On the eve of her 30th birthday, journalist Hephzibah Anderson started reflecting on her past relationships. She saw a pattern: Her relationships frequently veered off course the moment sex became involved. She decided she needed a break — not from dating, men or even romance, but from sex, and the emotionally blinding complications that came with it.
In her new book “Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex," Anderson chronicles her year without as she seeks love in an age obsessed with sex. Here is an excerpt.
Miranda: I can’t have dinner with you; I don’t even know you!
Bartender: But you slept with me!
Miranda: That’s a different thing.
—Sex and the City
When you decide to give up sex and begin a year of chastity, it’s not something you rush to tell people. In a supersexualized society that uses orgasms to sell shampoo and produces pole-dancing kits for kids, in which a sensual account of brother-sister incest goes unremarked upon in a respected broadsheet and even online avatars are having affairs, opting out feels like the last conceivable taboo. In my own case, I’d assumed I was retreating into a more private sphere. It never occurred to me to blog about my quest, and the book you are holding in your hands was an idea that arrived late in the journey. For a while, I didn’t tell my friends, either. When I did tentatively step out of my chaste closet, I found that others didn’t quite see it the same way. In fact, they felt licensed to ask all sorts of questions that they’d ordinarily have kept to themselves.
“What do you do?” wondered one girl, squinting at me in disbelief. “Masturbation — is that allowed?” an older male friend wanted to know, leaning closer and flashing a red-wine grin. “Is it because of me?” asked a guy who’d once invited me home with him (I hadn’t taken him up on the offer, but maybe he was muddling me up with a girl who had). And then there was the question that came up most often — what did I have planned for my year’s end? As an ex put it, “There has to be some kind of payoff, right?” If there was going to be a party, nobody wanted to miss it.
The question I heard least frequently was the only one I’d really been anticipating: why? Plenty of people, I would realize, have thought about hopping off the sexual merry-go-round. Sex and its pursuit seem to have become such blood sports, their rules so confusing and their standards so exacting, that it is hard not to wonder occasionally whether it’s worth it. At the same time, sexiness is so ubiquitous, it has become a bit of a turnoff. In the past decade, everything from political dossiers to ballroom dancing has been “sexed up.” You needn’t even be getting any to feel jaded, and that’s perhaps part of the problem: it’s not so much sex that’s everywhere, but a toned, tanned, airbrushed pastiche that verges on neutering and has less and less to do with the real thing.
I’d thought those thoughts once or twice, but it would never have occurred to me that I’d actually go ahead and voluntarily eject sex from my life. It took a bizarre serendipity, a torrid affair and a chance anecdote to make me realize that the kind of sex I was supposed to be cool with as a post-feminist, 21st-century Western woman — a casual sort of intimacy without intimacy — was not working for me. To explain fully, I need to beckon you back in time to a sunny afternoon in New York City. But first, those other questions.
Foregoing all sexual pleasure?
What do I do? It turns out that there is much that doesn’t involve sex. It is impossible for a human being to endure more than three days without water. With water but no food, you might make it to three weeks. Shelter and warmth are additional necessities, sunlight a boon, and peace and love will ease your years. But one thing not remotely essential is sex, though you’d never guess it from the material that bombards you whenever you switch on the telly, flip through a magazine or delete another screenful of spam. All right, in most circumstances it’s still just about required for life’s perpetuation, but we can lead perfectly healthy and, indeed, happy existences without nooky, whoopee or bonking. People can — and do — go decades without sex. Some live their entire lives without it.
While the birds and the bees and the penguins on the rocks are busy doing it, nuns, mystics and athletes-in-training have found plenty else to be getting on with, and they aren’t the only ones. Elizabeth I was known as the Virgin Queen, and there was nothing metaphorical about the title, history assures us. Gandhi became celibate at age 36, despite still being married. (What his wife thought of this — or of his late-life decision to test his resolve by sharing his bed with a procession of nubile young girls — is not recorded.) The Shakers even founded a faith based around chastity. Interviewed on the eve of her 105th birthday in October 2008, Cornwall resident Clara Meadmore attributed her longevity to having remained a virgin. On the subject of relationships, she added, “I imagine there is a lot of hassle involved and I have always been busy doing other things.”
