It was 1984 when hospitals in southern China were besieged by young people in a state of extreme agitation. Thousands of people, of both sexes, were suffering from panic attacks accompanied by fear of death because of the overwhelming belief that their sexual organs were retracting and disappearing, or that their nipples were retracting into their breasts.
Both men and women tried very hard to prevent their genitals from “disappearing.” Some were already seriously injured, having resorted to mechanical means of traction by anchoring weights. The patients were accompanied by groups of people who beat drums and gongs to ward off the “evil fox spirit” that had taken hold of those determined not to lose their masculinity or femininity. It was an epidemic of koro caused by the popular belief that ejaculation was harmful to health.
In this mindset, even nocturnal emissions are considered to affect a person’s mental balance. The koro phenomenon, like other strangely named syndromes (Dhat syndrome, Shen-k’uei syndrome or Prameha), is a culturally-conditioned sexual neurosis. Probably based on such observations, some psychotherapists and sexologists argue that sexual abstinence is dangerous to human health. Is this myth or reality?
If we go back to the Biblical Genesis, human beings were given the commandment from the beginning: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:27, 28). In this anthropological context, the following question is legitimate: does sexual abstinence not represent a denial of our nature, a deviation from normality, and even a form of sexual perversion?
The answer must first be sought in the medical world. Long after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Rector, Johnson and Noyes published a study that found a positive relationship between early sexual activity and depression. However, this study was observational and could not establish a causal relationship. Medical science has studied the positive effects of sex more than the negative effects of abstinence. What is certain is that medical science has yet to report any negative effects of sexual abstinence on the human psyche. Any association is circumstantial and non-specific. Involuntary celibates are more prone to neurotic depression, but sometimes it is depression that makes people unwilling to marry. Moreover, neurotic depression is not necessarily related to lack of sexual activity, but to loneliness.
The medical world therefore offers no confirmation of a causal link between sexual abstinence and any mental illness, except for some cultural conditioning in South Asia, as already mentioned. In the absence of scientific clarification, the discussion returns to the realm of religion. What exactly does the Bible say about sexual abstinence? Is it recommended, or is it classified as some kind of abnormality? The answer depends on the person’s marital status. For the unmarried, the Bible recommends chastity. In the New Testament, the term porneia means sexual immorality and illegitimate sexual relations (without a divine law to sanction them) and refers primarily to premarital sex and secondarily to extramarital sex (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
For married people, sex can also be seen as a duty to one’s spouse (1 Corinthians 7:3-6). On the other hand, the Bible condemns homosexuality as a way of life. Romans 1:24-27 is the passage that supporters of homosexuality have to twist a few times to make it say exactly what they want it to say. But Andy Nash, a journalism professor and pastor, captures the context of the passage very well when he rhetorically asks, “Which of the other tendencies named in Romans 1 would supporters of a gay lifestyle also encourage struggling people to live out? Worshipping created things? Greed, envy, murder, strife? Gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance? Dishonouring parents, heartlessness, ruthlessness? Why is it only this tendency that’s now OK to practise?”
The conclusion could be formulated by a few questions that would sound like this: “If God knew that sexual abstinence would lead to mental imbalance, would He still explicitly or implicitly recommend it for heterosexual or homosexual people?” or “If abstinence would really lead to mental imbalance, it means that all those who marry do so out of fear and therefore all those who are born are not necessarily born out of love! Are we not afraid of the absurd?”