Arguments for sex’s necessity too often come from places of biological determinism or advertisement. We need sex, we are told, to advance the species, to “feel satisfaction,” for base affirmation. But “needing” sex corrupts desire, putting fucking as the (questionable) number one form of human interaction. Instead of moralizing intimacy or negating sexuality, intentional abstinence from intercourse can heighten eroticism, or serve as a form of self-care from trauma, or can simply be a fact-of-life. We gathered four people who approach celibacy as uniquely as they might fuck, and asked them what role sex played in its absence.
Al Bedell tweets from Bushwick. She’s 26 now but (thinks) she lost her virginity at 15.
Genevieve Belleveau is an RV-based artist currently investigating monastic and ascetic practices.
Andrea Crespo is an art student in Brooklyn. She was a boy but then turned into the girl she is. Herself at last, she's been celibate ever since. Sex is weird.
John Trotta is a fiction writer, currently living in Charleston, South Carolina, working as a garbage man. He lost his virginity at 14. Horrified, he didn’t have sex again for two years.
Do you actively practice celibacy? Why or why not?
Genevieve Belleveau: Over the past few years I have intermittently chosen celibacy as an intentional learning tool—generally after breakups or periods of intense sexual indulgence. I consider celibacy to be ritual cleanses of whatever energies I’ve absorbed from recent sexual partners or experiences. I always seem to be able to align with my higher call or purpose better when I’m celibate. I feel less influenced by the desires of others. Right now I am engaged in a Vow of High Love, which does not mean strict non-penetrative celibacy. It requires an explicit agreement to do more than mutually masturbate or engage in solely physically sex. It could be a shared dream we wish to see each other achieve or a more prolonged commitment to one another’s spiritual growth.
Al Bedell: Yes, kind of. I came to a point in my life where I thought I was going off the slut rails and decided one morning, after a traumatizing sexual experience, that I’d become celibate. I felt that I would have more power over men if I could withhold sex from them. I’ve experimented with juice cleanses and other sorts of cleanses (alienation, not checking the internet, extreme dieting, airplane-mode-ing my phone) and I have a strong, sometimes manic, desire to be “Pure.” I like feeling like I’m in control of my body. I don’t want to put anything into my body unless it’s on my terms. I finally want to use the only thing I’ve been used for against others. Maybe it’s spiteful, but it’s for me and I’m okay with it.
I finally want to use the only thing I’ve been used for against others. Maybe it’s spiteful, but it’s for me and I’m okay with it.
Andrea Crespo: Sort of. I find that it has been increasingly difficult to have sex since I began to present as and openly identify as female. Transitioning has narrowed my possibilities to an unprecedented degree. I don’t really have the option of choosing any straight man I otherwise could if I were born female because I am perceived as male (it’s hard enough for cis women to find a guy worth a shit). Of course there are men out there who do express interest in me but they have tended to be chasers. It is not too difficult for me to seek sex through Craigslist’s T4M/M4T listings or through various dating sites but I find the situation to be less than appealing and more often than not objectifying. I am actively celibate in that I do not actively seek out sexual encounters (in the precarious forms many trans women do) for the sake of having sex. I am not actively trying to prevent myself from having sex with people who I do form bonds with (or at least feel safe around).
John Trotta: The truth is: I don’t actually know what celibacy means. I mean, I get it, it means not having sex, right? Simple as that. But is it institutionally based? If you want to have sex but no one wants to have sex with you, are you actively practicing celibacy? Here’s the closest I’ve come: Once or twice I tried to stop jerking off—it was shit. I didn’t know what to do before I showered. I see the value in it, I suppose—but fuck that, I love jerking off and I’m pretty sure I’m going to die one day and I don’t know if they let you jerk off after you die, wherever you go. I don’t get laid enough to ask myself this question. Is everyone fucking all the time? I feel like I missed something.
Do you see celibacy as a challenge to sexuality's primacy within popular culture or does it acquire more significance within its absence?
Genevieve: I think celibacy is a form of sexuality. I don’t practice celibacy in the sense of strict abstinence; rather I tend to engage in a lot of auto-eroticism, using my own stored sexual energy as a power source for manifesting what I need at that time in my life. I feel like when I’m celibate I’m like a well functioning car alternator, generating my own energy without the need for an external battery. I do think cultivating mindfulness in sexuality and all things is in direct opposition to everything that is sold by pop culture and its doctrines on romance and love. We are fed the proposition that we need external objects and individuals to fill gaps in our inadequate selves, whether it’s deodorant, douche, or 'the d.'
