Just before her 30th birthday, British journalist Hephzibah Anderson spotted her college boyfriend ring shopping with another woman ... and was startled to realize that he'd been her last meaningful relationship. Deciding that it was time to give up on flings and get serious about finding love, she decided to do the unthinkable: She gave up sex.
Well, for a year, at least.
By taking the focus off of the physical and putting it on to the emotional, Hephzibah hoped to figure out what she hoped to get out of real, lasting love ... and what had been taking her so long to find it. We asked her a few questions about her new book, "Chastened
," a brutally honest chronicle of her (sorta) sexless year.
Lemondrop: A lot of people go long stretches without having sex, and it just sort of makes them cranky. What was the hardest part of your chaste year?
True! And I'd certainly had that experience myself prior to embarking upon my year without. But what made this so different was that I'd chosen it. Consequently, far from being the archetypal "dry spell," it became an incredibly fertile time of self-discovery, clarity, creativity and deep, emotional connections. All that was ample compensation for what I was missing, which isn't to say it was easy. Spring -- when even the pigeons outside my office window were getting flirty -- was particularly tough. Some of what I learnt along the way was hard to accept, too. For instance, until I stepped back from the sexual fray, I hadn't realized how emotionally guarded a decade of dating had left me.
Do you feel like you lost out on any opportunities by not sleeping with some men? Do you think any of them were off-put?
Not at all. In fact, it became a good litmus test. If a guy absolutely couldn't get why anyone would do such a thing and wasn't curious to find out, it told me he lacked a certain inquisitiveness that made us incompatible in the long run.In the book, you bring up a lot of feminist theory, but isn't the idea that women who have casual sex narrow their chances of finding true love like, well, the least feminist thing ever?
To me, what's unfeminist is women denying aspects of their female selves. Sure, women repressing their sexual desires falls into that category, but that's not what I'm advocating. For me, stepping back from sex was about rediscovering its meaning. It wasn't about using sex as a bartering chip to snag myself a ring, it was about taking the time to find and savor romance. I think that a lot of women misconstrue equality to mean the right to match guys hook-up for hook-up. Sure, that works for some, but there are plenty of women out there who are repressing their emotional needs for fear of scaring men off and seeming "needy." Is that feminist? Really?
In terms of improving your chances of finding love, don't you have to be just a little suspicious of a guy who wants to leap into bed on the first date? If all you're after is physical sex, fine, but if it's something more multi-dimensional and enduring that you're searching for, you have to wonder why the hurry. Why is he rushing things, unless he figures he has someplace else to be?
I don't really know any guys who aren't religious who would be OK with not having sex. Isn't it sort of an expected part of a healthy relationship?
Absolutely. Sex is an important part of an intimate relationship -- I'm not arguing otherwise. But I think we misuse it sometimes, to create the illusion of intimacy in a dating scenario, to dodge an awkward conversation in a relationship. If you do that too often, sex loses some of it power. I do think that timing is important, too. In certain circumstances, you can short-circuit a potentially meaningful connection by rushing to have sex. Once you've been to bed with someone, the stakes are higher. There are some conversations you feel just too vulnerable to have naked. I actually know plenty of attractive, sane, non-religious guys who would welcome the chance to slow the pace if they saw a future with that person. In my experience, guys tend to be far more evolved when it comes to intimacy and emotions than pop culture gives them credit for.
What was the biggest difference you noticed about dating as a chaste person?
It was more fun -- there was tons more romance, the world in general became a more sensual place, there was even a bit of seduction (though that only went so far, of course). On the whole, less really did become more -- even the brush of a hand could feel delicious. I was also able to better assess guys, and I think I even began to be attracted to a different type of guy during the course of that year. I started noticing men who were quieter, less flashy, less overtly sexy, I guess.
If you had met the guy of your dreams during your year of chastity, would you have quit?
Midway through, I did in fact re-encounter the man who'd semi-inspired my journey by telling me that he wasn't in love with me. As I describe it in the book, his return presented some serious temptation. Of course, it also made me realize how my dreams had changed. But in answer to your question, no, I don't believe I would.
Do you feel like you cheated at all by having an "everything but" policy? Why not take sex totally off the table?
Far from cheating, my lenient-seeming rules made the year infinitely more challenging. It's easier to rule out everything than head a little way down that road, then hit the brakes. Taking sex off the table totally would have made that year into a one-off stunt. As I said, I'm not anti-sex. I was looking to rediscover what I needed from physical intimacy, to separate my own desires from what seemed to be expected of me by my peers, the media, society. Most of all, I wanted to emerge with a viable way of pursuing love into my 30s -- one that was a little less of a roller coaster, a little more graceful, a little more successful.
The ending of the book is a little ... ambiguous. Do you feel different about it now that some time has passed?
Such is life, right? And without totally giving away the ending, I will say that finding myself in the situation you hint at gave me the chance to realize just how much the year had changed me. I think that its real impact has taken some time to be felt, which is why the book's epilogue revisits lots of the questions my journey raised with the benefit of hindsight. It also describes how my relationships -- not just with men, but with friends, family, work, my own body even -- have differed since.
Do you have any regrets? Anything you'd do differently?
No real regrets, though I do wish I'd taken the time to step back and figure some of this stuff out sooner.
Hephzibah Anderson is an author and journalist in London. Her book, "Chastened," is available now from Viking Press.