Over the last seven years I’ve gone through three, six, nine-month and yearlong periods of celibacy. I’m in a particular Buddhist denomination where celibacy vows can be taken by laypeople, as well as monks and nuns. The time period can be temporary or permanent. The celibacy vows involve no sex with others or self-gratification. It’s considered wise to stay away from all erotically stimulating media, lest the temptation becomes too great.
On paper, I am the least likely candidate for celibacy. Although my parents were conservative, I grew up in a sexually open-minded household. I’ve lived in big cities all my life and avoided ashrams, communes and cults. I’ve worked at major corporations, schmoozed with atheist cosmopolitan types and have a burning cynicism toward any “must do” commandments, regardless of religion. I am a gay, black Westerner in the arts who flirts and frequents parties.
For most of my life, I found the idea of celibacy a bit creepy and torturous. Thanks to the countless scandals involving Catholic priests, I associated it with people who were hiding sexual shame—which would likely explode destructively years later. I didn’t associate celibacy with modern living until six years ago when I met Jennifer.
Jennifer was a yoga and meditation instructor in the East Village in New York, a gorgeous and bubbly blonde. After one morning meditation class I took with her, she seemed really happy. She was radiant. Was it the meditation? Was it the yoga?
“No,” she said. “I’ve taken celibacy vows.”
That information was enough to send most of the students scattering. I—as the liberals say—leaned in.
“Celibacy,” I repeated in a mocking tone. But as she began describing the process and how it’d changed her life, the smirk dissolved from my face. She told me that with sex off the table, she had more focus and clarity.
Then she asked: Do you want to try it? It was as if her question had put me in front of a new doorway.
In my twenties I was a promiscuous New York professional. I saw it as my duty to grab as much as possible. I associated with other men and women—both gay and straight—whose intrepid sexual events would have made for good TV. The energy I gave off led to many unusual encounters of my own. Wordless glances escalated into guys following me home, subway platform propositions, being tailed in public restrooms, invitations into questionable salons. In one instance, a dinner party led to an apartment tour that ended with sitting on the host’s bed while his boyfriend was in the kitchen. He massaged my hands and knees as he told me how much he wanted to be friends. As I sat there politely turning suggestive conversation back into banal dinner party talk I had an epiphany: This is not how I imagined my life.
When I first came to the “big city,” it was for fun, friends, career opportunities and to settle down with the “right one.” The right one was kind, funny, attractive and independently wealthy with no surviving family. Upon entering the dating pool, I found it easy to meet funny, brilliant, attractive guys to have sex with. I thought this was a major coup. The next step would surely lead to settling down. But then I figured, Who needs to settle down when there are all these options?
My sexual safari went on for years, and before I knew it, almost a decade had gone by. Sex was becoming rote but—always the A student—I performed. I experienced this creeping anxiety and tension in my body during social situations. When I wasn’t being respected, I used anger as the quickest, most blunt means to get some. And I used sex as the quickest shortcut to validation. My emotional underworld as a modern adult was powered by two main drives: rage and lust. I was now an official New Yorker, grinding out my days at work for the next success and my nights in bars and online for quick hookups.
Then Jennifer came along that fateful day seven years ago with all her goddamn blasted happiness and posed a question: What if it could be different? The celibacy proposition didn’t feel like a “thou shalt not” so I didn’t rebel against it. It was merely an opportunity to try something different. A week later I agreed: three months, a celibacy starter packet. I would also abstain from alcohol and drugs, which could lower my inhibitions. No bars, no hookups, no cruising.
My friends’ initial reaction was amusement and disbelief: Was I trying a Seinfeld challenge to be master of my domain? Was this a new pickup strategy of playing hard to get? A few months passed and my invitations slowed to a trickle; I felt like some friends saw me as a pariah, while others dismissed me as a freak having a mental breakdown or quarter-life crisis.
