Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. She is proud to be a woman, though she thinks it’s not always easy to be one. Check out her other posts here.
Sophie Fontanel, a chic, intelligent, and attractive editor at Elle France is creating quite the stir with her new memoir, L'Envie, to be published in the United States this year as The Art of Sleeping Alone. It recounts the 12 years she spent abstinent after years of dating and getting tangled up in the hungry legs of men who offered mediocre and unsatisfying sex. One day, she went on a solo skiing trip and pretty much had the best time of her life. She remembers it as a momentous, liberating experience that launched her pursuit of abstinence.
As you'd expect, her book is getting mixed reactions. As The Atlantic's coverage reports, readers' responses are split. When I brought up the content of this book with some of my friends (all in their early 20s), the response was unanimous: “12 years?! She went 12 years without sex? But she's French! That's a really long time. Imagine how much she missed out on during those years.”
There were a few who were impressed by her ability to have “self-control” and “that kind of discipline,” as if she were somehow punishing herself or testing her limits for some kind of masochistic, freak project. A lot of them couldn't figure out why a single, “normal” woman, who had no apparent flaws, would have a no-sex policy during her prime time. I mean, YOLO, right? Shouldn't we all be putting ourselves out there (especially while we're young and sexy), going home with a different bed buddy every night? My best friend, for example, is a sex-oozing creature who does embody this whole free love mentality, going on noncommittal, exciting dates with strangers she meets in bars and having lots of good, fun sex.
And then there are also people like me, a fresh, budding 22-year-old who just doesn't really care much for sex. I haven't had sex for almost 2 years now (and when you're this age and living in this sex-centered cultural climate as a college student, it feels like eons). It's not as if I proclaimed one day, “I'm going to be abstinent from this day forward.” I guess you could say I'm passively abstinent, but not because men/women aren't sexually attracted to me or I'm not sexually attracted to men/women. I have had bad relationship models that have colored my experience and resistance to intimacy. But that's not the whole story, and I'd hate for people to pathologize and assume that if someone chooses not to have sex, there must be some monumental reason that requires lots of psychoanalytic evaluation.
That's why Rachel Hills' TEDx talk, "Understanding the Sex Myth," resonates with me so much. In sum, she talks about the anxiety and pressure we often feel to live up to some kind of sexual standard in our oversexed society. We compare our sex lives to those of others (or the idea we have about how much sex everyone else is having) because we feel this is what defines us. Most of the people I hang out with, and therefore compare myself to, have multiple partners and do have sex on a regular basis, so I was blown away by some of the statistics she presented. For example, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that the most common number of sexual partners an unmarried 18-23 year old will have in a given year is just 1. Because I presumed that everyone around me was always having so much sex, there were times when I felt like an oddball, like something was wrong with me.
Sometimes, I simply don't give a damn about sex and don't feel stimulated, end of story. This is not to say I don't get the hots because let me be the first to admit that sexy thoughts are on my mind every day. And that's important because I consider myself a sexual being, even when I'm not engaging in the physical act of sex. I love the idea of sex, but it hasn't played out that well in real life: I've had unremarkable sex where I'd be penetrated repeatedly, and it just felt “mechanical,” as Fontanel puts it. I'd look up at the ceiling and wonder, “When is this gonna end? I would really rather just go to sleep.”
Fontanel claims that some of her peers branded her as “frigid, abnormal, bitter, neurotic, a lesbian.” I've been called similar things in the past. But there are actually a substantial number of women and men who appreciate her courage and relate to her feelings about sex. What it really comes down to is choice, but our culture is rather good at providing repercussions for our individual, sexual decisions: if you have lots of sex, you're a slut; if you choose not to have sex, for non-religious/ non-cultural reasons, you're a prude or a lesbian. I like to think that my sexuality is fluid—that I can have casual, exciting sex with someone in one moment, whenever that may be, and not bother with sex at all the next, for as long as I please.