"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

speak now #14: abstinence

Now Playing: Comforting Sounds by Birdy (I don't feel alright because you make promises that you break) 

So you're probably thinking that I and the rest of the sex-positive community have some strong objections to abstinence; I know one of the (very unfair and extremely untrue) criticisms launched at us on a regular basis is that we actively encourage promiscuity and shame people who aren't as sexually active.

As a "virgin" I really feel like the opposite is the case; sex negativity puts two very conflicting but intense pressures on people, especially girls, to be simultaneously sexually active but virginally pure all at once and it was really doing my head in. I actually felt more comfortable both as someone who is relatively inexperienced AND later when stuff had happened because the sex positive community is just really open and accepting and nonjudgemental and sunshine and rainbows and flowers and...


So today I wanted to talk about abstinence in the context of sex positivity, how it is PERFECTLY POSSIBLE TO BE ABSTINENT AND SEX POSITIVE, and some issues surrounding abstinence and healthy attitudes towards sexuality.

First things first: terminology

Sexual abstinence is a self-enforced prohibition of sexual activity and/or physical intimacy for medical, psychological, legal, moral, social, financial, or religious reasons.

Celibacy is a constant state of being unmarried and sexually abstinent, usually associated with the sacred vows of a religious official.

Involuntary celibacy is when people don't necessarily aim to be abstinent but by circumstance are not currently sexually active.

Point the first: definitions of abstinence vary.

For many people, 'abstinence' refers to refraining from penetrative sex - anal, vaginal, and/or oral sex. For others it might be totally refraining from any kind of physical contact or sexual behaviour like kissing, or holding hands, or petting, or mutual masturbation...

Point the second: everyone is abstinent at some point in their lives.

The surge in hormones and the emergence of sexuality during adolescence usually has us pretty enthralled well before the age of consent, which in the state of Western Australia is 16. And we all have dry spells and times, especially earlier on in our lives, where relationships don't work out or don't come to the point where sexual relations become a reality. This happens to EVERYONE and the virgin shaming in our culture is pretty humiliating and disgusting. Conversely, people that you know who are currently sexually active were once abstinent, and not all of them were loving it.

Point the third: everyone has boundaries.

One of the main objections the sex positive community has to the idea of 'abstinence' is that it creates this false idea that people are either in the 'cross your legs until you're married' camp or the 'everybody please fuck me whenever wherever' camp. I was in the first camp, for the little while, before I decided that was not for me, and then people decided to go ahead and pretend that I didn't have the right to say yes or no, the right to give and withdraw consent, and that was pretty fucking terrible. Everyone has boundaries. Everyone has an ever-changing list of what they do and don't want to do and who they do and don't want to do it with. Instead of thinking of people as 'sluts' or 'virgins' or 'abstinent' or 'promiscuous' we have to kind of...consider the people we want to get down with as people, instead of abstract concepts. Discuss what is and isn't okay, discuss history...because everyone has different ideas of what is and isn't okay and THAT IS OKAY.

Totally legitimate reasons to be sexually abstinent:

1. I am uncomfortable with the idea of sexual activity/physical intimacy at the moment. 

Not everyone is ready for physical intimacy at the exact same time - I have pretty much always been comfortable with it since forever, but some people find it confronting to be touchy feely and feel like they need to grow up a bit more, or get to know people a bit more, or just you know...get into it later. There's really no rush.

2. I haven't met anyone I want to be intimate or sexual with.

IT IS OF EXTREME IMPORTANCE that you are comfortable with anyone you might be physically close or sexually involved with, and are secure that they know and respect boundaries and contraception and personal values and consent and all that business. If you haven't met those kind of people yet firstly - you will - and secondly - it's okay to wait until you find people you really want to be close to.

3. I'm just not interested in being sexually active right now.

Becoming sexually active can be quite an intimidating prospect and requires a lot of maturity and responsibility; again, it's not really possible without the discussion of boundaries and values and consent and contraception and all that other stuff. Some people think it's not very important to their current stage of life, and others just don't want that responsibility yet. Which is a personal and perfectly fine decision.

Slightly more problematic reasons to be sexually abstinent:

1. I don't want to worry about sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies.

Regardless of whether or not you are sexually active it is VERY IMPORTANT that you are in the know about STIs and unwanted pregnancies and how to prevent them. In theory abstinence gives you probably more control over your sexuality than is realistically possible; things happen. There might be a game-changer or a sudden change of heart and you want to be well versed in these sexuality topics whether or not you intend to become sexually active in the near future. And lapses in judgement and unwanted sexual interactions happen and it is very important that you stay informed and stay safe. So even if you are planning on delaying your sexual debut it is VERY VERY IMPORTANT you understand contraception and consent and your options after you have sex, after you get pregnant or an STI, or after you are raped or sexually assaulted.

2. Religion.

I know a lot of people cite religion as a reason to be sexually abstinent, particularly abstinent until marriage. My issues with religion and sexuality is a whole other can of worms but all I wanted to say is this:

i. What is the ideology behind sexual abstinence in your religion?