But I don’t think this was what my friend had in mind when she asked me what I did. Where did I draw the line, she meant, which segues neatly into that second question: was I intending to pass up all sexual pleasure? One of my motivations for embracing chastity was a sense that sex had grown impersonal — that it was nothing more than a game of tennis, as a 30-something marketing whiz insisted to me while I was researching a magazine article on casual sex. More than what he’d said, it was his tone that got me: matter-of-fact, without any frisson of joy. He wasn’t even trying to shock.
I’ve never been any good at tennis, whether on grass, clay or high-thread-count Egyptian cotton. Yet I felt like I was the one at fault, so I kept trying. Sometimes my decision to have sex seemed to be based more on what was appropriate to the moment than on what was right for me. At a certain point in certain scenarios, a part of me abdicated and gave in to the inevitable. Tipsily noticing that it was after midnight and I was far from home, say, in a dwindling group that happened to include a man I’d found myself in bed with sometime before. “That was intense,” he’d said afterward, as if intensity were something unexpected in sex. But it was intense, and whichever bit of me had abdicated, it was never my heart. Wouldn’t it be fun to have sex that was purely, deliciously physical? It would certainly smooth some of the more tempestuous aspects of dating, but at the same time I secretly dreaded that I might finally get the hang of bedroom tennis. Once you’ve learned to separate sex from emotion, how simple is it to put them back together?
How difficult would it be to go without sex for a year?
Weigh in: Do you think it would be hard or easy to live without sex for 12 months?
So when it came to making rules for my experiment, they were unabashedly personal. What I’d discovered was that I could deal with any amount of orgasmic foreplay along the way, but it was last base — what sex-ed instructors brave sniggers to term penile penetration — that tipped me over the edge. I had given something of myself, and accordingly, that was the moment at which I started needing more than I might ever have wanted from the man in question, the moment he went in my eyes from being an unassuming frog to being a shiny prince.
It seemed illogical — possibly also biological, psychological, sociological. And yes, it had to do with numbers as well — those tallies we each carry around with us, inscribed in our minds (because they don’t always belong in our hearts) in the faintest pencil lest anyone see them. Mine is a greater number than I’d like and contains some names I’d rather forget. I won’t tell you exactly what it is, because a note of coyness here seems more instructive: while we’re no longer supposed to be judged for our sexual conduct, we all know that the double standard lingers on. Even if men have got over it, we women have not. A tiny bit of me can’t help judging myself, nor, presumably, can those women who consistently shave their own tallies in sex surveys. Perhaps it’s just that we know that not every one of those strikes is without regret; that as we count them off, we pause over this one or that, recalling how the fun was seasoned with something that made us feel less good about ourselves. Liberated women that we are, we’ll blame Victorian morality and its outmoded, repressive mores — we’ll blame ourselves for succumbing and we’ll deny our feelings. Because penile-penetrative sex is what it took for me to add to that list, it was also where I drew my line. (And put in such blunt terms — well, it didn’t sound all that desirable anyway.)
Though definitions differ among gays and lesbians, an overwhelming number of heterosexuals continue to view that moment as the moment a person loses their virginity. I wasn’t rushing to join those women who declared themselves “revirginized,” either figuratively or literally (yes, literally — it’s called vaginoplasty), but I did badly want sex to be legitimately momentous again, rather than an inexorable conclusion given the right cocktail of time and place, as had begun to seem the case. I wanted to revel in the intensity of it all, to believe in the meaning that my body gave the experience, without worrying about when or even whether he’d call, and without feeling like a failure for letting the thought cloud the moment. That, I suppose, was the payoff I was ultimately craving — that in our newly thrifty times, chastity would not only remind me of the erotic rewards of delayed gratification but would return me to a place where I could feel I was being faithful to my own instincts.
Later, I’d learn that others before me had incorporated the same working definition into their own chaste regimens, but I didn’t know this when I set off on my journey, and I’m glad: it made my quest more private, and the very idea of privacy is enticingly subversive. While social networking facilities like Facebook and Twitter encourage us to make public our most trivial triumphs and fleeting frustrations, from the sandwich we ate for lunch to the soaking we got on our way back to the office, multifunctional gadgets enable us to fill what might once have been moments of enforced contemplation with the chatter of texts and e-mails, iTunes and YouTube clips. Our diminishing sense of privacy and of a hidden internal space seems to have robbed sex of something thrilling.
My only other rule was that my year would start not from the time I last had sex but from the day I made my decision. After all, I’m certain I’ve had dry spells that lasted longer than 12 months. It was the choosing that was crucial, even if it meant adding another three weeks to my challenge. Rather than continuing to go along with what others seemed to want from sex, I had to rediscover what it meant to me. Most urgently, I had to find my way back to the place where love and sex intersected for real. Making that initial decision seemed like a step in the right direction.
