The Art of Celibacy

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The Art of Celibacy by Quentin Crisp

Celibacy is a word most often used in connection with the priesthood. Mr.
Webster, in his famous dictionary, gives its meaning as the state of
being unmarried, but we have all become much more outspoken and nastier

than we were in Mr. Webster’s day. We know that the state of being
unmarried does
not necessarily involve chastity — a more exalted state.

In a film entitled Priest, one prelate was having a shameless
affair with his housekeeper and the other, newly arrived, made himself
comfortable in the vicarage, took off his turned-around collar and made
straight for the nearest notorious gay bar. The film was, of course,
absurd. If one arrived in a small town to work for McDonald’s, one would
not be as indiscreet as that — let alone if one had arrived to work for

Why is God so against all forms of self-gratification? There seems to be
no reasonable answer, but we all accept that he is. I would think that if
a man were physically satisfied, he could concentrate his attention on
“higher” things, whereas if he were not, he would think about nothing but
his continual battle with the flesh.

When Mr. Clinton appointed Dr. Joycelyn Elders to the post of surgeon
general, she recognized that preoccupation with sex is a particularly
onerous problem in the schools. The goodly doctor also said that it
wouldn’t hurt for adolescents to be taught about masturbation in the
classroom. Mr. Clinton was shocked. His surgeon general was sacked.

Upper school was certainly where it all started for me. I spent most of
those four miserable years slaving over knowledge that would prove
useless, and (like the other boys) indulging in the solitary pastime of
masturbation. It was such a dark subject, so surrounded by shame and

mystery. We were all terrified of the consequences. How much was too
much? Would one go mad? Could other people tell if one indulged? And so

No one was there to allay these fears, to say that it was the least
complicated, the cheapest form of self-gratification and that, as has
already been noted, one doesn’t have to look one’s best. What more is
there to say?

And if you do not enjoy having sex with yourself, why fly to the
opposite extreme? Why get married? For human beings, marriage is such an
unnatural state. If you want monogamy, it has been said, you should marry
a swan.

When Miss Streisand stated that the people who need people are the
luckiest people in the world, she was correct to use the plural and
thereby avoid the common misconception that people who need only a
single person are the luckiest people. If you allow anyone into
your life who can claim the dreary role of “best friend” — almost as
threatening as “wife” — he will weigh you down with guilt. When you meet
him in the street he will say with feigned surprise, “Oh, you are still
here. Naturally, I thought you were dead since you didn’t telephone me
all last week.”

In view of these snags, it is well to dispose our interest horizontally,
to cover the whole human race, rather than in depth so as to burden some
single unfortunate person. For this it is necessary to live in a large
city so that any number of strangers are available.

People are always asking me how I deal with bores but, when we say of

someone that he is boring, it is often ourselves that we criticize. It
means that we have presented ourselves to the public as a shallow,
wide-open vessel into which strangers can pour anything. I used to say
that no one is boring who will talk about himself, but I was laughed to
scorn by the press, so now I have revised my statement. I say no one is
boring who will tell you the truth about himself. I mention all this to
answer the question often asked of the celibate: “Aren’t you lonely?”

Those people are lonely who don’t know what to do with time when they
are alone. I do nothing. I am a dab hand at doing nothing. I do not
subscribe to the Protestant ethic of needless activity. Before I do
anything — before I can even lift a finger — I always ask myself one
question, “Can I possibly get out of this?” and if I can, I do.

And what does one think about when there is no one else to consume his
thoughts? He thinks about himself, which is the only thing that he can
change by merely thinking about it. And he must be alone to do this. How
can anyone decide to work on his public image if, the moment he opens his
eyes, an all-too-familiar voice beside him says, “And another thing . . .”

The last words on celibacy — or the advantages of onanism — must
belong to that wonderful but neglected writer, Miss Katherine Mansfield.
In her diary, there is an entry that says: “On living alone. If, by some
awful chance, I find a hair in the butter, at least it is my own.”

©1997 Quentin Crisp
and Nerve.com