The worst of times

Sex on Tuesday

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Fun fact: I haven’t had sex in more than a year. 

Part of me is ambivalent about that, and part of me is disappointed. Sex used to be a meaningful part of my life and my self-image. My last sexual partner, for instance, shaped more of my psychological and sexual identity than anyone else. And an absence of sex can change you. Without sex in my life — and without the singular kind of intimacy it imbues in relationships — I think I have mellowed in ways I like as well as ways I don’t. 

A stretch without sex can be like Charles Dickens’ famous beginning to “A Tale of Two Cities”: It can be both the best of times and the worst of times. A lack of sex can contribute to a lack of physical — and, indirectly, emotional — intimacy, but it can also make room for greater self-knowledge. Going without sex might erode your ego at times, but it can also make room for nonsexual commitments and pursuits — some of which might be people who eventually become sexual partners.

First, an extended time without sex can be an opportunity to learn a lot about yourself, showing you strengths, interests, preferences or needs you didn’t know you had. For instance, being single has meant I spend more time voluntarily alone, and I’ve found I actually enjoy it — sometimes I even need it. That’s a valuable education, and it can mean you know yourself better when you have sexual relationships in the future. 

One intrigue of sexual respite is that you get to imagine the possibilities and potentially suss out the preferences and interests of whomever you’re pursuing. On top of figuring out what they might want, you also have a chance to get to know your own body better. Good sex almost requires self-exploration, and there’s no better time to explore yourself than when there’s no one else around to do so.

For those facing a dry spell, I recommend starting from the beginning. If you’ve had sex many times but haven’t had any in a few months — or years — a certain desperation can build up. Desire always grows for whatever we can’t have. But to have good sex, and to get rid of the cobwebs of inhibition or renewed self-consciousness, it can help to start slow. Make out with someone; work your way up to sex. Rushing might only detract from things.

Sexual drought should probably be right after death and taxes on the list of life’s inevitabilities. You can certainly somewhat influence whether, and how much, you have sex, but ultimately, sex subtly self-propagates: If you’re having some, chances are you can keep having it; the longer you go without it, the slimmer your chances can feel.

For one, sexual drought can make you feel like a rookie again, as if you’re suddenly unfamiliar with something you’ve done many times. For another, the inertia of sexual drought makes for more work — now you have to overcome heightened inhibitions or uncertainties in addition to the usual logistical and social maneuvering.

But it’s also important not to treat sexual drought as a matter of ego. Even though it’s all too easy to assume you’re the reason you’re not having any sex, you shouldn’t necessarily attribute a sexual dry spell to any fault of your own. People you like might feel the same way but not know how to act on it.

And crucially, neither having nor not having sex is grounds for boasting: Abstinence is a perfectly good life choice but not an excuse to judge or disparage others, and an active sex life doesn’t justify belittling or pressuring people who aren’t sexually active.

For much of the last year, my own experience of going without sex was that I couldn’t find someone I cared about enough to want to be physical. Perhaps, the state of not having sex was undesirable, but as I’ve written before, a sexless stint seems better to me than any number of regretted or unfulfilling sexual encounters. Since I find the most satisfying intimacy occurs during relationships, and thus prefer not to have random sexual encounters, I know I will have to live with the inevitable future sexual droughts in the time between partnerships.

At the moment, I’m happy to wait because I’m waiting for someone in particular. One of the benefits of going without sex can be the proof it offers: If you want to show someone that you’re seriously interested in them, forswearing sex with other people while you wait for them can be a sign of dedication and sincerity. 

Nonetheless, the worst time not to be having sex is obviously when there’s someone you love. Personally, when I don’t have feelings for anyone, I don’t really mind not being physical for a while. Lately, though, I’ve been finding it more and more frustrating because I’m finally in love again, so I’m conscious of wanting physical intimacy. It’s bittersweet that wanting makes the waiting harder, since the moments of wanting are often the most exciting.

Above all, it’s a waste to simply lament a long period without sex. As beautiful and delightful as sex can be, time without it can heighten your satisfaction and excitement when it returns. And sex, as with all things, benefits from perspective: If you’re always having sex, you might begin to take it for granted, and though I wish I’d had sex in the entire year I was 20 years old, I know my future sexual relationships will be better because I came to know myself and my needs — even in the worst of times.

Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].