A History of Celibacy, by Elizabeth Abbott (29/107)

There was a meme I came across a few years back: grab the book closest to you, and then append “…in my pants” to the title. What was mine?

A History of Celibacy

…haaaaaah. So apt, except when it’s not.

I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until now though, when I started doing the research for a Judge Dredd fic and suddenly it became highly relevant to my interests.


So in the comics canon, judges are celibate. Not only that, but judge training starts in childhood, between the ages of 5-7, so they never have any experience with civilian life at all. I don’t know if there’s a decent justification provided for it (though I can come up with half a dozen) or if it’s just oppressive 1984-style fascism in action, but this is a thing that they take seriously, and you will get your ass demoted or kicked out entirely if you can’t comply.

What’s cool is that Dredd doesn’t get a pass for being the main character.

Dredd is celibate. Entirely. Dredd has no love interest. Ever. There are no fridged girlfriends (and consequently no fueled-by-dead-female-furious-vengeance plotlines), no damsels-in-distress plotlines, no thinking-with-your-dick plotlines. He is indifferent to feminine wiles. They don’t say so in as many words, but he has never had sex.

Maybe it’s because Dredd’s comic, 2000 AD, was a British rather than an American invention (also, the product of an earlier time, hearkening back to when heroes were too busy adventuring to have time for girls) but it still puts him in staggering contrast to the line-up of other comic book heroes, whose status as a symbol of ideal and enviable masculinity is vested as much in their ability to punch villains in the face with their bulging biceps as their ability to land a succession of improbably hot women. (Batman, I’m looking at you.) Access to sex, sexual potency, and sexual prowess have become so fundamental to the American standard of Real Manliness that lack of it is cause for derision, and it’s a rare guy past the age of puberty who’s not embarrassed to admit to being the ghastly v-word.

Don’t worry, guys — Dredd’s in your corner!

So the book I read, A History of Celibacy. It’s an overview of the various ways that celibacy has been practiced throughout history, in many different places around the world, and for innumerable different reasons. It’s good, quite a brisk read considering that it’s about people not having sex.

One thing that jumps out immediately is that the motivations for female celibacy — from enforced female chastity, to choosing lifelong virginity as an alternative to the male domination of marriage — are usually completely different from the motives for male celibacy — career advancement, beliefs about spiritual purity and/or avoiding female “defilement”, bizarre notions of health and increasing athletic performance.

But another recurring theme in her explorations is the question of whether these people are voluntarily celibate, and the answer is often very murky. There are plenty of people throughout history who have found the opportunities awarded by celibacy (from mandatory schoolmarm virginity to Byzantine eunuchs and Catholic priests) to outweigh the drawbacks, but this book takes it for granted that it seriously chafed and that everyone would rather also be having sex if they could.

Not surprising, considering that the people who had their opinions about their celibacy recorded for posterity were the ones who were vocally unhappy and having trouble maintaining it, but she overlooks a rather important fact:

Celibacy comes easy to some people.

It comes easy to me. As I was writing this, it occurred to me to wonder when was the last time I had sex, and the answer was… I dunno, November? Earlier maybe? For a while there I was making an effort to date, then I got bored and cut them all loose, and huh, that was seven months ago and I hadn’t even noticed.

(This is one reason why plots based on characters making self-evidently bad decisions because they’re thinking with their crotch are so alienating to me. Bad decisions for the sake of love, sure, but for straight-up lust? Are your hands broken, that you can’t take care of it yourself? o_O)

It’s not because I’m asexual, because I’m not; I’ve been intensely in love before and I’ve had spectacular sex before. It’s that when I’m not getting any, I don’t feel the lack of it. If I were in a situation that enforced celibacy, it wouldn’t be a daily struggle with temptation, because when I see hot people I’m not struck by the urge to do anything about it. I would run into trouble if I formed a close personal connection with someone that I wanted to shag blind, but that also happens incredibly infrequently. I am, it would seem, predisposed to celibacy.

And by all appearances, so is Dredd.

Admittedly, there is also the straight-dude fantasy of having gorgeous women falling all over you and being so Stoic and Manly (and getting your play elsewhere) that you can brush them off, but I don’t get that sense here. As Hello Tailor observed in her trenchant review, Dredd is notable (and refreshing) for his utter lack of ego. The scenario that I find more interesting — and far more plausible — is that Dredd’s unwavering lack of sexuality is less because of some Manly Strength of Will and more because he’s actualfax not interested. It’s easy to abstain from things that aren’t a temptation, and doesn’t take any personal virtue.


Dude has no interest in pleasure.

However, he’s not an emotionless robot either — that’s made clearer in the comics than in the film, where we get more dialogue from him and insight into what he’s thinking. He has feelings, he just doesn’t have those feelings, or doesn’t have them strong enough to trouble him.

But what about the rest of the judges?

Because for every one dude who’s inclined to celibacy and founds a celibate order, the majority of the hundreds or thousands (or millions) who come after him are probably going to have more trouble with it. Dredd may find it easy to obey that particular stricture, but if the Catholic church is any indication, requiring judges to be celibate could quickly become more trouble than it’s worth for Megacity-1’s Justice Department.

