Yesterday, at the Crescat blog, Katrina Fernandez wrote that nobody has ever died from not having sex. Initially, her statement struck me as a bit reductive. No, the body doesn’t need sex in the same way it needs food and water, but it does appreciate sex — so much so that it’ll thank people for supplying it. Researchers have found that regular sex raises the antibody immunoglobin, burns calories and releases endorphins that can fight migraine. All things being equal — that is, assuming nobody’s at risk from a venereal infection or a cuckold’s avenging dagger — people are better off doing it than abstaining.
But really, all that amounts to is hair-splitting. Life without sex may be less rich or less pleasant in certain respects than life with, but it is still perfectly livable. And I’m just now starting to see how livable. As I become ever more firmly convinced that I’ve no call for sacramental marriage, I find to my own astonishment I’m becoming increasingly cool with that. The fact is, I’ve gone without regular sex for — well, in the interest of decorum, let me say, for longer than society would rate normal. Kat’s right: I haven’t dropped dead. All I have to do is keep it up — so to speak — for the rest of my life, and I’m golden.
There are challenges, but they aren’t the challenges I’d have expected if I’d tried to anticipate a chaste, celibate life, say, ten years ago. For me, love affairs — and I’m old-fashioned enough to call them that — have had about the same effect on my heart as artillery had on the Belgian landscape during the Great War. Consequently, when, on seeing an attractive woman, I recite the lover’s equivalent of the dieter’s caveat “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” I actually listen. .
Of course, there’s more to chastity than not shacking up with someone. If you’re a woman, chances are good I’ve seen you naked in my mind’s eye. (Quit worrying — you looked fine. Skeletons are for Halloween.) I learned this trick when I was 14; by now it’s a reflex. How unfortunate, then, that Jesus found this kind of thing so loathsome that he proscribed it by name when preaching on the Mount. Compared to the likes of me, blessed are the gays and lesbians, for they got called out only by implication.
In a Pat Conroy novel, a high school basketball coach urges his players to counter one kind of creative visualization with another. The moment they find themselves projecting some cheer squad nymph, or Jackie Kennedy, or whoever, into a pornographic scene, they should switch gears and picture her on Thomas Crapper’s fine invention, in a housecoat, with her hair in curlers. Probably, this advice is as sound as anything St. Ignatius ever came up with, but in my case it might be overkill, since Post-Rejection Stress Disorder works its magic on the imagination, too. My spiritual exercises run along the lines of:
Imagine the two of you clinging to one another anyway, from sheer terror of loneliness.
Imagine each of you playing cunningly on the other’s feelings of inadequacy because you’ve got to find some fun outside of sex, which has gotten god-awful dull.
Imagine her turning into her mother instead of your mother.
So, there you go: thought-purification in four easy steps. But using it calls for some meditation on the law of unintended consequences. Let’s say a person does manage to will himself himself out of thinking about sex — unless he’s content to sit around in a daze, making mucus sculptures, he’ll have to find something else to think about.
Anecdotal evidence tells me lust’s replacements are rarely pretty. Post-concupiscent people almost never pick up cool hobbies like golf or paragliding; instead, they become obsessed with politics or the Weather Channel. Or else they fuss over their pets to a degree that would guarantee a kid a lifetime in therapy. And they babble about these enthusiasms to anyone with a pulse, until that person, even if he be the sternest aescetic this side of Alexandria, says to himself, “Jesus H. Christ. That guy really needs to get laid. Or at least think about it.”
A few days ago, one of my readers brought up Courage International, the ministry for gays and lesbians who want to lead chaste lives. Courage encourages its members to form friendships, presumably as a hedge against these spirals into eccentricity. That’s fine in principle, but I’m unfit for marriage because I am rigid and inconsiderate and moody and needy and poor. I need friends like me like I need a septic stab wound. Fortunately, I seem to have a knack for getting myself adopted by normal people. I favor a balance of two kinds:
1. People who are happily married, to remind me that someone out there is living the life he wants to live,
2. People who are unhappily divorced, to remind me that not everyone is.
Stoical types like cancer survivors are good in moderation, provided they refrain from giving speeches about lemons and lemonade and boxes of chocolate.
A woman I know favors “romantic friendships” — sexless but emotionally intense attachments that entail complex reciprocal obligations. In general, these arrangements seem to work for her; some have clearly served as the proverbial wind beneath her wings. But others have gone very bad, rotting away in mutual jealousies, screaming fights and rambling drunken late-night phone calls. By my lights, these set-ups have all the potential for drama of a love affair and all the potential for sexual fulfillment of the solitary life, which seems as winning a combination as Southern efficiency and Yankee charm. Not for me, thanks. Post-concupiscent life may end up doing something I once thought impossible: it may make a social butterfly of me.