Humans are fucking weirdos when it comes to other people's sex lives, but we're even weirder when it comes to other people's lack of sex lives. What is this bug we get up our collective cultural asses when we find out that someone chooses (or doesn't choose, or whatever) not to rub their parts on other people's parts? How specific. How arbitrary, in the scheme of long, complex human lives. Whether it's by choice or circumstance, our reactions to the sexless are varied and bizarre: scorn, pity, revulsion, anger. People who can't "get" sex are pitied as much as victims of disfiguring accidents; those who choose to eschew it seem as alien as cult members, as suspicious as e-mails from displaced European dukes.
And celibacy is gendered, too—we use it as a vague, loaded bogeyman to prop up the status quo and justify the policing of people's genitals even when those genitals aren't doing anything suspicious. It's the flipside of the promiscuity double-standard, which turns women into sluts and men into players for the exact same activity. But sometimes not-having-sex isn't an oddity or a tragedy or a political statement (though sometimes it is—that's okay too), it's just a thing that happens. So couldn't we, I don't know, just leave it alone already?
Don't get me wrong—I have no fond memories of my spells of involuntary celibacy. But I also don't have particularly glowing memories of the kind of obligatory/desperate/validation-seeking sex that is supposedly so much "better" than no sex at all. Sometimes sex just makes a person feel more powerless. And what could be more empowering than taking control of something society considers an unstoppable biological imperative? It's not on my personal agenda at this point in my life, but an important part of believing in bodily autonomy is believing in fucking bodily autonomy. As long as voluntary celibacy isn't some sort of shame-based self-flagellation, and as long as the celibate person isn't calling me a chewed-up scarlet whore, I can't for the life of me imagine why anyone should care.
But people do care. A lot. Novelist and editor Sophie Fontanel wrote about the reactions to her choice to be celibate for 12 years, which she characterized as an "insubordination." She chatted about it with The Cut:
Throughout my sexual life, I have had periods with lapses in sexual activity and long periods with nothing. For me, it’s absolutely not a problem. And believe me, I’m not a prude — I’m not a prude at all. I began my sexual life very early. I had some boyfriends, but a lot of the time I was in bed, I was not present. I know a lot of girls like me — I was doing the things because everyone else was. And when I was 27, I had a boyfriend of five years, and he thought that we were very happy. But I was not so happy. I realized that I was happier alone than when I was with my boyfriend.
I wanted to recover my body. My real desire was to re-want having sex. When I stopped, I was so excited to be alone in my bed. I immediately bought a bigger bed, and for me, it was freedom.
Let's go back to that double standard—that patriarchal myth that sex is bigger than people, a commodity that will inevitably be seized if it isn't offered (such a shame, they shake their heads, biology can be so cruel). Sex is something that women possess innately, and for which men innately hunger. (Cool heteronormativity, cultural trope.) It's akin to that idiotic "manosphere" concept that women are the gatekeepers and the keymasters (and the Zuuls) of all human sexuality, that we can go "get laid" any time we want, and that we systematically limit access to the communal hump-vault in order to control the lives of puny XYs and milk them for their male tears in our sex prisons. YOU KNOW, LIKE REALITY.
Absurd as it sounds, that paradigm tugs at our sexual interactions like a riptide. Celibate men are losers; celibate women are prudes. A celibate man is worthy of pity; a celibate woman is worthy of scorn. Sex is something that men are expected to go out and take, and women are expected to go out and give. When a man is voluntarily celibate it's self-harm, but when a woman is voluntarily celibate it's a calculated move to hurt men. When a man is involuntarily celibate it's because women are withholding, manipulative tyrants (see male tears sex farm, above); when a woman is involuntarily celibate it's because she's broken. If women react to sexual trauma by acting out or shutting down, they're punished for either choice.
Hey, here's an idea: How about everyone just gets to do (or not do) whatever they want with their junks? Sex is important to most of us, yes, but it's not actually a biological imperative. It's not oxygen, it's not water, it's not cable television (JOKE—I LIKE MY BOYFRIEND BETTER THAN SVU [MOSTLY]). I'll leave Fontanel with the last word:
I recommend being true to yourself. If you are making love and you’re disappointed, then stop. Recover your freedom. Don’t be afraid of being single, and don’t be afraid of being single for a long time. I don’t believe that the more you have having sex, the more you want to have sex, or the more you are having sex, the better you are at it. I think it’s the more you want to do it, the better you will be. You’re not going to forget how to make love, you know? You never forget it. But when you have waited a long time and you return to sexual activity, it’s very amazing because everything is new.
Sex is important, but not as important as you.
Image via bart78/Shutterstock.