Celibacy: verypurpleperson via Flickr

Sex is the biggest nothing of all time
—Andy Warhol

Sex sells. We’ve all heard the phrase. And to a large extent it’s true. Amidst countless mixed messages in the media, one thing seems almost certain. People tend to buy products associated with attractive models and the implication of having sex.

We see it in all sorts of ads—car, travel and even soft drink ads. We’re also bombarded with sex in so-called ‘reverse psychology’ ads where a voice dryly tells us we won’t get a date with a sexy person by buying a product.

But reverse psychology ads speak to the same reality as blatantly sexual ones. Human beings are, for the most part, obsessed with sex. And if suppressed, sexual motifs usually crop up in dreams or express themselves in distorted, harmful ways.

After all, sex is fundamental to human nature.Scientists say we’re pre-wired to want and think about sex because our species simply must reproduce to survive. Another reason for the primacy of sex, perhaps equally important, is the desire to conquer loneliness or, perhaps, boredom through physical intimacy.

In a landmark study the psychologist Harry F. Harlow demonstrated that test monkeys prefer cloth covered instead of bare, wire frame surrogate mothers.And human beings are remarkably similar. People want more than mere physiological survival and most don’t enjoy being alone for extended periods. Also, studies indicate that sex is good not just for emotional but also physical health.1

If sex is essential to the well-being and continuation of humanity, why would anyone in their right mind take up a life of celibacy? To try to answer this question, I’ll offer some insights from psychology, the sociology of knowledge, world religion and mysticism.

The following observations are based on an ongoing holistic approach that combines textual and multimedia studies, scheduled and unscheduled group and one-on-one discussions, participant-observation,2 intuitive impressions, analytical reflection and prayer.

This method might not please some old-school thinkers. Similarly, some might object to the mention of prayer. But prayer is an important methodological component to what I’m writing. And it would misleading to conceal this study’s holistic approach or to outline, after the fact, a linear-conceptual method that never existed.3

For expedience the discussion has been organized into six potentially overlapping types of celibacy. Each type should be taken as a hypothetical construction designed to stimulate debate.


With this type of celibacy a person finds it too painful or shameful to recognize their sexual urges and desires. At some point in their development a significant other (or others) may have ridiculed them or parts of their bodies. During adolescence, for example, a young teen’s growing breasts, pubic hair, first menstruation or orgasm might have been ridiculed or likened to something negative or unclean.

Brian De Palma’s horror film Carrie illustrates this when a fanatical religious mother calls her daughter’s breasts “dirty pillows” and wants to burn the high-school prom dress that reveals them.

Quite possibly the repressed celibate was raised in a Victorian-style atmosphere where anything below the waist and above the knees is taboo and closed for discussion.

The person may be a victim of prolonged ritual abuse. Alternately, they might have unconscious bisexual, gay or lesbian impulses that they can’t come to grips with or don’t wish to accept.

Whatever the causes, psychologists maintain that repressing the sex instinct takes a great deal of mental energy. The brain literally shuts down neurological pathways which otherwise connect sexual impulses to consciousness.

Rightly or wrongly, repressed, neurotic celibates are often described as brittle, rigid, frigid, distant, edgy or standoffish. It’s important to remember, however, that repression is a defense mechanism, and not necessarily unhealthy. In fact, repression can be beneficial. Consider the sexually abused child who represses their sexuality in teen and adult years to avoid feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Later in life they may feel comfortable in expressing their sexuality—providing they’ve been working through their original psychological injury.


Hypocritical celibacy minimally falls into four subtypes. The first occurs whenever individuals publicly preach the merits of celibacy yet unashamedly have sex with adults or themselves, or sexually abuse minors.4These individuals may also condemn pre- and extramarital sex while engaging in it themselves.

As to what goes through the minds of hypocritical celibates, the remaining three subtypes are not quite as one dimensional as the first.Due to their complexity they’re arguably less and, in some instances, not hypocritical.

The second subtype, in particular, might not be hypocritical, although it’s unlikely that everyone would see it this way. This subtype is found in individuals who truly believe in their religious preaching and regard their own sexual behavior as a personal, uncontrollable “weakness.”5 Although they rarely practice what they preach, this person nevertheless believes that the teaching, itself, is good and valuable.

