Wait … what?
"I can't believe I'm saying this—don't have sex," said the 24-year-old pop star in an interview with Britain's Daily Mail. Gaga, the heir to the Madonna/Freddie Mercury glam-pop throne, known for her catchy dance music and outrageous wardrobe, went on, "it's okay not to have sex, it's okay to get to know people. I'm single right now and I've chosen to be single because I don't have the time to get to know anybody. I'm celibate, celibacy's fine."
Her message, as the article points out, is more about choice than abstinence itself. "Something I do want to celebrate with my fans is that it's okay to be whomever it is that you want to be. You don't have to have sex to feel good about yourself, and if you're not ready, don't do it." She adds, "And if you are ready, there are free condoms given away at my concerts when you're leaving!" And this, in the context of an interview to promote a MAC lipstick that supports global HIV/AIDS projects—a lipstick Lady Gaga hopes will make women "feel strong enough that they can remember to protect themselves … [so] that when your man is lying naked in bed, you go into the bathroom, you put your lipstick on, and you bring a condom out with you."
Part of the problem seems to be confusion over what the word celibate actually means. Take, for example, the "celibate" Ashley Dupre (of Eliot Spitzer scandal fame). "I love sex and I'm very good at it, but I'm saving that," said the former call girl in a recent Playboy interview—complete with 8-page spread. "That's for my future boyfriend from now on. And it will be fabulous."
The word celibate to these celebrities, and in turn their very large audiences, seems to now mean "only having sex with my boyfriend" or "abstaining from random sex." This is not the traditional understanding of celibacy or abstinence, but by identifying themselves with these terms, these celebrities point out an even more dangerous shift in the public conversation about abstinence. At least when Britney Spears told the press that she and then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake were abstinent, she meant that they were saving sex for marriage. She later admitted she was lying, of course, but at least she knew what the word meant. But if these women are now using the most "extreme" words possible to describe their sexual attitudes—which are not all that close to their traditional definitions—where does that leave actual abstinence? How can it be communicated when its terms have come to mean something entirely different?
A Christian understanding of the term, as Marcy Hintz wrote in "Choosing Celibacy" for Christianity Today last year, involves "a vowed, vocational commitment to the church" and is "a radical sign of fidelity to Christ and his body." It's not about putting oneself in a holding pattern while waiting for the right person to come along. It's about understanding the fullness of God's plan for sexuality and for each individual as a member of the body of Christ. It's an ideal rooted in Scripture and a biblical community. To self-identify the movement with celebrities who may not share these foundations inevitably leads to an even more confused conversation.
These big celebrities are building momentum on a trend already growing among young Christian stars. In January, VH1 aired "The New Virginity," a special highlighting the rising trend of purity rings and faith-based abstinence pledges among young Hollywood stars: the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Jordin Sparks (former American Idol champion), and Adriana Lima (Victoria's Secret underwear model) have all publicly professed a commitment to save sex for marriage. The special explores the rising popularity of abstinence as well as the tension between these public professions of abstinence and the very sexual personas that often accompany them. Even when the terms are technically correct, as with these stars, there is often a disconnect that clouds and confuses a healthy understanding of sexuality. As these kids eventually transition from child star to adult, they must publicly go through the messy process of growing up, which inevitably leads to mistakes. It's difficult enough to navigate the messy process of growing up in relative obscurity; to do it with the world watching, in a profession with much pressure to maintain a sexual image, is bound to lead to a few slip-ups. Endorsements aren't intrinsically faulty—children should have healthy role models—but we have to exercise more caution in who we hold up as examples of an ideal.
What do you think? Are celebrity "endorsements" of celibacy and abstinence helping or hurting the formation of healthy attitudes toward sexuality?