All the Celibate Ladies? A Different Question About Labels and Language

Last week I had a great lunch w/another gay Christian woman. We differ pretty strongly on how one follows Christ, both in terms of communion/church (she’s a Protestant) and, relatedly, in terms of chastity. But the difference which I found most striking wasn’t a difference in belief; it was our respective emotional responses to some of the terms people use to describe “my side” of the Christian discussion of sexual orientation and chastity.

My new friend described me as “single,” which for her was a neutral to positive term. “Celibate,” which is the term I usually use for myself, sounded really negative to her. I wish we’d talked about this longer, since I don’t know exactly what she associated with “celibacy”: repression, frigidity, spinsterhood, perversion? I do know what I associate with the term “single,” though: stressed-out straight women made miserable by the unhappy prospect of dating (or, and this is sometimes even worse, not dating) straight men.

That’s obviously a caricature. Plenty of my friends are single (of various sexual orientations) and leading good, fruitful lives. I know full well that “Sex and the City” isn’t a realistic depiction of single life, and neither is my morbid fantasy of a woman curled up watching “Sex and the City” with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and her seven cats. (Actually, change SATC to figure skating and that sounds like a great evening, so maybe I shouldn’t judge….) But I do associate “singleness” with yearning for a romantic relationship, worrying about relationships (why don’t I have one? what happened with my last one? should I pursue this next one?), and a certain disconnection from others. I mean, isn’t it right there in the name, single? I said in “First Things” that singleness sounds like “a rope tied only on one end,” and I basically still feel that way. [ETA: It sounds temporary, to me. That painful yearning and questioning is part of how most people end up in their actual vocations, of course, but I wouldn’t identify myself with that state as a long-term plan.]

Celibacy, by contrast, is a term with a long Christian history. It makes me think of vowed religious, who have done some of the most useful writing on making a celibate life fruitful; their writing often discusses how to integrate one’s sexuality into a celibate life, which strikes me as a notably unrepressed, un-frigid way of handling things.

But talking with this woman made me wonder if my emotional reactions are a) not the norm and b) getting in the way of my ability to communicate with others. So I guess I’ll just ask: What do you guys hear when people say “celibate” or “single”? How do you describe yourself? What do you wish you could communicate quickly when you’re describing your own vocation?

I think this is part of a bigger, future-oriented conversation about shifting our emphasis from sexual orientation as an identity category to vocation as an identity category. I really dislike the language of moving “beyond” sexual orientation, but I do hope that thirty years from now we’re identifying ourselves primarily by vocation and not by orientation. So I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on that, too.

Eve TushnetEve Tushnet Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and is working on a book on vocations for gay Catholics. She can be followed on Twitter: @EveTushnet.

31 thoughts on “All the Celibate Ladies? A Different Question About Labels and Language

  1. Pingback: “All the Celibate Ladies?”: I ask a question

  2. I expect that the fact that your friend is Protestant has a lot to do with it. Celibacy of the ‘vowed religious’ was something the Reformation pretty much rejected wholesale, and I think Protestants today inherited the negative image of it. So maybe it’s not the best term when you’re speaking to a general audience.

  3. I prefer the word chaste. Practising the virtue of chastity for my station in life at this time requires celibacy, but should I change to a conjugal state I will still be chaste.

  4. I share your sentiments about single ladies and hers about celibacy. I think, also, for me, celibacy implies a lifelong commitment whereas singleness may just be for a time. I’d side with Janet and prefer the term chaste. But most often I just don’t identify my current relationship-status; I’m not sure I really want to be identified by what my sexual parts currently are or are not doing. but rather by my faith in general.

  5. “Celibate” draws a blank for me, honestly. When one is “single,” I feel people tend to assume that it screams “available.”

  6. “I do hope that thirty years from now we’re identifying ourselves primarily by vocation and not by orientation.”

    Amen to that!

    An analogy: MLK envisioned a world where people were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. It feel like the goal of the “Spiritual Friendship” crowd should be to combat the view that “a gay person cannot really be chaste”. But once the Church learns that, I mean really learns that, I think that there is little reason to focus on sexual orientation.

    At that point, a woman could, in casual conversation with another Christian, say “I’m often attracted to other women,” and it could be understood just as if one were to say, “I admit that I really love to gossip”. Once a temptation is seen as perfectly compatible with holiness, then we have little reason to emphasize the temptation as some ultimately critical facet of ourselves. But I do think we need to talk about sexual orientation in order to get to that point, just as MLK needed to talk about race in order to move beyond race.

  7. When I hear the word celibacy, I think of choice. Single/singleness, however, gives the sense of being unwanted/unchosen. The first speaks of a calling but the second feels like punishment.

