Illustration by Grace Wilson
There's nothing inherently bad about sex, but the societal garbage that surrounds it can cause a lot of problems. The benefits of a period of abstinence include clarity, peace, and a fruitful relationship with a vibrator.
For thousands of years, the benefits of abstaining from sex have been lauded by philosophers, writers, artists, popes young and old, and people who are frankly sick of dealing with it. In the third century BC, Stoics and Epicureans painted sexual passions as irrational (they are)—an illness, even, that threatens the equilibrium of the soul and the state. "Intercourse never helped anyone, and it is lucky if it does no harm," the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus said.
The problem is, sex feels pretty good a lot of the time.
So good that even today, in an age of condoms and birth control, a non-religious, aphilosophical person may feel compelled to save his soul by swearing off sex for a specific period of weeks, months, or even years. Among many chronic daters, there's a perception that sex is the root of romantic misadventures, that it's the common link between every third date that never goes anywhere and every text conversation that ends with a "cool."
Does sex threaten romance, and people? And if so, what is so transformational and ominous about the act of penetration, if we table STIs and unplanned pregnancy for just a moment? The decision to go on a "sex detox"—often made hastily, perhaps a few hours after not getting a text back from the person you just fucked—can be rooted in a number of factors. The essence of the exercise, it would seem, is to put the self first by eliminating the distraction of sex and, more crucially, all the societal garbage that surrounds it; by doing so, the theory goes, you might be able to see yourself and your motivations more clearly. A self-professed sexually liberated radical feminist, for example, might realize that sex really does mean something to her, after years of trying to convince herself she was chill with casual hook-up. Alternatively, a man who has hopped from long-term relationship to long-term relationship throughout his 15-year sexual career might decide he wants to give being alone a try. Maybe he buys a fleshlight and takes up a hobby like needlepoint or Krav Maga.
Other people decide to give up sex in hopes of landing a stable, long-term relationship after plodding through years of unfulfilling hook-ups. In January, Tom Young, a screenwriter, published an essay in the Washington Post about his decision to abstain from sex for the entirety of 2016, hoping abstinence would give him the chance "to form the emotional and romantic foundation for a long-term relationship." Sex famously clouds judgment, and by eliminating it from his relationships, Young suspected he might be more successful at keeping the right people around.
In 2013, my hot male roommate told me that he was more likely to stay interested in a woman if they don't have sex right away, even if the chemistry is there and they both want to. I sneered when he said this. If two consenting adults want to have sex, should someone shut it down in order to con the other person into staying interested? I didn't quite buy his reasoning, but years later, his words still haunt me. I continue to sleep with the people I want to when I want to, but fulfilling relationships evade me. Does sex sabotage? Is intercourse the common link between all of my messy, disappointing dealings with men?
Um, yes. But is it the source?
Photo by Simone Bicchetti via Stocksy
Dr. Megan Fleming, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, says that a sex detox can help people disrupt dysfunctional dating patterns and offer clarity. "If someone is finding themselves more interested in sex than in a relationship, or using sex because they think it's a vehicle to get into a relationship, there's something to be said about taking a break and getting that reset," she says. "It's always important to look at the function of any behavior and how it's working for you. Do you feel it's not working for you? Or you're not getting what you want, or your needs aren't getting met? Then I think stepping back and taking a break makes a lot of sense."
(Though Fleming would not necessarily recommend a masturbation hiatus, especially for people who already have a somewhat low sex drive. "If you don't have a really robust libido, it's one thing to take a sex break from a partner, but I would actually encourage you to explore your body and give yourself self-pleasuring," she says. "If you don't keep that light on, it might be harder when you're ready to get it going again.")
While Young didn't end up in a relationship at the end of his experiment, he said he developed a clearer sense of what he's looking for in a partner, as well as a more honest picture of how sex affects him.
"I haven't totally figured out how to handle sex, but I've learned how to establish parameters and expectations to protect myself emotionally," he writes. "I can learn to embrace a casual, fun and respectful encounter, but it's key to communicate with sexual partners to make sure we're on the same page."
I wasn't having sex because I actually wanted to have sex, but because I wanted validation or because I was bored and I wanted some sort of distraction.
The logic is similar to that of forgoing alcohol for a month, à la Dry January: The idea isn't that alcohol is inherently bad, but that such a detox might improve your relationship to alcohol by illuminating the unhealthy ways you needed it or used it as a crutch. But for some people, it's not always easy to disentangle sex and alcohol. Visual artist and writer Molly Soda didn't think sex was a vice when she sort-of consciously decided to be celibate for 2016, but she did notice that many of her sexual encounters had been motivated by alcohol or a need for validation.
"I realized that a lot of my sexual relationships were fueled by alcohol, which, in a lot of ways, wasn't exactly consensual. Sex, especially for women or femmes, can sort of be this weird [thing where] men deal the power," Soda said. "Also I think the way that we talk about casual sex allows a lot of people to escape accountability when it comes to relationships and defining them."
Soda found many benefits to forgoing sex; she had more time to focus on herself, and her relationships with women became stronger and less complicated. "When you're within a certain social group or circle or age group or scene, there's a lot of double-dipping that happens," she said. "Everyone's sleeping with each other. I think there's a lot of weird unspoken competition between femmes when it comes to dating and casual sex."
More importantly, Soda said she realized that sex didn't actually feel that casual for her, even if it can be for other people.
"I think a lot of the time we're told that it's supposed to be [casual] and [we] then kind of shove our feelings inside," Soda said. "Everyone is different and wants to be touched differently and at different times. For me, I found that a lot of [the time] I wasn't having sex because I actually wanted to have sex, but because I wanted validation or because I was bored and I wanted some sort of distraction."
Soda says she eventually reached a point during her year of celibacy when she didn't need to sleep with someone to feel connected to them. She learned she'd rather stay up until 5 AM talking. "When I actually talk to someone, I'm still in control and still have power—which is probably a weird hang-up that I personally have," she said. "But I don't know—it allows me to feel a little more focused about the situation."
Armed with renewed self-awareness, Soda is ready to fuck again. She's made herself a Tinder profile and everything.
"I'm going to have sex," she says. "I just don't know when."
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