What I Thought About Sex Back Then
Five years ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I was invited to speak as part of a series of Sunday-morning spiritual talks given by seniors at my college. We were pretty much given carte blanche as to what we could say, so long as it had a spiritual message behind it, so I went with one of my favorite subjects, sexuality. In those days, I thought a lot about when (and sometimes, if) my partnered sexual life was going to begin.
Writing this talk turned into quite a helpful exercise for me. It encouraged me to consider where I’d been, finding the value in the experiences I’d had and the decisions I’d made. Writing, editing, practicing, and presenting the talk to my community was tremendously empowering; it gave me a sense of ownership and empowerment over where I was in my life at that moment.
Although it felt vulnerable to share such an intimate message, it also helped me feel seen and supported, and I was thrilled when some of the audience members who came to see me speak told me my message had uplifted them. In retrospect, it was a beautiful way of saying goodbye to that phase in my life, because before the school year was out, I was dating my first serious boyfriend and the sexy times had definitely begun to roll.
I might try this exercise again some day. Maybe soon. Because my views aren’t the same as they were when I was 21; some of my ideas and attitudes have changed, and I’ve definitely had a lot of experiences to synthesize. In some ways, the essay I wrote then may have been simpler, because I wasn’t actually having sex; it’s hard to sum up pat lessons from a partnered sex life, even a happy one, because experiences in sexual relationships can be so varied, messy, and complex. Still, it’s worth a try, and it’s a very interesting document to refer back to years later.
What about you; have you written manifestos like this before? What was the effect? If you wrote one now, what would its message be?
My Sexuality and the Sacred Talk; September, 2007
“I want to talk about celibacy, and what it’s been like for me. I want to share the spiritual growth I’ve discovered in the decision to save my sexual expression for a loving relationship, the power and freedom it has given me, as well as the hard parts, like the loneliness, doubt, and feelings of isolation I’ve experienced because of it. When someone speaks their truth, it honors us all, and in the past I have been deeply grateful when I’ve met someone who was willing to speak candidly about their sexuality, because it happens so rarely.
When I was a freshman it would have been heartening for me to hear from an older peer about their understanding of sexuality and the sacred. It’s fortifying and inspiring to hear from people who have made similar spiritual choices, especially if they’re unusual choices. Celibacy has taught me a lot, and no matter what your journey has been, perhaps you can relate to some part of my story.
At the same time, part of me really does not want to talk to you about celibacy and what it’s been like for me. I mean, who wants to be the abstinence poster child on campus, or get labeled as the Strident 21-year-old Virgin? Or, as my friend pointed out to me, giving a talk like this “might be like walking around with a sign that says, “Don’t have sex with me- ever! So I’ve got some trepidation about sharing my message today. Finally, the fact that I’ve never had sex does not define the whole me by any means; it’s not “who I am. It can seem like a big deal when I’m in certain frames of mind, but I hardly think about it at others. Our sexual identities are just one element of the things that make us rich and complex people.
Before I committed to sharing this message, I kept picturing various people I know showing up today and asking myself, “Could I share my message in front of that person? What about them? A strong sense, a leading, told me that this was a subject I had something to say about, and so I’ve decided to risk the vulnerability and nervousness and say my piece. I respect your right to do whatever you feel is right. I want to make that absolutely clear. I was given the freedom and autonomy to make my own choices about sexuality, and I think that’s everyone’s right. I offer you my story in the hope that it might strengthen you in your journey, provide you with insight into another person’s divergent choices, or simply give you something to ponder on your way to the cafeteria.
When I first began composing this speech, I used the word “abstinent” to describe my choice not to have casual sex. The language of sexual choice is tricky terrain, however, and I found that a lot of the words that mean not-having-sex are loaded with baggage. “Virginity”, for example, sounds archaic and reminds me of traditions where women have been treated as property, objects whose value depends on sexual purity on their wedding nights.
“Abstinence has gotten mixed up in my mind with promise-rings and saving oneself for marriage, which is not what I’m doing. While “celibacy reminds some people of the permanent choice of nuns and monks, it can also be interpreted as a decision for everyday people that can be made for any amount of time at any point in life. There’s a sense of waiting and self-awareness in ˜celibacy’ that appeals to me. I use a number of terms to describe my journey, however, and it’s been a good experience wrangling with the our language’s sexual vocabulary and reinventing certain terms in ways that are meaningful and empowering for me.