  8. I was talking with the pastor of a large evangelical Protestant church recently, and he told me that he liked everything about my work except my use of the terms “gay” and “celibate.” He told me that many in his congregation are former Catholics who associate “celibacy” with all the problems in the priesthood of which we’re all aware and they want to get as far away as possible from *that*. “Can’t you use ‘single’ instead?” he asked me, and I realized as I tried to answer him that the thing I value most about “celibate” is (a) that it implies permanency and (b) that it has a Christian history. But he still wasn’t convinced.

  9. I think, as you say, that there is a certain amount of “glamour” associated with the word single, especially for those who are married (or so it seems). It does seem to imply an availability, or openness, to romance.
    I think about the weddings I’ve been to lately where “all the single ladies” are asked to attend the bouquet toss. I’ve never seen a widow, or even an older woman, anywhere near that floor.

    Personally, I have a tendency to change a little bit, depending on who I’m talking with, however, lately, I’ve been playing with the idea of “singlemindedness” finding that it orients me more toward the most important relationship in my life, the one that I have with God, more than the lack of an earthly, romantic one.

  10. The word “single” does have meaningful connotations for some celibates. I am thinking of a song I know by a monk, where he talks about being “single of heart, single of mind, single of vision, consumed with a single goal: to know and love and serve you with all my soul”. But of course, this is a different meaning of single than the cultural definition. “Single people” in our society aren’t always very singlehearted.

  11. I agree with the sentiments above, that “single” isn’t generally regarded as a permanent state, nor necessarily a celibate / chaste one, nor a desirable one (those from the UK would associate the with the famous fictional diarist Bridget Jones, in all of those three contexts). I also agree with this paragraph: “Celibacy, by contrast, is a term with a long Christian history. It makes me think of vowed religious, who have done some of the most useful writing on making a celibate life fruitful; their writing often discusses how to integrate one’s sexuality into a celibate life, which strikes me as a notably unrepressed, un-frigid way of handling things.” “Celibate” implies, to me, that one has made a personal, proactive decision, which is admirable in itself.

  12. I actually have a very similar reaction as you, Eve. “Celibate” sounds like the more noble, more active choice. Singleness feels like a negative category forced on me by society. Also, celibate feels broader – encompassing both hetero and homosexuals brothers and sisters, making me feel part of the larger group. Singleness always felt one dimensional. You are single because you are without a husband. And because I’m not sure if I’ll ever fit in the category of women who want or are seeking a husband, it’s a label that doesn’t seem to fit me. And I feel like a fake wearing it. thanks for your thoughts here!

  13. Back when I was a good deal less sexually moral than I am today, celibate meant “unavailable” to me. Don’t know what your friend thinks, but if she’s as predatory as some can be on both the hetero and homo side of things, maybe she was just expressing disappointment.

  14. For me, neither “celibate” nor “single” is much more than a neutrally charged term. That said…
    Were I to hear someone call themselves celibate, I would think three things: 1. “This person has chosen not to have sex.”; 2. “This person has chosen not to have sex. Whether or not they are in a romantic relationship has not yet been addressed; maybe they are married to an asexual person who cannot handle the thought of sex and so has sworn off sex so that they can pursue a life with this person. Maybe this person is asexual. Maybe something else. I don’t know.”; and 3. “Other people will think that this person is frigid, repressed, delusional, a closet homosexual, etc., without even close to sufficient evidence.”
    Were I to hear someone call themselves single, I would (analogously) think three things: 1. “This person may or may not have chosen to be single; it is impossible to why they are single.”; 2. “This person is currently not dating; for all that I know, they may be having frequent sexual encounters with various people”; and 3. “Other people will think that this person desperately wants to be in a relationship and has failed to do so due to some fault of their own, without even close to sufficient evidence.” And maybe a fourth thing, depending on the person and on my own emotional situation: “I wonder whether this is a person I would be interesting in asking out.”
    I’m not sure which you would prefer.

    • Alternatives: single-by-choice, in a committed non-relationship. (That last one if facetious.) It’s a shame there is no gender-neutral or feminine variant of “bachelor,” since “avowed bachelor” has a certain charm to it. “Avowed spinster” has not inherited the same glamour.

      There are a lot of people trying to reclaim “single” as not-such-a-bad thing, people who don’t think there’s any need for anyone (even if you haven’t committed to celibacy) to be in a romantic relationship, as nice as it might be. Yours truly is among such folks. So, you know, I think they’d (we’d) be more than happy if you did that re-claiming work alongside us.

  15. depending on the situation I would refer to myself as celibate to indicate I am not available for dating and single when I don’t want to seem overly religious to people who don’t know me. I haven’t made a formal vow to celibacy, but it follows that I won’t be dating women or seeking a same sex relationship because of my beliefs.

