Dear Em & Lo,
I’m 34 and I’ve never had a boyfriend. I was molested as a child and raped as an adult. I’ve never had consensual sex. Yet I have intensely sexual dreams. I’ve had years of counseling, but the fear of having a sexual relationship remains. I isolate myself from men. The only ones I feel comfortable around are gay or married. I feel ostracized from a society which places such a high priority on sex, and I feel I am missing out on life because of my limitations. Am I really missing out? Is it possible to live a complete life without sex?
–Not Feeling It
This may sound strange coming from two women who’ve made a career out of talking about sex, but you absolutely can live a complete life without sex! It’s really not that big a deal. Well, it certainly is for some people (Tantric sex practitioners and right wing Republicans with secret gimp mask collections, for example). But for a lot of other people, sex is something they could simply take or leave — whether because of their body/brain chemistry, religious beliefs, or past experiences. And there are certainly many other things under the sun that can make for an interesting, fulfilling life. Orgasms are nice, but they don’t teach kids to read, or build Habitat for Humanity houses, or organize community activities, or run marathons, or pass a bill on Capitol Hill…
We know it’s hard being constantly bombarded by sexual imagery in the media, but please understand that the majority of it is a fantasy, one that’s often orchestrated simply to get us to buy products (even stuff as mundane as instant rice!). The reality is that while sex can be fun and exhilarating and bonding, it can also be messy and stressful and unfulfilling. We’re certain our society’s obsession with sex, especially idealized sex, has led to an awful lot of disappointment in the sack. Add to that the sad fact that sex can be used as a weapon of violence and subjugation, and we see nothing wrong with people — especially people who’ve been through the kind of trauma you have — choosing celibacy, if that’s what’s right and works for them.
Now, you mention that you do have sexual dreams, but you don’t say anything about masturbation. Just because you may choose to forgo partner sex, doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) have sex with yourself! The great thing about self-pleasure is that you are in total control — of the pace, the timing, the techniques, the mood — without having to worry about anyone else’s good time. If you haven’t already, we’d really recommend getting an empowering book on masturbation — Betty Dodson’s classic Sex for One or Jayme Waxman’s Getting Off — and giving yourself permission to try to start enjoying the nerve endings you have, on your own terms. You can also browse the masturbation archive at our site, which includes articles like, “How to Make Masturbation Feel More Intimate,” and “10 Steps to Orgasming without a Vibrator.”
If deciding not to pursue romantic and sexual relationships doesn’t give you peace, and you still feel like you’re missing out on something, then we’d recommend getting a new therapist who might be able to make new headway with you (perhaps one specializing in post traumatic stress disorder and/or sexual issues), as well as joining a psychotherapy group for rape survivors (if you haven’t already), which according to the New York Times Health Guide, is one of the most effective treatments. While the world is full of horrible people (everyone from criminal monsters who commit unconscionable acts to little selfish assholes who have no qualms about casually breaking hearts), there are good guys out there who are kind, good, and giving — in life, in relationships, and in bed. But again, they’re not necessary for a rich life: some women really do need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.
More power to you,
Em & Lo
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