Is it possible to live without sex? And when I say 'sex', I mean all kinds – as a couple, casually or any kind of, er, solo activity.
Many Christians would say a reluctant 'yes' but then add numerous amendments and justifications, or start eulogising about marriage and the "gift of sex" in a way that is useless, and frankly really annoying, for the unmarried.
The outside world often thinks it's impossible. I remember as a new Christian, the utter disbelief I felt when told that a couple in church, soon to be married, had not lived together and were 'saving themselves'. I was flabbergasted. I don't think I believed them (and stats suggest that a lot of people who claim to not have sex may well be restricting the term 'sex', not including pornography, masturbation and suchlike).
As time went on in my spiritual life, I negotiated these choppy waters until I realised that it was possible, though not always easy, and usually not a person's preference. But wrestling with it can bring you closer to God.
When I talk to people who aren't Christians about God, the topic comes up a lot. My claim that life can go well without sex is often disbelieved. To be honest, I don't think a lot of Christians really believe it, because they've never experienced it for themselves.
Talking to other single celibate folk, it's clear that it only becomes possible through God's power. With the world so sex-obsessed, and many taught from an early age that unrestrained sexual expression is fun, good and even necessary, to be able to stop all sexual activity becomes a miracle, and a liberating one.
Having said that, church does not always help celibate people. There are a lot of quite unhelpful myths out there. For some reason sexual need is usually seen as a male problem – that their use of masturbation or porn is an understandable, if regrettable, release ("letting the pressure out of the valve" etc.)
However those who are more happily celibate often disagree. Fantasy and porn can become compulsive, and some argue that 'going solo' can affect sex with a partner in the future, as well as being 'sex outside marriage' and so not part of the deal for a conservative-minded Christian.
"Masturbation does provide a very pleasurable moment of relief, but each time we release tension that way, we train our bodies to want it more, to expect that form of tension release," says Helen Thorne, author of 'Purity is possible: how to live free of the fantasy trap'. "The more we masturbate, the more we want to masturbate – in the long run, we just make life more difficult for ourselves."
Another unhelpful myth is that those who are 'called' to celibacy will find it easy and sail along without too much trouble, whereas those who are not 'called' will live a life of abject awfulness, and their only hope is to get married as quickly as possible. Most of my friends who choose to be celibate would prefer to be married, but the 'right person' hasn't come along or there are issues with intimacy or sexuality or similar.
There's lots of unhelpful practical advice out there too, from taking cold showers to keeping busy. In general, the church could get better at talking about sex. "We need to be prepared to have honest, grown up conversations, to be real with each other," says Rev Canon Kate Wharton, Vicar of St, George's Church Everton and author of Single Minded. "We need to not be afraid to say what we think is right – that this is what the Bible says, this is how God wants us to live – but then we need to go beyond that, to help people work out how that actually plays out day by day."
So how do you do it? (or not do it?)
What isn't going to work is 'white knuckling' it – by sheer force of will you're not going to stop sexual desire. "If we say to ourselves 'I need sex, I want sex but I am going to try to deprive myself of sex' ... surprise, surprise, doing that doesn't have a great success rate," says Helen. It also leads to a cycle of condemnation: not wanting to do it, giving in, feeling ashamed or frustrated, and looking for something to feel better again - which isn't going to help.
Books on this subject offer various kinds of practical tips: get a computer filter such as Covenant Eyes, don't take your laptop into your bedroom, get an accountability partner, don't be alone in a room with your girl/boyfriend, and so on. While these may reduce temptation – they're not going to deal with the root issue. So what does?
"What we need a real heart-surgery that cuts to the core of the desires that run beneath our behaviour," says Helen. "We need to see our lives as having far greater purpose, far deeper love and far more excitement than sex can ever offer.
"The first key is to fall ever deeper in love with Jesus. When we see how wonderful he is, then we will see that making sacrifices to become more like him is an OK thing to do."
When you really encounter Jesus, you discover that His love is more valuable and precious than any kind of sexual pleasure. Seeking to know more of Jesus is a lifetime's pursuit, but one that provides the ultimate satisfaction. Try this post if you are struggling to know God's presence.
While it might seem that sex is the pressing matter, often a desire for love and/or affection underlies sexual and romantic desire, particularly in our culture where sex, love and romance are frequently confused to be the same thing. The good news is that those needs can be met without sex, mainly in our relationship with Jesus but also to some extent in friendships with others. Therefore close friendships with other people, with whom you can share your feelings and struggles, is important for any single person. "The best answer to inappropriate intimacy is appropriate intimacy," says Ed Shaw, pastor at Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, and author of The Plausibility Problem.
We can grow in intimacy with Christ, through prayer (sometimes desperate prayer!) and walk in the Spirit and His love. We can deepen our friendships and relationships.
"The way out is by filling your mind and heart with thoughts about Christ, the way out is by growing in faith, hope and love," says one celibate man who asked not to be named. "A combination of personal prayer and Bible reading and support by friends, reading the Bible together, chatting, sharing life together. All these things are really helpful."
That's not to say that it's easy – and pat answers from Christians (especially married ones) about 'Jesus is all you need' can be frustrating, at best. "I have told myself again and again that ultimately Jesus is all I need," said Dan Baumann in 'A Beautiful Way: An invitation to a Jesus-Centred life'. "To be honest, sometimes even though I know that is true, and maybe it is the right thing to say, I struggle to really believe it.
"Every time we feel that he isn't enough, we need to ask God to reveal more of who he is. He will be faithful to answer that prayer and to increase our understanding of who he is and of his ability to meet all of our needs."
In a world that says that freedom is doing what our desires tell us, why on earth would anyone give up sex?
"There are temptations and struggles," says Kate. "But I truly believe it's the right way to live, and it's worth the battle – and yes, I think it does get easier with time. Not necessarily because the actual struggle decreases, or the desires lessen – although they may do – but simply because month after month, year after year of making those same choices for the same reasons leads to an obedience and a contentedness which makes all the difference."
So many people out there are battered and bruised from broken romantic relationships. Becoming content while celibate and trusting in God alone is a really counter-cultural alternative. Says Shaw: "With more and more single people living in our hyper-sexualised world we have a message of true intimacy with Christ and his church that offers them hope."