What constitutes ‘cheating’?
Oh, but I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “A year without sex? Well, what’s the big deal? Many are the times I’ve gone that long — longer — without.” Or maybe just, “How vain! What, she reckons she’s so irresistible she’ll be fighting them off? Such a tease, such a tramp, such a hussy!” Because after all, you’d think a challenge or two would be necessary to make it a valid experiment. Then again, perhaps you suspect I’m judging you. “Hang on,” you’re thinking. “Who’s she to call me a hussy? So she’s had her fun and now she’s trying to tell us how to behave?” I’m not, incidentally, though there are plenty of competing views out there on how we should conduct our most intimate affairs, and when I embarked upon my quest, I knew that I’d have to negotiate them along the way.
We may stroll blithely past a sex-toy shop or casually add the latest call-girl memoir to our three-for-two pile in the bookshop, but despite its presentation as just another recreational activity, sex is still a subject that we take deeply personally. Even in the abstract, there’s nothing quite like it for getting the heart pumping and making ordinarily rational people prickly, pugnacious, downright irrational. A couple of days after that feature on casual sex appeared, I ran into a colleague. “You ruined my weekend,” she said, only partly joking. “I spent a whole day feeling bad because all those people you interviewed are having all that sex and I’m not. And I’m actually in a relationship,” she added, as if the contradiction had only just struck her.
Then again, perhaps you’re not thinking any of this; perhaps you’re muttering just one word: “Cheat.” After all, foreplay can be vastly more satisfying than what follows. At other times, merely falling asleep beside someone — dreaming together and waking together — is a far more intimate experience than sleeping with them in the coyer sense. Those who go in for giving up sex are gluttons for nothing if not deprivation. John Harvey Kellogg, for instance, eschewed a long list of additional activities, including waltzing and the consumption of rich foods (the cornflakes that tumble into your bowl each morning were originally part of a plan far more ambitious than a quick, healthy breakfast). St. Simeon the Stylite, a shepherd’s son born at the end of the fourth century, lived into his 60s at the top of a 60-foot-high pillar. While he ascended to abstemious asceticism up above, he permitted male pilgrims to gather below. All women, including his mother, were banned. And yet here I am, giving up sex for a mere 12 months, while still allowing myself to indulge in rich foods, high heels and bright society, not to mention the thrill of the chase. Where is the challenge in that? you may wonder.
But here is my point: unlike the nuns whose flowing habits epitomize chastity, I had no desire to deny my sexuality, and nor was the experiment ever meant to be about withdrawing from intimacy. All I was giving up was sex. I’d turned 30 a few months before taking my vow, and, among other things, was looking for a fresh way of pursuing love into that new decade — a way that was a little less ungainly, permitted a little more self-respect and might even yield a little more success. In that regard, adopting an unrealistically nunnish definition would not have helped. There is also this: after almost a decade of ricocheting from one short-lived romantic fiasco to another, I’d forgotten that the chase could be fun.
While sex is everywhere, it’s only when you’ve sworn off that you really begin to notice. It’s in the swing of a cute waiter’s hips, the tilt of a head and the gaze you know you shouldn’t hold — certainly not for this long. It’s very definitely in the roaming hands of a date — your lucky third — with that man whose new apartment is fortunately still missing a sofa, because sofas positively sigh sex. It’s in the ellipsis at the end of a text message sealed with a tantalizing single kiss. It’s in the song whose lyrics won’t quit bumping and grinding in your head — the one that begins with a guy asking a girl how many times a night she needs “it.” More troublingly, it’s in the slogans that decorate T-shirts for pre-teens, and in the thrusting postures of cartoon women decorating checkout chocolate bars. It’s in the name of the red nail polish — Temptress — that you pick out on a blue day.
A year, it turns out, can feel like a very long time indeed, and though I didn’t know it back when I was drawing up my rules, in allowing myself all the good things that lead up to sex, I was unwittingly making the challenge infinitely harder. But all that comes later. For now, I need to take you back to the very start — to the bizarre serendipity that preceded the torrid affair and the chance anecdote, to the glimpse of a path not taken, which set me on this unexpected journey.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex” by Hephzibah Anderson. Copyright (c) 2010 by Hephzibah Anderson.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive