I’ve often found that my post-grad life with my female friends resembles a less glamorous version of Sex and the City. Although we talk about many other wonderful things, such as our fledgling careers, great books we’ve read, friendship, and our pets’ escapades, the situation often morphs into a bunch of women discussing our sex lives in public places. All we need are the Mahnolo Blahniks.
Recently, a girls’ night out once again turned into a discussion of sex – or lack thereof. When I joined my friend Norah (not her real name) and her friend Sara (not her real name) for drinks and jazz, Sara’s romantic woes increased with the amount of alcohol she consumed.
“I’m so awkward around boys,” she lamented as we left the jazz club.
“Straight men don’t like me,” she cried after receiving a free ice cream cone at a shop called Big Gay Ice Cream Company.
“It’s been two years since I’ve had sex!” she announced, pounding a chain link fence as her ice cream lay on the ground.
At that point, we had to get her on the subway.
I’m making Sara sound like a drag, but truly she’s not. As I tried to comfort her and lift her self-esteem, I remembered my own panicked call to Norah in March where we both lamented the one-year anniversary of our dry spells. Sara has the same fears as other people: What does it mean if I’m not romantically successful? What am I worth if I’m not having sex? What am I doing wrong?
You know what happened after I called Norah in March? My dry spell ended. Somehow, all my lady parts worked just fine even after a year of rustiness.
When I finally did start seeing someone, I was more mature, self-assured, and able to advocate for myself than I was with my last partner. The experience I gained during my so-called “dry spell” made me a more interesting, grounded, and mature person. I moved to a new city, figured out how navigate the workplace, made new friends, traveled internationally, and went through the hilarious and horrible process that they call “putting yourself out there.” It was anything but dry – it was an exciting, tumultuous, and vulnerable time.
And you know what? Those lessons I learned during my period of accidental celibacy was as important than the sex.
Can we start to think of our “dry spells” as purposeful periods even if we are not having sex?
Dry spells. How did we come to use that term? Why do we describe the state of California’s dangerous drought and a period of time without sex with the same terminology?
Though most of us go through short or long periods of celibacy, which are either voluntary or involuntary, it’s curious that we use a term that makes it sound as if the only thing that will bring a meaningful end to our plight is sex. In fact, we’ve even started to use the word “thirst” to express our sexual desire:
The badass poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was probably going through a “dry spell” of her own when she penned Sonnet XXX. She begins by declaring that there truly is more to life than romance:
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Millay continues, “Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,/Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone.” She bluntly points out that though love is called “the best medicine,” it truly won’t help you if you’re choking, bleeding, or broken. We also need food, drink, sleep, shelter, healthcare, and a wealth of other things. She’s not arguing that it is not important: instead, it’s not everything.
Of course, careful readers will point out that love is not sex, nor is it romance. Those who might bemoan their lack of sexual activity may not desire intimacy – they simply want to get laid! But many people who are mired in a seemingly bottomless celibate sinkhole not only wonder when they will have sex next, but when they will feel desired, respected, or beautiful. Sex can often bring those feelings to us.
The problem with dry spells, as Millay inadvertently counsels us, is that we often believe that sex is the only thing that will bring us the love we desire. We become blind to how privileged we are to have meat, drink, shelter, and the other necessities that Millay names. More importantly, we can forget the many people who nourish, support, and love us. Sex is not the only way to get love or pleasure.
Zadie Smith makes a similarly clear-eyed point in her novel White Teeth:
“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”
What I love about Smith’s quote, aside from her trademark bluntness, is how she reminds us that we are not entitled to romance. Is it nice? Absolutely. Do you deserve it? No.
If badass people like Millay and Smith can come to this conclusion, why can’t we?
I’m not disputing that sex can make life meaningful. I have learned so much about vulnerability, self-advocacy, self-acceptance, and empathy ever since I became sexually active. And those are the kinds of things that stick with you days and months and years after your partner grabs their shoes and heads out the door.
But, it’s not the only way to have meaningful and intimate relationships. It’s not the only way to find people who will support and love us. It’s not the only way to love and be loved. And we must never believe that we are without love, care, and support if we are without sex. All roads do not lead to sex.
Taking care of another person is a lot of work. Considering other people’s needs can be exhausting. Worrying what another person is thinking of us takes a lot of energy. So, if you aren’t doing that for a little bit, what else might you be able to do?
What if we did not think about “dry spells” in a glass-half-empty way, and instead took stock of what we have? What if we saw our celibate periods as the perfect opportunity to get to know ourselves better, and to develop the emotional maturity that will eventually make us better sexual partners?
We often learn so much from our intimate relationships, but it is not the only way to grow. And I worry that too often we stay with people who are detrimental to our mental health because we’re afraid of what might happen if we no longer have sexual intimacy, support, or closeness. We bargain with ourselves that it’s okay to go for a while without respect for boundaries, a positive sense of self, or all the other crap that shitty partners subject us to as long as we are not without sex. We reason that this is as good as it will get, and it’s better than being alone. We’re afraid to wonder if we deserve better.
While driving with one of my happily married coworkers a couple of months ago, she confessed how anxious she felt after her divorce from her first husband. “I thought I’d never have sex again!” she laughed. I understood where she was coming from, because I have that same fear every time I break up with someone. The security of someone else’s bed is so much warmer than the vacuous abyss of uncertainty that awaits you.
But maybe, instead of drying up, you’ll float.
And after you float for a while, you’ll start swimming with purpose towards wherever you want to go.
I’d like to close with a third badass lady who can articulate this idea in two sentences better than I can in an entire post:
i do not want to have you
to fill the empty parts of me
i want to be full on my own
i want to be so complete
i could light a whole city
i want to have you
cause the two of us combined
could set it on fire.
-rupi kaur, milk and honey