Some would argue that if a sexually active Catholic priest, for example, emphasizes everyone’s human imperfection and ‘tendency to sin’ in his homilies, he is not being hypocritical. He’s simply stating the human condition from his Church’s standpoint, which he has internalized into his own belief system.

Others view this scenario as personally and institutionally irresponsible, especially when involving pedophilia.

The third subtype differs somewhat. Here, the individual might be unsure about their Church’s teachings on celibacy but preach it for expedience and, perhaps, because they believe in the overall necessity and value of their Church. All Catholic clergy must publicly preach the correct teachings from the Vatican to avoid being reprimanded, marginalized or possibly excommunicated. You’re either “in” or “out,” especially when it comes to highly visible moral issues pertaining to sex. However, it’s difficult to believe that free and apparently ‘originally sinful’ human beings emerging from diverse psychosocial backgrounds would agree with everything their superiors say, not only in Catholicism but within any human organization.

Along these lines, the third subtype wouldn’t regard their sexual activity as a weakness. They’d have privately thought things through and be living in accord with their own moral judgments, albeit secretly or, as suggested by B. A. Robinson, among a percentage of like-minded individuals that is difficult to ascertain for obvious reasons.

A fourth subtype would alternate between the second and third subtypes. This kind of person sometimes regards their sexual activity as a “weakness” or “sin” to be overcome. But at other times their conscience is clear because they’ve thought things through and formed their own private opinion and related modus operandi. In other words, they rationalize their behavior but every now and then they feel guilty.

Before the sex abuse scandals shook the Catholic Church, many might have thought that hypocritical celibacy was rare. But from the sheer number of allegations and lawsuits there seems to be a grave systemic dysfunction within the Catholic Church that has yet to be adequately addressed by its all male cast of characters.


Voluntary celibacy has at least two subtypes. The first is found in individuals who simply don’t like sex, not necessarily for ethical, repressed or neurotic reasons. These persons prefer to redirect sexual energies to their jobs and other commitments. For them, sexual activity is too distracting, a distraction they’d rather avoid.

In Freudian terms, this subtype represents the healthy sublimation of the libido. The author of A History of Celibacy (1999), Elizabeth Abbott, describes herself in these terms and, among many others, seems to fit into this category. Likewise, several pop culture notables say they find sex boring, overrated, and, for the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, it’s repugnant and disgusting.

The risk of sexually transmitted diseases (HIV/AIDS, syphilis, herpes, etc.) may also be a factor in voluntary celibacy.

The second subtype is found in individuals who choose to abstain from sex primarily for ethical reasons. These people may have sexual desires but redirect, suppress, ignore or deal with them in some other way because they believe it’s morally wrong to have sex. Ethical celibacy involves a reasonably healthy psyche, making it different from repressed and hypocritical celibacy. And this subtype of voluntary celibacy relates to two main scenarios:

a) unmarried, divorced and widowed individuals who believe that sex out of wedlock is ethically wrong

b) individuals with same-sex desires who believe that their sexual yearnings are ethically wrong


This is similar to voluntary celibacy, but here one’s optimal functioning demands abstinence. The element of choice is not absent but it is strongly influenced by a perceived necessity. Sex isn’t rejected for ethical or traditional reasons. Nor do necessarily celibates simply choose to avoid being distracted or to skirt something they don’t like.

Here we find the gurus, yogis, yoginis, shamans, mystics and seers who simply cannot afford to expend their energy on sex. These figures claim that sexual energy is transmuted into spiritual energy, sometimes through and, other times, independent of personal meditation. And these celibates also say that the transmuted energy is indispensable for their spiritual work. For instance, the Hindu guru often claims to cleanse disciples’ bad karma picked up through the alleged mechanism of ‘karma transfer.’6 And he has to remain celibate to do this effectively.

Other examples of this subtype are abundant.

