In most modern-day societies, the idea of not having sex may sound preposterous. After all, isn’t physical intimacy one of the key ingredients of a healthy and fulfilling life? Well, if that’s the case, then we stumble upon a problem, as the visibility of sexuality and eroticism only increases in this era, the frequency of sexual intercourse actually decreases. Recent numbers suggest that people, especially young men, are having less sex than before.
So, if we put such a high value on sex and view it as a life necessity, we could say that an increasing number of people are deprived of something essential. But is this truly the case? Do we need sex as much as we think we do? And could not having sex even be beneficial to us? The purpose of this article is not to discourage lovemaking or to shame those who do it. It’s simply an exploration of reasons not to engage in the “pleasure of all pleasures:” sex.
The sacrifice may not be worth it.
In many cases, sex comes with a price. When you’re not in a relationship or marriage, obtaining some fun between the sheets can be quite a hassle. And yes, even if you’re with someone, it can be a rare occurrence. But let’s approach this from the perspective of a single person, who, in order to find a mate, needs to either be physically present at places with potential partners or use online services like dating apps and websites.
First of all, this pursuit will not always be successful. In some cases, dependent on how your target category of people perceives you, it could take a while to find someone who suits your criteria in the physical sense. But even when you manage to find a suitable bed partner, there’s always a chance the chemistry is lacking, or there could be performance anxiety. Or worse: the person you just met could turn out to be a dangerous psychopath.
Then, of course, there’s an option to exchange currency for pleasure. But are you willing to spend your hard-earned money for a moment of carnal knowledge with a sporting lady or gentleman? Also, one might want to contemplate the conditions and motivations of the people who do this kind of work. Like with many things in life, the pursuit of intimacy comes with risks. More than two millennia ago, philosopher Epicurus (inventor of a moral philosophy revolving around pleasure) clarified why sexual intercourse was not among the pleasures he pursued. The Epicurean stance towards sex is that it’s a ‘natural desire,’ but to be happy and content (which is the ultimate goal of the Epicurean) one does not require the fulfillment of this desire. Moreover, Epicurus argued that sex is never beneficial, and you are lucky if it doesn’t harm you, implicating that it’s harmful by default.
Many would disagree with Epicurus’ statement. But several studies (links below) show a correlation between poor mental health and the frequency of casual sex (also known as hookups). It’s not entirely clear if people with poor mental health are more likely to engage in hookups or that hookups cause poor mental health. A publication by the International Academy of Sex Research suggests:
Sexual behavior may involve risk for physical and mental health. Physical health consequences include unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and sexual assault.Fielder, R. L., & Carey, M. P. (2010). Predictors and consequences of sexual “hookups” among college students: A short-term prospective study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(5), 1105-1119.
.Whether or not one is willing to accept the potential risks and sacrifices is up to that individual. Perhaps a more straightforward approach to satisfying our carnal desires is articulated by Diogenes. After being asked why he would pleasure himself in public, he replied: “If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.”
The less your scratch, the less it itches
Like all forms of sensual desires, the desire to get one’s end away is just another itch that seeks to be scratched. We can either scratch it by engaging in intercourse or by doing it the Diogenesian way. But as long as we keep scratching, the itch remains and it might get even worse. At least, this is what the Buddha observed. Buddhist knowledge of the mind shows us how desires work and how we can get rid of them. To understand this, we must identify the reason why we have these desires in the first place. From a Buddhist point of view, engaging in sensuality is a way to escape this nagging feeling of dissatisfaction with life. Even though sensual pleasures are natural and deeply rooted, we could also misuse them to numb the pain. And by doing so, they grow stronger.
Addiction is essentially the extreme indulging in sensuality, turning things like eating or surfing the internet into compulsive habits. So, the more we scratch, the more we itch. Scratching may temporarily bring relief, but the itch of desire returns more robust and intense after a while. With sex, such mechanisms are at play as well. Many people who’d consider themselves to have a “healthy sex life” could, in reality, be under continuous pressure from their cravings. They simply have access to one or more partners that are routinely available to satisfy their cravings and, thus, they persist.
Buddhist monk Ajahn Nyanamoli argues that celibacy would be beneficial for a non-Buddhist person for the apparent reason that one is not controlled by a strong desire that otherwise defines one’s whole life. Being celibate can dry the mind out of the “wetness” of sensual desire, so it becomes free of it.
…because the whole life, a person’s life, an average person’s life, revolves around following desires and getting what you want, which usually revolves around sensuality, around finding a mate, a family. The whole thing revolves around the very basic desires, that are deeply rooted obviously. So if one is able to go against it in a sense of not just pure denial but in a sense of actually developing wisdom on account of it, like “seeing of desire by not giving in to desire,” you can eventually overcome that desire. And then you can imagine the freedom of that mind.Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero, Why Is Celibacy Important, published on the Hillside Hermitage YouTube channel
From this perspective, the healthiest sex life would be none at all. The less we itch, the less we have to scratch. And according to those who are celibate, not having to scratch at all is a huge relief.
