A brilliant and counter-intuitive comment from reader jordanb in the "Rear Ended by Porn" comment thread is the inspiration for today's post. Check it out:
Becky I'm interested to know if you've ever thought about abstinence from a sex positive feminist type of perspective. I mean, in some ways it seems like "not having sex" is an option that has been completely co-opted by the abstinence only sex ed types, and exists only as a purely moral decision. I'm struck by the absence of discussion of abstinence from a sex positive feminist perspective. But isn't it also important to reframe not having sex in sex positive terms? In strange way,though, in all of these discussions you've started (at least on Bitch) about sex, it seems like you've revealed the most taboo option in the minds of many sex positive folks is not to have sex.
This is a very thought-provoking. I can't say I ever considered writing about abstinence in this blog. When I took the gig, I told the editors at Bitch I'd write about sex and relationships. The food bloggers over at Chow don't write about fasting, so why should I write about abstinence?
Besides, I have a strong allergic reaction to the term "abstinence." The Christian Right--with its twisted "purity balls" and opposition to even the most basic information about human sexuality--have too thoroughly co-opted the term "abstinence" for feminists to regard it with anything but scorn. Now that "abstinence" is synonymous with an utterly ignorant "sex ed" movement and Jesus-sanctioned slut-shaming...well, I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets hives at the mere mention of the word.
So I'm going to avoid the A-word altogether, and call it "conscious celibacy", i.e. a woman's informed decision not to have sex, for whatever reason.
Jordanb's comment made me I realize that I was being narrow-minded by assuming that a sex blog should only be about women having hot, liberated sex. Choosing not to have sex is as important to a woman's sexual health and well-being as having it. So yes, there should definitely be room for discussion of conscious celibacy in a sex-positive feminist forum. And as feminists, if we believe that women shouldn't be judged for having a lot of sex, we also should refrain from judging those who have none; no slut-shaming, but no prude-shaming either. Both "slut" and "prude", of course, are terms that represent the Patriarchial Catch-22: women are condemned both for being sexual and for not being sexual enough. Our culture so hypersexualizes everything that I think women often feel that they need to be proclaiming "Sex! Hell Yeah!" as often as possible to show how liberated and sex-positive they are.
So what about our sisters who aren't having sex?
When I asked readers to chime in about concious celibacy, I got an e-mail from a reader who said:
"I choose to honor my spirit and my integrity by making the choice to only engage in sex within the context of my religious beliefs. If that offends people, I don't care. I get criticized by the men of my faith for not wanting to marry (which is really because they think all women should be sexually available TO THEM), and I get criticized by other feminists because they think I'm brainwashed by religion. It's a no-win situation, but I'm not trying to win. I'm just making the decision that's right for me."
Whether you agree with her religious ideals--she didn't tell me which religion she belongs to--I admire the fact that she's resisting pressure from both sides of the issue, which ain't easy.
Another reader said:
"It's not that I'm opposed to having sex. I'm just opposed to having sex for sex's sake. I think you can choose not to have sex and still be a sex-positive feminist."
This struck me as the best possible argument: HIGH STANDARDS, I HAZ THEM. Bad sex is not better than no sex (bad sex, IMO, is sex that makes you feel icky or used or sad or that is physically un-pleasurable.) There's nothing wrong with saying "no thanks" if you feel like it, or not seeking out sex at all. Doing so doesn't make you any less sexual or sensual as a human being.
I was a celibate sex-positive person for the first 18 years of my life. I grew up in an extremely open-minded home, where my mother answered my questions about sex clearly and honestly. I was never shamed for expressing sexual curiosity or interest. And even though I wasn't having sex (well, with others), I was always deeply, decidedly sexual, from a very early age. In fact, in my teen years I devoted far more time to thinking, reading and talking about sex than many of my friends who were having it--they actually thought I was something of a perv. In reality, I was just fascinated by the sensual and the erotic, and dying to know as much as possible before I actually started experiencing it first-hand. My curiosity made me a voracious consumer of erotica, from romance novels to Anais Nin to purloined copies of Penthouse Forum. This was in the days before DVD and internet porn, or I'm sure I would have been all over that as well.
So why wasn't I having sex? There was no shortage of boys who would have been willing to give it a go, but despite my interest in all things sexual, I just wasn't tempted by them. I knew from endless discussions with my friends who had already done it that if I did wind up in bed with any high school Romeos, I'd likely wind up doing something physically and emotionally awkward that wouldn't provide anywhere near the sexual satisfaction that I could get from masturbating. I had spent a lot of time learning about my body and what turned me on, so I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted from a man. I was willing to wait until I could have that, and have it on my terms.
When I was 19, I had sex for the first time with a guy I was crazy about, and I loved it. And then about a year after I moved to New York, my college boyfriend, who I'd still been dating long-distance, broke up with me. All of the sudden I was 21 years old and living in New York and didn't have the first clue how to go about dating in the metropolis. So I fell back on the habits that had served me so well in my youth--sex with myself until I figured out how to find a worthwhile guy. About 18 months of celibacy followed. I didn't regret them a bit--it was a good, comfortable, useful break that helped me prepare myself for the frenetic and adventurous years of dating and sex that followed.
So while I'm a cheerleader for happy, orgasmic, fulfilling sex, I don't necessarily believe that the best kind of sex is MORE sex. It can be occasional sex. It can be sex with one partner, or with many. It can be sex only with yourself. A healthy sex life has room for all kinds of scenarios, including celibacy.