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They occasionally populate New Yorker stories“characters on the peripheries of the narrator’s life, somehow only half human, almost surreal, because they’re single, celibate, and plan to stay that way until, someday, they marry. But the someday hasn’t arrived, and in the context of postmodern fictional settings, the chaste represent objects of repression, pity, and derision. Of the multitudinous lifestyles deemed acceptable and worth defending today, celibacy for singles stays off the list, almost as if its very existence threatens the well-being of the world as we know it.

I spent most of my twenties single, and am not devoid of empathy for friends who graduated from their church young adult programs without finding a spouse. Their unfulfilled yearning for marriage and despair over unrealized fertility has sometimes left me wordless in offering comfort. Yet, I would hardly call any of their lives wasted, let alone anomalies of nature. I’m thinking of a single friend my age whose rich and full life includes literature, art, film, a job teaching at-risk teens, and a family consisting of siblings, nieces, nephews, co-workers, students, fellow volunteers, priests, and parishioners.

A quick perusal of religious websites for singles confirms my experience, that people who defy the sexually active lifestyle while single find their own sense of liberation and purpose. “Celibacy can be a radical testimony to God’s love and provision,” summarizes one articulate voice, Christine Colon, associate professor of English at Wheaton College, “because it reminds us that our ultimate fulfillment has to be union with God . . . there are always going to be these longings unfulfilled here on earth.” Other online chastity advocates include websites like Notes from the Sisterhood of Perpetual Singleness and Celibrate, which aims to replace negative stereotypes of celibacy with positive testimonials and examples.

But those promoting virginity have their work cut out for them , especially when the chaste themselves buy into the notion that they are somehow trapped in perpetual adolescence and repressed by a religion intent on arresting their development. The New York Times ran a column entitled, “Single, Female, Mormon, Alone,” in which an eloquent poet delineates her trajectory from dating as a virgin“which was far too much for the men to handle since “It was weird for them (some would say ridiculous) to suddenly be thrust into eighth grade”“to her ultimate liberation in a quasi-religious experience at Planned Parenthood. “I would have an IUD instead of children,” she exults.” I would have intellectual and spiritual freedom; I would write poems and finally live inside my body.” To which the majority of commenters gave a rousing thumbs up, grateful to see another human being set free, according to one reader, “whose life had been perverted [by] the idiocy of organized religion.” Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic women chimed in their endorsements as well.

Still, a few readers found her choice questionable, among them a self-described “happily married old physician” who asked “Who told you that sexual experience makes you a mature person? Who told you that copulation is love?” I also appreciated a Times reader who had “lived the reverse life from Nicole” and remarked that “all the sex I had before [joining the LDS Church] left me nothing but broken-hearted, lonely, and depressed.” Reaction in the Bloggernacle, or Mormon blogosphere, consisted mostly of sympathy for the pain of those on the fringes of our family-oriented church, but also included some skeptical observations. Among them: “We aren’t stunted in growth by being single. We are stunted in growth by sin. If I’m single because I sin, I’m stunted. If not, I’m not missing anything the Lord can’t provide for me.”

I asked two middle-aged single friends how they felt about remaining celibate. The first, who’s gone back to school for a PhD in Biblical studies, told me, “Honestly, it’s just the way I live. I don’t even think about it anymore . . . but then again, I haven’t been tempted in so long, I haven’t had to think.” She sent a quote, as an afterthought, from Peter Marshall’s sermons: “It seems to me that behind every sin, every vice, every mess, is a lack of self-discipline . . . of God’s discipline.” The other friend, who remained single after an early divorce, said she learned the hard way that sex void of a marital commitment “is actually what makes you feel like half a person, not celibacy.”

Maybe that’s why even people without religious convictions choose chastity. According to the New York Post, various urban singles’ disgust with “the New York version of fast-food sex” has led some to abstain from sex altogether. I even ran across one of those literary magazine essays recently, this one ominously entitled “Virgin” by (who else?) a Mormon writer full of ambivalence”shared by her more experienced boyfriend”regarding her innocent state. With trepidation, I waited for her exit story from the faith, but toward the end, she goes to church wanting a sign that her unique situation gives her a pass to sleep with her boyfriend. Instead, during the sacrament”our version of communion”she remembers her commitments to God, and knows there’s “no getting around it . . . . whether I like it or not, my sexuality has to do with my relationship with God.” She decides to keep her promises and, pain and angst in tow, stay chaste.

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer specializing in family and religious issues and lives in Salt Lake City. She can be reached at betsyvandenberghe@gmail.com.

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