The transition wasn’t easy for me, either. In the first few weeks, I went into the tank. Depression. The sexual urges were overpowering; resisting them took all my energy. It was FOMO to the nth degree. I was quick to snap at my friends and started eating my feelings. My lower half burned each morning with a need to relieve. Without lust, I now only had rage, anxiety and self-esteem issues that were not being validated with sex and flirting. I took up physical exercise and more meditation. By the end of a month I wasn’t angry. I was just tired, physically and emotionally.
By the time I hit my second month, I was a weepy mess. Phone commercials would make me cry. The daily news would make me regretful. Even hearing about the latest sex-scandal downfall of a Republican politician couldn’t cheer me up. I just felt sorrow and I realized perhaps this was the emotion I was covering all the time—a submarined sadness I avoided with immediate stimuli.
By the third month I found myself in a delicate new atmosphere. I was avoiding loud bars in favor of quiet conversations, enjoyed being alone and spending a lot of morning time before my alarm clock would go off, staring up at the ceiling. It wasn’t feeling joy (yet) but an indescribable expansion was going on. Topics, people and places that used to set off a hair-trigger response of agitation now made me contemplative. I would a piece of news that, in a prior time, would get me to blurt out some reactive emotion and instead there was a pause. Huh.
At the end of the three months I had fulfilled my obligation and proven to myself that I could do it. No masturbation, no porn, no oral, no anal, no frottage. I was free to go back to barhopping and online hunting.
Still, I signed up for another six months. That first time I woke up laughing, I startled myself. I thought it was my roommate or a neighbor by my bedroom wall. It had been such a long time since I heard myself laugh with joy that I didn’t recognize the sound.
I took another vow for a year, and as that was ending, another. I chained together a few years of chastity before I confided in a Buddhist nun with the expectation of praise. Instead she looked at me with concern and told me to “slow down.” I was now the guy having to be talked out of celibacy by a nun.
I took a break. It was fun and good. I felt a renewed sense of delicacy and respect for others. I could walk away from sex and say “no” out of concern for those who were just drowning their pain in meaningless “junk sex.” When my friends would tell me about their misadventures, I was no longer the witty, bantering friend. I couldn't feel schadenfraude anymore.
I kept all these thoughts from friends and family because it sounded too strange. All the different parts of my identity were previously associated with a conquering virility. In mainstream culture my masculinity, my race, my sexuality, my status as a 21st century New Yorker is tied up in ideas of sexual potency. Deprived of the physical act, I found there were softer tones I had not explored. In my sensitivity was an even greater power. This tenderness is often shamed in men (and to some extent in black culture) by dismissing the power as “feminine” or sissy. But it’s not something that can be attributed to just a sexual orientation or gender. What these feelings encompassed was the affectionate warmth that makes us more human, but that is so often denied for machismo.
Nowadays and three months into another extended period of celibacy, I take extra care in having compassion for the men I date, women in my life and friends. My goal is to see them beyond body parts. My intimate relationships usually evolve two ways: Either my partner is so physically attracted to me that they perceive my celibacy as belying romantic disinterest and flee—or they are not physically interested in me and use friendship as a placeholder until something more arousing comes along. Either way, almost all these guys leave without any explanation. In the past I would beat myself up for this, or seek emotional validation through the shortcut of sex. Now, all I have to do is observe some of these feelings and allow them to pass.
I am not putting on saintly airs and I don’t think sex is disgusting. My celibacy isn’t a “detox,” because that would imply that intimacy between consenting adults is some poisonous substance I need to purge. I still think sex can and should be a beautiful thing. But in a world of so much ugliness and disposable consumerism, how can intimacy not get stained?
When it came time for re-taking vows this month, I found myself face-to-face with that same Buddhist nun from years ago. This time she was giving the vows in a ceremony. At that moment, I no longer cared about finding the perfect job or partner. She looked at me and I laughed.
Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. In addition to being a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School, he has writing commissions and residencies at the Dramatists Guild of America, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and National Black Theatre.