This morning, I came across a somewhat defensive but nonetheless thoughtful essay on maintaining one’s celibacy (i.e. virginity) into middle age. As might be predicted, the piece was written by a woman, and she draws the connection between feminist and misogynist ideologues who preach the gospel of “sex positivity” couched in promiscuity. While I do not deny this writer’s thesis or lack empathy for the vitriol she has faced, in my opinion she fails to address the real problem with regards to “a loving committed relationship that lasts”: the notion that such relationships only exist in the paradigm of monogamous pair-bonding.
In many ways, I have come full circle on my values of what a relationship involving sex truly means. I came of age during the AIDS crisis; the frequent messages coming out of that era (the Reagan years) was that sex = death. This was a far harsher reality to face than a potential broken heart or thwarted dream of connubial bliss. I literally feared that my innate desires for multiple partners could kill me.
Thus it was that I accepted the binary and married a heterosexual man and engaged in monogamy for 18.5 years. My first relationship after the end of my marriage was with a serial monogamist, something I had never before encountered. Something was “off” with his ability to commit to me, so I took a break from seeing this person and began a series of love affairs for indefinite lengths of time (serial insouciance, perhaps?). I found these relationships to be liberating after nearly two decades of monogamy but not particularly nurturing with regards to my spiritual needs.
In the above-referenced article, the author writes:
For me, sexual union must involve deep emotional commitment to have value. Otherwise, it is reduced to any other pleasant bodily activity, like eating or exercising.
I have three immediate responses to this:
- Why shouldn’t sex be reduced to any other pleasant bodily activity? Daily exercise is good for us; daily eating is requisite to life.
- Yes, a sexual union that involves a “deep emotional commitment” is going to have a greater value in one’s life than one with shallow emotional commitment.
- Why not consider that a “deep emotional commitment” also can be achieved in a celibate relationship? Why assume that a “deep emotional commitment” is exclusive to a monogamous relationship?
It seems to me that the author is holding up being “voluntarily celibate” as a superior state to those she labels “incel,” that is, “involuntarily celibate.” I think both parties are living in a fantasy land: one of which is less prone to commit violence but neither of which is viable in 2015 American society (maybe not viable anywhere else or at any other time either!).
About two years ago, I made the decision to take a break from sex and spent almost a year and a half being celibate: it was neither voluntary nor involuntary. It was just my state of being. It began with the sense that the quality of my relationships with my lovers wasn’t feeding my soul; I also was in a very dark place emotionally so that any “deep emotional commitment” was bound to be negative (jealousy, abuse and manipulation are also deeply emotional in many committed relationships). Weeks turned into months; eventually, I was celibate for longer than I had ever been in my adult (i.e. sexually active) life.
What broke my 16-month-long celibacy? The serial monogamist. He was fresh off wife number three and wanted to see me again. I thought, “Finally, this is my chance!” I knew I loved him and thought if only we both were in the same headspace that we could make it work. After two weeks, I knew I was wrong. I never wanted a monogamous relationship with this man, which didn’t mean I wanted him out of my life. Because we did (do) have a “deep emotional commitment” to each other. One that has created the second-longest relationship of my life (we’ve been “off and on” now for over five years).
After that final attempt at “fitting in,” I gradually came to accept that the system is broken. I quickly decided that serial monogamy is what is really destroying relationships: How on earth does one give and take away love so effortlessly? I began reading more about polyamory and hanging out with some poly friends. Even my son noticed an improvement in my mood. I started dating again. I’ve managed to find not one, not two, but three amazing men to spend time with. I also have on-going sexual relationships with long-time lovers (including Mr. Serial Monogamist). All of my lovers know I’m poly; I don’t lie and I don’t cheat. Some of them have become integral to my family, which is the next step for me (and very challenging as a parent who wants to protect her kids first and foremost).
What I’ve discovered is that negotiating open relationships is so much easier than getting my needs met by (or meeting the needs of) the one. In fact, one of my new boyfriends is very accepting of—ta da—a non-sexual relationship. In other words, we are platonic. Before the naysayers label this as “just a friendship,” there is love here. There is a “deep emotional commitment.” I see this as being another piece in the love I have been seeking. The hardest part for me was to allow him to choose: I was so caught up in thinking no man could want to be with me without sex, that I never bothered to ask him what he wanted from a relationship with me. Turns out, I think he wants what I want: companionship, friendship, love, commitment.
While I have been friends with this man for several years, I have never before considered “dating” him and calling it thus. The reason why is because I, too, fall into that evil paradigm that “a relationship” is one-man-one-woman (or even one-man-one-man or one-woman-one-woman). This idea that the only way to bond is monogamously has created more heartache (and more entitlement per those “incel” men) than allowing my heart to do what it has always longed to: love as many people for who they are and what they bring to the relationship as possible.
Yes, each of my lovers offers something special and wonderful and unique. I no longer fret that my ONE partner isn’t fulfilling my “deep emotional” needs because I now have multiple partners who collectively are awesome. No doubt, some will be in my life for a long time and others may part (or depart; life may have an uncertain path but it always has an inevitable ending). However, as my new boyfriend says about his wife (yes, he’s married; yes, she and I are friends), “That woman takes a village.”
I think that’s true for a great many women. If we can only have the courage to admit it, and find respectful partners who want to love us and be loved in return. Regardless of—or in addition to—getting laid.
Had I been born 20 years earlier, I don’t think it would have taken me a quarter-century to figure this out. I would have thrived in the Age of Aquarius, where these ideas were not so foreign. However, today I am happily building my network (which, btw, includes my ex-husband, for as long as he needs me… no sex there either!). I just am not hard wired to love and then un-love. In fact, I would argue that if we would allow for our hearts to expand via poly relationships—regardless of sexual activity—rather than retract only to embrace monogamous relationships, we would be taking sex-positivity (which the article’s author doesn’t seem to realize includes celibacy) to a much higher and more loving plane. And there would be far fewer messy breakups disappointing those who waited to share their bodies with another person thinking that the relationship would last “forever.” In the poly community there are breakups, but there are far more “til death does us part” relationships, even if that means more responsibility to other people you love in whatever fashion you love them.
Oh, and for the record, I’ve told my own daughter—who identifies as asexual—that there is no law that says she ever has to lose her virginity… but I would rue the day she spent even one hour of her day on a Matrix-like, lifelong search to find “The One.”