Chastened: A Contemporary Cautionary Tale

July 20, 2010

Recently I read Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex by Hephzibah Anderson. It’s been reviewed thoroughly by the media, with an array of predictable responses. The feminist media was worried that Hephzibah was engaging in a bit of self-slut-shaming, but took comfort from the fact that nowhere does she explicitly state that she regrets the choices she made in her 20s. (Personally, I consider the book an explicit statement of her regret and unhappiness, but whatevs.) The snarky British media accused her of cynically cooking up this stunt to get a book deal, with no real desire to explore being chaste. And the manosphere predictably says, “Ha! Too late. You already rode the cock carousel, and now you’ll have to settle for cats.”

Hephzibah is a successful London journalist in her early thirties. A couple of years ago she was on 5th Ave. in NY waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk. Suddenly she spied her college boyfriend with his arms around a petite blonde, laughing and ushering her into DeBeers, presumably to buy an engagement ring. For some reason, this was a wake-up call, though she couldn’t have been jealous – she had dumped the guy after waking up one day eight years earlier, after realizing she was no longer in love. She graduated and found a job in publishing.

“Those were fun, giddy times, and if ever anyone had taken me aside and questioned whether I wasn’t having too much fun, I would have smiled away their doubts.”

It wasn’t long before Hephzibah had nagging doubts, yet she seemed oddly paralyzed, unable to heed her own internal warnings:

“I told myself I was looking for something more meaningful, more lasting, yet I consistently chose entanglements with men who weren’t really available or keen enough to commit, men who were emotionally or geographically unreachable. Often, even their years made them remote to me. What they had in common was that they were unlikely to impinge too much on a life that seemed to be the one I wanted. By comparison with the relationships I witnessed around me—couples bickering in the tinned-goods aisle at the supermarket, the love that seemed more like an insecure habit clung on to from university—there was even a certain mascara-smudged glamour to the unpredictability of it all. And if nothing else, these liaisons made for some good stories.”

When she reflected on her sexual past, she concluded that her being single and loveless was a direct result of the choices that she had made. For this alone, she deserves credit. For all the recent entries in the spinster lit genre, most of the women are poking a little gentle fun at themselves, telling some good stories – that’s it.

Haha, it was pretty hilarious that I dated Hobo Boyfriend, a homeless dude! Even my mother wondered about that funny smell!

Hephzibah’s is the first account I’ve read that includes real introspection, and a subsequent willingness to take responsiblity and make a change. She asked herself the tough questions.

“Sometimes my decision to have sex seemed to be based more on what was appropriate to the moment than on what was right for me. At a certain point in certain scenarios, a part of me abdicated and gave in to the inevitable. Tipsily noticing that it was after midnight and I was far from home, say, in a dwindling group that happened to include a man I’d found myself in bed with sometime before. If anything connected  my twentysomething dating experiences, it was a  profound disconnectedness. Unfortunately, the  moment I fell into bed with a man, I’d fall at least  a little in love. Was it biological? As soon as I went to bed  with a man, I’d lose any clear sense of perspective. I had consistently mistaken casual hookups for  rose-tinted beginnings.

I did badly want sex to be legitimately momentous again, rather than an inexorable conclusion given the right cocktail of time and place, as had begun to seem the case. I wanted to revel in the intensity  of it all, to believe in the meaning that my body gave the experience, without worrying about when or even whether he’d call, and without feeling like a failure for letting the thought cloud the  moment.”

As Hephzibah embarks on an examination of her dysfunctional relationships, the most significant of which was with a man who had a girlfriend the entire time, she has a moment of clarity in observing how women’s expectations have shifted dramatically in two generations:

“My favorite great-aunt, a woman of elegantly bluff wisdom, has been married to my favorite great-uncle for more than sixty years. Go round for tea, and he will still ask you to move your chair if it’s obstructing his view of her. Their account of their courtship is a wonderful tale of pursuit that might today be seen as stalking. It begins when he glimpsed her in the cinema. When the credits rolled, he followed her home on the bus.

He was a young man made plucky by passion, and she was a shy girl who exactly what she was doing. What makes it comical is the bit where my great-aunt adds: “I said to myself, he’ll do.” There it is, this sweet love story, underpinned by pragmatism.”

