Lessons From a Year of Celibacy

By Wendy Atterberry
|  Monday, Jun 22, 2009  |  Updated 3:45 PM EDT
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Lessons From a Year of Celibacy

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“I’d had enough sex without love; maybe it was time to look for love without sex?” - Hephzibah Anderson

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Could you go a year without sex? By choice? Taking a 12-month vow of chastity, writer Hephzibah Anderson did just that and wrote all about it for the U.K.’s The Guardian.

Having taken the vow shortly after another relationship ended, Anderson says: “I’d turned 30 a few months before taking my vow, and among other things was looking for a fresh way of pursuing love into that new decade,” explaining, “I’d had enough sex without love; maybe it was time to look for love without sex?” For her, that meant a year of chastity. She writes:

It was a drastic response, but in the weepy aftermath of one more failed liaison, that was what made it so appealing. My year would start not from the time I’d last had sex, but from the day I made my decision. After all, I’ve had dry spells that have lasted longer than 12 months. It was the choosing that was crucial. Might it change the kind of men I attracted and my response to them? Would it enable me to fall back in love with romance? Would I be able to last 12 months?

After buying a new “chastity-friendly” wardrobe, Anderson says of her first month: “It’s only when you’ve sworn off sex you begin to notice that it is everywhere. It’s in the swing of a waiter’s hips, the tilt of a head, the gaze you know you shouldn’t hold.” In month two, she goes to a conference and says, “Everyone knows what happens at conferences away from home—sex is what happens—and I find that, despite myself, I’m not exempt from those impulses.” She flirts with a man she says she never would have noticed pre-vow: “He is the archetypal quiet guy in the corner,” she writes, but manages to resist temptation. She coasts through the December holiday parties in her third month without faltering, going home alone after each one. In January she goes on a date with a neighbor and says: “He lives so close, I end up back at his, locked in a kiss that sets me on a very dangerous downward slope. Making a hasty departure, I realize that, were I not vow-bound, I might have gone further. Of course it would have had something to do with desire, but also politeness, amenability, an urge to please - a whole host of misplaced sentiments.” Perhaps our heroine is making progress?

In February, she goes to a singles party with her sister and can’t tell if Valentine’s Day is worse than usual or if her vow of chastity is clouding her judgment. In March, she has dinner with Jake, an ex-boyfriend she still holds a flame for. They end up back at his apartment where she tells him about her year-long vow, and he “guffaws.” Jake’s the first man she’s confessed her circumstances to and besides laughing, he responds by telling her that since their break-up, he’s realized he thinks he loves her, “a bit.” In April, “every minute” she spends with Jake “risks making a mockery” of the rules. She tells him how she’s feeling; He confesses he isn’t ready to pursue a serious relationship with her. Of May and June, Anderson writes: “Now I can see that sex was a distraction that allowed me to ignore pretty much everything else in my life that wasn’t quite what it should or could have been. I became fixated on relationships to the exclusion of friendships, family, any sense of where I was headed.” She tells Jake she’s moving to New York for three months.

In July, she meets up for dinner in New York with “N,” and old friend with whom her “smile grows brighter.” They end their date with a sweet kiss, and a few days later she tells him about her vow. He doesn’t laugh, and tells her that earlier in the year he made a similar decision, deciding to wait for “something meaningful to come along.” “He doesn’t use the word chaste,” Anderson writes, “but nor does he flinch when I use it.”

August is the last month of her self-imposed celibacy and she only has to hold on until the 12th before she can shed her clothes and get busy with whomever she pleases. She writes: 

I have craved sex, but the longer I hold out, the more I want it only in the right circumstances. I almost wish I had longer to go. My vow has become less of a nun’s habit than a child’s security blanket. It’s something to cling to - a reason to say no.

During the course of this year, I have become attuned to other needs: the longing for true intimacy, the desire for a connection capable of enduring across distance and time. I have also let myself go. I’ve left my legs unwaxed and I haven’t bothered to shave my armpits, and beneath it all, my relationship to my body has subtly changed - it feels more my own. In a strange way, it also feels, well, sexier. Possibly for the first time ever, I’ve no use for the validation of a stranger’s appraising gaze. These triumphs make me all the warier of my vow’s imminent expiration.

When August 12th rolls around, she finally has the opportunity to sleep with N, but decides to wait until he returns from the tour he’s about to depart on. “Making a choice to defer sleeping with N” she writes, “seems as positive a full stop to my year as sleeping with him. It’s the choice that counts.” In the months after her chastity project ends, Anderson reveals she has several relationships, but they “haven’t become [her] life’s defining drama in the way that they once would have been.” She spends time in Paris, moves to the seaside, rekindles old friendships, and discovers new hobbies. And in an ironic twist, Anderson is now experiencing unintentional chastity in an unplanned dry spell. Hmm, maybe she should take a one-month vow just to jump-start things again?

So, have any of you — besides Amelia — taken a sex sabbatical? If so, did you have a similar experience? [via The Guardian]

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