With Valentine’s Day only just behind us, this has been a week about love. Adding to the romance is the revelation by pop sensation Justin Bieber and his wife Hailey Baldwin that they had chosen to remain chaste until their marriage. In an interview for Vogue, Mr. Bieber stated that he abstained from sex for religious reasons and added that Christian regulations about sex before marriage are about protecting people “from hurt and pain.” “I really felt it was better for the condition of my soul,” he said.
It’s hardly revelatory that Christians are supposed to abstain from sex outside of the boundaries of marriage. Whereas this was the case for all married free-women in the ancient world, it was the Apostle Paul who first insisted that men, too, obey these rules. Paul insisted, likely to the shock of his audience, that men could no longer have sex with prostitutes and slaves in the belief that these actions didn’t count. Now everyone was supposed to comport themselves like a properly married Roman wife.
As many anthropologists will tell you, regulations governing female chastity are, in their inception, about inheritance and preserving male confidence in their paternity. Given that it was difficult to fake maternity (in Roman law the testimony of a midwife could serve as a guarantee of that) it was only the role of the father that was ever in doubt. For any man who was intent on securing his line, the sexual conduct of women had to be regulated. This is not to say, as Dr. Sarah Bond has written, that people who lived in the medieval period used chastity belts to constrain their lusty wives (it’s a later myth); but there were all kinds of interesting and bizarre practices governing chastity.
For much of recorded history, men of all kinds of cultures have insisted upon marrying virgins. It was less clear if there was such a thing as virginity for men (a character in an ancient Greek novel, declares that “if men have a maidenhead” he has kept his), but the ability to control one’s sexual appetites has always been regarded as a good thing. While Bieber explained his own choice in terms of the potential harm sex could do to others, many ancient Greek writers saw sex as something that could get in the way of higher callings. Excessive quantities of food, drink and sex could render one’s soul sluggish and docile. Rather that pursuing the Good Life or God, the soul was instead content to wallow in the corporeal husk of one’s body. If sex was a sedative drug for philosophers, it was also a liability for soldiers. Sex was seen to dull the mind and distract the person from their task. Obsessive lust could be dangerous in the wrong circumstances.
In the same vein, the Apostle Paul was of the opinion that, if at all possible, a person should abstain from sexual relations altogether. In 1 Corinthians 7 he admits that it is better “to marry than burn [with lust]” but ideally everyone should be celibate like him. It certainly wasn’t for everyone, St. Augustine, who fathered a son with a concubine he had for a decade, writes in his Confessions that he prayed to God to make him “chaste, but not yet.”
Almost everyone agrees that self-enforced chastity is a challenge, but there were those who happily embraced it and others who dedicated themselves to fighting their temptations. The ascetic monks known as “the desert fathers,” who lived as hermits in caves in the Egyptian desert in the late antique period, often describe Satan appearing to them in the form of a beautiful young woman. Wealthy young couples in Rome, by contrast, would voluntarily set up “household monasteries” in their homes in which they dedicated their marriages to God and agreed to remain celibate even though they were married.
This doesn’t mean that celibacy didn’t present some practical problems, especially for priests. St. Augustine of Canterbury dedicates large amounts of material to the question of nightly emissions and whether experiencing what we would call a “wet dream” disqualified a priest from celebrating the eucharist. (Answer: it did not, but if any other priests were available to help out they should celebrate the eucharist instead). Similar problems were faced by Gandhi who, having sworn off sexual relationships, meticulously documented and publicized his wet dreams. Gandhi somewhat audaciously linked his failure to control himself to ongoing Hindu-Muslim violence. He even devised (somewhat horrifyingly) celibacy tests for himself in which he would sleep next to naked young women in order to avoid having sex with or becoming aroused by them. The goal was brahmacharya, celibate self-control.
The practical problems were even more acute for those seeking to ascertain if a chaste person was fertile and, thus, would make an appropriate life-partner. Out of this need was born a whole host of fertility tests. One Greek medical papyrus recommends the following test for fertility: “The way to know it of a woman whether she will be pregnant: You should make the woman urinate on this plant, above, again, at night. When morning comes, if you find the plant scorched, she will not conceive. If you find it green, she will conceive.” The same use of plants as a test for fertility is found in early Islamic literature. The ninth century Persian physician Rabban al-Tabari, writes that infertility in a couple can be diagnosed by placing the urine of the man and the woman on two heads of lettuce. In the morning, whichever person’s head of lettuce is dried up is the infertile partner.
Enforcing celibacy is another matter altogether. Many people recall the abstinence-only education programs that emerged in the late 1980s. The threat of death and disease is a powerful motivator. But more than 100 years earlier, the British physician Dr. William Acton, a strong advocate for chastity for men, promoted daily baths, a bland alcohol-free diet, religious study, a hard bed, and rigorous physical exercise as a tonic for young men who might otherwise find themselves drawn to masturbation. Adapting one’s diet is, historically speaking, a common cure for sexual desire: the ancient Greeks and Romans recommended avoiding wine (which heated the blood and produced sperm); late antique Christian ascetics practiced fasting; and the Male Purity Movement of 1930s America advocated for vegetarianism.
For those wishing to follow in Baldwin and Bieber’s footsteps, perhaps diet and exercise are the way forward. And, if nothing else, giving up alcohol and eating clean will probably improve your health.