It is this underpinning of pragmatism that is missing today. The Sexual Revolution made it possible for women to be impractical, chasing the Big Man on Campus, falsely secure that their charms were unique. In fact, what they offered was a vagina, which, it turns out, is a commodity.

Hephzibah gets it, for the most part, and it leads her to get onto the celibacy wagon. She sees herself, at least temporarily, in sympathy with celibates throughout history, but her goal is more worldly:

“Rather than continuing to go along with what others seemed to want from sex, I had to rediscover what it meant to me. Most urgently, I had to find my way back to the place where love and sex intersected for real…I was looking for a fresh way of pursuing love into that new decade – a way that was a little less ungainly, permitted a little more self-respect and might even yield a little more success.”

The best part of the book has to do with her reawakening to the joys of the mating dance, including anticipation, a sensual awareness, and gradual arousal. For example, she understands from the start that she needs to alter the way she presents herself to the world, and so she goes shopping for clothes that suggest the female form rather than define it.

“If it seems strange that having made such a personal, private decision, I’m seeking to solidify it by altering my outward appearance—by trading a lace-trimmed camisole for a turtleneck jumper—consider this: clothing is our way of signaling to the world who we are, or who we’d like to be. As such, it has its own language, and if we let it, it’ll do the talking for us.”

If Hephzibah is to date during this chaste year, and she very much wants to, she knows that it is important not to engage in false advertising. What’s more interesting, though, is how wearing less sexy clothing makes her feel more relaxed, more herself, sending out very different signals to the men she encounters. She begins to attract men who are less flashy, less bold and aggressive.

“Those Quiet Guy traits that I’m finding so entrancing right now—that hint of reticence, the thoughtfulness that offsets his swift smile—would before have been too subtle to register with me. They are of a different frequency. I’d have been carried along on that other current of deafeningly obvious sex appeal.

Pinning down my own type is tricky—that’s his first characteristic. I seem to pick the ones who really do not want to be pinned. The fly-by-nights, the cads, the all-round rotters. They’ve come in a baffling array of shapes and sizes, though they’ve all been older than me—some older than others;  others much, much older than some.  But perhaps all this profiling is simply paving  the way for someone to come along and astonish us. For someone who is so resolutely not our type  that we’re defenseless against their charms.”

So far, so good. It isn’t long before Hephzibah understands and values what has come into her life since she removed sex from it:

“Physical celibacy has intense emotional rewards. My own newfound clarity is enabling me to see that in my headlong pursuit of sex as a route to intimacy, I’ve neglected gentler refrains like friendship. Into the space that sex filled, a quietness is flowing—a quietness that hasn’t shut out entirely those flirty overtures of lust and longing, but which is enabling me to pick up on subtler notes.”

Hearkening back to the bygone Hollywood era of romantic comedies that put today’s rom coms to shame, she observes:

“Watching Hays-era films for the first time…I’m surprised by how smoldering they are. Because physical gratification risked blue-penciling, it was delayed and delayed and delayed. Men and women circle the unmentionable together through charged badinage that draws them ever closer, sparring with lines so nimble that they seem not merely scripted but choreographed.”

This is why male-female conflict and competition can often be sexy, and may even suddenly generate an attraction for someone you’ve barely noticed before. The friction puts us on high alert as we struggle for dominance. The male welcomes the challenge of “breaking in” the filly, and the woman enjoys the parry enough to make her crave the thrust. Today, such a feisty female is generally regarded as a huge pain in the ass, and is often passed over for a “lower threshold” model. The sport has gone out of seduction, and with it much of the fun, not to mention anticipation.

Coincidentally, Hephzibah channels Stendahl’s On Love, which seems to be popping up everywhere since I wrote about him recently:

A wise woman never yields by  appointment. It should always be an  unforeseen happiness.

And she shares my own predilection for viewing relationships and sex through the lens of economics:

“While we oversell sex, we don’t seem to value it. It is too readily available, just another disposable commodity—a simple  case of supply and demand. Devalue the word no and the market is flooded, causing yes to depreciate simultaneously.”

It would be terrific if twelve months of chastity could erase the consequences of so much casual sex. Of course, it’s never that simple, and it turns out that the casual sex was an expression of some deeper, unfulfilled need. Ten years of throwing sex at low self-esteem does not address the real problem.

