No sex please, we're chic: Geraldine Bedell asks whether celibacy is a sign of liberation or hang-up

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CELIBACY is suddenly supposed to be fashionable. An Everyman programme last weekend produced a string of journalists, actors and chartered surveyors, all boasting of going without what one of them called that 'brutal squashy thing'. Liz Hodgkinson, author of the anti-sex manual Sex Is Not Compulsory, held forth in the Daily Mail on the thrills of her breast implants (tight leotards, mesmerised men) as if to persuade us that not only is celibate-chic more chic than lesbian-chic, it's also, er . . . sexy.

'It is an issue of freedom, to be sexually inactive,' proclaimed the Everyman programme. Well, yes, but not that big an issue. Most people are sexually inactive sometimes - between relationships, or because of illness or lack of opportunity or inclination: this may leave them feeling OK or not. Few would see it as a philosophical position.

The new declamatory celibates by contrast seek cachet in their sex- free state (which is usually temporary and often allows for masturbation. Sally Cline, author of Women, Celibacy and Passion, calls this 'sensual celibacy' as opposed to 'ascetic celibacy'). Could it be that they think that unless they make a hoo- ha, people might assume they're just not wanted?

John Lenkiewicz of the London Institute of Human Sexuality points out that going without sex entirely is a biological impossibility: men have erections during rapid eye movement sleep; women have erotic dreams, sometimes involving orgasms. Trying to control such urges may possibly, like fasting, have mind-altering effects. But it is deeply masochistic, and demands great respect for the drives you are trying to sublimate. Celibate-chic types, by contrast, are often dismissive of sex and claim, to quote Liz Hodgkinson, that 'celibacy, rather than sex, is the natural state for humans. What we interpret as sexual desire is merely over-arousal, caused by fears and anxieties'.

So, though wanting to be celebrated for abstinence, celibates assert that sex is vastly overrated, even horrible. Sally Cline claims that 'the genital myth' (the assumption that there is a universal sex drive) forces women to 'consume and accept sexual congress along with beauty products, diet regimes, low wages and violent inflictions'. Liz Hodgkinson believes sex 'for a woman, however one likes to look at it, constitutes a form of attack'. Angus McKinnon, an editor at GQ magazine, says men 'are encouraged to feel completely inadequate unless they are performing successfully with great frequency'.

These people share a depressingly bleak view of what they call 'the sex act'. They think about sex in terms of performance, duty, invasion - a sterility best articulated by Bhikhu Parekh, writing about one of the century's most famous celibates: 'Like most ascetics, Gandhi saw sexuality as an impulse or a passion rather than as a relationship. It is striking that he rarely talked of sexual love and thought the expression was a contradiction in terms. For him it was always love based on sex, and therefore not love at all. It never occurred to him that it could also be sex based on love.'

The celibates' version of sex leaves little space for simple physical pleasure, and even less for sex as a way of expressing emotional depth, intensity, affection, or cementing relationships. Gandhi, similarly puritanical, despised the 'unwanted thoughts' prompted by the sex drive (which he curiously countered by sleeping naked with his 19-year-old great-niece and trying not to get an erection).

The Catholic Church in effect invented priestly celibacy in 1139 as a response to priests running off with women who were not their wives and children laying claim to diocesan wealth. Indian tantric and Chinese Taoist philosophies meanwhile attempted to corral wayward lusts through a doctrine of conserving semen - Hindus believing, for example, that one ejaculation 'wasted' energy equal to 24 hours of concentrated mental exercise. In the West, young men were warned of madness, blindness, and hairs growing on the palms of their hands. (Liz Hodgkinson now says zinc is lost during ejaculation, 'and what is lost from the penis is also lost from the brain. So in a roundabout way, frequent sex could serve to make a man less intelligent'.)

Comtemporary celibates appear to be more than usually muddled and guilty about sex. Last month Maire Brennan of the Irish band Clannad boasted that she was celibate for four years when she first fell in love with the photographer Tim Jarvis; they lived together, 'learning all about each other without the complication of sex' until they felt ready to marry, when she was 'rewarded' by getting pregnant immediately. Some of this is explained by the discovery that Ms Brennan is a Catholic who for these four years was still married to someone else.

For a few, denial of sexuality may be repaid with spiritual insights. But this is not really what the would-be chic celibates are talking about. Sex, for them, is an assault, or a chore, easily renounced. It is also a dismally repressive view which, far from being liberating, suggests that they have a serious sexual hang-up.

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