyone can have as much as they like. Yet it isn't wholly true that the sexual revolution had brought about tolerance. On the contrary: “Demands have turned into dogma with amazing speed.” Why has a “prescriptive notion of sexuality come into being”—one as rigid and severe as the moral system of the Middle Ages? Why do the granddaughters and grandsons of those who fought for sexual reform, for women's participation is sexual pleasure, stumble, in their “philosophical naiveté, into this confusion, of right with duty?” Ujhely mocks the presumption of the 'lords of creation' who start with a defence of the 'right' to sex and end with their 'right' to be the object of another's sexual desire.  She is clear: 'every woman has the right, but none the duty'. The sexual revolution has created new forms of manipulation, new opportunities for oppression and asymmetry.

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Sex-positive feminists, with leaders in the 1970s like the Americans Ellen Willis and Gayle Rubin, understood that how to have sex is a political question. How not to have sex didn't show up in their political projections. The struggles were elsewhere: it might be necessary, for example, to accept the crudest forms of pornography and perversion rather than lose the radical impulse that feminism needed. The fact that there were some sexual dissidents (not just the Shakers or god-intoxicated hermits) who believed in something like 'chaste liberation' was a detour most radical feminists didn't want to explore. Puritanism was too big a worry. The Yes to desire was too catchy a theme; permissiveness (unsurprisingly) too popular. I think we can reconsider this detour, even risk being unpopular. I want to defend saying No to sex as at least a disparate position on the map of sex, a map otherwise over-inscribed with the figure of the genitals. Celibacy is a different way of opting out, of choosing to say No, renouncing - for oneself, not for others - the norms of sexual identity, the couple, marriage. The celibate is an outsider within. They may be single when everyone else is coupled off, or seeking to be so. They may abstain from sexual acts and erotic entanglements. In comparison to the rest of us, this makes them hard to determine, hard to place.  It is a slippery identity, celibacy.  It shares a history with another form of deviance from contemporary moral fashion, chastity: the renunciation of sex and sexual excess in the name of a purity of mind and body.  Linked to chastity, celibacy acquires a spiritual significance. But that is not necessarily something to be shunned. As a religious vocation, celibacy removes you from what everyone else takes for granted. The priestly celibate (the eunuch by choice) is freed from the world, in anticipation of the sexless and anomalous condition of the kingdom of heaven.  Asceticism is a power and a privilege; without familial obligations, the celibate is released to care for the universal rather than the particular, to live in communities bound by affinity or common purpose.  But not all spinsters and bachelors need a religious justification.  On the margins of conventional social life, the celibate exists as an embodiment of dissidence, a suppressed memory of transcendence and ascetic perfectionism, or just an interesting 'why not."


When women avoid sex that is more than a squeamish coquetry: it is, or can be, a political act


Yet just as the sexual revolution was uncomfortable with the deserters from the party of desire, so leaders of second-wave feminism expressed worry about rise of a backlash within their movement. As Alice Echols puts it in her history of radical feminism from 1967-1975, Daring to Be Bad, women who experimented with celibacy or separatism were 'accused of retreating from the sexual battlefield.' The 'pro-sex' faction would go on to fight about pornography, prostitution, S/M, and the extension of feminism to transgender rights. Their opponents included such strong-minded thinkers as Valerie Solanas, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Andrea Dworkin, Roxanne Dunbar and the 'Women Against Sex' (WAS), all willing to consider the radical possibility of celibacy, chastity, sexual renunciation. They argued that the way out of coercion was not going to pass through the heterosexual relationship. It was the problem. How could it be the solution? How could more sex make sex better? What about no sex at all? Was there emancipatory potential in chastity? At a conference called 'The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism' (New York, April 1987), the Southern Women's Writing Collective or “Women Against Sex” (WAS) outlined their objections: sex– meaning heterosexual intercourse—is not politically neutral. It is a dynamic of male dominance and female submission. If it doesn't subordinate women, it is not sex. When women avoid sex that is more than a squeamish coquetry: it is, or can be, a political act. When feminist consciousness enters the picture, women's historical sex avoidance becomes an act of sex resistance, whose goal is not only personal integrity but political freedom. Sex, Solanas wrote in the SCUM Manifesto, is a 'gross waste of time'. Cell 16, a Boston-based feminist group founded in 1968 by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, practiced sex separatism, celibacy, and karate. Their journal of female liberation was called "No More Fun and Games". They found no more potential in sex with women than with men. If there was less fun, so be it. The celibate state challenges heteronormativity even more effectively than political lesbianism, which can often descend into an imitation of oppressive structures and habits. Maybe it is the whole business of sex that can be viewed as a distraction, easily abjured for a richer, more inventive uses of emotional and intellectual energies.  Maybe the celibate is really the one who knows.     


Sexual renunciation is not, on its own, going to revolutionise institutions, but its radical history and unique potential as a tool of dissent should no longer go overlooked.


The feminist project was right to expect more from collective acts of bonding, where association is formed outside the net of sexuality, apart from the family, away from the tyranny of the couple. I think the potential has not been fully explored. Celibacy can be, in this context, a dissonant voice, an opening to other definitions, other needs. It also comes into play as a form of political and moral protest, as in the tradition of Aristophanes's rebel women in the Lysistrata (411 BC), where women from warring city-states in Greece during the Peloponnesian War convened, and decided to withhold sexual privileges from men until peace was declared. Celibacy - and we could add, sexual renunciation, militant chastity - can be practised in the name of social dissonance, as an embodied critique of business as usual, of male habits and decisions.

The idea of a 'sex strike' continues to fascinate. In March 2012, according to the Daily Mail, Madrid's 'luxury-grade' sex workers launched a boycott of investment bankers, who were refusing loans to struggling wage-earners while earning huge bonuses.  The prostitutes were joined in demonstrations by flamenco dancers and civic minded elderly Spaniards, but it was the anti-sex message that got into the news. Beyond performative flash, politicised abstinence has its limits. Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her leadership in the struggle “for the safety of women and women's rights,” used as one of her tactics the call for a 'sex strike' in the name of forcing the warring Liberian factions to come to the negotiating table. Yet beyond publicity, sex strikes could only do so much; patient, persistent mobilising was what gave Gbowee and her allies an edge, rallying thousands of women against the brutal Charles Taylor and his supporters. Withholding sex is a fragile form of activism, as the sex strikers in Aristophanes's Lysistrata knew perfectly well, there are always plenty of sexual outlets, from boys to whore to household slaves. Sexual renunciation is not, on its own, going to revolutionise institutions, but its radical history and unique potential as a tool of dissent should no longer go overlooked.

Further Reading:

  • Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse
  • Lisabeth During, The Chastity Plot
  • Alice Echols, Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975
  • Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg, eds., The Weimar Republic Sourcebook
  • Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life
  • Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century
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Cee Gesange 2 September 2023

This article claims Joan of Arc and medieval nuns were "rebels" who took vows of celibacy to avoid marriage; but they actually did so for religious reasons that had nothing to do with "rebellion" and everything to do with obedience to the moral precepts of their religion. Joan of Arc said the saints in her visions ordered her to "maintain my virginity as long as it pleases God", which is pretty much the opposite of rebellion.