Girls who don't, do better

29th October 2004 at 01:00
It may seem old-fashioned, but should teachers and parents still encourage young people to remain celibate, especially as there is good evidence that celibate teenagers tend to be more academically focused than those distracted by the emotions of relationships?

Perhaps the academic advantages many faith-based schools seem to have over secular institutions are down to their ability to get children to stay celibate for longer, and to avoid the entanglements of intimate relationships.

Celibacy developed its religious connotations for surprisingly prosaic reasons. It did not become widespread among Roman Catholic clergy until a new and more powerful force than sex arrived on the scene: economics.

Priests of larger parishes received considerable wealth from yearly taxes on church-owned land. Married bishops began passing on this property to their children, and the same family would produce rectors for generations.

To stem this flow of property into clerical families, celibacy was built into church law, starting in the middle of the 6th century with decrees from Pope Pelagius I.

Economic issues should no longer be a problem for the church, so why the controversy over celibacy? Chastity is a powerful force as it involves channelling the energy of human fertility into other areas. Even the atheistic Sigmund Freud subscribed to this. He believed mankind's greatest endeavours arose from diverting sexual energy away from the bedroom and into the artist's studio or scientist's laboratory.

Evidence for such views today comes not from Roman Catholic priests, who are forced to be celibate, but from those outside the church who choose to remain single. While surveys show more than 90 per cent of young people expect to marry, a growing minority are postponing it until late adulthood.

Research has uncovered fascinating differences between those who are single in their mid-thirties and the rest of society. The first finding is that, unlike the stereotype of the "old maid", it is unmarried men who appear left on the shelf. They are more introverted, less ambitious and of lower social class than their married male contemporaries.

In contrast, single women in their mid-thirties are less neurotic and more stable than their married peers. They have higher IQ scores, and are more ambitious, better educated and of a higher social class. Their mothers are better educated, and married later in life than the mothers of the married cohort. This shows a surprising influence of parents' marriage behaviour on subsequent generations.

It seems from this data that unmarried women in their mid-thirties have chosen this state because they have personal goals they perceive as incompatible with married life. So, from an educational standpoint, encouraging celibacy might be better for girls than for boys. It also seems that girls have more to gain than boys, not only in avoiding pregnancy but also in the potentially disastrous consequences of intimate relationships on their academic life.

Ironically, marriage was once seen by men as incompatible with high spiritual ambition. Back in the mists of time, religious men avoided women, believing they would prevent the achievement of particular personal goals.

Today, some women avoid attachment to men, believing they will frustrate their ambitions. Given the evidence from modern research, the advice of the psychiatrist over whether the Pope should change the Catholic church's rules on celibacy is: don't. Unless the Pope wants to see his power usurped by the most powerful force known: the spouse.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is this year's visiting Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry and will give a free public lecture at Barnard's Inn Hall, London EC1 on November 29. See for more details. Email:

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