An extensive study by Richard Sipe titled A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy calculates that about 40 percent of U.S. priests are routinely uncelibate, a figure that excludes those whose lapses are infrequent.

Many cheat and take lovers… Others find the struggle intolerable and finally leave; of those who do so, 94 percent identify their discomfort with celibacy as their prime motive. Since Vatican II, over one hundred thousand have joined the exodus, more than one every two hours, nearly one quarter of the world’s working priests. In the United States, 42 percent of priests leave within 25 years of their ordination.

Barring sci-fi solutions like libido-killers in the drinking water or genetically engineering the sex drive out of judges, the only way that system would work would be to convince judges themselves of the necessity for celibacy, so that they’re doing it by choice and not just waiting for their chance to break it. Two things are at work in my head here:

There was a story (a study, but I can’t source it so we’ll class it as an anecdote), in which child behavior psychologists or whatever would put kids in a room with a whole bunch of different toys, among them a really cool big robot. “Now kids,” they would say. “You can play with anything you like except the robot. I WILL BE SO ANGRY IF YOU PLAY WITH THE ROBOT.” And then they’d leave the room.

…Yeah I think you can guess what the kids went for the moment the door closed.

A different group of kids, however, was put in the same room of toys and instead told, “You can play with anything except the robot. IT IS WRONG TO PLAY WITH THE ROBOT.”

And even left unattended, they generally… didn’t. In a follow-up experiment a few months later, the same group of kids in the same room still didn’t play with the robot, even without being warned off it this time. (“OMG,” I said when I heard this. “They ruined those poor kids on robots forever!”)

The point here is that getting people to obey the rules out of their own free will is far more effective than teaching them to obey the rules only when an authority figure is watching (and break the fuck out of those rules as soon as they’re not going to get caught!!).

The other thing that this reminded me of was Robert Cialdini’s observations in his pop-psychology bestseller Influence, when he talks about how people will behave in accordance with what they perceive themselves to be, and actively do the things that they consider appropriate for the type of person they believe themselves to be.

For example, if you give someone a survey that asks if they are a compassionate person and they claim yes, then they become primed to behave in a way befitting a “compassionate person.” They are provably more likely to shell out bucks when solicited for a (supposedly unrelated) charity effort, even weeks after taking that throwaway little survey. Not because they think anyone’s checking up on them, but because they’ve internalized I am a compassionate person, and this is what compassionate people do.

If you can get someone to stake their identity on I am a ____ person, then you can strongly influence their behavior by convincing them that this is what ____ people do. This is how so many Christians who have no real opinion about gay issues one way or the other get roped to the anti-gay bandwagon, because all these alleged Christian authorities are telling them that that is the Christian position.

Likewise, if you are the Justice Department and you want your judges to stay celibate, you’re far better off tapping into I am a judge and judges do not do sex than trying to police them. There are many possible ways to justify it — judges are more effective without the distractions of sex and romance; a judge’s highest loyalty has to be to the law, and relationships create a conflict of interest; the job is so dangerous that it’s not something you want to send anyone with a family into, and so on. Take people whose entire identity is rooted in being a judge and convince them that succumbing to romance would make them fundamentally unfit for that, and they’ll be just as invested in maintaining their celibacy as you are.

Which begs the question of whether the Catholic Church has failed to harness the power of “acting in accordance with self-identity” to get their people to stay celibate (and maybe the judges could do it better) or whether no amount of psychology and sophistry is going to win out against the human sex drive (and the Justice Department would have the same rampant problems with chastity that the church does). Any thoughts?

o hay, Anderson!

(In the movie Anderson is presented as very nearly unique, but in the comic they have an entire psi division, judges who can be telepathic, precognitive, telekinetic, or some combination of the above. So there are others like her, but for the purposes of this discussion she’s the one I’m focusing on.)

All the cues that we’ve been societally pre-programmed to look for point to Anderson being the character more likely to get emotional — younger, female, empath, for god’s sake — but I really, seriously dislike the idea of an Anderson pining after a Dredd who is far too disciplined and stoic to ever stoop to that, so I promise you that is not a place I am going. They’re both professionals who take their duties extremely seriously, and I don’t see why Anderson should be any less capable of celibacy or less committed to it than Dredd.

However, her experience with celibacy is going to differ from Dredd’s in one crucial respect: Anderson knows what she’s missing. She’s psychic, she’s spent a lot of time in other people’s heads, and people spend a lot of time thinking about sex. It might not make a difference while she’s in training, since everyone around her would also be a judge (so she might overhear fantasies, but no hard facts), but once she’s delving into civilian minds on a regular basis, she is going to be exposed to all the aspects of sex and intimacy that judges are denied. Frankly, I would expect her theoretical knowledge of the subject to be pretty damn comprehensive.

And maybe she feels it at a remove, like a scientist observing mating habits in chimps. Maybe she feels it too much and without proper delineation, so all of a person’s experiences of love and sex mash together into this big ball of agony and ecstasy that she’s just as glad to have no part in. Or maybe she experiences love in their memories and it feels nice, but she’s content to experience it secondhand. Or maybe when she immerses herself in someone’s memories of loving and being loved, it’s a wrench and it hurts to come out of that, to open her eyes and find herself back in her own life where she is never, ever going to feel that for herself.