Al: Celibacy is not in pop culture because it’s not glamorous, hot, or cute, though I guess it can be seen as ‘sexy’ to people. Or like a ‘challenge’ to awful people. I’m not trying to seem ‘Off the Market’ to men; I’m doing this because I want to. It definitely gets men more interested. Maybe I’ll get two more dates out of it, because they want to get some sort of reward for enduring pseudo-abstinence, or they feel like they’ve ‘broken the code’ or something, like they’re #WINNING. Sometimes I let them and sometimes I don’t. It depends on how confident I feel that day. The next day I usually feel the same—defeated.
We seem to still be riding that long wave of sexual liberation, and capitalism has followed suit all too well.
Andrea: It’s certainly challenging, but not in a way that has a 'real world' impact. We seem to still be riding that long wave of sexual liberation, and capitalism has followed suit all too well. It may be a challenge in the sense that celibacy opts one out of certain forms of normativity as well as the markets and trends that cater to them. It is definitely contrarian to (sex obsessed) queer politics in general as well as sex positive feminism. I recently saw a documentary about asexual people in which they go to a pride festival in SF, only to be met with disgust and intolerance from the queer community. Celibacy connotes repression and cultural regression in a lot of people’s minds, particularly those who have historically been prevented from having sex. I only say it might lack 'real world' impact because it is something that occurs by omission hence won’t be noticed as much as a positive act like having sex in a way that is not socially acceptable.
John: The longer I go without sex the more I realize how much I need it. This isn’t a strange reaction, I don’t think—at least not based on the amateur data I have collected while discussing 'dry-spells' with friends. I guess I don’t see celibacy as the correct response to sexuality’s primacy—there are other ways to challenge something like that—ones that I find far more appealing. I think our problem in a lot of ways is that we just don’t talk about this stuff. Not that we can’t, but we don’t—not honestly, not without feeling like it’s something subversive or strange. The thing is, NOT talking just opens up the door for perversion—not sexual perversion, but, like, truth perversion or something. Maybe I’m full of shit.
Lydia Davis' "In this condition" describes erotic yearnings towards moments and objects not often marked as "sexual." Do you feel the erotic shifts its bearings outside of sex? While celibate, what turns you on?
Genevieve: I feel like I receive erotic energy out of the blue. I will suddenly be turned on by no particular trigger or memory. I sometimes think this is sensitivity to other people’s sexuality being directed my way psychically. I get similar sensations when I am nude modeling for art students, like their eyes literally caress my body. I’m probably just an exhibitionist though.
Al: Turkey sandwiches, the act of someone else making me a sandwich, boots (militant boots), hardware (like nails and hammers), men in suits carrying flowers, men eating sandwiches, when people touch my hair, when people tell me about their unhappy sexual experiences and I try to figure out what could make it better, sometimes when I’m g-chatting with someone I really like and they say something meaningful and true, personalized emails—just when people get real with me, I guess. I’m more stimulated by real conversation and real emotions than anything phallic. I think I’m honestly disgusted by the human body. This probably stems from my own insecurities.
It’s all sex as far as I can tell. All of it, everything. Recreation, procreation, money, drugs, booze, bars, the choices we make tend towards some Freudian ends.
Andrea: From before puberty I eroticized forms that would have possibly been considered pathological to desire. Objects, images, whatever. All of these made more sense to me than the human body. When I did begin to develop attraction to people’s bodies my imagination would always take it further, conceiving of bodies as multifarious assemblages of possibility. I was drawn to freakish configurations, multiplicity, absence, the unexpected. All of this felt more natural to me than performing sexual acts. I had to teach myself to enjoy sex with normative human beings. Of course as I grew up I developed disgust toward these odd desires; I convinced myself that I was possessed by inhuman impulses. Coming into contact with discourses that pathologized or wronged “fetishization” really added to this self-deprecation, particularly for those desires that were directed towards forms with real-life analogues. One of my fascinations towards certain types of “misshapen” or disabled bodies was countered with a heavy conscience about what those conditions mean outside of their eroticization. At an earlier age I just responded to these things and that was it, but since coming to understand them better I have kept my distance. In this sense I have developed another form of celibacy.
