This is a really interesting book. The author, a journalist, historian, and Dean of Women at Trinity College, University of Toronto, presents a historical survey of celibacy, chastity, and sexual abstinence which suggests that these practices have been and continue to be part of every human culture. She provides examples from mythology and literature as well as discussion of beliefs and attitudes about these facets of sexuality --- for, as her book makes clear, celibacy (technically the state of being unmarried, but today used interchangeably with chastity, the state of abstaining from sexual intercourse) is as much a part of human sexual variation as heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, monogamy, polyamory, transgender sexuality, and their less well-known or acknowledged cousins.
I was particularly intrigued by Abbott's presentation of celibacy as a lifestyle choice, especially for women. Historically, celibacy was often a woman's only alternative to marriage and motherhood, and some women pursued it as an avenue to education and other privileges that transcended those traditionally available to their sex. Although many women were forced into celibacy for lack of a better alternative, those who chose it often found their decision an empowering one---one need only think of Rome's Vestal Virgins, Joan of Arc, and England's Elizabeth I for examples of powerful celibate women (although, in the case of Elizabeth, the strict definition of celibacy should be used). It is important to note that celibacy did not provide perfect protection for its adherents: this is clearly illustrated by the case of Joan of Arc, who was eventually burned at the stake as a witch for, among other things, her refusal to wear women's clothes. Celibate or no, women could only transcend their gender so far. Still, for many, celibacy seems to have been the best approximation of liberation around.
Abbott's discussion is a bit heavy on the relationship between Christianity and celibacy compared to her analysis of other faiths, but that is to be expected, given her personal background as a Christian. Likewise, her examination of non-Western celibacy leaves something to be desired, but again, that's pretty typical given the resources readily available to Western academics. Her facts seemed pretty solid, except for one instance of spurious statistics, and her bibliography is extensive and intriguing.
I came away from A History of Celibacy having learned a great deal about sex and early Christianity, as well as the aforementioned empowering aspect of celibacy as a choice. Abbott's later chapters, which discuss modern celibacy- and chastity-related social phenomena such as what she terms the "Power Virgin" movement, made me think back to discussions of erotophobia and erotophilia in my psychology of gender and sexuality class, and in particular their implications for sex ed, virginity pledges, the True Love Waits/Born Again Virgin movement, and so on. Most of all, however, I found myself wishing for a world in which all sexual choices, celibate or otherwise, were as well thought-out and empowering to their adherents as the author's depiction of her own celibacy and that of others.
A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott. Da Capo Press, 1999, 2000, 2001. ISBN 0-306-81041-7