Friday, 5 May 2017

"Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder"-Hephzibah Anderson took a year off sex and found fulfilment!

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A year ago, I published Chastened, a memoir detailing my decision to voluntarily spend 12 months living and loving without sex.
Now, depending on your outlook, a year is either an eternity or an insultingly brief spell  -  certainly not a book-worthy feat. But the time frame wasn't the point.

It was the choosing that counted  -  the stepping back and taking control of a part of my personal life that seemed to be increasingly shaped by other people's expectations.
My life had not been promiscuous. I'd never had a one-night stand, and if you insist on talking numbers, my tally of partners was still in single digits  -  downright modest by the standards of the London media circles I moved in.
So quantity wasn't the issue. Nor was quality, though looking back, one dimension was missing from the dating experiences of my 20s: love.
It was a chance encounter that brought it home to me. Shortly before turning 30, I was in New York visiting friends when I happened to bump into my university ex with his new fiancée, doing a spot of holiday engagement-ring shopping on Fifth Avenue.

Almost a decade had passed since our breakup, yet he was the last man to have told me 'I love you'. This realisation was a scathing indictment of my relationship choices since, and brought into sharp focus the emotional frustration that defined those years.
Relationships would begin well enough, but once we'd gone to bed, I would need something more from the guy in question, more than he usually seemed prepared to give  -  not the kind of commitment that's sealed with a ring, but certainly some level of emotional investment.
Of course, the worst thing a girl can be is needy, and so, like my friends, I spent my 20s tiptoeing around commitment-phobes, hoping to coax them into a lasting relationship while bottling up my own need for meaningful emotional engagement.

By the time I turned 30, I couldn't help wondering whether we women hadn't traded sexual frustration for emotional frustration.
Most of us wanted relationships, but very few guys seemed prepared to go that far. The words 'I love you' carried the same forbidden frisson that sex once held for our grandparents.
Deciding to ban sex from my life for a year was a drastic response to the kind of dating woes plenty of women put up with. But after yet another heart-bruising break-up, that was precisely what made it so appealing.

We spend an increasing portion of our lives single  -  marrying later, divorcing in greater numbers. I wanted to find a fresh way of pursuing love into my 30s, one that was more personal, less of an emotional rollercoaster, and hopefully a little more romantic.
As for physical intimacy, I wanted to reconnect with my own hopes and needs, and see if a more old-fashioned approach might be more enjoyable, not to mention successful.

As a culture, we mock the abstinent and stigmatise the dry spell, but for me, those 12 months turned out to be very fertile. Yes, there were plenty of challenges, yet how much there is to be gained by going without.

I discovered it's easier to open up emotionally when you've drawn some physical boundaries.
I learned that when sex is off the menu, you become a more generous dater  -  you give people a chance. The hectic, sex-driven pace of modern courtship is rarely conducive to spotting quieter, potentially longer- lasting connections.

Once I'd stepped back from it all and embraced my temporary vow of chastity, I was able to appreciate the pressure that pop culture, from music lyrics to shampoo ads, puts on women to be sexual all the time. Even our hair has to be sexy. Not having to bother made that year relaxing.

As for the men I dated that year, some didn't get it, but most did. In fact, they appreciated the chance to adopt a more old-fashioned role. They sent flowers and offered to cook me dinner. They even sent love letters.
Ironically, I garnered far more male interest that year than before or since.
The vow was a challenge to those who knew about it, but those who didn't were responding to my newfound self-possession and reserve. Surrounded by silicone-enhanced, mass-produced sexiness, we forget the allure of mystery.
That chaste year reached its close with my deciding not to sleep with someone, even though the challenge was up.

I liked him a lot, and we'd been dating for several months, but he was heading out of the city for a while the very next day, so the timing didn't feel right. If my year had been about anything, it was about listening to my heart.
Of course, when people ask how it ended, that's not really what they mean. They want salacious details, they want to know whether sex after that year was different  -  was it better?
Almost three years have passed since those 12 months officially ended. In answer to the question I'm most frequently asked, yes, I have had sex since. In fact, I've had three relationships, all far more serious than any that preceded my 12-month experiment.
In each instance, I've taken my time before introducing a physical component. It hasn't yet scared off a man I've been interested in. In fact, it's a good litmus test. And yes, when you get there, the sex is invariably better.

