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CelibaciesReview - Celibacies
American Modernism and Sexual Life
by Benjamin Kahan
Duke University Press, 2013
Review by Hennie Weiss
Jul 15th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 29)

In Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life, Benjamin Kahan develops the idea that modern celibacy is a distinct form of sexuality, rather than simply the lack of sexuality, as is often stated. Kahan argues that celibacy is a coherent sexual identity, one that takes multiple expressions, forms or identities and that celibacy as a crucial social identity emerged in the 1840s. By using various examples of people and their expressions of celibacy Kahan describes how celibacy can be viewed as reform,  as predicated by economic motives, as a way of protecting oneself in times of fear, how celibacy creates and strengthens independence (especially for women), how it is a tool for entering the public sphere and for gaining citizenship. In the final chapter, Kahan also discusses the notion of asexuality, neutrality and relationality. Kahan distinguishes between celibacy and asexuality, including how they differ from the binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Kahan also discusses the work of Halperin who includes the notion that celibacy at times cloaks homosexuality. Even though Kahan recognizes Halperin's statement, Kahan also provides his own ideas and beliefs about celibacy as its own form of sexual identity, one that is positive and attractive. When doing so, Kahan also gives a boot to queer theory, and what he believes is the inability of queer theory to view celibacy as its own sexual identity, rather than simply the closeting of homosexuality, or the repression of sex and sexuality. Kahan notes both the divergence of thought when it comes to the ideas of queer theory in comparison to his own, and the at times the rather limited views associated with celibacy and queer theory.  "Queer readings tend to interpret "absence" (preterition, silence, the closet, the love that dare not speak its name, the "impossibility" of lesbian sex) as "evidence" of same-sex eroticism, covering over our ability to read actual absences of sex. By thinking of celibacy as a sexuality rather than as an internalized homophobia or as a fig leaf for homosexuality, my project reconfigures the epistemology of the closet, understanding celibacy not as an absence or as a stigmatized identity but in positive terms as an attractive identity with its own desires and pleasures" (p. 3).

To further his views of celibacy as sexual identity Kahan uses examples and people to describe celibacy as a sexual identity. In chapter one, Kahan focuses on the notion of the Boston marriage, a form of partnership between women, often predicated on economic motives, where unmarried women were able to work and live a more independent life based on celibacy. In chapter two Kahan describes the life and work of Marianne Moore (who spent her life in celibacy) and how celibacy can be a form of engagement and performance, nontheological and as well as an identity that is nonstigmatized. Chapter three focuses on the economics of celibacy and celibacy as a tool for entering into the public sphere. Celibacy can be a communal enterprise that thrives, and that is described by discussing Father Divine, an intellectual and religious leader from Harlem. Chapter four takes a different approach when focusing on queer citizenship and the importance of celibacy to help homosexuals gain citizenship in America during the McCarran-Walter Act, where many were denied citizenship due to their sexual orientation. Chapter five focuses on Andy Warhol and the sociable and sexualized celibacy that he represented throughout his life.

Kahan has written a book that is both interesting, well articulated, progressive, and perhaps for some, rather provoking. By using examples of people, their life stories, their writing and art, Kahan has provided the reader with an extensive discussion of celibacy as a sexual identity. This discussion seems long needed in terms of the study of sexuality where celibacy has long been overlooked or at times ignored. The book is written as an addition to the work on sexuality, one which puts celibacy at the forefront of the discussion, without being abrasive. In fact, Kahan writes in a manner which seems very thoughtful and attentive, taking time to research, describe and interpret the works of those described in the book. The book is not only for those interested in the history of celibacy and sexuality, but also for those who work in the field of human sexuality. In Celibacies, Kahan has managed to offer a new perspective on celibacy without focusing on the politics of conservatism and religion, which is refreshing.

 

© 2014 Hennie Weiss

 

Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.


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