Celibacy seems an odd topic for a witty and compelling book, but in A History of Celibacy, Elizabeth Abbott manages to make her subject fascinating. A self-proclaimed practitioner of voluntary celibacy, Abbott explores the history of people refraining from sexual relations with others. Her examples range from prisoners to monks, eunuchs to the youths involved in the modern True Love Waits campaign. Throughout her wide tour of the celibate community, Abbott maintains focus on the variety it contains. Never stodgy or preachy, A History of Celibacy brings to light some previously untold stories, and reevaluates others.
Abbott writes about religious sects that practice celibacy for various reasons. In medieval Eastern monasteries, for example, monks' lives focused on asceticism of all kinds. Celibacy was mandated, as was fasting, which denied monks the sensual pleasure of food. As one abbot wrote, A monk must have nothing whatever to do with the sensual appetites . . . otherwise how would he differ from men living in the world? Apostolic women chose celibacy so they could closely emulate the lives of Jesus and his apostles, and the Shakers sublimated their sexuality through dancing.
Individual celibates also used chastity for different causes. Woman Chief, a chaste Crow Nation warrior, used celibacy to subvert gender norms. Without childbearing or obeying traditional sexual mores, Woman Chief was able to ride, hunt, and stand guard alongside the other warriors. Florence Nightingale made her decision to nurse rather than marry, and Abbott writes, She harmoniously incorporated this chastity and chance to pursue the profession to which God had called her into her increasingly austere lifestyle. Abbott's final section, which she terms The New Celibacy, resonates with our culture's contemporary sexual concerns. As cloisters shrink and the Roman Catholic Church sees the beginnings of a trend toward married priests outside church sanctions, celibacy is taking on a new face. A History of Celibacy recounts such movements as The Third Way, which allows physical contact but not intercourse; New Age monasticism; and BAVAM!, a loosely organized community of born-again virgins. In the end, Abbott notes, Creative contemporaries may reclaim the phenomenon and redefine celibacy in unique ways. Then, according to their individual needs, drives, and desires, they can choose to practice or reject it. Either way, the element of choice is crucial. Eliza R.
L. McGraw teaches English at Vanderbilt University.