Review: Women, Passion & Celibacy

Women, Passion & Celibacy

Women, Passion & Celibacy

by Sally Cline

1993. Carol Southern Books, NY.


Sally Cline is obviously angry about sexist societies that condemn women's sexual choices, her own included. Throughout Women, Passion & Celibacy she is often defensive, bitter, or aggressive in tone, which can make for difficult reading in places, especially, I imagine, for men reading the book. However, Cline presents so many interesting ideas about the uses and challenges of celibacy that I still found the book worthwhile.

Cline begins from one of my favorite premises, that celibacy is a sexual activity because it is a purposeful choice made about sex. She goes on to construct a definition of “passionate celibacy” and in doing so examines the roots of common stigmatizations of celibates as perverted, immature, damaged, dysfunctional, lonely, unfeminine, ugly, and so on. Her definition emphasizes personal independence over genital abstinence, and offers that celibacy is not deprivation but more like a form of sexual vegetarianism that can be chosen for positive reasons and that offers its own benefits such as personal, political or spiritual growth, independence, and freedom from the power struggles of sexual relationships.

Despite her preachy verbiage, I found Cline's discussions of the taboos surrounding celibacy intensely interesting and accurate. I've always been fairly supportive of celibacy, and found its possibilities compelling, but I recognized in my own attitudes a lot of the same celibate-hatred that pops up in texts like “The Poison of Prudery.” It really made me wish that Cline wasn't so negative about sexual participation. I wanted to take her seriously, but I found that her negativity undermined the credibility of her declaration that celibacy is about choices, since she spends a lot of energy discrediting all other options. I was looking for ways and reasons to add celibacy to my activities, not to reject all other activities.

Some of the celibate singles, spouses, teachers and the inevitable nuns that Cline talks to exhibit similarly negative motivations, but others make truly positive comments that I found more engaging. Especially inspiring for me was the lengthy discussion of Shaker communities entirely organized around a celibate lifestyle, and Shaker explorations of the transformative possibilities of celibacy.

All in all, Cline makes some excellent points about the role of solitude in maturity, separating love from sex, the political and personal uses of celibacy, and the prejudice inherent in some popular ideas about sexuality. Her anger is understandable, but it makes the book less relevant to me, so I wish someone would filter this through a happily empowered perspective and write a book that was really about curiosity, exploration, and choices.

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See also my page about celibacy.

To counteract all the negative attitudes about sex in this book, a chaser like The New Good Vibrations Guide To Sex might be in order.

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