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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Sex Dwarfed

Valentine's Day is the Halloween of the Sex Machine. But hold on there, tiger--have you considered celibacy? Yes, indeed, there's a fine tradition of folk who claim we've all got something to gain from keeping it in our pants. And no, Gandhi was not just jealous because he couldn't get any.

By Mike Connor

In a valiant attempt to improve our nation's sexual health, a think tank bent on alleviating Interminably Involuntary Abstinence (IIA) recently convened to discuss implementing a system based on food stamps, wherein the sexually impoverished could redeem federally mandated vouchers for a bit of nooky. The backlash was immediate: "Losers" my sister called us--her own brothers! But she never was one to mince words.

While my sister may be totally right about her brothers (which she totally isn't!), there is, undoubtedly, a stigma against celibate people in our sex-positive culture. Undoubtedly, the youth take the brunt of this stigma, what with peer pressure and the media blitzkrieg all up in their undies.

The media are, in fact, suddenly all over the concept of celibacy--take, for instance, the much-discussed cover story in Newsweek--but they all make it seem like anyone who shies away from the Wild Thing is either keepin' it clean for Jesus or cowering in fear of STDs.

Yet there are some who, for reasons most people can only imagine while sneering and thinking about Freud, happily abstain from sex. Sure, it's tempting to deconstruct their smiles as self-possessed masks hiding some sad, pitiful truth beneath, but that is a bitter and cowardly response, akin to finding fault with a saint to avoid the calling. Therefore let us look at the issue with maturity and without judgment, even as we keep in mind that I totally don't know what it's like to be celibate, because I'm not celibate like a mu'fu'.

For Eternal Glory

Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Gandhi, Morrissey, Cher--the list of historical figures who ignored their nether regions goes on ad infinitum But they all shared a common goal of conquering sensual desires, so that they might be more closely aligned with higher spiritual pursuits. Many of the world's cultures have required that their holy wo/men abstain from sex, from Incas and Inuit to Sufis and Catholics. The Buddha urged faithful devotion to vows of brahmacharya--the Hindu vow of celibacy.

Yogis have long since sublimated their sexual impulses into the practice of yoga, transmuting sexual energy into spiritual energy that propels practitioners to higher levels of consciousness. Hoping to question noted local yogi/swami Kali Ray on the subject, I contacted her assistant to request an interview. More than likely, Kaliji went into superswami mode, divined what kind of article I would write, chuckled in tolerant acceptance of my wayward soul and politely declined the interview. Her friendly assistant Nikita did, however, divulge that "she feels a blissful yoga state due to meditation, and this fulfills her desires."

According to practitioners of kundalini yoga, sexual release doesn't actually harm the body, but it is an outlet that the advanced practitioner does not require. And when I say "advanced," I mean it. Take this excerpt from an article titled "Kundalini: The Joy of Celibacy and Yoking the Life Force to Enlightenment" by Yogi Tom:

"To sublimate one's sexuality, one needs to know all the esoteric theory of the chakras and nadis, prana and chi/ki, the meridians and the significance of the spinal column as a channel for the sublimated sexual energy and fluids. One needs to have mastered the fundamentals of hatha yoga, in particular the three major body locks--mulabandha, uddiyana and jalandhara--that are like natural fuses on an electric circuit board carrying high voltage current. To gain this knowledge one must create a deep and safe foundation by drawing on the basic ideas of the Hindu, Taoist and Tibetan traditions at the very least."

Whatever, Tom, you're just making it sound all complicated so you can have enlightenment all to yourself, aren't you?

"Have no illusions about what the Tantra involves," Tom continues (in a booming voice from the heavens, one would imagine), "it's like a crucible of fire at times, a cruel cosmic vice sometimes. ... Once started it can seem as if there is a conspiracy to make you become enlightened or burn in hell for the rest of time!"

See, just when things start getting good, eternal damnation rears its ugly head.


Heavenly Sex

On a lighter note, I spoke with a certified marriage and family therapist, Janna Wissler, who has significantly more upbeat views of sex and celibacy. In her own experience (and, apparently, the experiences of many of her clients), celibacy serves as a refuge in which people can reassess and form a new relationship with their sexuality.

