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celibacy-liberation

My sexual accessibility has never been up to me, and this was a crucial and painful epiphany to have.

Content Warning: this essay mentions depression and instances of sexual coercion.

It’s not that I haven’t been celibate before. As someone who lives in the gray area of the asexual and aromantic spectrums, I’ve gone long stretches without sex in the past, but those times lacked the intentionality that my current celibacy pledge has. A year or so ago, after a long bout of intense waves of depression for which I had tried and failed to self-medicate with sex (among other things), the fog cleared long enough for me to finally acknowledge the futility of it all. At my absolute worst, I found myself crying alone after sexual encounters and not understanding why. I later learned that this is related to something called Post Coital Dysphoria.

I thought for so long that I was living a “sexually liberated” existence and that it would help me to combat the feelings of worthlessness that came along with my depression. After all, my unabashedly seeking out orgasms and intimacies was Black feminist pleasure praxis and a form of resistance against the dehumanizing systems that tell people like me we don’t deserve gratification or sexual freedom—or so thought. After taking a much-needed step back to take inventory of my life and the role of sex within it, I finally arrived at the realization that this “sexual liberation” was only dragging me further into my depression’s suffocating depths. I was forced to come face to face with the fact that my relationship with sex had always been an unhealthy one, and my spiraling depression had only magnified it.

There was no grand declaration of my celibacy. I didn’t set an expiration date. I didn’t tell anyone about it in the beginning. I just decided that I wanted to focus on becoming healthier in this aspect of my life, to find what sexual liberation truly means for me, and I desperately needed time for self-reflection and introspection. I quietly decided that the next time I had sex, if ever, it would be in a healthy way.

I went over them in my mind, all the reasons I had ever had sex, and none of those reasons had ever been healthy ones. None of them had ever truly been about my pleasure or my orgasms. I can always provide myself with those, and far more efficiently than anyone else ever could. Many of the reasons I’d had sex had been about attending to the fantasies, fetishes, desires, and curiosities of others. The first guy I ever had sex with coerced me into it. So did the second one. I said “Yes” when I didn’t really want to, and I did it for them, not for me. I know now that this behavior is an aspect of fawning, a C-PTSD trauma response and survival strategy characterized by codependency, which is defined by psychotherapist Pete Walker as “the inability to express rights, needs and boundaries in relationship[s]; it is a disorder of assertiveness that causes the individual to attract and accept exploitation, abuse and/or neglect.”

But even in the moments when I fawned and gave in to sex for someone else’s gratification, it was also about attending to something within myself. During my deep depressive episode, sex was about just trying to feel better, but it would be dishonest to say that “just trying to feel better” could ever be divorced from all the other reasons. I’ve had sex for validation and attention, because I felt unseen. To bolster my confidence, because I felt downtrodden. To feel valuable, because I felt worthless. To feel wanted, because I felt undesirable. To feel useful, because I felt expendable. To feel something, other than empty and numb. I’ve had sex when I didn’t want it, with people I felt no sexual attraction to, to keep from being disposed of, or chastised, or disparaged, to stave off the threat of loss and abandonment, because I didn’t want to be hated, because I felt obligated, because I was taught that my fuckability is tied to my worth, because saying “No” in the moment would make me “a fucking tease” and possibly even put me in danger, because I thought it made me free.

Our Summer of Sex is made possible by the sponsorship of Planned Parenthood. With their help, we are able to bring you this thoughtful series delving into the subject of sex and amplify the voices of marginalized people and communities. 

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if most or all of the sex I’ve had was only due to fawning, compulsory (hetero)sexuality, and other similar social pressures. At age 30, I’ve accepted that this is true. I can now acknowledge that not being allowed to say “No” or establish boundaries growing up has had a significant impact on how I interact with others as an adult. I can also acknowledge that I live in a culture that is both sexually repressed and hypersexualized, and few people are willing to talk openly about the cognitive dissonance of this.

