Lessons in abstinence

Sex on Tuesday

Photo of Khristina Holterman

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Content warning: sexual harassment and sexual assault

It wasn’t butterflies I felt as his tongue wriggled around in my mouth; instead, it was revulsion. This boy, who just seconds ago had seemed attractive to me, now seemed like little more than a slimy, slobbery mess.

“Why can’t I do this?” I thought, trying so hard to be into the guy making out with my face. 

I used to love to take control in a sexual situation, getting turned on purely by my own passion. Sex used to be almost second nature to me. But since starting college, I’ve become willingly abstinent. I haven’t had sex since November, and before that hadn’t had sex since September — the longest I’ve gone without it in years. The reason for my prolonged abstinence? I decided to reclaim control over my own body, realizing that sex had left me feeling more powerless than powerful. 

But finding no arousal as I made out with this boy, I began wondering if my abstinence was a response to something else. I knew he was confused why I wouldn’t go further, but I was at a loss for words. I didn’t know myself. 

“I’m not physically attracted to you?” I thought about saying. But it seemed like more than that. 

Finally, I was able to muster up the words: “I am just incapable of doing this right now.” 

He didn’t understand. “But you’re doing great,” he replied. 

No, that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t doing great; I wasn’t even moving. I felt like a cardboard cutout lying motionless as he repeatedly poked his tongue in my mouth. The only thought going through my head was how I was going to get out of having sex with him.

As all too many know, simply saying “no” doesn’t always work. I’ve seen the sly persuasions, aggressive assumptions and fierce commitments to get in my pants. 

It’s a lesson I learned the hard way after being forced into giving my first handjob to an older boy. We’d been making out, and I hadn’t wanted to go further. When a simple “no” didn’t work, I lied and said I was on my period. He shoved his fingers into me anyway, spitting the words, “No you’re not,” back at me. There was nothing I could do. He was physically bigger than me and I was powerless. The whole time, I just waited for it to end — similar to what I found myself doing with the slobbery boy I was now straddling years later. 

But even after that event, I continued hooking up with people, simply forcing the encounter from my mind. I still had power, I thought, even if I had lost it in that moment, and I thoroughly enjoyed my sexual experiences. Until it happened again — this time, with a boy I had been friends with for years. And again, when I was ganged up on by two guys at once, extremely drunk and confused.

Suddenly, the memories were harder to erase. It’s a paralyzing feeling, knowing you really have no choice because your body can and will be overpowered. It’s hard to reclaim something you’ve started despising because of how someone else touched it. So I decided to write off sex entirely, to cut off access for other people to gain control over my body. 

And yet there’s another, seemingly contradictory reason behind my self-imposed abstinence: a feeling of sacredness. If I’m going to be sharing my body, maybe it needs to feel special. It’s an idea I certainly never entertained before, but something in the last few months has shifted in me. Some people aren’t deserving of me and I thought about that while mindlessly moving my lips to the slobbery boy, wondering if this was, in fact, the cause of my disenjoyment. 

Between fear of all things sexual and fear of giving myself up to those undeserving, I’ve been in a sexual rut. Maybe one extreme — my detachment from my body as a result of nonconsensual experiences — could have led me to another: this godlike complex of refusing to settle. 

Maybe it’s an issue of respect. If a guy really respected me, he would wait. Or maybe it’s realizing that either way, their respect may not matter because I won’t enjoy the sex anyway. 

Sex is complicated, especially when it’s wrapped up in wounding experiences, and there’s not exactly a linear route to healing. Either way, something is telling me to wait, to not settle. The voice in my head won’t stop and it might be time to listen to what she’s saying. 

Writing about sex while being sexless may seem counterintuitive, but so is sex without enthusiasm. Gaining my sexual confidence back may take time, or it may just be a matter of figuring out who I want. Either way, I don’t have the answers just yet. 

Leaving the boy’s room fully clothed, having only my lips been touched, I didn’t feel bad anymore. Abandoning him to sulk in his horniness from a simple make-out sesh seemed a small price to pay for my comfort. 

Khristina Holterman writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]