Life After Sex?

Yesterday, at the Crescat blog, Katrina Fernandez wrote that nobody has ever died from not having sex. Initially, her statement struck me as a bit reductive. No, the body doesn’t need sex in the same way it needs food and water, but it does appreciate sex — so much so that it’ll thank people for supplying it. Researchers have found that regular sex raises the antibody immunoglobin, burns calories and releases endorphins that can fight migraine. All things being equal — that is, assuming nobody’s at risk from a venereal infection or a cuckold’s avenging dagger — people are better off doing it than abstaining.

But really, all that amounts to is hair-splitting. Life without sex may be less rich or less pleasant in certain respects than life with, but it is still perfectly livable. And I’m just now starting to see how livable. As I become ever more firmly convinced that I’ve no call for sacramental marriage, I find to my own astonishment I’m becoming increasingly cool with that. The fact is, I’ve gone without regular sex for — well, in the interest of decorum, let me say, for longer than society would rate normal. Kat’s right: I haven’t dropped dead. All I have to do is keep it up — so to speak — for the rest of my life, and I’m golden.

There are challenges, but they aren’t the challenges I’d have expected if I’d tried to anticipate a chaste, celibate life, say, ten years ago. For me, love affairs — and I’m old-fashioned enough to call them that — have had about the same effect on my heart as artillery had on the Belgian landscape during the Great War. Consequently, when, on seeing an attractive woman, I recite the lover’s equivalent of the dieter’s caveat “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” I actually listen. .

Of course, there’s more to chastity than not shacking up with someone. If you’re a woman, chances are good I’ve seen you naked in my mind’s eye. (Quit worrying — you looked fine. Skeletons are for Halloween.) I learned this trick when I was 14; by now it’s a reflex. How unfortunate, then, that Jesus found this kind of thing so loathsome that he proscribed it by name when preaching on the Mount. Compared to the likes of me, blessed are the gays and lesbians, for they got called out only by implication.

In a Pat Conroy novel, a high school basketball coach urges his players to counter one kind of creative visualization with another. The moment they find themselves projecting some cheer squad nymph, or Jackie Kennedy, or whoever, into a pornographic scene, they should switch gears and picture her on Thomas Crapper’s fine invention, in a housecoat, with her hair in curlers. Probably, this advice is as sound as anything St. Ignatius ever came up with, but in my case it might be overkill, since Post-Rejection Stress Disorder works its magic on the imagination, too. My spiritual exercises run along the lines of:

Imagine the two of you waking up one morning and having nothing to say.

Imagine the two of you clinging to one another anyway, from sheer terror of loneliness.

Imagine each of you playing cunningly on the other’s feelings of inadequacy because you’ve got to find some fun outside of sex, which has gotten god-awful dull.

Imagine her turning into her mother instead of your mother.

So, there you go: thought-purification in four easy steps. But using it calls for some meditation on the law of unintended consequences. Let’s say a person does manage to will himself himself out of thinking about sex — unless he’s content to sit around in a daze, making mucus sculptures, he’ll have to find something else to think about.

Anecdotal evidence tells me lust’s replacements are rarely pretty. Post-concupiscent people almost never pick up cool hobbies like golf or paragliding; instead, they become obsessed with politics or the Weather Channel. Or else they fuss over their pets to a degree that would guarantee a kid a lifetime in therapy. And they babble about these enthusiasms to anyone with a pulse, until that person, even if he be the sternest aescetic this side of Alexandria, says to himself, “Jesus H. Christ. That guy really needs to get laid. Or at least think about it.”

A few days ago, one of my readers brought up Courage International, the ministry for gays and lesbians who want to lead chaste lives. Courage encourages its members to form friendships, presumably as a hedge against these spirals into eccentricity. That’s fine in principle, but I’m unfit for marriage because I am rigid and inconsiderate and moody and needy and poor. I need friends like me like I need a septic stab wound. Fortunately, I seem to have a knack for getting myself adopted by normal people. I favor a balance of two kinds:

1. People who are happily married, to remind me that someone out there is living the life he wants to live,

2. People who are unhappily divorced, to remind me that not everyone is.

Stoical types like cancer survivors are good in moderation, provided they refrain from giving speeches about lemons and lemonade and boxes of chocolate.

A woman I know favors “romantic friendships” — sexless but emotionally intense attachments that entail complex reciprocal obligations. In general, these arrangements seem to work for her; some have clearly served as the proverbial wind beneath her wings. But others have gone very bad, rotting away in mutual jealousies, screaming fights and rambling drunken late-night phone calls. By my lights, these set-ups have all the potential for drama of a love affair and all the potential for sexual fulfillment of the solitary life, which seems as winning a combination as Southern efficiency and Yankee charm. Not for me, thanks. Post-concupiscent life may end up doing something I once thought impossible: it may make a social butterfly of me.