"I think it's quite common for people who are about 35 and under that sex, even though it can be quite enjoyable, is a lot about physical pleasure and strategies to win and keep partners, and what I see quite often in my practice is a significant reworking of sexuality to be based in love rather than pleasure or strategy."

Although she wasn't very forthcoming about her clients (pesky confidentiality laws), she was very open about her own experience with celibacy.

"I was starting to wake up and really experience what my psychological patterning was, and sex started to feel like a real invasion. I was doing a lot of tai chi and energy work and I opened the energy in my pelvic area, where it really had been blocked."

Wissler says that after a lengthy period of celibacy and introspection, her relationships have since become love-based and healthy. She now refers to sex as "goddess fluffing. She gets closed and tight, and I need a sexual event to fluff me back up spiritually and energetically, to break through rigid energy psyche structures that start to build. Sex is now like a psycho/spiritual/energetic hygiene, a healthy thing to engage in on a regular basis in order to stay more juicy and alive."

Some people just don't have time for sex. Take Alistair Molef, a Bay Area man who, according to a woman with impeccable taste, has got it going on. Gorgeous? Check. Intelligent? Check. Articulate, great sense of humor, hint of an Irish accent? Check yo'self ladies; he lives in Lodi, and he's too busy for you anyway. He has a 12-year-old boy with attention deficit disorder who requires a lot of looking after, he teaches college classes and he pursues enough creative projects that he simply doesn't have time for a relationship.

"I consciously decided that it was not worth getting into relationships with women at this point," says Molef. "Maybe when I'm done with creative projects and my son reaches adulthood ... but right now I feel like I don't have the availability to expect any woman to hang around."

Ah, a noble man ... but not quite as stoic as the Greeks might have been. "I miss physical contact especially, of course, not even just the sex part," Molef says. "Bodily connection--holding hands, sharing a bed, a warm comfy body ... I miss those aspects. There's a sense of an important need not being met, but I'm more comfortable with this particular trade-off for right now. It's almost like I understand the necessity for the situation being what it is than really wanting it, but I feel sort of at peace with it."

Raging Bulls

Robert De Niro immortalized the frustration of a willfully sex-starved athlete in Martin Scorsese's 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull. According to Elizabeth Abbot in her book The History of Celibacy, the tradition dates back at least to ancient Greek times when Olympians were holding out for the glory of victory. Hippocrates believed that, without semen, chaste women's wombs dry up and ache for the seed. As comically sexist as his theory may seem today, Hippocrates was by no means alone in the idea that semen is an energetic substance as vital as blood. Pythagoras had another theorem that math teachers don't talk about--namely, that each man has only a finite amount of the vital energetic fluid (semen), and that every ejaculation depletes the store. Once exhausted of his "supply," Pythagoras believed a man would soon wither and die--an absurdity that I have disproved many times over ... um, in a previous article.

More recently, the so-called "Muscular Christians" (also the name of an excellent indie-pop band) adopted the idea of "spermatic economy" in the late 1800s. Abbott claims that the Muscular Christians pushed to make physical education an integral part of their curriculum. And now we know whom to thank for all those freaking chin-ups.

The cutest pair of celibate athletes, though, must be the husband and wife British Olympic curlers, Ewan and Fiona MacDonald. Curling is easily the least physically demanding sport in the winter Olympics, requiring no more energy than a game of bowling. So why not relax and get a good night's sleep before a match? Says Fiona to the BBC News: "We have to remain totally focused on curling." So there you have it. Here's to curling, and to curling up in bed with a good book instead of a partner. For my dollar, I recommend A History of Celibacy ... if only to find out what I've been missing.


Metro Santa Cruz's No Sex Issue

More insights into abstinence from Metro writers

Valentine's What Now?: The road to double happiness lies in forgetting all about that Valentine's crap and partaking of an alternate holiday. One billion Chinese can't be wrong. (Rebecca Patt)

Are You Being Served?: When it comes to sexual repression, nobody does It like the British. Or at least that's what supposedly groovy Californians like to think. Now, an exile from the Empire sets the record straight. (Sarah Phelan)

The Joy of Sex Substitutes: Lube jobs, hot wax, warm fluids, exotic rituals--it's like we never gave up sex. (Rebecca Patt)

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From the February 12-19, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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