History of Celibacy

by Elizabeth Abbott,
ISBN: 0002557355

The Lifestyle:
A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers

by Terry Gould,
304 pages,
ISBN: 0679309527

Post Your Opinion
Sperm Wars - Sex, Celibacy and Suburbanites
by Lorraine Johnson

Courtesy of Steve Mason, a strategy to achieve world peace: turn the United Nations into a swingers club. After all, asks Steve, "How do you drop a bomb onto people that you've just had an orgasm with?"

Maybe his numbers pose certain tactical challenges (would each U.N. ambassador need to have sex with every citizen of an enemy country for this plan to work?), but it's an interesting-if tongue-in-cheek-idea. Steve, however, is Director of Publicity for the Lifestyles Organization, a California-based group that oversees and certifies swingers clubs, so one assumes it's part of his job to promote the save-the-world angle and downplay the hedonism.

But if there's one thing that unites swingers, it's hedonism-albeit an unlikely brand, as represented by the dozens of swingers interviewed in Terry Gould's The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers. They manage to make the activity sound a lot like a giggly sleepover, Gidget Goes Kinky or Beach Blanket Orgy, complete with Blind Fondle Contest and the like. Imagine Ozzie and Harriet with an extra Ozzie and Harriet thrown in for fun, and you're pretty close to much of the Lifestyle world described in this book.

Indeed, the biggest surprise is not that so many people (at least 3 million in North America) participate in swingers clubs, but that they engage in this supposedly transgressive behaviour in a relatively rule-bound, conservative subculture. The rules are straight out of 1950s America, with a smidgen of the swinging `60s thrown in for good measure. Matrimony, children, and emotional monogamy are the underpinning values: "The idea is to protect and defend the marital unions of everyone involved." Bisexual contact between men is taboo behaviour. If restricting male contact during consensual orgies seems odd, it's useful to keep in mind while reading The Lifestyle that one-third of the 3,500 people attending the Lifestyle `96 convention in San Diego voted Republican. In other words, the demographics are decidedly middle America: "...the vast majority of swingers come from the ranks of right-of-centre, white collar suburbanites who are avowedly anti-drugs, pro-law enforcement, and who drink no more than the general population."

If one approaches The Lifestyle looking for sex radicals-or at least a radical rather than surface rethinking of sexual mores-one will be disappointed. But that in itself is a fascinating feature of this book. Who would have expected that people committed to the sexual fastlane on the road between desire and gratification would so uncritically embrace traditional American values? At the same time as they're violating social norms, the recreational swingers are also propping up the values behind those norms. Now that's perverse.

Equally ironic is that Gould, in his understandable zeal to counter the facile moral criticisms of swingers, seems intent on hyper-normalizing the swinger subculture to the point that any subversive edge it might have had is sanded to a mainstream sheen. Strategies Gould uses include labelling swingers "taxpayers" at a number of narrative moments, a normalizing tactic perfect for these conservative times; making unconvincing and ill-conceived comparisons to gays and lesbians (just another "lifestyle" in Gould's formulation) and then seriously overstating the degree of mainstream acceptance of homosexuals ("the media stopped humiliating [homosexuals] as degenerates some time ago", a dubious claim at best); and, finally, resorting to half-baked evolutionary, biology-based arguments ("[swinging] involves the programmed urge of both males and females to promote or fight sperm wars in females").

I found Gould's narrative persona, as represented above, a bit naive and grating, but other readers might find it endearing. How one reacts to the following sentence, a description of Gould's wife, who accompanied him on some of his research trips, may provide a useful gauge: "By day she may have been an executive director of a communications firm, but by night she sketched nudes at a bohemian studio where many of her companions were in the gay or lesbian lifestyle."

Likewise, consider another line, at the sexual centre of what has been set up as a titillating moment, during a visit to a club famous for attracting hardcore swingers. After pages of rhetorical foreplay, we get to the moment of orgiastic consummation: "Meanwhile, Larry was sitting on the edge of the action cooing to his wife, Beth, even as she rocked slowly with Konrad." One's reaction to this passage-seeing it as tenderly touching or gut-splitting hilarious or somewhere in between-is a good test of how one will react to the book. (I admit to giggles; pigeons coo.)