A different, more expansive life
Even though giving up sex seems like a heavy reduction in life satisfaction, there are numerous personal accounts of celibates that describe experiences of a different yet more expansive life. In an article in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, lay practitioner Mary Talbot describes how celibacy has been one of the most liberating decisions of her life. She writes that eliminating the pursuit of sex and romance freed up tremendous mental space that she previously used to think, analyze, strategize, regret, and agonize.
I was inspired by monks and nuns I know, and by the Buddha’s promise that while a celibate life may appear drastically reduced from the outside, the renunciate’s inner life blossoms and expands exponentially. My existence as an urban working mother precludes most of what monks and nuns do in the course of a day, but this is a piece of monastic life, along with meditation and seclusion, that I can practice in the privacy of my own home.Mary Talbot, The Joy of No Sex, published in Tricycle
Removing the pursuit of sex and romance from our lives likely lessens our engagement with the outside world. But this disengagement also creates an opportunity for the inner world to blossom. When we look at human behavior, we see that the claim presented by Ajahn Nyanamoli is correct: our lives generally do revolve around the deeply rooted desire for sensuality and finding a mate. Most people build their lives around it, trying to be as attractive as possible to those they yearn for. For a significant part, anticipated sensuality and romance motivate people to look well, for example, by building a muscular physique or using various beauty products and wearing high heels.
Nyanamoli explains that if we choose celibacy, everything that, in some way, facilitates the gratification of our sexual desires loses power over us. Things like the need for social status or bodily attractiveness to attract potential partners become pretty useless, as the removal of the end renders its means obsolete. This mechanism works in all areas of life. For example, if you don’t require an expensive house, you don’t need to earn the necessary income. If you don’t require status and prestige, you don’t need to go out of your way to impress people.
By simply not wanting something, we can reclaim vast amounts of energy that we can use elsewhere. For example, The Jesuits, a Christian order, claim that choosing to be celibate can be a pathway to God. They aim to practice a healthy form of celibacy, not based on repression and denial, but as a free and conscious choice fueled by a longing for the divine, so they can entirely focus on their relationship with God. But there are non-religious pursuits as well that one can spend their unlocked energy on. And some people even take it a step further.
Alleged ‘sexual transmutation.’
Even though he was popular among women, the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla chose to remain celibate throughout his life. Some claim that he was attracted to men. But this belief seems to reflect the failure to understand why a man wouldn’t be interested in the women that fancy him. In other words: “he must be gay.” Even though sexual desire is deeply rooted in us, there is more to life than copulation and procreation. Once a womanizer and gambler, Tesla decided to exert self-control over his desires. He was aware of the impact that romantic love could have on people (especially inventors) and saw it as a threat to his cause. When asked if he believed in marriage, he answered:
“…for an artist, yes; for a musician, yes; for a writer, yes; but for an inventor, no. The first three must gain inspiration from a woman’s influence and be led by their love to finer achievement, but an inventor has so intense a nature with so much in it of wild, passionate quality, that in giving himself to a woman he might love, he would give everything, and so take everything from his chosen field. I do not think you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men.”Nikola Tesla
But it wasn’t just the absence of diverting elements that contributed to his success; Tesla also claimed that abstinence played an essential role in his creativity. Through his celibacy, he may have entered the field of so-called “sexual transmutation,” as he converted his sexual energy into creative energy.
The validity of sexual transmutation is controversial, and its role in Tesla’s life remains vague. Even though it’s common in Indian religions and Taoist practices, the idea of transmuting one’s energy through abstinence lacks scientific proof. Nevertheless, there’s a copious amount of anecdotal evidence that people benefit from abstaining from sexual release. Among the infamous ‘N*Fap’ movement, we find many men (and women to a lesser extent) that experience so-called ‘superpowers’ after a period of abstinence from self-pleasure. Also, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali used to abstain from sex two months before a big fight, as he claimed that this made him unbeatable in the ring. And in 2010, the famous singer Lady Gaga decided to be celibate to protect her creativity.
American philosopher Henry David Thoreau celebrated celibacy. In his book Walden, he called chastity the “flowering of man” and described that we could transmute sensuality into purity and devotion. This “generative energy” that usually dissipates by engaging in “the act” can invigorate and inspire us. Genius, Heroism, and Holiness he considered some of the various fruits that chastity brings. So, whether or not sexual transmutation is a myth; it sounds like a valuable potential benefit and another reason to lay off the action between the sheets.
On the whole, refraining from sex could be a blessing for those who dare to take the step. But looking at human nature, the birds and the bees won’t likely disappear from the stage. After all, how can we continue our species without it? Not to speak of how pleasurable it can be. Buddhist monk Ajahn Nyanamoli admits that, despite its benefits, most people will probably not engage in celibacy outside of certain religious practices simply because it’s (quote-unquote) “way too hard.”
Thank you for watching.