I don’t think any of that has to compromise her professionalism, but it’s going to be shaping an outlook very different from Dredd’s.

It’s interesting to be writing two fully mature adults who are not only entirely lacking in any kind of sexual experience, but who lack even the framework for it. It means I get to write eroticism that doesn’t follow the established progression, and may not end up in the same place.

(And — in a terribly Victorian twist — taking away all the overt sexiness amplifies the erotic charge in things that would otherwise be unremarkable. That twenty second scene at the end of the movie, where they’re riding the elevator down and he is so-very-gently cleaning out the bullet wound in her abdomen — that shouldn’t be sexy, she’s hurt, but it’s strikingly intimate in the context of everything else that happens in that movie.)

9 thoughts on “A History of Celibacy, by Elizabeth Abbott (29/107)

  1. What a fascinating post! All kinds of good stuff here.

    Lust is so different for different people. For some, lust is something to take care of, any orgasm is a sufficient orgasm, and masturbation works as well as sex with anyone else. For others, though, lust is more of an endless world to explore, and going from just masturbation to masturbation and sex with other people is as great a leap as when fish learned to walk on land, and exploring some new detail of it or some new partner is even worth being stupid over.

    That is a really fascinating study, about the robot. Did all the kids not just immediately ask the adult why that one was supposed to be wrong when all the other toys were fine?

  2. You give kids a lot more credit than I do. :P There’s a reason why religions, cigarette mongerers, and probably Megacity-1’s Justice Department target that demographic, because they’re still at the age of obeying without questioning. (Dawkins attributes that to evolutionary pressures, that there’s no benefit to not listening to your elders when they say don’t swim in that river” …because it has crocodiles in it)

    Other people do not experience ______ the way you do.

    I think understanding this is part of growing up. Sexual orientation, understanding that just because *you* can’t conceive of being attracted to men, or women, or both, doesn’t mean that other people can’t. That you may find alcohol (or drugs, or sex) something you can take or leave, but there’s a good chance you can leave it because it doesn’t tempt you the -

  3. (Trying to type this from my phone, meh)

    …doesn’t tempt you the same way it tempts them. The more I see, the more I become inclined to think that NO humans can withstand true temptation, there are just things we can say no to because we’re not so interested.

    Like sex — it baffles me when I hear guys moaning about “haven’t gotten laid in a MONTH!” Because I go so much longer without feeling the lack until I’m having it again and it’s like, Oh yeah, maybe I kind of missed this. Like when I was in Japan — that would have been a three year streak if I hadn’t been shagging you at Christmas. :P

  4. Hah! Yeah, the older we get, the more we understand how much people’s tastes vary. I wonder if people also vary in how tempting they find the most tempting things in their life, whether that’s sex or drugs or violence or whatever they’re most susceptible to.

  5. I think so. Because the thing that I have the hardest time saying no to is alcohol, and I’m still nowhere close to other people who have problems with alcohol.

  6. Hm. That’s… an excellent point, actually. I was not expecting such a clear and straightforward and solid answer to that musing question, but there it is.

    Man, that’s a good spot to be in– *work* that self control, for the benefit of yourself, and all the rest of us!

  7. Okay, this is fascinating. I remember Judge Dredd & 200AD with a great deal of fondness, and yes, I remember storylines where judges got a girl-friend on the side and BAD THINGS happened – the celibate judges were very much part of the universe.

  8. Cool! I’d be keen to hear your impressions of it, because I’m new to the world and out of the six or so Judge Dredd omnibuses, I’ve only read one and a half so far. Apart from that throwaway line about “I have no interest in pleasure” (which makes me crack up every time) they haven’t even mentioned the celibacy. (It might have been stated in the first omnibus, but I was told to skip to the second one, since the first was mostly standalone comics and satire, and it was in volume two where they hit their stride.)

  9. Interesting post in general; one comment on the below section: I’d say that I’m the same, and I’d also say that is a good example of what demisexuality is.

    Celibacy comes easy to some people.

    It comes easy to me. As I was writing this, it occurred to me to wonder when was the last time I had sex, and the answer was… I dunno, November? Earlier maybe? For a while there I was making an effort to date, then I got bored and cut them all loose, and huh, that was seven months ago and I hadn’t even noticed.

    (This is one reason why plots based on characters making self-evidently bad decisions because they’re thinking with their crotch are so alienating to me. Bad decisions for the sake of love, sure, but for straight-up lust? Are your hands broken, that you can’t take care of it yourself? o_O)

    It’s not because I’m asexual, because I’m not; I’ve been intensely in love before and I’ve had spectacular sex before. It’s that when I’m not getting any, I don’t feel the lack of it. If I were in a situation that enforced celibacy, it wouldn’t be a daily struggle with temptation, because when I see hot people I’m not struck by the urge to do anything about it. I would run into trouble if I formed a close personal connection with someone that I wanted to shag blind, but that also happens incredibly infrequently. I am, it would seem, predisposed to celibacy.

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