- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Christmas is the only religious season where the virginal status of one of the lead characters is crucial to the story.

McGill University professor Elizabeth Abbott writes in her new book, "A History of Celibacy," that the general populace considers abstaining as sad and lonely at best, unnatural at worst and the preserve of priests, nuns, spinsters and prisoners.

Yet the number of single Americans continues to grow, and the celibate state can fulfill, she writes, as do authors Joan Allen and Marc Kusnitz in their new book, "Celebrating Single." You need not wait for sex or love in order to be fulfilled, all three authors say.

More and more of America's 82 million singles seem to be opting for the non-paired life, says Mrs. Abbott, a divorced woman in her 50s and the mother of one son.

"I've seen a great outpouring from women on this topic," she says. "A ton of women out there are celibate, and they are not that old, either. Or at least they stay that way for a few years to recuperate from a relationship. A lot of older women are like me been there, done that, loved that, but there's other things they want to do.

"On radio talk shows, I've been surprised to get as many male callers as women. Women tend not to be as embarrassed to admit they are celibate. But men, even the young ones, phone up and talk about it. They found going from one person to another was exhausting and they didn't see the value in it."

Her book profiles Indian nationalist Mohandas Gandhi, who took a lifelong vow of celibacy in 1906 at the age of 37. It was to fulfill his longing to be "God's eunuch," a Christian concept that Gandhi, a Hindu, found attractive.

Mastery over one's body came with mastering the palate, he found, which was why he banned spices and flavorings onions, salt, sugar, dates, currants and milk from his kitchen. Frequent fasting also strengthened his goal of "brahmacharya," a spiritual state that allowed one to rise above carnal desires for sex and food to operate in a higher sphere.

Celibacy, she writes, fortified Gandhi to carry out the difficult concept of militant nonviolence. His reward for self-mastery was his position as founder of modern-day India and the name of Mahatma great one given him by the masses.

Celibacy and virginity never will be a major trend, she says, but it needs to be provided as more of a viable option.

"Most human beings like sex, and we are going to like it for large periods of our life. I certainly have," she says. "I just don't want to put up with the relationship. There is so much literal work in it. Egalitarian relationships between men and women are pretty rare, and many women just want to live independently."

Joan Allen, a Baltimore author who co-authored "Celebrating Single and Getting Love Right" with Dr. Marc Kusinitz, says the huge number of singles is like the proverbial elephant amidst society's living room.

"A lot of people think that being single is pathetic," she says. "I was reading in People magazine about Hollywood women Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan who are single. I saw Julia Roberts on late-night TV apologizing for being single. Well, if Julia Roberts says something like that, how does the average woman feel?

"What I find depressing is someone who stays in a dead-end relationship or a loveless marriage. That is what I find to be pathetic."

Miss Allen, 49, who has never married, conducts "Celebrating Single" cooking classes for Fresh Fields stores up and down the East Coast. She would like to see what she calls "a new singletude."

"I want to see the status of singles as being positive in this country," she says. "It is not the end of the world. I was brought up by a Jewish mother, and she wanted me married. I felt a huge pressure to be married.

"I have a niece in her 20s, and she wasn't dating anyone. Someone said to her, you'd better find someone and not be so picky or you'll end up like Joan. She was crushed. 'Joan,' she told me, 'I look up to you.'"

She may need such a role model. The statistical average age for first-time sex is 17 for girls and 16 for boys. Nineteen percent of all teens between ages 13 and 15 have been sexually active, Miss Abbott says, and by ages 16 and 17, this rises to 55 percent. Seventy-two percent of all high school seniors have had sex, half of them with more than one partner.

Such activity is not surprising in an era where girls menstruate earlier (average age is 12 instead of 14) but marry later (at 25 instead of 21), and where virgins are scorned as geeks, she says. Plus, they are bombarded with the message that sex is good, natural, cool and ubiquitous.

"Virginity needs to put forth as a more positive way of life until people are ready to enter a sexual way of life," she says. "Women come to me and say it is so exciting to hear someone else is celibate. They do not feel they can talk about it to a lot of people, who see it almost as a pathology and encourage them to find a man."

Rarely do parents or teachers emphasize "power virgins" like Joan of Arc, she says, or Queen Elizabeth I, for both of whom virginity was part of their mystique.

During the 15th century, Joan of Arc almost single-handedly brought about the liberation of France from the British during the Hundred Years' War. She did this by wearing only mens' clothing, since a commander dressed in women's garb would not have lasted a day in the French military.

Joan of Arc's well-known virginity, Miss Abbott explains, was her way of saying she was not sexually receptive because of the greater mission she had to perform. She was burned at the stake in 1431, not for unchastity or hearing otherworldly voices, but for dressing like a man.

Elizabeth I used her unmarried state to keep the reins of power in her own hands and not surrender them to any man's. Seeing the disaster of her sister Mary's marriage to Philip Tudor, she resolved never to sacrifice national or religious interests to wed an individual.

Their modern-day equivalents, she writes, are women motivated by religious faith to save their virginity as a wedding gift for a marriage partner. But even they do not anticipate a lifetime without sex. However, skewed ratios of the sexes in some sectors of society have made virginity lifelong for some unwilling singles whom Mrs. Abbott calls "involuntary celibates."

"Women like that are never going to find celibacy a happy state because that was not what they were looking for or what they need," she says. "We usually know what we need. There is no question that as a younger woman, I would have never chosen celibacy. I desperately wanted a child. I was ecstatic when I got pregnant.

"When celibacy has been by choice, it's an enriching and satisfying way of life. When it is forced on people, it leads to bitterness and resentment."

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