The Year Without Sex

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Viking

Hephzibah Anderson is an attractive, successful British journalist in her early 30s who enjoys a life of jet-setting between London, New York, and Paris. And after ringing in her 30th birthday, she swore off sex for a year.

Fed up with the "kind of sex I was supposed to be cool with as a postfeminist, twenty-first century Western woman—a casual sort of intimacy without intimacy," Anderson decided to take on a vow of chastity in an effort to make sense of what was missing in the dating mishaps of her 20s. The year-long journey Anderson embarked on became about uncovering the sets of rules, expectations and assumptions that she—and many women—often create for themselves in dating.

Anderson's new book, Chastened, chronicles the ups and downs of her year without sex. Here, she discusses why sex changes relationships, the challenges (and benefits) of delaying physical intimacy, and whether her experiment brought the revelation she was looking for.


Just to give our readers some quick background of the book, could you talk about how you decided to take on this year of chastity and what you hoped to find out?

Well, it's interesting. I would say that if I had known that I would write a book about it, I would've gone about it in a much more organized way. But because it was something I was doing for completely personal reasons, at least at the start, it was a decision I really felt I had to make. The real reasons for why I made it became more apparent as the year progressed, in an odd way. There are essentially three things that caused the decision.

I was in New York, I saw somebody who looked awfully like my college boyfriend, escorting a girl into DeBeers. I got back to England, and it turned out that it probably was my old college boyfriend, and he was going out with his girlfriend, and proposed, and they come back with a ring, and I was intent on wringing some kind of meaning from this serendipitous sighting.

So that really got me thinking and looking back, and I realized that not only was he the first person I somewhat belatedly went to bed with, but he was the last person in almost a decade that I'd dated to have said "I love you," which seemed a terrible indictment of my romantic choices. I was about to turn 30, so there was some necessary self-reflection, and then I met somebody who I really thought might be, if not 'the one,' someone with whom I could have a meaningful future. And he not only didn't say "I love you," he said "I don't love you," which was honest, I suppose.

And in the middle of all of this, a good male friend told me he had finally, unintentionally, won the girl of his dreams by saying to her, "I'm so happy being with you, I'm so happy just hanging out that I don't care if I never get to sleep with you," which seemed, to me, to kind of encapsulate everything that had been missing from my relationships in my 20s. So, I really thought that I needed to step back, because it seemed that sex was really clouding my judgment. So, I decided on a year—it seemed a nice, round chunk of time—and I dated it from the time that I made the decision because it was really about taking control of my emotional life.

Did you pinpoint what changed in a relationship after sex? Was it a perceived shift in the power dynamic, was it one-sided or mutual?

Yes, I felt that I needed so much more from them. And, to me, it felt like I needed much more than my right. At the end of the year, I would be able to say, "Well, that's ridiculous." I think we've lost any sense of healthy emotional entitlement. I think if you go to bed with somebody, it is a kind of bond; it's not nothing, however much we try to say it's nothing. Whether you're a man or woman, you're absolutely in your rights to expect there to be some kind of emotional gain.

That's interesting, because for many young women there seems to be a lot of anxiety and pressure about appearing to be a burden, or needy—

Yes, needy—which I think makes us really guarded, emotionally. It was actually only during that year that I realized how guarded I'd become after a decade of not-ideal relationships. And it's a lot easier to open up emotionally, when you've set some boundaries physically, or certainly when you slow the pace. And I think there a lot of women out there who are very emotionally frustrated because they're terrified of seeming needy.

And I wonder whether men perceive it that way. Many women seem to be afraid that if they send a text message a day later, the man is going to run away scared. But I guess you'd ask why we need to tiptoe around men, when they should be tiptoeing around us?

Exactly! Exactly. It's interesting that you ask that question because I think those are rules we make as women.

So it's us?

I think it is.

Why did you pick the word "chaste" and not "celibate"?

"Chaste" just seemed to have more romance about it. "Celibate" seemed to have more of a religious edge for a start, and I was very keen to stay clear of that, because one of the things I wanted to do was reclaim chastity for a mainstream, secular, non-politically divisive audience.

What did you find most challenging about taking on the vow?

It was interesting; it wasn't necessarily the things that I would have expected at the start of the year. Certainly I missed sex, but as the year wore on that actually got easier. The six-month mark was a bit testing, but certainly toward the end that had become almost manageable because there were so many compensations. But I think that that feeling of being slightly almost trapped in a cell, in a way, just being horribly self-aware during the year was a bit challenging at times. And I was forced to see things about myself that I hadn't liked to think of myself being—you know, passive and always going along with things because that was always sort of what was expected. So, coming face-to-face with those realizations was a bit challenging.

