Dear Level

The Not-So-Crazy Argument for a Sex-Free Summer

After 60 days of celibacy, you’ll be amazed by what you’ve learned about yourself

The year was 1997. I was 24 years old and dating a few people but none seriously. Truth be told, I was kind of over it. It felt like every single situationship was the same: Date for a while until you feel like it’s compatible; have sex; date a little while longer; watch things inevitably fizzle out for any number of reasons.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

I wasn’t ready to get married or have babies, so each relationship was just a freestyle swim back and forth in the dating pool with no real idea of what (if anything) came next.

Sex made things even more complicated. I’ve always had a healthy libido, and unlike some of my friends, I was lucky to have trusting, respectful partners, even as a young woman. I’m grateful that I didn’t have the hang-ups around sex that many do — but good sex with an average guy too often kept me around beyond the relationship’s shelf life.

After yet another six-month situationship that ended up going nowhere, 24-year-old me needed a change — and it had to be drastic. I decided to stop having sex for a full year. Three hundred and sixty-five days. I wasn’t sure what my plan was. I just figured celibacy might weed out the people I didn’t need in my life, and maybe even help me understand what I really wanted.

It wasn’t always easy. Do you know how fast a dude says “check, please” during your first date, after you tell him you’re 28 days into a 12-month celibacy? You’re lucky if you can get your appetizer to go.

That year was eye-opening. The men who didn’t mind abstinence seemed to be the ones I had more in common with outside of the bedroom. One guy, a distance runner, helped me improve my form for a 5K I wanted to complete. Another guy, a chef’s apprentice, taught me how to make a perfect hard-boiled egg. I don’t even remember his name but I’ve retained his cooking tips all these years later. One of the men I met back then is still a close friend 20 years later. He admitted that he hung around just to see if we’d end up having sex at the year-end mark, but by the time a year passed, he realized we’d be better friends than lovers.

I was worried that after a year, things might be… awkward. I was wrong. It was better than all the sex I’d had in the previous year combined.

The end of my celibacy year came and went — and I kept it going. I was writing more than ever, working hard in my career, helping take care of my family, and staying in shape. I had time and clarity to do it all.

After 15 months sex-free, I went to a barbecue with some college friends. At the makeshift bar, I bumped into the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.

Friends, that was the end of my celibacy experiment.

What did I learn? A lot. And although that was 20 years ago, I think about the lessons often.

While self-pleasure was fair game (I’m human after all), I found that checking out of sex with other people can make other parts of your life clearer. Some say — okay, Seinfeld says — it’s similar to how when one sense is out of use, others are heightened. There’s no science to back that up, but that was my experience. There was a clarity to my choices that I hadn’t experienced previously.

And even after the celibacy experiment ended, I was more thoughtful and intentional about with whom I wanted to spend my time: Good sex was no longer enough for me to stick with someone who wasn’t right for me.

Of course, there was an added bonus. The guy at the cookout? I was worried that after a year, things might be… awkward. I was wrong. It was better than all the sex I’d had in the year before celibacy combined.

Even if you haven’t intentionally stretched the concept of NoNut November over a full year, we’ve likely all experienced those times when sex doesn’t happen within the few months of “talking.” And then, when it finally does, it’s fireworks (albeit not of the illegal, public disturbance variety).

So, how about doing that with intention? You might scoff at the thirst buckets on Netflix’s celibacy-themed reality series Too Hot to Handle, but taking a break from sex can highlight what you love about it and focus on the needs of you and your partner. I did it for more than a year — but all I’m suggesting is that everyone tries it for a mere two months.

Hear me out.

For many of us, sex during the pandemic lockdown has meant one of two things: We were getting it on more than usual or less. Much less.

While we’re still mostly masked up and handwashing compulsively, some parts of our social lives are beginning to creep toward normalcy. We’re getting back to work, commuting more, extending our in-person circle of friends and family, maybe even hitting the barbershop again. We’ll be reassessing our relationships and how they operate, whether it’s with co-workers or neighbors. It might be a good time to think about your sexual relationships, too. And what better way to figure out the what-next of your sex life than by going on a break?

First things first, if you’re in a relationship, a period of celibacy — whether it’s a year or a couple of weeks — should be discussed in detail with your partner. No one gets to zip up their stuff and shrug their shoulders when sex comes up. How it’s handled is up to both of you. You don’t want your sexually frustrated partner stepping out on the relationship, so I will forever preach the importance of communication and mutual respect.

Your relationship will need to be rock-solid to take this on. Couples who are having issues often continue to have seemingly healthy sex lives because it’s the only part of the relationship that isn’t fractured.

If you pull back from sex, it will peel back the layers of your relationship and you’re likely to see more than you realized was there — or not there. Are you watching television together more often or are you looking for reasons to be in separate rooms? And if you’re not in a committed relationship, a brief stint of celibacy may expose the layers of you.

Stepping back from sex is about understanding its purpose in your life. When you get back in the gym, go for a promotion, or set out to accomplish any goal, you decide what you want in the end. Are you working out to get a six-pack or to make sure you don’t get diabetes? Are you taking classes to get a job that pays better, or one that’s more fulfilling? The same thing applies to sex. Is it something that’s important to you or is it just… there? Do you want to feel more connected to your partners — or less?

This summer is going to be essential for all of us. With Covid-19 roaring back, many cities and states are already reimplementing restrictions. This is a time to focus on the things most important to us and how we want to handle them. A two-month break from sex has the potential to give us all some serious clarity.

If nothing else, being able to complete a challenge like that would be a victory of willpower. Or, y’know, since the world feels like it will never be the same again, you just have as much sex as you possibly can. Either one will probably work. But if you do go with celibacy, remember this: masturbation is completely allowed.

Aliya S. King is an author, freelance writer and editor.

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