This essay was published in They Call Us Sluts And Prudes, available free online here, in December 2021. The editors advise reader discretion for readers under 18, as some written pieces and images in the zine discuss sexual abuse, sex work, and other sensitive topics. There’s also some profane language, as the title suggests.
I’m still figuring out how to respond constructively to people who think I must be miserable, incomplete, or defective because I am celibate. “Someday your prince will come…” “With a little work on your face and figure you could be attractive, you could find someone…” “Just get off the farm and get a real life…” (Farming strikes me as obviously real, but their real means “including sex.”) “I’m a psychiatrist, so I know: young people who don’t experiment with sex or drugs are seriously neurotic.” “I keep hearing that people are concerned about your unnatural lifestyle and don’t want to be associated with it.”
As my fortieth birthday approaches, I’ve been puzzled by the use of “forty-year-old virgin” as a laugh line or insult for online foes. Googling this phrase, I found reviews for a movie about a man finally and happily getting over his virginity. I also found a Psychology Today article entitled Are There Really 40-Year-Old Virgins? which explained that “The real world of older virgins is… a world of shame and isolation, a world where people feel seriously stuck, handicapped, and not part of the adult world.” I thought about Elizabeth I, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and other celibates recognized as important parts of the adult world. I also thought about my own life, which is not what the Psychology Today author described.
I don’t have a professional career or a sex life, but I still work and love. I’ve been a farmer, writer, and community volunteer for twenty years. I’ve grown food to share with neighbors, delivered stuck goat kids, translated between English and Spanish speakers, written bylaws for a nonprofit corporation, completed three novels and found a publisher for one. I’ve held other people while they cried (and I’ve been held in turn). I’ve sung and laughed with old and new friends until my throat hurt. I’ve prayed and talked with people who named God differently but shared the joy and struggle of trying to live faithfully. I’ve advocated for people struggling to get the help they needed from the medical system or the social-service system. I’ve marched for good causes, spoken out at town meetings, and had quiet, intense conversations with people who have very different political convictions. I’ve danced with friends and strangers late into the night. I don’t feel stuck – I feel free. I chose this path, and I still choose it.
My choice of celibacy is partly shaped by my Christianity. I know women have sometimes been taught to be ashamed of their bodies and desires in the name of my faith. My experience was different. I grew up knowing myself to be made by God in God’s image, indwelt by God, beautiful and beloved. When my hormones came roaring in, I understood that this also was part of how God made me. I was still disconcerted by sudden surges of desire in the midst of woods rambles or book discussions with friends. I was more disturbed on the occasions when I felt attracted to people who were married or much older, or to people I didn’t respect or trust. But amidst these perplexities, I also enjoyed a new exuberance.
I was unschooled and went about trying to understand these new desires more or less as I’d tried to understand history and economics. I read a wide range of books, talked with friends and mentors with very different views, and tried to discern my own right response. I decided that I would either refrain from sexual activity or enjoy it as part of marriage and a fully shared life. In the meantime, I practiced recognizing and enjoying my desires without feeling ashamed of them and without acting them out. Sometimes this felt very difficult. But there was also a power in it. Desire came with a new and vivid awareness of the beauty of other people’s bodies and my own, and also of the whole living world. Desire added delight to dancing with friends, to lying alone in long grass under the summer wind and the full moon, and to praying. It also brought a surge of energy that could be channeled into work, play, communion, or creation.
Before puberty, I’d imagined that perhaps I’d only feel sexual attraction and fall in love once, with someone who was clearly the right companion for my life. After seeing how easily I felt attracted, I thought again. I’d noticed that some couples seemed unhappy because they valued fundamentally different things. I knew the work and life I valued. I decided I would marry only if I met someone (of any gender) who shared my vocation; who was single; whom I respected, liked, and found attractive; and who felt the same way about me. That hasn’t happened. That’s all right.
Some writers have observed that women aren’t truly free to say No to sex until we are free to say Yes—that when we are taught to be ashamed of our desires and to always say No, a heartfelt No may be misconstrued as unwillingness to admit we want to say Yes. This rings true to me. I grieve the harm that has been done by shaming women for their bodies and desires. I think the converse is also true: we aren’t truly free to say Yes until we are free to say No. I have heard too many women my age and younger describe sexual experiences shaped, not by their love or desire or even curiosity, but by their felt need to prove that there wasn’t something wrong with them—that they weren’t unattractive, frigid, neurotic, lesbian, or otherwise unacceptable. This seems to have left some women weary or wary of sex before they had much chance to feel and respond to their own desires and principles.
What kind of people might we become, what kind of society might we create, if we stopped trying to prove that we’re good enough? If we truly believed that we are good enough and that there are many good ways of living with the fire inside us—with our hunger for love, connection, joy, and justice? If we listened to our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls and followed our deepest desires–while considering the rights and boundaries of the people around us? If we looked with respect, caring, and curiosity, rather than defensiveness, at women who chose paths different from our own?