There are multiple competing voices inside my head, which I assume most other people like me have as well. One tells me that sex is obscene and makes me irrevocably unclean and I’m not supposed to like it, another tells me that sex is obligatory and I’m an aberration if I don’t like it, another tells me that sex is my only purpose aside from being a mule for everyone around me and it doesn’t matter whether I like it or not, and yet another tells me that I will always be a “hoe” or “thot” regardless of my relationship to sex because that’s all Black womxn are ever allowed to be.

My sexual accessibility has never been up to me, and this was a crucial and painful epiphany to have. It was necessary for me to name this, to name the forces that have kept me from finding what sexual liberation means to me as an asexual Black womxn. I’ve finally found that it means having the freedom and fortitude to beat back every single voice that tries to tell me how I should feel about sex, especially the ones that have compelled me to have sex when I didn’t want to.

Much of this past year or so has been spent thinking deeply about sex and it’s shown in my work. Indeed, I have written more about sex during my celibacy than I ever did preceding it. I finally reconciled my asexuality with my curiosity about and sociological interest in sex—these can exist earnestly alongside each other because they are not contradictions. I finally dared to question whether or not I even like sex, and that thought bubble eventually resulted in me very publicly working through my realization that I didn’t like feeling like shit after sex with people who never truly cared about the safety, comfort, and/or pleasure of their sexual partners. I didn’t like how I was treated during sex, or the gendered, degrading things I was expected to accept as normal and obligatory parts of sex, or the language used to talk about it.

This realization led me to more deeply consider the social and cultural implications of how and why people have sex, and the impact of race, gender, and body type on desirability politics, fetishization, and sexual fantasy, and even how they show up in sexual violence. I acknowledged how misogynoir and fatphobia have directly influenced how people have thought about sex with me, about my body and desirability, and how these things have colored my sexual experiences. I parsed through all the ways I’ve felt dehumanized and reduced because of this, and how it helped to keep me in a fruitless cycle of having sex to prove my humanity, to others and to myself, because I felt inanimate.

Our Summer of Sex is made possible by the sponsorship of Planned Parenthood. With their help, we are able to bring you this thoughtful series delving into the subject of sex and amplify the voices of marginalized people and communities. 

For a long time, I thought that offering myself up for the consumption of others would somehow help make me whole. I wish I had understood that each time they sunk their teeth into me, they were leaving behind gaping wounds, and my attempts to soothe my pain with more sex, something that is supposed to make me feel good, something that is supposed to be an act of resistance and Black feminist pleasure praxis, only left me with more stinging lacerations. If I hadn’t done the uncomfortable and daunting work to find this clarity, I would have eventually been swallowed whole, losing myself entirely. I spent a long time confusing a desire for sex with a desire for validation and attention, for intimacy and support, wanting to be seen, wanting to be wanted, wanting to be thought of and acknowledged as fuckable and therefore valuable. I spent too long trapped in a lie this world told me when I was just a girl, and it’s a lie I suspect a lot of other people tell themselves, too.

Sexual liberation, for me, means finally being honest, with myself and with others, fully and firmly owning my place on the asexuality spectrum, even and especially when others find it “too confusing.” It means freeing myself from the illusion that I could use sex to feel better, to feel more valued, to feel more human. And it means being able to confidently say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with me or the fact that I have never truly liked the way sex and past sex partners have made me feel, and it’s okay that I never want to experience that feeling again, even or especially if that means never having sex again. My sexual liberation came when I freed myself from the pressures of compulsory sexuality and a crushing cycle of feeling obligated to be naked with people in ways that have never served or nourished me, and when I learned that it’s okay for me to tell my whole truth now even though I was never able to before.

You can support Planned Parenthood by donatingtaking action, and volunteering. At a time when our reproductive rights are under attack, it is imperative that those of us who are able to help lend our time, energy, and funds to combating the forces that seek to control our bodies and prevent healthcare access for marginalized people. 

Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies.

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