So. My story. In first grade, my best friend Cori was my source of really bad words. Juicy words like “bosom and “damn. We wrote them on pieces of paper, and one night my mom went through my backpack and discovered “sex among the forbidden curses scrawled there. I cringed and squirmed through the subsequent lecture on the significance of what I’d done, but one sentence from the embarrassing talk still stands out: “Sex is something that two people do if they’re very much in love. It took me years to realize it, but there it was, in that moment; the backbone of my philosophy of sexuality for the following decade in a nutshell.
The years rolled by and with them came awkward sex-ed classes in school and earnest lectures by my mother about puberty and anatomy. In our house, there were no expectations about saving ourselves for marriage, high school graduation, or anything else. My parents let it be known that they wanted me to be careful and not rush into my sex life, but they never set down any hard and fast rules for me to rebel against. As a result, I learned to weigh my decisions thoughtfully and take my time in making them.
When I had my first boyfriend at the age of fifteen, I was very clear in my sense of boundaries (and he respected them, fortunately); something told me that I was not mature enough to have sex, and that we could be together happily without it.
In the tenth grade, I started going to Quaker Meeting. Quaker sex-ed is virtually non-existent, and that’s a disservice to everyone. Why do Quakers as a group remain so quiet on the subject of sex? The Unitarian Universalists have a good thing going with their “Our Whole Lives program, which approaches sex as a normal part of life, with the potential to be incredibly beautiful if you treat it with respect. Anyway, each spring, we had one First Day school session dedicated to sex and its significance in a Quaker life. And from this annual event I took away one pearl of wisdom, from my mentor Anna, who would perch on a bucket every year and announce, “I wish I knew this when I was your age: Sex is so much better when it’s with someone you love who loves you. She didn’t tell us what to do or who to do it with. She just shared her experience and the truth she’d gleaned from it, leaving us free to make our own decisions. What would life be like if more adults shared so candidly and caringly with young people about sex?
There are things I admire about the idea of saving oneself for marriage, even though it’s not the path I’ve chosen; I’ve chosen to save my sexual expression for a loving relationship. First of all, it is a way to acknowledge that sex is spiritually significant, a belief which resonates with me.
Victoria Moran, one of my favorite authors, writes in her book Creating a Charmed Life, “We come from love. It’s what we’re made of. Learning to love more fully is probably our most important life assignment. Romantic love gets complicated because of sex. We don’t know what to do with something capable of producing ecstasy, so we diminish much of its beauty with guilt and embarrassment, excess and deprivation. That shouldn’t be surprising; we’ve done the same thing with chocolate. To allow something as potentially combustible as romance into a charmed life requires practicing an enlightened version of safe sex; not just the good-sense stuff like condoms and monogamy, but a genuine respect for this extraordinary power within us. Some people claim to engage in casual sex, but to a woman’s soul there is no such thing. While Moran speaks from a female perspective, the same might very well be true for people of other genders.
Part of the reason I have chosen to remain celibate until this point is because anything else feels wrong to my body. A mentor once told a friend of mine, “If you’re not into somebody, and you’re holding their hand, that’s a sin! While the language of sin isn’t one that I generally identify with, the point about letting one’s actions align with one’s true feelings seems significant to me. When someone I’m not into reaches for my hand in a romantic way, it feels all wrong. I don’t like anything about it. On the other hand, if there is a connection with the guy, it’s just the opposite; it feels right and holding his hand is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. On a very visceral level, my body has told me that in order to be happy, my actions and values have got to line up in this part of my life.
One afternoon over the summer on a car ride to the mall, I was having a plaintive conversation with my mom, bemoaning my inevitable fate as an eternal virgin. She pointed out something to me; it’s not as if I haven’t had the chance to get laid. It’s just that I haven’t been in a relationship in the past few years, and I’ve made it clear that it’s important to me to be in a loving relationship to have sex. The circumstances I deeply desire haven’t occurred yet. Hearing her perspective grounds me, because it helps me remember that my situation is one of my choosing. I can always change my mind if it feels right.
Iyanla Vanzart writes, “Because attaching the reason to have sex to an emotional commitment is regarded as female, society has devalued it as “weak. But as young women gain more power and security in society, they are recognizing their need for emotional commitment as a natural human preference and not necessarily the result of a double standard. For both women and men alike, a close and loving relationship ideally offers security, vulnerability, and intimacy, conditions that are basic and necessary for making the deepest human connections. They might also find it less strange to “get naked and lose their inhibitions with someone they genuinely care for.