  16. I think that for an ad intra conversation, celibate is a preferable term, for the reasons Wes gave above. In an ad extra context, however, I think single can work better. A lot of people may have negative connotations with celibacy; though as has been noted, people can also have problems with “single.” It’s mostly gonna boil down to discerning which works better in a given discussion.

  17. When I hear the word “celibate” I think of religious and how they chose to take that vow.

    How do you describe yourself? My friends know I am single and content. To be honest, I get offended that so many Catholics feel justified when they hear someone is queer to immediately ask if they are chaste that my response is usually ‘none of your business’. I don’t volunteer a description to someone I don’t know well.

  18. I have come to reject the term “single” as a product of the sexual revolution. Even the Church has bought the bait of the sexual revolution and will promote the idea of the “happy single life.” God does not call any of us to singleness. We may be called to be unmarried or find ourselves unmarried. But not singleness. Singleness in modern culture is largely a product of the increase fragmentation of our society. In 1940 only 7% of people in America lived alone. By 2009 that had jumped to 25%. Between the mid-80s to the mid-2000s the number of people who said they no longer had someone to talk to about significant matters tripled.

    Singleness is the result of the breakdown in kinship units. People are not marrying and so are living alone apart from kinship or are in serial, temporary cohabitating situations with lovers or roommates where there is no lasting stability. Our strong culture of independence also leads to a narrowing of the family unit such that unmarried aunts, uncles, or grandparents are often not welcome to live in a family home with extended relatives. Thus, forced to live apart from daily life of kinship. Mobility has also contributed to this problem. The way we treat our elderly and dying is often appalling and systematic of this fragmentation in kinship.

    Until very recent times people were part of kinship units–either they married and formed a kinship unit, or lived with extended relatives, or formed covenanted communities (monastic) where there was a lifelong covenant to share life together and care for each other upon death. People rarely lived alone. Even Jesus who was unmarried went from the family home to a tight knit community of 12 close friends with whom he shared daily life until he died (and since they were followers it does not make sense they would have ever left off following him). Furthermore, he was still closely connected with his biological kinship unit as is evident in the frequent mention of his brothers and his mother who seem to often be around where he is. And his mother was there at his death.

    We were all designed to live in kinship units sharing daily life with those with whom we have a future and whom we know will care for us in times of need and death. Kinship is about one of the highest virtues–commitment/fidelity/loyalty. We have great difficulty these days committing to anyone for life–whether in marriage or covenanted friendship. By ignoring the fact that God designed us for kinship units in order to thrive we fail to flourish and we also are unable to practice the virtue of loyal love–love that is so defined because it is covenanted. Chesed as the Hebrew would put it.

    I greatly admire spiritual friendship–and we need it. But its important to point out that friendship is very different from kinship. Kinship involves an official covenant to become like flesh and blood and be committed to that person for life. That can mean marriage. It can mean a rite of sisterhood/brotherhood. It can mean something like the Naomi/Ruth relationship, etc. Friendship–without a covenant–is temporary and ultimately unreliable and thus not much different than serial cohabitation of romantic partners with its problematic results. We are not meant to thrive and survive in that kind of relational instability.

    Thus, I think in addition to emphasizing spiritual friendship, we need to also begin having conversations about how to restore kinship networks for people who are “unmarried.” And that brings me to my point that “unmarried” is now my preferred term as “single” is not something we are called to and is, in Western culture, a product of the sexual revolution.

  19. PS: I should add that I think “celibate” is still a good term for those who anticipate lifelong celibacy (though not singleness!). While “unmarried” is appropriate for the person who anticipates the possibility of getting married.

  20. Of course, an unmarried person’s kinship units were almost always their biological kin or kin through marriage, like Ruth and Naomi; something you are describing, “an official covenant to become like flesh and blood and be committed to that person for life,” like affrerement, was not a standard practice (although it did exist).

    In other words, one’s kin was, for the most part, simply one’s family. I think that what you are calling for in a “restorationist” key is basically just the strengthening of familial bonds.

    • Except in the monastic tradition–which is significant. We also have in church history the rites of brotherhood/sisterhood.

      In my call for restoration, I am calling for strengthening of biological bonds, yes. But I am calling for more than that–the elimination of the dysfunctional “singleness” phenomenon that has developed. Strengthening existing kinship bonds is crucial, but we can also consider other forms of creating kin–covenanted community (monastic), adoption, adelphopoiesis, etc. I think given our fragmented culture and mobility, that it necessitates that the church needs to consider options for unmarried people when merging daily life with biological family may not be possible (especially with the way things are now many biological family members would not want to have an extended relative living with them for life).

  21. Some comments here refer to celibacy as a choice, and that is right, but it is also a response to God. I am a Protestant, and when hear “celibacy” my immediate associations (until recently) have been the priesthood and certain religious orders—those who have received a call from God to abstain from sex and to devote their lives to cultivating Christian communities and to seeking God. They have received a call and have chosen, admirably, to accept it. I think this association of celibacy with religious orders is a common one.

