Thank you, but I won't

Who'd be celibate in 1996? Not the Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, who has resigned after running away with a divorced woman from his congregation. But while the wind of change blows up the Catholic cassock, Ruth Picardie detects a swing in the other direction
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The Independent Online
So celibacy is increasingly untenable in the modern world. "I am spiritually and physically unable to sustain the responsibilities of a diocesan bishop," announced the (former) Bishop of Argyll and the Isles this week. There have been pleas to the Pope for forgiveness, emotional meetings, much talk of devastation and hurt, many limp jokes about the Bishop of Muck.

On a gut level (or perhaps a little lower), one can understand the agony of the poor Right Reverend Roderick Wright. To a Catholic priest, it must seem like everyone is doing it, all the time. Michael Douglas - the zeitgeist actor of our times - has spent most of his screen career being unable to stop himself having wild, dangerous sex on uncomfortable surfaces with Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) and Demi Moore (Disclosure); in real life, he has confessed, he is forever checking in and out of "sex addiction" clinics. Pamela Anderson, the female icon of the moment, told American DJ Howard Stern that she was doing it three times a day, right up to the birth of her first child (and not just to get labour going).

Sex is everywhere. Loaded, the superlads' book of babes, is the most successful men's magazine launch of the Nineties; elsewhere, Marie Claire and Company have broached every sexual taboo. Peter Stringfellow (who claims to have had thousands of sexual partners) is bringing "classy" topless cabaret back to the West End. According to the Brook Advisory Centre, a majority of young people have their first sexual experience between 13 (boys) and 14 (girls). Sex education is now a compulsory part of the national curriculum, sex a compulsory part of life.

Celibacy, on the other hand, following the demise of the spinster, has become a strictly minority hobby. Its genesis may be tragedy, as in the recent case of the Christian rape victim who has worn a chastity belt for the past nine years. It had, she told the New Christian Herald, given her a "new lease of life", enabling her to "laugh, enjoy life and be a wife in every sense of the word".

Alternatively, it has been championed by celebrities not entirely happy about disclosing their sexual orientation. Boy George famously declared that he would "rather have a cup of tea", when in fact he was having a wild time, as revealed in his autobiography Take It Like A Man.

Finally, abstinence has crossed the pond as a weird American thing, in the form of the True Love Waits pledge to remain virgins before marriage, a promise undertaken by at least half a million Southern Baptists. The fundamentalist brotherhood, meanwhile, is promoting chastity as sex education in schools, and covering the country in billboards which read: "Abstinence or death: your choice." But we post-sexual revolution Brits? Surely we're at it all the time, apart from a few tortured priests and superstitious footballers who think it'll spoil their game.

But we ignore American fashions at our peril, especially when women like Madonna are saying: "Everyone probably thinks I'm a raving nyphomaniac, that I have an insatiable sexual appetite, when the truth is I'd rather read a book." Alicia Silverstone, who played a virgin in last year's hit comedy Clueless (a creative adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma), and soon to be a huge star in Batman 4, told an interviewer she would "prefer a box of chocolates to sex ... as long as they're Belgian chocolates."

Indeed, there are distinct signs of a sexual cooling-off in this country. Voyeurz, the much-hyped "erotic musical", has just folded, prematurely. Meanwhile, the number of single and divorced people (many of whom are not in relationships) are at record levels. And the latest figures from Relate's psychosexual therapy service reveal that the most commonly presented problems (based on a survey of nearly 4,000 couples in all social groups and ages) are loss of interest in sex (half of all women) and erectile difficulties (a quarter of all men).

What we are seeing is not so much an emergence of celibacy chic, but a nation of people who are not having sex. "It is to do with a newer openness about sexual problems," says Julia Coles, therapist and counsellor for Relate and agony aunt for Essentials magazine, "but it is an indication of something deeper."

So what is going on? For some, celibacy is the symptom of a problem. Julia Coles attributes it to confusion about changing gender roles. "We used to have stereotypes about what it meant to be male and female," she says, "dad at work, mum at home, lying back and thinking of England. But modern society has equipped women to say, 'I have needs and desires, too. And if I can't have what I want, I'll switch off.'"

Others argue that the new celibacy is partly to do with the fear of Aids. "Celibacy is completely taken for granted now," says Liz Hodgkinson, who wrote a book about the joy of celibacy in 1986. "One reason is that we really thought Aids was going to be a world-wide epidemic." (Everyone, that is, apart from her ex-husband, Neville Hodgkinson, former science correspondent of The Sunday Times, who recently published a book refuting the idea that HIV leads to Aids.) Alternatively, the collapse of desire can be attributed to the stresses of family life in the Nineties (overworked and overdrawn).

But is celibacy necessarily a problem to be overcome? Or is it a shift in values? Here is one single, successful woman in her mid-thirties talking about what she craves from a relationship: "Someone to give me a hug every day. Someone to stop me getting eccentric. Someone to act as a witness to my life. Someone to hang out with, cooking or watching TV - I feel really sad about eating a lot on my own. Someone who's there in the middle of the night when I'm sick with food-poisoning, feel wretched and as if I'm going to die. Cerebral companionship is all very well, but then you're stuck on your own with the washing up." And sex? "It's not so much sex as someone to give me a hug every day. I'd like someone to have sex with, but to be there, too." Someone, in fact, like the stars of the hit American sitcom Friends, whose irritating theme tune is I'll be there for you.

It's not just friendship as the new social glue that is causing the retreat from sex. Rave culture is happy, not sexy; new-age values are inward-looking, not conjugal. "A period of celibacy can enable you to find yourself," explains Liz Hodgkinson, whose ex-husband has found himself living full-time in an ashram. "The thing about being celibate is simply that you don't have to worry about anybody else."

Finally, the new celibacy is a ripple from the explosion that was the sexual revolution. "We got carried along by the Sixties," says Julia Coles. "Because sex was available, everyone was supposed to have the same response. As a result, we get couples coming in and saying we are not doing x, y and z - everyone else is. Well, actually, they're probably not. If we had a proper programme of relationship education, as in Sweden and Norway, there wouldn't be this culture of misbelief about what is going on in everyone else's life."

Poor, poor Bishop of Muck, throwing in the towel on celibacy just when many of us are picking it up and thinking that a relationship, of all things, is going make his life more fulfilling. Let us hope he doesn't get married.

"That priest," muses Liz Hodgkinson. "There seems to be some weird idea that if you get married all your sexual problems are over. In fact, you're just getting a whole load more."