Sexuality is not a topic we keep quiet about on this campus; candor and respect are encouraged everywhere. But I have heard very little about the reasons why people decide to become sexually active, and what it means to them deep down. I have also found very little material in the library on the subject of celibacy or the spiritual significance of sexuality.
Celibacy can be framed in my case as a feminist decision; Vanzart writes, “More women regard virginity not as being preserved for a husband’s later consumption but as a way of having sex on their own terms.
Likewise, author Lynn Harris noted that among the men and women she interviewed for a story on celibacy, “The safety they practice is emotional, the consequences they weigh internal. When the women and men I spoke to eschew or delay sex, it’s not because they’re scared or bitter; it’s because they’re, well, busy. It’s because they’ve begun to care about someone deeply, and they want to savor the anticipation and make sex special. It’s because they’re in charge and comfortable. It’s because they’re happy.
Announcing to groups of people who are talking about sex that I’m a virgin is typically not my style. I don’t want to be judged or make others fear that I’m judging them for making different choices. Sometimes I feel alone in celibacy, lonely. During the summer, one of my high school girlfriends was telling me about her latest hookup and nodding to me conspiratorially, and I just smiled and nodded along as if I could relate. But I couldn’t, and I didn’t feel secure enough to mention the fact. I wanted her to feel comfortable confiding in me, and I saw nothing wrong with her choices. Part of what kept me quiet was that I am aware of the stigma associated with being sexually inexperienced as an adult, as if the only possible explanation could be that you just can’t get a date, or you’re very conservative, neither of which is true for me. Is being sexually active a requirement for being a fully developed human being? What is it that makes us adults?
Doubt has played a big role in making my convictions about celibacy stronger. I have questioned the value of my choice to abstain too many times to count, rigorously challenging myself with alternative perspectives and contemplating other ways of life. As I’ve grown up it’s become important to me to be a sex-positive person, one who acknowledges and celebrates the potential of healthy sexual expression to bring great pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment into people’s lives. It’s been a journey learning to reconcile my celibate state with my desire to be sex-positive; are they mutually exclusive?
If you were a reader of Glamour in 1992, you would know that “Virgins with attitude would rather choose than be chosen, even if it means exercising great discipline in suppressing their own physical needs. The world may see them as anti-sex; they see themselves as pro-choice. The decision to refrain from casual sex is a way for me to give honor and power to my sexual expression when I choose to get involved with someone.
What is the true meaning of sex? Not having any has forced me to think about this, but anyone can do so when it becomes relevant for them. At first the fact that I’d never had sex was pretty circumstantial, but as I began to consider it from different angles, it turned into something more, a way to deepen my life spiritually. When something’s not happening in your life that society tells you should be happening, it forces you to confront the issue.
One event in particular helped me to view the spiritual side of what was (not) happening in my life; a discussion at a retreat center called “Sexuality, Sensuality, and Spirituality”. This was one of the most sacred events I’ve ever experienced. About thirty people sat in a circle and shared their experiences with sexuality and the holy. There were men and women from their early twenties up through their early eighties. We hailed from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and parts of the country. I heard stories of great love, wonder, fulfillment, awe, growth, fear, betrayal, pain, and anger. My story slipped into the mix effortlessly, and I no longer felt alone in my desire to realign the sacred and the sexual.
It helped that we were all at a religious retreat center, and that everyone was already in the frame of mind to view their lives from a spiritual perspective; I’m not suggesting that we all go out and try to initiate these deep, vulnerable conversations during brunch in the cafeteria. (Unless you want to.) But I wish that everyone could have that kind of experience, where they get to feel heard and validated in their identity as a sacred, sexual being, and get to learn from others and see that they are not alone, this struggle is universal. Even people who are not in sexual relationships can benefit from others’ perspectives to inform our choices and deepen our understanding of God and life.
In sharing this message, part of me is addressing my younger self. I want to tell her, you’re OK. You’re not crazy for being celibate, and trusting your gut, even though a life that includes casual sex might seem more normal or exciting. You can have rich and remarkable relationships with people that don’t involve sex, and years from now I can promise you that you’ll be grateful that you heeded the still, small voice within that said: wait.”