John: It’s all sex as far as I can tell. All of it, everything. Recreation, procreation, money, drugs, booze, bars, the choices we make tend towards some Freudian ends. I mean, anything could turn me on at any time. Even things with the opposite sort of stimulus have the capacity to turn me on. Disgusting shit. Anything with a hint of the “unutterable” as a friend of mine once called it. Here’s what turns me on: the things we can’t say—and so, in a way, I feel like the erotic is almost completely removed from sex (for me)—that is the pure, natural conclusion to all of things that (theoretically) got me in the spirit. I think there is some base element in me that likes to feel dirty and bad and ashamed. I was raised Catholic, of course.
Celibacy enforced within institutions is often commanded as an appeal towards restraint and self-control. Do you experience celibacy in these terms? Why or why not?
Genevieve: Traditional religious restraint has definitely been the jumping off point for my ascetic practice up to this point in the project; but I made a distinct choice to not declare strict celibacy as one of my vows. I think it’s obvious that completely repressing sexual energy is counter-productive to spiritual exploration. Our sexuality is part of the divine blueprint as are many supposed “sins of the flesh”; I think hardline celibacy is its own form of compulsion, in the same way eating disorders are addictions to deprivation.
I think hardline celibacy is its own form of compulsion, in the same way eating disorders are addictions to deprivation.
Al: I never, ever want to be restricted by rules, even ones I give to myself. I’m doing what feels natural and not giving it up to sorry losers…which is what I was doing before. I’m trying to take back my sense of Self. No one has consent to my body or mind but me.
Andrea: Sometimes. As I mentioned earlier I practice celibacy insofar as it protects me from precarious sexual desires and such. I do want to change that however. Life can get very dreary when you try to control desire too much. If you block one pathway, that impulse will show up somewhere else, most likely to your detriment. It also depends on what the impetus is behind the restraint. I think that doing it out of shame or guilt is really harmful in the long run, and I have learned this the hard way. Doing it out of desire for 'self-mastery' or a spiritual achievement of some sort would give totally different results it seems.
John: No way. My question is: Why would that be a display of restraint and self-control? In my mind celibacy for that reason is more or less a symptom of consciousness—like the apple and the leaves that covered ole A & E’s privates. They taste the apple, they hide themselves, and so on and so forth. If I wanted to restrict myself I’d start with booze, I think. But I’m much more interested in trying to restrict my capacity for ignorance. I’d like to put a cap on how big of an asshole I can be—this is where I would start if anywhere. Also, you know, fuck institutions in general. Never listen to what anyone tells you.
Would you or have you practiced celibacy with a partner? Do you think there are benefits to practicing celibacy in communion, or is it best left to solitary exploration?
Genevieve: I recently had friend visit me in my monastery just as he had declared a period of celibacy for himself. His desire for sex had become compulsive and out of control and he knew he needed to break the cycle. My monastery definitely served as a sort of sanctuary for him and healing space for us both. We were able to share an exchange that felt almost more intimate than sex as we investigated our individual abstinences. It was important for me to remain open to exactly what was happening in this exchange, to be 100% present to myself and my friend so that the eroticism of our encounter wasn’t snuffed out just because intercourse was not an option. I actually found it to be super hot, like being a virgin again.
This sounds like a good idea actually. I wish I had a girlfriend so I could try it.
Al: I don’t think I’d practice celibacy with a partner. I think it’s a commitment you make to yourself. I, personally, have chosen celibacy to regain a sense of power. I guess I’ve been traumatized by sex and horrid men in general and need to do it on my own. If I was in a happy, healthy relationship with a partner, I’d still want to do it for me. It’s not a couple thing, it’s a self thing.
Andrea: It did come up in my last relationship, though these periods would just casually emerge rather than happen through a celibacy pact. I wouldn’t call them “dry spells” or sexless phases as it seemed like an implicit agreement. It just happened, it was never forced. They were never due to straining of the relationship either. It just felt like rhythm of some sort. I still don’t know what that really means and why it would happen, but it was far from being a negative experience so I don’t worry about it too much.
John: Now THIS makes sense. Practicing celibacy with a partner (long-term) seems like one way in which the decision is now a sort of mutual attempt at something grander than just not having sex. To not have sex together? It’s kind of sexy, no? Still though, I think that is why I would do it, the holding out, so that when we finally did fuck again it would be exponentially better. It’s not the same as not having sex and then finally getting laid by a stranger on some weak Thursday afternoon—that sex comes with the empty feeling, post release—not nearly as fulfilling as it must be to wait WITH someone. This sounds like a good idea actually. I wish I had a girlfriend so I could try it.
This panel was conducted by Ana Cecilia Alvarez
Image: Bea Camacho, Efface, 2008