Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life

Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life, 2013, United States of America, Duke University Press, 235 pp., 978-0-8223-5568-7

There is a degree of difficulty inherent in reviewing texts from outside your discipline and certain risks attached to evaluating research areas other than your own. As a sociologist, rather than a literary theorist, who studies asexuality, rather than celibacy, I approached Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life with caution but also fascination. When celibacy manifests itself within asexuality studies it tends to do so negatively, as something that is mistakenly imputed to asexual people and a notion against which they define themselves i.e. celibacy is a choice, whereas asexuality is not. However the neatness of this dichotomy does not survive critical scrutiny, suggesting an overlap, or at least adjacency, between asexuality and celibacy that deserves further attention.

Kahan observes that there is a ‘slipperiness’ to celibacy which engenders a tendency to read it as a symptom of something else. In this sense celibacy sits uneasily in relation to sexuality, complicating what counts as ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’. So too asexuality, with its capacity, as he puts it, to baffle “the hetero/homo binary though its nonengagement with these economies of desire and pleasure” (p. 147). However while Kahan does explore the relationship between the two, with some particularly insightful work that positions contemporary asexuality in terms of historical celibacy, he does so at the cost of truncating asexuality, explicitly ignoring the sizable population of asexual people who pursue romantic relationships and experience romantic attractions, for no reason other than his own analytical convenience. This problematic move, in which vast swathes of the asexual population are rendered strategically invisible so as to not disrupt the theorist’s project, constitutes an unfortunate caveat underlying the perspicacious observations Kahan does make about asexuality and the “possibility of theorizing attraction and love without the interference or noise of sex” (p. 146).

It may be the fact that I could not help but read this book through the prism of asexuality, or it may be the aforementioned ‘slipperiness’ to celibacy, but it was less clear than it could have been precisely what Kahan takes celibacy to be. While the ‘indeterminacy’ of celibacy is certainly interesting, the text would have benefited from a more explicit statement of the author’s own operationalization of it as a concept. From the outset, Kahan declares his intention to use it in both a contemporary sense of abstaining from sexual acts and a more historical sense of being unmarried. The ambiguous relationship between these two senses, unfolding through history, certainly invites historical exploration. But the author’s equally ambiguous use of the term (encompassing social identity, political identity, strategic response to homophobia and mode of existence) renders the specificity of ‘celibacy’ remarkably elusive given this is a dense and sophisticated text devoted to the topic.

The main body of the text is structured around historical case studies, each illuminating different dimensions of celibacy and its attendant politics. From the perspective of asexuality studies, the first of these case studies is particularly fascinating. It is an engaging discussion of the nineteenth century institution of “Boston Marriages”: long-term celibate partnerships between women. Other case studies include Andy Warhol, José Martinez, Father Divine, W.H. Auden and Marianne Moore. While these case studies are productively eclectic, some of the discussion tends to meander in a rather frustrating way. The exercise was presented in a way that perpetually raised my historiographical expectations, only to subsequently dash them. The problem here may very well be my own expectations, though it seems likely that others approaching this book from a similar disciplinary background may share them.

Nonetheless, the book is readable and illuminating throughout, deftly threading conceptual discussion through engagingly idiographic analysis of celibate authors, activists and artists. The aspect of the book I found most powerful was its engagement with the politics of celibacy. Despite its predominately historical focus, Kahan skilfully builds upon his discussion of celibacy and modernism to elucidate often overlooked aspects of the sexual politics of late modernity. His analysis demonstrates, albeit not as comprehensively as he seems to assume, the character of celibacy as a “site of radical politics, of feminist organising, of black activism, queer citizenship, and other leftist interventions” (p. 153). The book concludes with a provocative call for this radical legacy to be reclaimed. In doing so, we would refuse to cede celibacy to the political right, instead rethinking (or perhaps deepening) the sexual politics of the left. What Kahan suggests is that the hegemony of what he terms the ‘expressive hypothesis’ creates a demand that everyone must express sexuality. He seeks to understand how contemporary sexual mores, though often animated by an emancipatory impulse, can nonetheless stigmatise those who do not engage in sexual acts or those who do not experience attraction at all. In seeking to move beyond this politics of ‘recovering sexual expression’, in which the emancipatory project of ensuring that “one’s sexual identities, desires, and pleasures never fall victim to suppression” (p. 5) imposes a homogeneity on sexual experience, Kahan presents us with a provocative vision of a redrawn terrain for sexual politics.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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