  • Robster

    Where’d the illustration come from? Sorry, no substantive comment as yet.

    [That's Hunt's The Awakening Conscience. The idea is, the girl has been that guy's lover. But now, just as he wants to get it on, she's deciding, "Hey, this isn't the life for me," and he's thinking, "Aw, no. Bitch gone crazy."]

  • Joanne K McPortland

    I’m just trying to figure out how she’s reflected in the open window. (No comment yet, either.)

  • Melody

    Joanne, I think what we’re seeing is the reflection in a big mirror; it has a gilt frame that you can see part of.
    Good post, Max; I had to laugh about “thought purification in four easy steps”.

  • Corita

    It’s a mirror! Reflecting her from the back as she stares out the open window in front of her!
    Bitch gone TOTALLY CRAZY!!!

  • EdL

    I like the way everyone comments on the painting rather than the topic of the post. ;-)

  • jp

    I was amused by the term “post-concupiscent.” I am SO stealing it for use elsewhere.

    Great post, as always, Max. :)

  • Josephine E

    Your timing was unnerving as I opened your post after I just finished a you tube talk on the consequences of sex outside of marriage given to a Catholic high school. It just shows how old I am that I had no idea there were that many stds out there . . . as a mother of four children between the ages of 12 and 25, I am a little stressed out right now! However, I think you reinforced the point that God created sex as a unifying activity involving the whole person — body, mind, heart, and soul. As enfleshed spiritual beings, it affects every part of us. Now how do I teach my kids that???

  • Tim

    Your positive outlook on an unmarried future is encouraging. I’m about to enter my 30th year and I’m beginning to accept that there is no bride in my future.

    Poor social skills, bad acne and living in Cleveland, Ohio have placed me on the lower end of the suitable-mate-scale. It doesn’t help that my vast consumption of modern entertainment over the years has made my ideal for feminine attractiveness rather shallow.

    But I must admit, now that I’ve realized that there is no sex in my immediate (and probably distant) future, I’ve taken an unhealthy interest in politics which compels me to constantly check news sites and political blogs. Naturally, this doesn’t help my crankiness caused by my isolation (see above paragraph, especially the part about Cleveland).

    I tried to pick up some cool post-lust hobbies, but my attention span wouldn’t allow it. I did learn some ancient Greek and some Italian though. Plus, I wouldn’t really call myself “post-lust.” It seems my “mind’s eye” is not as accepting of my predicament as I am. Though it does give me some unique perspectives on that painting which the other commenters probably don’t have.

  • Tim

    I just saw your tattoo post below and realized that I have some ways to go before I am “post-lust.” I also realized I like girls with tattoos and I am still shallow.

  • Brian Sullivan

    I love the Weather Channel! Oh, wait…..

  • Rouxfus

    St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a prayer which can be very helpful, especially for men living in a porn- media culture in maintaining chastity whether you are single, married or celibate:

    O good Jesus, I know that every perfect gift and,
    above all others, that of chastity,
    depends on the powerful action of your divine Providence;
    I know that without You a creature can do nothing.
    This is why I beseech You to defend, by Your grace,
    the purity of my soul and of my body.
    And if I have ever received any impression whatsoever
    of a sentiment capable of soiling this ineffable virtue,
    O supreme Master of my faculties,
    blot it out from my soul, that with a clean heart,
    I may advance in Your love and in Your service,
    offering myself chaste all the days of my life
    on the most pure altar of Your divinity.
    It is the Cross that I adore.
    The Cross of the Lord is with me.
    The Cross is my refuge.

  • J Kok

    Max, I quoted from your last three posts on my blog, just in admiration. Thought you might like to know.

    [Thanks, Janet. I doubt it'll be long before I return the favor.]

  • Alana de Kock

    Max, I am sorry too hear that you consider yourself on the shelf by choice. I would never have considered you so.
    I am too. At 43 post divorce but pre anulment, I consider myself celibate. I am open to the spirit but if it’s for life that’s ok. So what I’m trying to say is that you may be suprised by marriage.

    Now I must let my dog in from the cold, he went to wee, wee………oh dear!

  • Bro AJK

    Dear Joanne,

    The reflection is in a mirror. She looks at the open window, which is disconcerting because while she looks at me (you, whoever gazes the piece), I am not in the mirror. Vampiric, eh?