Sri Aurobindo (Ghose) and the Mother (Mira Alfassa), for instance, lived celibate lives,7 as did Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi. In shamanism some alleged healers remain celibate and others practice periodic abstinence to attain the mystical state required for their transformational work. Not unlike the guru, the shaman apparently is temporarily spiritually wounded to help a sick person become well. As the Unitarian Reverend Dr. Marilyn Sewell puts it:

It is important to note, though, that the shaman is not only wounded but also has effected a process of self-healing, and only then can begin to help with the transformation of others. By dying in life, he has tasted immortality and therefore is not threatened or put off by the pain of others. He laughs easily. “The faces of many shamans are riven with suffering and lined with laughter.”8

Necessary celibates may, in fact, enjoy sex but believe they’re called to sacrifice it for the good of others and, ultimately, for themselves—that is, for a greater spiritual reward. In the realm of Catholicism, the former Jesuit Fr. Malachi Martin told the Canadian journalist Tom Harper on Vision TV that “celibacy is essential.” This points to the idea that Catholic celibacy isn’t necessarily an unfortunate outcome of institutionalized brainwashing. Rather, it’s believed that celibacy is necessary for pastoral work, contemplative prayer and intercession. In extreme cases where celibates apparently suffer predominantly for the good of others, some Catholics describe these individuals as holy ‘victim souls.’

Celibacy as a Charism

This mostly Catholic usage means that celibacy is a gift from God. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines charism as “an extraordinary power (as of healing) given a Christian by the Holy Spirit for the good of the church.” Catholic bishops apparently discern whether potential priests are worthy of this charism so that no one is forced into celibacy. Sadly, these discernments have been flawed on more than one occasion.

Some Christian saints claim to have received this charism, along with an inner vision where an invisible spiritual “belt” appears around the genital area. A good example is the Polish St. Faustina Kowalska, who wrote in her Diary that sexual urges no longer “bothered” her once she had received the gift of celibacy. Unfortunately, Faustina’s Catholic superiors were a bit slow to recognize her purity.

But I tried as best I could to do everything with the purest of intentions. I could see that everywhere I was being watched like a thief: in the chapel; while I was carrying out my duties; in my cell. I was now aware that that, besides the presence of God, I had always close to me a human presence as well. And I must say that, more than once, this human presence bothered me greatly. There were times when I wondered whether I should undress to wash myself or not. Indeed, even that poor bed of mine was checked many times. More than once I was seized with laughter when I learned they would not even leave my bed alone. One of the sisters herself told me that she came to observe me in my cell every evening to see how I behave in it.9

Meanwhile, the Eastern Churches require celibacy for bishops but not for priests. Married men may be ordained as priests but priestly celibacy is also honored.

Celibacy (Photo by Jesse Gardner via Flickr)


This refers to married couples practicing celibacy not because they don’t believe in contraception nor enjoy children. Matrimonial celibacy is seen as a calling.

In Hinduism we have the above mentioned example of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi. Sri Ramakrishna wrote that prior to marrying Sri Devi he prayed that the goddess Kali would “root out” all of his future wife’s sexual desires.Likewise, Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov and Paramahansa Yogananda advocate if not absolute matrimonial celibacy, a significant redirection of sexual energy to artistic, creative and spiritual endeavors.


Celibacy involves a diverse and potentially complex range of beliefs, attitudes, processes and behaviors. All too often celibates, in toto, are stereotyped as psychologically repressed and neurotic. Scientific studies usually indicate that celibacy provides no real benefit. And medical doctors often say that the benefits of celibacy are “all psychological.” In fact, there’s little if any scientific evidence to suggest that celibacy may, in some instances, be necessary or divinely ordained. But it seems unwarranted to suppose that scientific CATscans, PETscans, EEG’s and blood analyses can measure the subtle workings of the spirit.

As Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. notes:

[Rudolf] Otto’s famous theory of “numinosity” is about a property…but which in an important way is not a natural property, since it is invisible to science…So is there mysticism? Of course, since there actually are mystics, most of whom are clearly sincere and deeply moved or transformed by their experiences.10

Otto and others like Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade tend to agree that contemporary science cannot measure all aspects of mysticism. Scientists may quantify and map changes in brainwave and neuronal firing patterns during states of meditation. They may also suggest that “meditating actually increases the thickness of the cortex in areas involved in attention and sensory processing, such as the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula.”11 But the interpretation of these observations is often biased by research parameters and experimenter bias, making the discussion of experimental results woefully inadequate.

