What I Learned From Being Accidentally Celibate For 5 Years

My relationship with sex is different now.
The author focused on herself after a breakup in her 40s. Here's what she learned.
The author focused on herself after a breakup in her 40s. Here's what she learned.
Christine Brooks

Five years of celibacy isn’t something I planned. It’s something that happened when I began to focus on myself and stopped looking for a Netflix-and-chill buddy. It happened gradually and I only thought about it every so often ― when couples held on to each other scurrying across a windy parking lot, or when love scenes got a little too vivid during a Friday night movie. Mostly, though, sex just never occurred to me as something I was missing in my life.

After my last breakup, at the age of 44, it became obvious to me (and most of my friends and family) that I needed to regroup, refocus and remember who I was, and who I had been before becoming a stepmother/step-grandmother. I had been so involved with caring for a toddler and my dying mother for so long that I lost touch with my own needs and my sense of identity completely. I had become so fully absorbed in my last attempt at happily ever after that I lost myself. Self-care had been replaced with self-loathing, and I knew time was my only friend on the road to my happiness.

As such, becoming celibate came very naturally. I was able to revisit the things I had sacrificed for far too long with my live-in boyfriend’s sudden permanent acquisition of his toddler-aged grandson. I bought colored pencils and a sketchbook, and I planted flowers in my empty garden that had been neglected. Slowly, I started writing again ― a poem here, an essay there, and before I knew it, a novel.

I stopped shaving my legs and counting calories, and I decided to grow out my fauxhawk. Since I no longer had a toddler around my neck, I could have that hairstyle without worrying about it becoming sticky or snarled. In general, I stopped overthinking my outfits, menu and lifestyle choices. I surfed more, wrote more, and over months ― and soon years ― I was changing into the person that made me happy.

Even though I had always been sexually active, finding a boyfriend was the last thing on my mind. I had said the words before (I think most of us have): I’m happy alone. I never meant it, though. What I meant was that I was alone and that was fine, but I would be happier with someone. After my breakup, though, I continued to take myself out to dinner, but I stopped looking around the bar for a friendly smile, someone to flirt with or someone to take home for the night. I stopped focusing on finding my other half and started focusing on making myself whole.

I took the time to learn the bartender’s name at the Italian restaurant I frequented (it’s Ashley) and struck up conversations with the people sitting next to me. Or not. I had no pressure to be anyone other than who I was at that moment.

“Five years of celibacy is something that happened when I began to focus on myself and stopped looking for a Netflix-and-chill buddy.”

Lesbian. The whispers gained voice and momentum, even with family members, as the months passed and still no dating. My free time was filled with biological research I had begun and classes for my Master of Fine Arts. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t have time to meet someone and begin a relationship. It simply wasn’t on my radar. Even my newfound biological half-brother inboxed me on Facebook with his “concerns” over my single lifestyle.

My girlfriend says you must be a lesbian, my own brother wrote one day only a few weeks after finding him. That hair, that Jeep, your black dog. Are you? I would remind him and everyone, too often, that my fauxhawk was not tied to my vagina or my sexuality, but still the whispers would continue.

It was easy to say no to dating because I so rarely had to. In five years, only one person asked me out, so saying no wasn’t something I was faced with. It was as if the universe was conspiring to help me find myself and learn to be by myself. After the first year passed, I acknowledged that I hadn’t had sex, but made no effort to end my dry streak. Men held more drama and took more time than I was willing to sacrifice.

When my cousin loudly announced at a family wake that she had “a guy” for me, I told her I didn’t have the time to date. Those words would become my mantra, until finally after a few years, even my family gave up on me meeting someone. It was then that I realized I wasn’t just not having sex; I was celibate.

Was I gay? Was I antisocial? No one could seem to decide for me what or who I was.

Somehow, being single was becoming threatening, and I was growing tired of defending myself and explaining why I was single and abstaining. I never made a conscious decision not to have sex, but as I drew, wrote and worked in my garden, it never seemed important to me, at least not as important to me as it seemed to be for everyone else in my life that knew of my “dry spell.”

It’s an affair! Yes, that must be it. You are with a married guy and keeping it a secret. I had stopped explaining, stopped defending and stopped doing things I hated.

“In five years, only one person asked me out, so saying no wasn’t something I was faced with. It was as if the universe was conspiring to help me find myself and learn to be by myself.”

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, five years passed easily, without any breakups or breakdowns. I felt relieved most days when I listened to friends talk about their partners and husbands, divorces always looming.

I did long for company, though, for someone to go to weddings with, someone to call after a good or bad day and someone to bring me chicken soup when I was sick. I wanted those things, without the strings of sex and the feelings that always came after, no matter what I told myself beforehand. In a somewhat-desperate attempt to just have human contact, I signed up for ukulele lessons. Week after week, for over a year, I sat side by side with a very handsome bassist who did all he could to get me past the one song I could play. As it turned out, I am not musically inclined, and the up-down song was not good enough for the recital, which featured mostly grade-school children.

As I sipped espresso in a small coffee shop in Dublin one August morning last summer, it suddenly occurred to me that it had been five years since I last had sex, almost to the day. Although I wasn’t exactly counting calories again, I was careful, and even shaved off the stubble that had overtaken my legs and underarms.

It wasn’t time for sex, or a relationship, or time to search or hope for my soul mate; it was just simply time for me to be myself.

As easily as I ordered my second cup of espresso, I texted an old friend: Hey, I’ll be home in a few days.... wanna catch up?

I simply decided it was time to end my celibacy. Between working full time, graduate school and living with, and caring for, my elderly father, I realized I had no time for a relationship but the time had come to end my drought ― if only for the sake of ending it. I was nervous that the sight of a naked man or the act of sex would once again ignite a passion in me that had been absent for five years, and I was also aware that sex with friends could lead to feelings and that wasn’t something I wanted either, so I trod carefully.

He came over on a hot day shortly after I returned from Dublin, and in my small childhood-home bedroom that I slept in while in high schoola place that not even then did I violate ― we had passionless, mechanical sex.

“Is this working for you?” he asked without making eye contact. I made the only noise I could, which although I wanted to sound like a hum, sounded more like a nervous squeak. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t fun either and it certainly was not working.

Over the years, I had my share of one-night stands as well as meaningful relationships with a healthy sex life, but I had never had an encounter that I scheduled. It was challenging for me to “plan” to have sex and take away the rhythm that comes from two people admiring each other and taking the steps physically that lead to the act itself.

It sat on my calendar like any other appointment and felt less romantic than the oil change I had just taken my car in for. I set it up because I had begun to see something wrong with myself and wanted to stop being different, stop being alone and stop being celibate.

After an hour or so of no kissing, no hugging and no emotion, we both got dressed, caught up on old times and he left just minutes before my father walked in the back door. I wanted to feel good, I wanted to feel naughty, I wanted to feel like I thought everyone else did, but instead, I felt nothing. In my heyday I would consider this quite an accomplishment, I would have bragged to my friends about how handsome he was and how he rocked my world in every way that Sunday afternoon.

My relationship with sex was different now, though. At 49 years old, I no longer needed a man to satisfy me, or if I did, it needed to have feeling behind it. Just doing it to do it felt like more of a chore and was simply a passionless act.

It has been six months since that day and I have come to realize that it is not the act of sex that provides the spark that I thought I needed. It is being happy alone and enjoying life on my own terms that turns me on and gives me a natural high.

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