However, there is also much good sense and refreshing honesty in this book-both in Gould's earnest and ethical approach as a journalist attempting to be fair to his subjects, and in those subjects' willingness to expose themselves to the reader's gaze. When one swinger points out that "[a]ctually, we don't threaten morality-we threaten immorality", this simple inversion is highly convincing; instead of hiding their non-monogamous urges and indulging in secret affairs, these swingers eroticize infidelity. Gould effects another compelling inversion when he takes the conventional line about promiscuous people behaving "like animals", and turns it on its head: "...an argument can be made that sex done purely for pleasure with a variety of partners is actually more human than it is animal, while sex done strictly for reproduction is actually less human than it is animal." Other gems include the swinger who describes the Bible as a sex manual "written by people who didn't want other people to have sex except in the way they wanted people to have it", and the polyfidelitist ("like swingers, they make love with more than one partner, but, unlike swingers, they have more than one partner to whom they are faithful") who points out that our language has no word for the opposite of that age-old vice, jealousy. The polyfidelitist movement had to invent a word, "compersion", to describe the positive feelings they have when their loved ones are in love with other people. How delicious and telling that it takes a maligned subculture, vilified for its supposed vice, to name that vice's virtuous shadow.

There's lots of vice and virtue in Elizabeth Abbott's A History of Celibacy, and a lot of sex, too. All of it is much kinkier than anything even hinted at by the swingers in The Lifestyle. (I admit to a crisis of confused categories while reading these two books: the celibacy book has many moments of deep kink, while the swingers book is a sexual snore.)

Abbott defines celibacy as "the state of abstaining from sexual relations, intentionally or under duress, temporarily or for indefinite periods", and then she provides an exhaustive and enlightening survey of celibacy in every form and permutation imaginable.

The early chapters focus on the role of celibacy in antiquity, early and later Christianity, and in the world's major religions, and the depth of Abbott's research is dazzling. Even when the historical record is scant, she pursues references with rigour, drawing connections, comparisons, and providing as much context as possible. Abbott is a mesmerizing storyteller, combining scholarship with humour, insight, and a narrative flair for the telling detail.

Later chapters are organized around themes, such as "celibacy to conserve semen" and "celibacy as womanly duty", which leads to a somewhat scattered approach, as when sections jump from the subject of prison rape (the brutal result of coerced celibacy) to female Russian schoolteachers (some of whom had to submit medical proof of virginity). However, Abbott's narrative skill and lively writing smooth the transitions.

One of the many threads Abbott traces is the concept of voluntary celibacy as a means for women, throughout history, to gain control over their bodies and lives. This control often seems to be achieved at a chilling and horrifying cost. Consider Marie d'Oignies, a founder of the 12th-century Beguinage movement, whom Abbott describes as reaching "the highest pinnacles of holiness". Her mortifications included "hacking off a piece of her flesh". Or the 15th-century woman, Francesca Busca de'Ponziani, who attempted to defend her celibacy by searing her genitals with molten wax. Or the 17th-century Spanish nun, Marcela de San Felix, whose asceticism Abbott describes as "wonderfully extreme": Marcela starved herself to death in the name of renouncing the flesh. (For Marcela, describing a nun as "more dead than alive" was a compliment.) Or Caterina Benincasa, a 14th-century Italian Bride of Christ, who expressed her devotion by torturing her flesh with an iron chain and drinking reeking pus-she's described by Abbott as an example of a "triumphantly ascetic woman" who built a "stunningly successful" career. It seems a problematic leap to see this as empowerment.

While reading of these tortured lives, I was haunted by Abbott's comment, in the early pages of the book, that "after experiencing-celebrating is a better word-the sense of liberation so many other women have derived from voluntary celibacy, I embraced it as a conscious choice". At the end of the book, Abbott elaborates on her choice: "No longer do I need to plan, shop for, cook, serve and clean up after a week's meals, or iron the shirts I once so foolishly boasted I could do better than the drycleaner, or answer that infernal question, `Honey, where are my socks?'"

After 482 brilliant pages, I thought I understood what Abbott meant by celibacy, but her conflation of socks and sex-and her need to renounce one in order to be liberated from the boring hunt for the other-made me wonder... 

Lorraine Johnson is the editor of Suggestive Poses: Artists and Critics Respond to Censorship (Riverbank/Toronto Photographers Workshop).


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