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What a Year of Abstinence Taught Me
05.25.17
Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

It is the middle of the night and my phone is ringing, or I’m hurriedly pushing clothes into my closet and shoving shoes under my bed. I’m frantically shaving the bottom half my legs or searching for socks to hide my fading pedicure, or, my least favorite, stuffing my face under my pillow to drown out snoring so loud that it would rival the infomercials blaring on my television.

I’m not sure what sex is like for other single women, but my experience reminded me of an on-call job. There was a lot of hurrying up — just to wait.

If there’s any sure sign of aging, it’s not single gray hairs or little creases that form around your eyes, or even looking at a college student and thinking he or she looks like a middle schooler. It’s the moment you decide you’d rather forgo sex than a full eight hours of sleep.

I wish I could say I started my journey of abstinence for the purpose of self-exploration, but honestly it began because I was tired. Sex without commitment was quickly becoming a waste of my time. No matter how often I was taken to dinner, sent flowers or driven to work, I knew it didn’t mean anything. I lived in the gray area of friend with benefits, somewhere between acquaintance and girlfriend.

For a while, I liked it there. I enjoyed talking freely about dating other people, never needing to sugarcoat my words for fear of hurting my partner or making him jealous. I never had to worry if we had a future because, by definition, we wouldn’t have one. At times, I had all the things I wanted out of a relationship without actually having a relationship. It was wonderful. That is, until I wanted a relationship. At that point, the reactions were so awkward I might as well have said I wanted to visit the moon to lick the ground and check if it was made of cheese.

Then it became exhausting — not just physically exhausting, from being up in the middle of the night or sprint-cleaning my bathroom — but emotionally draining, because there’s nothing worse than feeling something that you’ve already explicitly or inexplicitly agreed you wouldn’t feel.

Eventually, I had to ask myself what the fuck I was really doing. And when I couldn’t answer that question, I decided not to do it anymore. I decided to be abstinent.

Although it felt like the right decision, I was a little conflicted. As a 29-year-old womanist who is sex-positive, the fact that I might attract men who wanted a “good girl” almost put me off the whole thing. I don’t believe that women should be judged based on standards of purity.

I wondered how I could choose to do something that had been imposed on women by a patriarchal society for so long and still be the progressive, liberal woman I am. I half-expected a little referee to jump out of my closet and strip me of my feminist title for even thinking abstinence might yield positive results.

Still, I stuck with it.

Nine months into my year (and counting) of abstinence, I met someone I really liked. There was just one little issue: He wanted to have sex. In fact, he felt entitled to it and tried to persuade me by questioning my maturity and encouraging me to reject societal standards. It was a blessing in disguise. I couldn’t explain why (yet), but I knew he was wrong. Sex couldn’t make me a feminist and abstinence didn’t make me a traditionalist. Through this experience, I started to understand my decision to be abstinent a lot better.

After it ended, I decided to ask some people I know to help me put my feelings into words.


“I have abstained from sex for long periods of my adult life, for nine and ten months at different times,” said Jillian Anthony, who is 29 and the editor of Time Out New York magazine. “It is feminist to recognize when and how sex will fulfill you not only physically, but mentally as well, and I think I’ve spared myself many confusing and painful situations.”

In the beginning, my abstinence was all about ending relationships that weren’t fulfilling. When I started, I’d been seeing someone off-and-on for over a year. I knew he was never going to commit to me and as soon as I realized that was what I wanted, I ended things. Even though we weren’t in a bona fide relationship, it felt like a breakup.

In those first few months of abstinence, I announced to anyone and everyone who made the mistake of communicating with me that I was NOT having sex. Even though I wasn’t dating any of these guys, being open about my abstinence was like waving a magic wand over my social life — everyone who didn’t value my platonic friendship vanished.

Obviously some relationships ended, but others got way better. I went out for drinks with a friend I’d had for years; we met after work one day and meditated. I sat with an ex-boyfriend and talked, for the first time in a while.

One of the most important things I gained was clarity. Like Jillian said, abstinence became a way of avoiding confusion and, in turn, pain.

“I think before abstinence I was so numb to misogyny that I was accepting behavior in my life that wasn’t in tune or aligned with my value system,” said Ghislaine Leon, 29, of fearlessleon.com. I’ve always believed that I have the right to reject any advances and to dictate exactly what types of relationships I want to engage in. But, as a young woman who was often shy, confused or focused on being gentle with other people’s emotions, the reality of my dating life often fell short. Just like Ghislaine, I often normalized misogyny and the pressure to have sex. Abstinence gave me an excuse to find and use my own voice again, something I should’ve been doing all along.

Over and over, I talked to women who told me that they considered themselves to be feminists but had made the choice to be abstinent. What I realized is, though feminism is something we’re talking about, thinking about and marching about, the world, in the words of some of the people I interviewed, is still as “misogynistic,” “macho” and “patriarchal” as it has always been. Chastity, abstinence and notions of purity are measures of protection in a world like that. So many women I spoke to — heterosexual ones, at least — chose abstinence because they didn’t want to be used or disrespected. And, as I believed when I started this, it’s ridiculous that they should still have to make those trade-offs.

