Even if you’re not a Jordan Peterson fan, you’re probably aware that he recently set the term “incel” trending when he shed a tear for young men who identify as “involuntary celibates.” In a discussion with podcast host Piers Morgan, Peterson was asked to respond to director Olivia Wilde, who had called the Internet father figure and bestselling author “this pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community.” Choking up with emotion, Peterson claimed that lonely men who cannot attract women need an encouraging word rather than constant criticism, and he was happy to provide them with constructive advice.
You may wonder why any self-respecting male would accept the epithet, but it seems that incels spend time online bemoaning their sex-starved lives and criticizing choosy women who mate with Alpha males. Not too long ago, men who complained like this were called crybabies and told to grow up. But today, everyone is supposed to seek maximum sexual pleasure with as many partners as possible, so even men with negative attributes and attitudes feel free to rant online about their sorry lot in life.
Am I to judge? Probably not. But I do have some experience in the matter of celibacy, though in my case it was voluntary. I was the 40-year-old virgin—not the one played by Steve Carrell in the movie but the real one who came untouched to the marriage bed a month shy of turning 41. I don’t know what these online incels are complaining about. If they can’t get a girl, it may be their own fault, or perhaps their standards are too high. Besides, not having sex should not be such a big deal. If you can abstain for a day, why not for many days? I can’t say it was easy for me, but it was satisfying, by which I mean it was the right thing to do.
So, you may be wondering, who is this 40-year-old virgin? How did this guy who was born in midtown Manhattan, came of age at the height of the ’70s sexual revolution, worked for years as the editor of a New York running magazine surrounded by fit, shorts-clad women—how did he, against all advice and expectation, remain celibate for so long?
Well, for one, I cared about mine and others’ health, and didn’t want to hurt or be hurt by engaging in one-night stands or short-term live-ins. And I didn’t take sex all that seriously. Just thinking “She’s no more than she is,” would usually interrupt a fantasy rush. As the whole culture was screaming, “You have to do this! You can’t resist!” my contrarian spirit was sneering, “Oh, yeah?”
Incels, take note. Abstaining from sex became easier as time went on, as I saw more and more friends getting physically and emotionally scarred, breaking up, giving up on love and marriage, abandoning kids, getting abortions, and always complaining—yada, yada—about this girl or that guy. Somehow being sexually active gave them the right to be selfish, moody, nasty, back-biting, gossipy, vengeful, hurtful, immature—and deceptive. After all, they repeated to themselves, everybody lies about sex (years before Bill Clinton made the saying popular). They had happily discarded the mating rules and rituals of their parents—declared themselves free of repressive societal bonds—but couldn’t overcome their bodily or spiritual natures and ended up wounded in heart and mind.
Yet I was said to be the one who was torturing my flesh and harming my psyche with the unnatural commitment to abstinence. Laugh if you will, but I found the greatest comfort and support for my way of thinking in a papal encyclical. Just coming back to the Catholic faith of my childhood, I was curious about the ongoing hubbub over the pope and birth control. Frankly, I had not given much thought to the topic at the time—and literally didn’t have any skin in the game—so I read Humanae Vitae with an open mind and was mesmerized. Never had I encountered such a clear, courageous, and incisive explication, not only of the ills of contraception but of the rewards of the “marriage act.” Reading of purity, discipline, and the precious dignity of the human person made in the image of God, I thought: “This is who I am meant to be; this is who I want to be.” The pope’s predictions that widespread practice of contraception would damage male-female relations, marriage, children, the culture—even government policy and population—have proven eerily accurate. Until that time, I had never thought of faith as having real-world application, but Humanae Vitae showed that the personal could be not only political but world-historical in effect.
Thus I was bolstered against the hookup culture, secure that my choice to be celibate was supported by age-old Catholic wisdom, embraced by legions of saints, and reflected in the life of Jesus himself. Intercourse is the marriage act, the baby-making act, in which the two become one flesh, open to the possibility of creating a new embodied life. It is an experience involving but also pushing beyond the pleasure principle. When I finally got married at 40, I realized in a profound way why the older biblical translations say that Adam knew his wife, Eve. More than a meshing of flesh and fluid, the marital act is an intense sharing of knowledge about one another, simple, deep, abiding, and unique. There is no knowing like it on earth, a teaching between spouses that reaches to heaven and calls down blessings.
So incels, take heart. Enjoy your celibate life, respect the opposite sex, and maybe, like me, you’ll attract the woman of your dreams.