It doesn’t take a nun in red lingerie to show that chastity is more complex than we think

Now that I'm no longer a boy I can imagine the consolations of a life without sex

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You can’t blame Richard Dawkins for getting in early with his tweet. See it from his point of view: if you are of the conviction that organised religion encourages a dangerous delusion and that Pope Benedict XVI’s “first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal”, then the announcement of his retirement is an opportunity too good to miss. “I feel sorry for the Pope and all old Catholic priests,” he tweeted. “Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex.”

It’s a cunningly laid trap. “A wasted life!” I hear a chorus of old priests crying. “We’ve had more sex, young man, than you’ve had hot dinners”, before it dawns on them that Dawkins has caught them with their pants down again. But this is not a column about Dawkins or the Catholic Church. It’s about sex. Or rather no sex. Imagine it, Dawkins says. So I’m trying.

Perhaps I am of an age to try. Any earlier would have been impossible. For the first 40 or 50 years of your life there is only sex – the wanting, the waiting, the wondering, and then the greed for more. Other things distract for a day or so, but they are no more than an intermission. You take up chess or cycling, you try yoga, you bake your own bread and learn the names of foreign cheeses, you garden and croon over hollyhocks, but you aren’t fooling anybody, least of all yourself. The fires die down briefly only in order that they can roar back into life with ever more ferocity. We are on an errand, emissaries of the future, and we deliver or we die.

Up until the age of 10, I lived opposite a convent school. From my bedroom window, I could see the convent girls running around the playgound and sharing one another’s lunch. Ten was too young for that to be an arousing spectacle. But it wasn’t too young to wonder about the nuns who taught them. My heart broke for those nuns. Something about the way they dressed and moved told me they were denying themselves that without which life was not worth living. And what was that? I had no idea, but I could read the abnegation, or the terrible consequences of that abnegation, on their faces. You can be a sentimentalist of sex, even at 10.

Years later, I supervised a thesis on DH Lawrence written by a nun whose quick intelligence, demure bearing and keen but forever down-turned eyes beguiled everyone who taught her.

Her work was brilliant but we believed her religion dulled her natural vitality. Once she got her First, we hoped, she would renounce her vows. And she did. We threw her a renunciation party where she got comprehensively pissed, told lewd stories, flaunted herself disgracefully, and left us all wishing she’d never read Lawrence. Celibacy may have few pleasures but in this instance it beat incontinence hands down.

My sentimentality about nuns survives. My wife once told me that in the course of directing a television documentary she miked up a nun – it was not thought appropriate that the sound-man should go rummaging through her habit – and discovered she was wearing scarlet underwear. The story touched my heart. Did she have a love outside the walls that could never be consummated, or a love inside them that dared not speak its name? Or was the lingerie her trousseau as a bride of Christ? In which case, I’m with Dawkins – what a waste!

Celibacy strikes us as against nature, an act of ingratitude

To the worldly, this sense of waste is non-negotiable. It strikes us as against nature, an act of ingratitude, a crime against the body for which the body’s guardians – the ids, the egos and the rest – will exact a terrible price. We feel the sadness of it in those who blundered into self-denial without measuring its consequences, or were pushed by families hoping to find favour in the eyes of God through the sacrifice of someone else, but we are less tolerant when celibacy turns up its nose and brags of its virtue.

And so we laugh in advance of the action in Love’s Labour’s Lost when Ferdinand, King of Navarre, reminds his followers of their oath to stand for three years against their own affections “and the huge army of the world’s desires”. Fat chance of that, we think, even without Berowne’s heartfelt cry that “these are barren tasks, too hard to keep:/ Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep”.

But celibacy’s self-righteousness is no laughing matter in Measure for Measure, where Angelo, who “scarce confesses that his blood flows”, boils over when he sees the conventual Isabella, a woman who sets higher store by her chastity than by her brother’s life.

I wrote an essay on Measure for Measure at school, wondering that people should make such a fuss about getting their leg over. My teacher put a red pen through the lot and told me my imagination wasn’t up to the moral rigours of the text. He was right. Whoever denies his blood flows might be making a great mistake, but it’s not for someone who is drowning in his own semen to pass judgement. Freedom from the pesterings of nature ought not to be a contemptible ambition. And, yes, I can, now that I’m not a boy, imagine its consolations. A clear mind. Crystalline concentration. An even body temperature.

Kant railed against sexual intercourse because it made us “ things”, and masturbation because it turned us into “loathsome objects”. Be honest – in our age of unremitting porn: the soft stuff of popular culture even more trivialising than the hard stuff the internet pumps into the brains of already deranged boys – in such drossy, sex-satiated times, don’t we owe Kant a nod of recognition? No sex! Shouldn’t we at least try to imagine that occasionally?

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