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When Celibacy Is Better Than Sex

If you’re tired of hooking up, consider a sex sabbatical

Image via Flickr user Mircea.

In the summer of 2015, I lived in New York and juggled three lovers. One of them was a kinky Tibetan Buddhist who told me he that he’d been celibate for a year—a self-enforced sabbatical inspired by the Buddhist tradition. "How was it?" I asked him, surprised.

"Hard," he told me. But also, exhilarating. He had more energy for other things. He felt it. Some lines of Buddhism believe that desire is a form of suffering. Suffering is inevitable, but it blocks the path to other things—for instance, enlightenment. So denial was about collecting your own power, gathering it for something else.

In August of this year, a study published the “Archives of Sexual Behavior” found that millennials—especially those born in the 1990s—are less likely to be sexually active in their early 20s than previous generations—and they have fewer partners than older generations, as well. “For years, we’ve been seeing headlines that give the impression that young adults today are perhaps the most sex-crazed generation ever,” says Dr. Lehmiller, director of the social psychology program at Ball State University. “The research is clearly telling us a very different story about the sex lives of millennials.”

Explanations popped up to explain the trend: Millennials are too busy, too cautious, and/or incapable of forming connections in the age of screens. Some wrote to defend their love of sex, while others made the case for abstaining. Charlotte Shane, a retired sex worker, became an advocate for sexual apathy: “Sex is relentless and uninspiring, demanding yet boring,” Shane wrote. “Fucking doesn’t solve many or even any of our problems, and it often creates even more.”

Shane echoed sentiments from other women who were growing wary of the sex positivity movement, which championed the idea that an emphatic love of sex was also empowering. “The problem with sexual liberation is that it can feel compulsory,” wrote Isabel Slone, a self-described sexual skeptic. As a result, we were having sex all the time, and none of us were enjoying it very much.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]There can be benefits to voluntary celibacy. It can be a potential opportunity for personal growth.[/quote]

When I was nineteen, I started a sex blog, joining the likes of Fleshbot, the now-defunct erotic branch of the Gawker empire, which did regular round-ups of the best posts of the week and featured bloggers likes Over-Educated Nympho and Debauchette. There were many women like me, greedy feminists with appetites for hookups that we shared in elaborate detail. I loved what sex offered me. Physical pleasure, but also, access to other worlds. Each affair was a glimpse into another life, other possibilities, and I was proud of being the Slutty, Desirable Thing. The sex blog also taught me to pay attention to my own feelings, when I could push them aside for physical pleasure, and when they would override it all. Online, I could be vulnerable, and somehow more myself.

But at some point, it felt like my writing stopped being true. It became more about the saucy details than the clumsy reality. I wrote about my messy feelings as much as the sex itself. Eventually, I abandoned it. It became too tiresome to keep up.

Other things changed. I left New York to travel. I became smitten—then heartbroken, over lovers. I read the work of feminist writers like Rebecca Solnit and Roxane Gay. On dates, my attention drifted to the other things I’d rather be doing.

In the summer of 2015, I was also balancing three gigs and setting my own hours. I started thinking about time differently. It mattered. In fact, it paid. I thought about the hours it took to swipe and chat and plan and travel to dates that often ended up being disappointing—the tediousness of feigning interest in conversations I didn’t care for, and how that was time I could spend walking in Prospect Park or sketching in coffee shops or simply reading a good book.

My affairs during the summer didn't pan out, and the idea of celibacy, once inconceivable, started to sound more and more appealing. “There can be benefits to voluntary celibacy,” says Dr. Lehmiller, like having more time to focus on yourself or figuring out what you do want out of a relationship. “In other words, it can be a potential opportunity for personal growth. However, celibacy can also be challenging. Some people find it to be a very lonely and difficult experience.”

When I told my friends about my plan to take a sex sabbatical, they were skeptical. ‘What for?’ they asked. You don't need to try having a limb amputated to know that it's not for you. I’d always believed in trying my hardest, staying optimistic, not giving up. But this wasn’t giving up, this was a choice. At 19, being the debaucherous slut was a huge part of my identity. At 25, I still loved sex, but it often made me frustrated and unhappy. And so, I deactivated my dating apps. When the cute barista at the tea shop I frequented gave me his phone number, I ripped it into tiny little pieces.

My self-imposed sex sabbatical lasted a little over a month—not long, but hard for someone used to the instant gratification of OkCupid and online dating. I kept going back to the cute barista’s tea shop, wanting to join him for drinks after. I texted people I shouldn't have and considered inviting them over. In moments of weakness, I reinstalled Tinder, then rapidly deleted it.

To stick to the plan, I needed other distractions. I pitched ambitious stories and went to yoga three times a week. I spent breezy evenings outside the Brooklyn library, listening to jazz as I typed on my laptop. I read a lot. If I needed a night out, I called a friend. We stayed up late talking about our lives and careers and despair. I became less restless when I didn’t have a date, and grew more at ease with myself, watching my desires and turning them towards somewhere else. I was finding freedom in restriction, and falling in love with my solitude. And in that, I suspect, I am not alone.

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