But there’s something new. None of the women I spoke to found abstinence constricting. I heard repeatedly that it was another empowering choice that they were each making about their bodies, as empowering as the decision to have sex, despite the possibility of judgment.

They’ve helped me see that feminism isn’t another set of rules to live by. At its core, feminism is personal agency. It’s my right to make my own choices, regardless of what those choices are.

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  • Rebecca Lippert

    YES.

  • Hil

    HELL YES. I also had a man try to convince me to hook up with him by saying “I just think you should be liberated woman!” I couldn’t get through to him that not wanting to have casual sex had nothing to do with whether or not I was a “liberated woman”

    • Imaiya Ravichandran

      good for you!! those kinds of guys are the worst…using pseudo-feminism to pick up chicks, smh.

      • pennyjenny

        Right? Like, if I like you and want to have sex with you, I will. But don’t think bullying me into it is gonna work.

  • Willa Konefał Davis

    My formative sexual years were filled with experiences ranging from disappointing, to disrespectful, to downright dangerous (the perfect words all just happened to begin with d…). I learned a lot about red flags and standards and am so much more equipped to navigate this scene now, although I am grateful for the relative safety my relationship brings in this regard.

  • Toronto CS

    I’m married to my high school sweetheart and I’ve only had sex with him. This just happened to work out for me, but I’m so glad it did. When I was younger, I felt like other women looked down on that and were patronizing. But I’m still a very sex positive person and I’ve got to experience a ton of hot stuff with a safe person who cares about me.

    I actually think men often have an intrinsic drive to dominate. And that drive can be used for bad — just using women. Or for good, in marriage, taking care of and helping one woman. We can say we don’t want to be taken care of until we’re blue in the face, but I think it’s very naive to think that men are like women or that they don’t have a sexual drive to dominate.

  • YES YES YES.

  • Adrianna

    I’m 28, living in NYC. I “made” my boyfriend wait for over two month’s of weekly dates until we defined our relationship. Towards the end of those two months he didn’t argue when I said no, and instead he asked if he could go down on me. Still going great five years later

  • Lizzie

    Amazing. A friend of mine was also shamed by a former lover for abstaining – he called her immature! Can you imagine.

  • Bo

    I have enacted plenty of abstinent periods of varying length throughout my adult life and the amount of flak I cop when I reveal it is literally staggering. Guys’ reactions range from getting personally offended to considering it some sort of challenge to rise to and defeat. I don’t talk about it to many friends but the ones who do know now either make endless annoying jokes or recommend sex therapists. My (former) doctor, a woman, called me weird and then did such a rough examination that she sent me into cervical shock and I fainted. When I came to, she said it was my fault because I “wasn’t normal” and that I had to “go find somebody to sleep with”. All of these people use the same words, usually asexual and barren, but I’m neither – I’m entirely fertile, and I like sex plenty fine, but it’s just not a high priority for me most of the time. It’s so interesting the way people view a lack of sex as a problem that needs to be fixed. It isn’t – it’s just another state to be in.

    • TinySoprano

      Wow that doctor was so out of line and I’m so sorry you had that happen to you!
      In the five years I spent not dating (honestly could not be bothered, plus I am that bitch who takes up the whole bed like a weird cross between a starfish and a great Dane, complete with scary in-dream twitching), honestly the most annoying thing was pitying remarks from female friends and acquaintances. Like my life was a game of Where’s Wally and I just needed to look harder. The fact that I didn’t WANT to look never seemed to sink in.

      • Bo

        lol yes I’ve felt all of that so much. They all ask “how your love life is going” in that same pitying tone like they’re enquiring about the state of some mad dying aunt. Two of my friends actually once invited me to a cafe and when I got there, tried to stage in intervention about my “condition” of not having a boyfriend like them. Jokes on them, I made them pay for brunch

    • Lindsay D

      OMG! If you live in nyc we can be friends. After a brutal break up, my friend recommended abstinence and others have said its a good idea…I don’t need a warm body to move on, I need time and love not SEX

    • Andrea Raymer

      omg that experience with your doctor scares me so much. I recently switched to my grown up heath insurance and need to find a new Gynecologist in the city (I used to just take a vacation to Virginia for my appointments). But as a 26 year old virgin I am worried about my doctor shaming me or being convinced I am lying. I was slut-shamed by a doctor when I went on birth control at 17 despite not being sexually active and I have recently been shamed by a doctor who was convinced I was lying about my sexual history. I have also had friends have similar experiences when they went to a gynecologist before becoming sexually active for the first time when they got married and their doctors treated them like they were stupid. This is simply a choice that we have made as independent women who want to be in control of our own bodies, we are not children just because sex is not part of our lives.

