What a Year of Abstinence Taught Me

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 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.

Celeste Little

Celeste Little

Celeste Little is a womanist writer from New York City. She’s written for The Root, InStyle, Essence Magazine, and Clever.

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