A common fallacy, particularly in recent times, is to equate quantifiable energy with spirit. Also, the discussion section of clinical meditation experiments usually homogenizes spiritual experience among subjects. This is scientifically invalid because there is no way to confirm that similar empirical data (including descriptions such as “I feel peaceful”) point to identical inner experiences among individuals. Nevertheless, overzealous researchers often imply or state that subjects displaying similar brainwave patterns and neurological activity experience similar grades, qualities and intensities of numinosity. And again, this just isn’t good science.

Scientific researchers also tend to ignore the first-hand accounts of mystics, even though these accounts point to a great diversity of inner experiences. Granted, by their very nature inner experiential differences are difficult to verify and reliably categorize. But this doesn’t justify glossing over them and making unjustified generalizations.

Responsible science doesn’t fabricate reality. Instead, it clearly states its limits. Also, scientific findings are always subject to revision. Unfortunately, this crucial point is often overlooked in professional and popular talk about celibacy, sex and spirituality.

1. Keeping in mind here that other forms of exercise and intimacy could be just as beneficial.

2. Not necessarily in a preconceived but in an actual, lived sense. The notion of the preplanned participant observational study, so popular in anthropology, arguably is a contradiction in terms. How can a researcher be part of a group if they’ve decided at the outset what to look for, how often they’ll sit in, etc? This approach seems artificial and preconceived biases would likely taint results.

3. In The Double Helix James Watson recounts a holistic method in the discovery of the DNA model, challenging stereotypes often associated with scientists and their research.

4. The turn to mandatory celibacy in Catholicism was a gradual one, developing over the centuries. Conservatives say this is evidence that God’s will is eventually being fulfilled. Liberals counter that Mankind’s cultural biases have gradually obscured and regimented the free expression of the Holy Spirit.

5. “Weakness” is a term that has entered Catholic discourse but which requires examination. It seems to legitimize dishonesty and abrogate personal responsibility. God may love us in our weakness. But this doesn’t provide an excuse to stop trying to better ourselves.

6. This is not the notion of a soul’s karma passing from a past to a present life, but the idea, articulated by the Indologist Wendy O’Flaherty, that karma transfers among persons, animals and deities. Most Indian gurus say that bad karma transfers from a student to a teacher. That is, karma flies from less to more pure souls. This transfer is psychologically experienced in different ways. Spiritual “pollution” is a metaphor used by some contemplatives and poets (see, for instance, Kálidása’s Shakuntala) to describe the mystical transfer of impure spiritual elements. Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) says that his subtle body (an inner, spiritual body) became festered with sores after receiving spiritually impure visitors. Ramakrishna believes he took others’ karma onto himself. It seems some gurus, eager to exalt themselves as “great souls,” rarely if ever consider the possibility that they too might benefit from subtle, spiritual connections with their disciples. We find something similar to karma transfer in Christianity, particularly non-fundamentalist versions, where saintly “victim souls” are said to suffer with Christ to assist with the work of salvation by taking on the sins of others.

7. While in Nepal in the early 1990’s this author’s flight was delayed for 24 hours due to bad weather. The airlines provided a hotel room that I shared with a Catholic priest and an saffron-robed swami of the Ramakrishna order. Talking about celibacy and sex, the swami said that highly contemplative men “crash” when they have seminal emissions. This might relate to the Indian belief in Chakras. Having mastered the lower chakras, yogis and yoginis say that the conservation and transformation of sexual energy is necessary for functioning at higher chakra centres.

8. Reverend Dr. Marilyn Sewell, The Wounded Healer. First Unitarian Church Portland, Oregon. January 26, 1997.

9. See » The Divine Mercy Diary of Sister Faustina M. Kowalska, Second edition. Stockbridge MA: Marian Press, 1990, p. 71.

10. See » Intuition and Mysticism in Kantian Philosophy.

11. See » Meditation Builds up the Brain.

Celibacy, Sex and Spirituality © Michael Clark, All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is not a medical nor legal document. Those with mental or physical health issues are advised to consult an appropriate and licensed health professional