“Sex has been disguising something, and it’s only in the middle of the night, that I’m finally forced to acknowledge it. Despite making the final base off limits, I’ve nevertheless spent two-thirds of my chaste year in pursuit of the emotional turbulence that went with it. Perhaps it’s not my relationship with sex that is the problem, but my relationship with male attention. There is something  insatiable about my appetite for male indulgence.  I get giddy on it, losing sight of whatever it was I  might have wanted, and losing, too, my ability to  judge the genuine from the tactical on their part. To really give chastity a go, I need to wean myself off a certain kind of male attention.”

It’s an important insight into her own psyche, and one she must spend time exploring. It was perhaps unrealistic to expect that she would turn her life around in twelve short months, just by giving up sex.

As I read her month-by-month account of that year, I found myself wishing that Hephzibah had rid herself of all her old relationships when she rid herself of her sexual habit. She proceeds successfully through the months refraining from sexual intercourse (other forms of hooking up are OK), but she continues to be involved with Jake, a rake with a girlfriend, who now finds her refusal to put out tantalizing, and seems content to fool around and spoon. There’s also a man she calls the Pasha, who dated her while harboring deep love for a woman whose photograph continued to adorn his dresser. There’s the Beau, a man twenty years older, never married, who enjoys having multiple female friendships around the world.

There are a couple of new men. She spends time with N, an American rock guitarist who she’d met years before at a music festival. She gets set up with The Boy Next Door, and enjoys his company thoroughly, but bemoans the lack of a “spark.” The Quiet Guy is an object of intermittent interest, but he lives in the U.S., and he ultimately decides to marry someone else. In NYC she meets the seemingly perfect man, an investment banker who turns into a total asshole when he gets to the Hamptons.

Refusing to have sex with these men didn’t make them fall in love with her. The best we can hope for is that she learned to love herself a bit more. My biggest disappointment is that Hephzibah has not learned to apply her great-aunt’s pragmatism after all.

In the Epilogue, she feels compelled to offer a sex scene, her first in more than a year. It’s with the asshole banker in the Hamptons, and she has sex because she is there as his guest for the weekend, and hadn’t told him about her year without sex. She decides that not having sex would be too awkward, which surely is the equivalent of going on a bender after being sober for a year.

“All those months, all those lessons supposedly learned, and here I was, going to bed with a man who by that point felt like a stranger. The sex, predictably, was awful. “You need to be more intentful,” he huffed.”

Still, she had the sense to be horrified by the experience, and she does seem to have learned something. Two years after her project ended, she is still single, now 33, but says that she prefers the frustration of less sex to the frustration of emotional turbulence. She helpfully sums up the benefits of her experience:

  • If you hold back physically, I learned, it makes  it easier to open up emotionally. There are some  conversations that you feel too vulnerable to have  naked; slow the pace, and you’ll find you can risk a little more candor—with yourself as well as with  your partner. It takes the pressure off those bewitching early stages of a relationship, and yes, it helps sort the cads from the keepers. When it  comes to courtship, the fly-by-nights lack the  staying power.
  • It taught me about emotional self-sufficiency. In a consumerist society, our desire is constantly being manipulated. In tuning out these come-ons, I’ve found within myself some of what I’d formerly looked to sex to provide.
  • There were physical rewards as well. Heightened sensuality, for one—less really does become more.
  • During my chaste year, it sometimes felt that the lessons I was learning went directly against  feminist rhetoric, pointing the way to a distinctly  unevolved way of snaring a mate. That wasn’t  what my quest was about, of course, but I found it curious that the approach sometimes drew a sharp intake of breath from other women. Why is it so much more shocking to withhold sex in order  to make a man love you than it is to go to bed with  him, hoping against hope for the same outcome?

Hephzibah Anderson has rather painfully shared her own story of naivete, self-delusion and emotional devastation. Her story is a modern day morality tale that should replace the Disney favorites for today’s young women. If you are smart enough to make better choices and fortunate enough to have a daughter of your own, share Hephzibah’s story at bedtime instead of the usual fairy tales. Look to your great-aunts for relationship role models. If all else fails, share Jerry Seinfeld’s timeless advice to George Constanza:

“If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”