You may have heard of the “sex recession”. But there’s a “celibacy recession” too.
About a year ago headlines began to warn that, as an Atlantic cover story put it, “Despite the easing of taboos and the rise of hook-up apps, Americans are in the midst of a sex recession.” Millennials have less sex than their parents did at comparable ages, and the younger generation, sometimes called Gen Z, has even colder sheets than the millennials.
Careful observers, such as Charles Lehman writing for the Institute for Family Studies, parsed the data and concluded that we’re really looking at a marriage recession: “Today, there are fewer Americans married, and more Americans single, than at any point in at least the past 140 years … [M]ost people who are married have sex – married men and women alike get at least a little.
A mass transition of the population from one group to another thus explains a lot about why there are more ‘have nots’ overall.”
Lehman notes that, although married people are also having a bit less sex (for unclear reasons), “[I]f there is a glut of young people who don’t have sex, that group is overwhelmingly clustered among the unmarried. The implication is that those people are sexless in no small part because they are not participating in humans’ most reliable avenue to sex.”
Intersecting cultural and economic trends have pushed young adults away from marriage. Young people are often warned nowadays not to marry “too early”, and specifically to fear marriage before they’re economically stable. But the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis, soaring housing costs and (in the United States) the staggering rise in student loan debt have made economic stability an endlessly retreating horizon for many.
The Smiths once sang, “A double bed, and a stalwart lover for sure / These are the riches of the poor”, but for young adults today, if you don’t have that money you won’t get that honey.
Catholics don’t believe everyone should marry. Quite the contrary. If Americans were replacing marriage (let alone hook-up apps) with celibacy, this would be a cause for rejoicing. But the absence of sex, or the absence of marriage, isn’t the presence of celibacy. This is why we say people are “abstinent until marriage”, not “celibate until marriage”. Celibacy implies sexual renunciation: dedication to an ascetic way of life which offers especial freedom to serve others, and can bring unique intimacy with God. Celibacy is a conscious gift of self. The Americans of the “sex recession” are not celibates, but people who feel painfully that they have failed to marry.
That the celibacy recession is both cultural and economic becomes most obvious when we look at religious vocations. Most religious orders will not take an aspirant who carries debt, both because the orders can’t afford it and to protect against people entering religious life for the wrong reasons. But as student loans have billowed to the heavens, most college students have taken on serious debt. “The mode 25- to 34-year-old debtor has between $20,000 and $40,000 of debt” – which, unlike most other debts, cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
The Labouré Society was founded in 2001 to serve aspirants barred from religious life by student-loan debt. The Society estimates that 42 per cent of all people discerning religious life in this country are blocked by student loan debt. Labouré structures its programme so that donors’ money always goes to someone currently discerning a vocation – both to protect donors and, more importantly, to ensure that none of the aspirants find themselves “going through with” their vows out of a feeling of obligation to those who have given money, rather than in response to a call from God.
Labouré asks aspirants (who have typically already received conditional acceptance into a religious order) to do their own fundraising. This approach exposes the emotional and spiritual aspects of the student-debt crisis.
Elizabeth Marcolini, the society’s associate director of advancement, says aspirants often begin the programme with “anxiety and trepidation”. They feel guilt over their education: “I wasn’t listening well enough,” “Maybe I was ignoring God.”
American culture views debt as a moral blotch – even student loans, which many people were assured would be “good debt”. Feeling that your earlier choices now bar you from serving God only compounds the emotional burden.
Labouré encourages aspirants to see the worth in their education and experiences – and in their vocations. And as they work to raise money, they have to explain their call again and again, an ongoing reminder of why they began this process in the first place. By the end of the programme those who continue into religious life have found a security in their vocations which replaces the old shame and confusion.
Religious vows are only the most obvious shape for a celibate life. Where vowed religious are scarce, lay people who might flourish in celibacy have fewer models. (Several Catholic lay women have told me that the Sisters who taught them in school helped them see that marriage was not the only path to selfless, holy adulthood.) And without models for celibacy as an arena of love, we experience sexlessness solely as a deprivation and failure.
An economic and cultural landscape in which large numbers of young people can’t enter either marriage or religious life – the two most obvious and intelligible forms of self-gift for Catholics – is a landscape in which adulthood is defined not by sacrificial love but by anchorless, humiliated drifting. It is this anchorlessness more than anything which defines the “celibacy recession”.
Eve Tushnet is a writer based in Washington, DC
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