When I tell people I haven’t had sex in three years, the statement is usually met with a stunned silence as my peers try to figure me out. Some see this as a challenge, trying to hit on me and reassuring me that I definitely could have sex — tonight, if I wanted to. Others offer suggestions to fix the problem: hire a sex worker, get on Feeld to restart my sex life. And then there are those who ask, "Have you been trying?" As if this (accidental) celibacy is fine if intentional, worrying if not.
I would like to clarify that at no point did I take a vow of abstinence. My sexless stint began unintentionally. Like many during the pandemic, I had a lot of time to think. I’m someone who has spent the majority of my first decade of adult life single, living what I’d previously deemed a healthy, active sex life. But on further reflection, I realized it was far from satisfactory.
Sex has always been competitive for me. When I heard that one friend had had her first sexual experience, I quickly followed suit. I treated my first sexual encounters as things to be gotten over with — I didn’t want to lose the race. From then on, my sex life became a game and I found myself equating my self-worth with my sexual experiences. I treated dry spells as if they must be vanquished and chose sexual partners largely based on appearances. I’m not ashamed to admit I’d look for those who would make me look cool by proximity: the lead singer, the tattooed guy. Whenever I did have a boyfriend, it felt like a novelty until eventually I got bored. More often than not, I lost interest because my perception of them didn’t line up with who they actually were. I was obsessed with ticking sexual experiences off the list, proving myself and my attractiveness via my conquests, and priding myself on my ability to get any guy I wanted (even the ones in relationships). I rarely tried to have sex I actually enjoyed.
I was obsessed with ticking sexual experiences off the list, proving myself and my attractiveness via my conquests, and priding myself on my ability to get any guy I wanted (even the ones in relationships). I rarely tried to have sex I actually enjoyed.
During those many months spent indoors, I realized that despite my many sexual partners, I could count on one hand the number of orgasms I’d had that involved someone else. What had all of this sex gotten me? Nothing much, besides the ability to disassociate until the act was over. In all my years of understanding myself as an overtly sexual person, I’d never learned to vocalize my needs or seek out my own pleasure. Appearing desirable had eclipsed my desires.
My unintentional abstinence has led me to be more discerning about the few opportunities for sex I have been offered. Given that I wasn't sober for the majority of my previous sexual experiences, I’ve turned down invitations when I’ve been too inebriated to enjoy myself. I don’t want to return to old habits of saying yes in the hope of keeping someone interested and risk disengaging from the experience entirely. I know now that I was chasing sexual connection solely for the momentary attention and as a means to regulate my self-esteem. Inevitably, it left me severely lacking emotional connection or self-confidence.
It's as if I’m experiencing now what some people feel before they decide to have sex for the first time. I am more selective than I ever was before. I am conscious of my comfort, which I used to push aside. I want to choose people who I am excited to engage with, who can be patient with me, taking things slowly if I need to and checking in instead of carrying on regardless. Of course, years of detached and distant sexual encounters make this sort of intimacy a terrifying concept. I used to believe that sex alone would bring me closer to my chosen partner. I know now that the act itself does not foster intimacy and it's an active choice to connect with someone sexually.
Dating with myself in mind is a much more daunting challenge than dating to boost my self-esteem. It is not as simple as just getting back out there (despite what people have often said to me over the years). It's about being willing to be vulnerable, to communicate and to use my voice when I’m no longer enjoying myself instead of retreating into my own mind. This doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily looking for something serious. It’s more that a sexual connection should be fun, responsive and reciprocal, even if it's casual. Finding this is much more of a quest than simply breaking a dry spell.
Taking time to consider what I want and figuring out my complicated relationship with desire hasn’t been an easy journey. But I know now that having many sexual partners doesn’t mean you know what you’re looking for sexually. In some ways, my period of abstinence has taught me more about desire than sex for its own sake ever did.