      • Bo

        It perplexes me why doctors react that sort of way. If I were a busy GP and a young woman came in for a pap smear and was a virgin, I’d be like cool, the chances of you having and STD just went from average to barely existent, so that’s basically a guaranteed positive patient outcome for the both of us. Also it’s a physician’s role to treat patients, not judge them! I think some forget that we visit them to get their medical opinion, and not their personal opinion. Shop around first – ask friends who they’ve had good experiences with, and more importantly who they think is bad. When you find one, walk in and tell them straight off the bat that you were treated badly by your last doctor and that feeling safe is very important to you when seeing them. A good doctor will ask questions to get a clear picture of your genitourinary health and take plenty of notes, so there is plenty of information for your next visit or if you are referred to another specialist or something. If they don’t seem to be listening or don’t ask any questions at all, that’s a red flag; don’t go back. Despite my other experience, I still prefer having a female doctor – not to take away anything from all the great male doctors out there, but I just feel like another woman is easier to open up to (pun intended) about those sort of health needs.

  • Louise

    100% yes. It’s so great to see women doing what they want and being happy about those decisions – whether it is sleeping with heaps of people, just one, or no one! Power to you girl.

  • tiabarbara

    I was abstaining last year for a different reason – I was in a cross-continental long distance relationship. And tbh, in that instance being abstinent felt just as tiresome and pressure laden as being sexually active, to the point where I actually completely lost my sex drive altogether. Now that that relationship is over and a little time has passed I have gained a much healthier libido, which is not dependent on anything but myself. I do what I like with my body, and if that means being celibate or having sex then that’s my choice to make! Keep doing what’s right for you 🙂

  • Tess

    I also chose to be abstinent (only for six months though!) my last semester of college. I made the decision after waking up on New Year’s Day next to a guy I had hooked up with the night before. It had been a perfectly fine experience, but my first thought was, ‘Wow, that was exactly like every other random hook up I’ve had.’ And I realized that through my hook ups, I was often looking for adventure, and most of the time, they were really just not that interesting. What I realized from those six months is that the pressure to have lots of sex (especially in college) is immense! And it controls so much of our social lives. Because I knew I wasn’t going to hook up with anyone, my decision to go out or not go out was so much easier, I slept better than I had in a long time, and most importantly, I enjoyed my time out with my FRIENDS so much more. I wasn’t eyeing people in the crowd anymore or constantly checking my phone for texts, didn’t waste time before hand grooming, and wore whatever the f*ck I wanted to wear! It was a much more FUN semester, honestly. And I still flirted and enjoyed hanging out with guys I thought were cute, but it honestly just felt like a relief to not put pressure on myself to end a night that way.

  • meme

    Totally. Just because the patriarchy before imposed purity, it doesn’t make the current expectations of everyone having to be overtly sexual any less mysoginistic because it’s always centered on what men want. It’s really depressing specially when it involves young girls who are not necessarily aware of the implications of what they are doing expected to pertray themselves a certain way and “put out” to be normal. Have sex, don’t have sex, whatever as long as you are doing it for you and not for external approval.

  • Natty

    Wait, do people really think that having sex = feminism and abstinence = non-feminism? I’ve always believed that a sexually liberated woman is one who has sex (or doesn’t!) on her terms

  • Emily

    I lost my virginity when I was 19 because I wasn’t attracted to anyone I knew (I eventually met a Scotsman). I’ve been without sex for 11months and then 3years. I’m 27 this year. The 11month period was because I couldn’t find anyone I actually wanted to sleep with, I wasn’t looking for a relationship and it was before Tinder.

    The 3year period was the first 3years of my current relationship and it was him who wasn’t up for it due to severe anxiety. It definitely was not an easy experience, but abstaining (either by choice or unintentionally) reveals a lot about attitudes to sex and healthy relationships. Living it is different to theoreticals. During the first 3 years our relationship was perfect in every single way, except not having sex. Going without sex from 22-25 after having a very healthy sex life raises a lot of questions, would I even be with this guy in 6months time? I should be getting laid, right?! Having a man say to me that they couldn’t have sex with me because they weren’t ready FOR 3 YEARS was very confronting. It’s the flipped version of this article. We might expect them to understand but how understanding can we be?

    When we did finally end up having sex I came twice within 3 minutes had to tap out. Keeper.

  • SRCo11

    It took a long time to decide what I was supposed to “be” when it came to my sexuality. I don’t mean gay or straight or bi, I mean “prude” or “free”. I grew up in a home where abstinence until marriage was taught and in a neighborhood where I was a minority and therefore, not seen as a viable option for many when it came to sexual activity. I carried this experience with me into college, and a little after. I lost my virginity later than most and never really learned to trust my body or my partners. As a result, abstinence is often my safe place. It’s a place where I’m normal, I can be attracted to anyone without worrying about if they want me back. I do not have to be judged for my lack of experience and/or my over eager attitude. Until I find the right partner, abstinence is an answer my life has seemed to be driving me toward, and I am at peace with that.

  • Lil

    Preach it sis!!!! Feminism is all about us women having the right to *choose* whatever makes us happy/content/comfortable!