The shortest of those relationships, at just four months, was with Nick, the handsome friend of my colleague. He knew everything about me precisely because he'd read my book. It was long distance, which made it easier to defer the physical side.
The other two lasted six and seven months respectively. One was with a divorced man in his 40s, who turned out to have had a similar flirtation with chastity in his 20s, before meeting his ex-wife.
The third was a fellow writer in his mid-30s. A few months before we met, he'd determinedly sworn off casual encounters. They made him feel lonely, he confessed.

So why did those relationships end? In part, because of the success of my chaste year. It made me more assertive about what I'm seeking, and at 34, that's not only emotional engagement, but the real thing: marriage, children, the full commitment-phobe's nightmare.
After a while, either I couldn't see it with the man in question, or he couldn't see it with me. There was some heartache, but those relationships turned out to have had an expiry date, and both parties had been honest with each other.

Some will say that a couple should figure all that out before going to bed. Perhaps they have a point, but the reason I wrote my book  -  and this article  -  is to try to bring sexual moderation back into the mainstream.

In a culture where it's not uncommon for a first date to include breakfast the morning after, most women wouldn't deem it feasible to leave sex until marriage. After all, physical compatibility does count for something.
But waiting until you feel a connection that isn't purely physical  -  that should be something every woman feels is her right. Based on the feedback I've had from younger readers  -  women in their early 20s, say  -  this doesn't appear to be the case.

The sexual revolution has left women with no reason to say 'No'. Permissiveness has itself become restrictive. If you think we've attained complete sexual liberation, try telling someone that you've chosen abstinence. People  -  and women more so than men  -  often get defensive, angry even.

At some point in the torrid wake of the sexual revolution, we've been sold the idea that equality for women is the right to embrace the very worst aspects of male behaviour  -  to match guys hookup for hook-up, tequila shot for tequila shot.

The best way to demonstrate our independence, we mistakenly believe, is to love and leave like men.
My chaste year taught me that true equality is the right to be fully, unapologetically female. I've also realised that we tend to underestimate men  -  the right kind of men, that is.
And there's nothing like telling guys that you won't be sleeping with them for a while to help suss out the cads from the keepers.

Bidding goodnight to a date some months ago, I broke off a kiss to explain myself. 'I'm not 16,' he said, a little offended at the idea he might not want to see me again, just because I wouldn't be sleeping with him any time soon.
Since the book was published, plenty of male readers have confided that when the right woman comes along, they'll gladly wait  -  until marriage, if needs be.
If we want sex to be meaningful and thrilling, it's not a question that should ever be asked or answered lightly

There's ample scope for misunderstandings in any relationship, but if you begin by being candid about your own desires  -  by admitting that it's a meaningful relationship you're craving, if that's the case  -  I believe you'll be rewarded with honesty in return.
I still have girlfriends who ask me if that scares a man off. They quickly realise how crazy the question sounds  -  if he's going to be scared off, he isn't the one. And beware the man in a rush: after all, why hurry unless you've somewhere else to be?

My year's mission was to find a more successful way of pursuing love into my 30s, and I believe I've found that. The men I date are kinder, more considerate, more romantic.
While I remain single, I'm contentedly so. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a chaste spell to others as a way of feeling more confident and focused.
Equally, for those stuck unwillingly in a dry spell: try not to think of it that way. Try to focus on the opportunities  -  claim those months 'without' for yourself.

While I still cannot offer you that classic happily-ever-after to my own story, I do have a coda for you. A few weeks ago, a man I've known for several years, and have begun spending time with romantically, asked me to stay the night.
'It's not an easy question to ask someone who wrote your book,' he added, seeing me hesitate. I laughed, and then reflected that if we want sex to be meaningful and thrilling, it's not a question that should ever be asked or answered lightly.
I won't reveal how I responded  -  you've heard far too much about me already  -  but I will say that in acknowledging the charged, delicious complexity of his offer, the man in question won a little piece of my heart.

Written by HEPHZIBAH ANDERSON for Daily Mail
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