In reading Elizabeth Abbott's A History of Celibacy, one gets the inescapable impression that the author is a believer in the power of sexual abstinence. Whether practiced by Christian ascetics who believe holiness can only be attained by disdaining the appetites of the flesh, by shamans seeking spiritual power or enlightenment, or by women trying to achieve independent existence in a world run by men, celibacy is portrayed in this book as a laudable, even noble way to achieve one's goals. While Ms. Abbott is certainly entitled to her opinion on this or any topic, it's a bit jarring to find such editorializing in what purports to be a history book.
Christianity is the subject of nearly a third of A History of Celibacy. Abbott acknowledges that this is unsurprising, given that it is "sex-negative [and] celibacy-obsessed...". Consequently, I found much about Christianity's obsession with sex that was new to me. For instance, she suggests that St. Augustine's well-known loathing for sex may have been rooted in his early experience with Manichaeanism, a dualistic religion which taught that the body was a prison that could only be escaped by celibacy and other forms of self-denial.
We move now from religion-inspired celibacy to the belief that semen conservation is essential to health. This goes back at least as far as Greek doctors Hippocrates and Galen, both of whom believed that too much sexual activity was debilitating to men. In the 18th century Swiss doctor Samuel Tissot expanded on this, claiming that "one ounce of [semen] would weaken more than [the loss of] forty ounces of blood". Some 19th-century organizations sought to influence young men to be celibate until marriage, and after that use their semen only to father children, sublimating the rest into more noble pursuits. A modern-day holdover of this school of thought is the belief, widespread among athletes, that sexual activity will harm their physical performance. Abbott notes that this is quite prevalent in soccer, and goes on to relate that "to this day, soccer fans in Peru blame their country's 1982 World Cup loss... on those Peruvian players who broke the ban on sex the night before the game".
Abbott covers coerced celibacy in considerable detail, whether the cause is incarceration, skewed gender ratios (due either to casualties of war or a cultural preference for boy children), cultural norms that forbid widows to remarry, even castration. Abbott discusses the first three causes briefly but covers castration in detail, from Byzantine harem guards to bureaucrats of the Ottoman Empire to castrati opera singers. Indian hijra are also included in this chapter, which seems odd because I could find nothing to suggest that they are castrated against their will. Indeed, Abbott notes that "researchers have determined that most hijras are voluntarily castrated".
I think the book would have been improved by a somewhat more restrictive definition of celibacy. Celibacy as a voluntary behavior is an interesting psychological phenomenon that would have benefited from deeper analysis. The author's inclusion of the various forms of coerced celibacy, not to mention premarital virginity, took up space that could have been used for such an analysis. The question I had in mind before beginning this book was "why do so many cultures consider voluntary celibacy to be holy or spiritual?" That question remains unanswered.
Overall, I enjoyed A History of Celibacy and found it very informative. I must take issue, however, with the author's apparent failure to remain objective on the subject. It doesn't help that she acknowledges in the introduction that she has adopted celibacy herself during her work on this book, and considers herself the richer for it. Most notably when talking about women, she repeatedly portrays celibacy as an effective way to achieve equality and independence. While this may be so, it strikes me as a little bit like cutting off your toes to make your shoes fit. Human beings are sexual creatures. To my way of thinking, it is better to fight for an equality that allows full expression of sexuality than to deny one's sexual nature, thereby removing sex as an issue altogether. I do acknowledge that such a fight was not always possible for women, but that is certainly not the case today.