One of your suitors, the Boy-Next-Door, invites you to dinner, which you find surprising. You ask yourself whether that invitation would have materialized had you already slept with him. How important, after that year, do you think "taking things slow" matters in the longevity of a relationship? Is this something that's changed how you approach dating?

Yes, it really has, actually. I don't say, "Oh, it's going to be X number of months."Actually, I've got a friend who always tells guys it's going to be three months. And she says that she never intends [for it to happen]—she never really puts that into sorts, but she always gives it till two months and that sort of sorts them out. And I don't take that approach but I've certainly slowed things down an awful lot. And it's weird, it's little difficult, at this stage. I'm taking the effects of the year itself and the effects of the book, obviously. Now that the book is out there, that tends to source very candid conversations very early on.

Have you spoken to any of the men detailed in your book since its release?

Most of them, I have. I was incredibly worried the Jake character would put it down feeling awful about himself. And I really didn't want to villainize any of these men...so, I think he was fine about it.

Did he learn anything? Was it a revelation for any of them, about how they were going about dating?

Well, the updated final chapter—which is in the U.S. edition and only in the U.K. paperback edition—I did send that before it went to press to the old friend that appears. And he said, "Well, it's so interesting to see what was going on in your mind at that point, because you very rarely get the chance to do that." And I just thought, well, communication is so hard. Nobody's been furious...I've had an odd case of a male friend saying "Am I in it?" and me sort of thinking "Well, why on earth would you want to be in it?"

Caitlin Flanagan's recent piece about hookup culture for The Atlantic generated a lot of discussion online. One commenter said casual sex allows her to feel more ownership of her body. You mention in the book that this is a good idea in theory, but question whether this is what women really want.

I think it certainly works for a percentage of women out there, and that's great and it's wonderful that we all have that option. And I'm in no way advocating for the clock to be turned back, but I think that a lot of women know that they have the right to say no, but actually feeling like they have the right to say no in certain situations is a quite different thing.

Where is the conversation about men in this debate? In writing this book and thinking about chastity and relationships, have you considered the male perspective?

I did do a talk a few months back, and it was a very mixed audience, but there was a front row of very sweet, innocent- looking student boys. And it was so funny because their questions were all, "Well, we love the idea of there being more romance in the world, but our girlfriends are the ones who really set the pace, and set it perhaps all the quicker than we would've liked.." But I think certainly if some women have a hard time feeling they have the right to say no, men—it's just considered really freakish if they say decide to say, "Let's wait."

So yeah, I think it's difficult for teenage boys. And they're just bombarded with these images of female raunch wherever they look. I did speak to some male therapists who specialized in male patients. And I asked them what kind of changes they'd seen and they said a lot of their patients were getting younger, and they were coming to them with sexual problems that usually don't present until men are in their 50s. And this one guy said it was purely the result of internet porn, and they were just seeing too much and it was always on tap. Which is kind of awful, they had this kind of porn idea of what sex should be.

I don't think we should go back to the point where sex is this terrifying thing and most people are so ignorant they're never going to be satisfied. But on the other hand, you need a sort of space to make it your own, imaginatively and if we're just constantly bombarded by images of what it should look like, and if movie series are hiring sexual choreographers it makes it sort of an impersonal experience and it means that today's teenagers aren't learning about sex by fooling around with each other, they're learning about it through watching what feels good to other people online. Which is kind of voyeuristic...it must be strange for them.

There is a line at the end of book where you mention a relationship that you had been carrying on after the year was over. Did you dabble in chastity after the designated year had come to an end?

After the year, it was over...but it has really changed everything. And it seems to proceed at a much slower pace.

Would you change how you dated in your 20s?

I think I would, actually. I really would. I'd be more assertive about my right to be romanced. And I think that would have probably sent some of the cads running, and then I might have then noticed some more interesting fellows.

Well, I don't regret my 20s. But I wish I'd been more in tune with what I'd actually wanted, wish I'd taken some time to figure that out, and then ask for it.

Are you in love at the moment? Is there someone in your life?

I joked to a friend a couple months ago, "Oh, God, this book's coming out again. Maybe I should just hire somebody. Even my male friends took on the part of fiancé for that happy ending, however cynical we are, we still...But I think in a way it makes it more informative, and makes it more the experiment I was thinking of, because I'm implementing these lessons that I've learned. And I'm actually quite happy, actually quite content. There's been a lot less sex, but more romance. And a lot more emotional closeness.

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Aylin Zafar is a freelance writer based in New York.

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