A lot of religions preach this wholesome innocent stay safe and not-pregnant message of sexual abstinence that is actually rooted in a lot of fearmongering, lies and misconceptions about sexuality and contraception, misogyny, sexism, homophobia and patriarchy. Some people who exclusively cite religion as their main guide for sexual morality also have a tendancy to adopt homophobic, sexist or sex-negative attitudes towards sexuality which isn't very healthy for anybody.

ii. Social pressure.

Contrary to popular belief not all religious denominations and not all religious people condemn premarital sexual activity; in fact, many religious people maintain a safe, healthy sex life before and after marriage. If there is extensive social pressure within your religious community to remain abstinent, especially if there is villification of sexuality or sexually active people or contradictions between religious teachings and sexual health facts, it is probably worth considering whether or not the very personal decision to be abstinent is actually a personal decision or just a result of peer pressure and conformity.

iii. Don't let religion do the thinking for you.

When I made the (quite silly, considering who I am) decision to be 'abstinent' until marriage (and yes, I am one of the many abstinence failure stories) I made that decision out of the complex mind-fuck of depression and insecurity and body image issues. I felt like I had no control over my sexuality and sexual relationships at all; I was almost jealous of my more conservative friends who used religion as a justification for their relationships or lack thereof. It just seemed easier to pretend that not getting the attention I wanted was a proactive decision, and it helped to mask some of my insecurities, but in the end it only really exacerbated my total feelings of worthlessness and undesirability, which really sucked the big one. You can't let ideology do the thinking for you; your sexuality is your own, and whilst some things feel overwhelming and uncontrollable it is important to maintain your own beliefs and values based on informed opinion.

3. I don't want people to think I'm a [insert slut shaming insult here]/I'm afraid of unwanted attention/if I'm open about being open to sexual activity how can I say no?

All dichotomies are fales dichotomies and as I said not being sexually abstinent does not mean that you don't have the right to say no, the right to set boundaries, the right to expect respect and consent and all of that. It might seem easier to just be like NOPE DON'T COME NEAR ME PUT THAT AWAY PLEASE but that decision isn't right for everybody.

BAD reasons for being sexually abstinent:

1. I'm not getting any action so I'm going to pretend my current situation is my idea. 

I DID THIS. IT IS NOT THE SMARTEST IDEA. A better idea is to sort out what you really feel is and isn't okay for you sexually, and to accept that just because you are open to physical intimacy doesn't mean that at every stage of life you're going to be able to faciliate that intimacy and THAT IS OKAY. IT IS NOBODY'S FAULT. OKAY?

2. Sex is wrong/immoral/dirty/only sluts have sex/I'm better than that.

I think the biggest problem that the sex-positive community has with abstinent people are abstinent people who like to use their self-proclaimed resistance as a moral highground, or a platform to abuse, insult and humiliate people who don't share their beliefs and values. Slut shaming is a HUGE problem, and is especially prevalent amongst people who consider themselves sexually abstinent. If you don't want to get down with it, that's fine, but be aware that it is a personal decision, you can't make that decision for other people, and there is nothing good or bad about being or not being sexually abstinent.

Issues the sex positive community has with abstinence and abstinent people:

1. Abstinence education is utter bullshit. 

I think I covered this pretty well but abstinence education is totally different to the personal decision to be abstinent in that it actively stigmatises sex, villifies sexually active people and creates an atmosphere of fear and shame around sex through lies and fear. Sexuality is a personal decision and I think to cover people of all ages, sexes, genders, orientations, expressions, walks of life, stages of life, beliefs, values...the only way forward is factual, sex-positive, comprehensive sex education.

2. Abstinence culture can be conducive to slut shaming. 

Abstinence is a choice. A very personal one, and there are many reasons why people are voluntarily and involuntarily celibate. It is important no matter what you choose to do in terms of sexual activities and the level of physical intimacy that you are comfortable with that you accept that everyone is different, and to give people the respect and trust to make their own personal decisions about their own personal lives. I am someone who is not comfortable with the idea of being abstinent until marriage, but I go to great lengths to make sure I don't unintentionally insult or shame people who think that that is the right decision for them. Conversely, it is very important for people who are abstinent, even if they take abstinence seriously, to avoid slut shaming or being condescending of other peoples sexualities and sexual behaviours.

3. Abstinence and comprehensive sex education should mix. But sometimes they don't. 

A lot of people think that just because they have decided not to engage in certain activities that they don't need to be in the know and that is very, very dangerous; it is the main reason why 'abstinent' teens have the highest rates of unwanted pregnancies and STIs. It is important to be aware that for many people human nature and enforced prohibition of sexual activities doesn't always mix, and you are very likely to change your mind and your attitude towards sex, especially as you get older and more mature and more sexually aware. It is important to note that even if you remain committed to abstinence lapses in judgement do happen as well as, tragically, nonconsensual sexual congress such as rape, sexual assault or pressure to engage in sexual activities from partners and from society. So whether you are sexually active or not, or whether you plan to be sexually active or not, make sure you pay attention and get informed about sexuality. Because whether you are sexually active or not, it is important to recognise that you are a sexual being and all the people around you are sexual beings, and being human can be unpredictable. But also kind of exciting.

Stay tuned and stay beautiful.


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