    To my Protestant/Evangelically raised eyes, I think the challenge (which this blog is taking head on) is promoting a definition of celibacy that is not just for those in priestly orders. That isn’t to say that we should remove God from celibacy—far from it. Celibacy is chosen because someone is called to it by God and accepts the calling.

    Being single can be a choice (one can say “No!” when invited on a date). People can be single for periods of time because there are no candidates for dating immediately present, because there has been emotional or sexual abuse in the past that has made the idea undesirable and frightening for a time, or because one is going through grad school and holding a job and a relationship doesn’t seem realistic presently. People can also be single for long periods of time or for life, perhaps because they have a career that would make a marriage unfeasible, because they think they couldn’t keep the vows, or yes, because they’ve never found a suitable mate. At any rate, the reasoning behind it isn’t necessarily that God has called one to it as a devotion. Being single is a relationship status defined negatively; not, currently or permanently, part of a double. Celibacy should not be defined negatively because the celibate is devoted to Christ, and being such, finds wholeness.

    For this reason, for a celibate person to use the term “single” for the sake of convenience could be, I think, to miss an opportunity of sharing something core to their faith, and thus, to their life.

    • “Being single is a relationship status defined negatively; not, currently or permanently, part of a double. Celibacy should not be defined negatively because the celibate is devoted to Christ, and being such, finds wholeness.”

      I don’t know, but for someone who was fully devoted to Christ as a ‘single’ minister, and is now a divorced single-mom and ‘still’ a devoted minister, I would query the concept that “the celibate is devoted to Christ, and being such, finds wholeness” whereas the single is not.

      I know many find leverage for such arguments in Apostle Paul’s words in I Corinthians 7:32-35, and for many this seems to mean that the single person is more ‘spiritual’ than the married person. I don’t think that’s what Paul means here. I think Paul refers to ‘unfettered’ availability for ministry. A single person can take up any and all kinds of ministry (I did), but a married person or person with children, has to be mindful of what he or she takes on. However, I do not think Paul means they are ‘less devoted’ or ‘less whole’ or ‘less fulfilled’ in Christ. I met one of the most spiritual and devoted persons I know while I was a single minister. I was so challenged by her faith, commitment and devotion to Christ (she put me to shame), I cultivated a friendship with her. She’s an Education Professional, married and mother of four! Other than attending Sunday and mid-week services, I’ve never known her to participate in ministry as is known (instead her ministry is lived out on her job; I know, because I have walked with her over 12yrs). I still value our friendship very much, because I like to think there’s no way I can have lukewarm faith with her in my life. Yet, I am the minister! Unfettered ‘availability’ should not be substituted for devotion or spirituality. I don’t think that’s what Apostle Paul meant.

      As a single mom whom the LORD has insisted on retaining and using in ministry, I’ve found that whereas I cannot say ‘yes’ to everything ‘someone’ asks me to do in the church, I must and still say ‘yes’ to every thing ‘God’ asks me to do (and even in my state, He’s asked and still asks a lot of me, beyond what many singles or marrieds would endure). One thing that’s kept me steady in my discipleship journey regardless of whether I was single, married or divorced, is considering myself married to God. No matter my earthly marital status, my heart’s always been married to the Almighty. I can tell you there’s been no less of my passionate devotion through any of my marital states. Instead the commitment has grown the longer I’ve ‘stayed’ in the relationship with Him.

      Therefore, I think the measure of our ‘devotion’ to the Master isn’t and shouldn’t be our earthly marital status, but rather *how* we *answer/respond* to God. Thus whether single or married, we can all *be* devoted to Christ, even if our earthly marital/familial status hinders our physical availability for every ministry opportunity.

  22. It is difficult for me to determine if Ms. Tushnet’s definition of the term “celibacy” is actually continence or abstinence. In the Code of Canon Law, celibacy is the vow to remain unmarried for life. So the vow of celibacy for consecrated religious and clergy is the vow to remain unmarried for life. It does not specifically refer to sexual relations, although this is the common, mistaken understanding of “celibacy”. The Church’s assumption is that if someone is not going to marry, then they are going to live chastity (continence / abstinence) in their unmarried (celibate) state, and that the married are going to live chastity in the matrimonial state (the expression of conjugal relations exclusively, and solely with one’s spouse).

  23. I agree that single implies available. Celibate unfortunately has come to be used by many Catholic clerics to mean not coupled up, but not necessarily chaste in the usual Catholic sense…no masturbation or hook ups. I think the best term now is “chaste celibacy.”

  24. Pingback: Language and Labels | a reconstructivist

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