Recently, British female journalist Hephzibah Anderson published a book called Chastened, which details a year of her life spent in voluntary celibacy. “When you decide to give up sex and begin a year of chastity,” she writes, “it’s not something you rush to tell people.”
Truer words never spoken, Hephzibah!
The term “chastity,” in fact, should never be used in the same time zone as the word “voluntary,” as it’s more or less of an insult to the half of the human race that tends to spend most waking hours vainly trying to maximize our sexytime.) Yes, I have known celibacy: lived the bleak, depressing spells of it. But to choose it? Like, on purpose? Pshaw.
As a man, I was taught to fight celibacy. Whenever a big dry spell rears its head, I grit my teeth. I lean into the wind. Two weeks go by, and I’m sneering, glaring tough to pedestrians. Four weeks, and I’m snapping, mostly at children and dogs. By the time six weeks have slipped by, panic has set in, and I’m unshaven, dark circles lurking under the eyes, my self-confidence is at an all-time pathetic low, and I own three memberships to disgusting porn sites, simply to keep the pipes clear in the off chance I ever get to ejaculate again.
Anderson’s book, however, got me thinking: Maybe attempting to bully chastity isn’t the smartest strategy around. Maybe one should take a deep breath, hop on that chastity bull, and ride, instead of the other way around. Nuns and Buddhists, after all, with their canny little vows, have been doing it for years.
What Would Buddha Do?
With thoughts such as these in mind, I spoke recently with Noah Levine, Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, author of the national bestseller Dharma Punx, and founder of the California-based meditation and support group of the same name.
Levine is no stranger to life experience: He is a heavily-tattooed, punk-music loving, former drug addict who, even though he’s now happily married, shows every indication of having been a rather charming ladies’ man. I wanted to get his thoughts on steering clear of sex voluntarily. If he was going to advocate for celibacy, too, then maybe I would listen.
“It’s hard to boil down the truth about sexuality,” began Levine, “but often, in Buddhism, we do boil it down to something as simple as, ‘Sex is suffering.’”
He laughed, then continued, “Along with the joy and pleasure and natural beauty of sexuality, there’s a level of suffering that goes along with it.
“It isn’t that sex itself causes suffering: but [that] we are born into these human forms that have this innate capacity for clinging to pleasure. Sex is just about the pinnacle of non-chemically induced pleasure in the body, so of course we crave it. We cling to it. And we create suffering out of something that in and of itself, is a completely natural experience of friction.”
All of this was sounding—I hated to admit—eerily familiar. I had always felt like I “loved” sex, held it up on a pedestal above all things, and would rather be doing that than anything else. But hadn’t the pursuit of sex caused me untold suffering?
“I spent a lot of my life very promiscuous,” said Levine, “in and out of casual and very short non-committal relationships. I think a lot of my sexual craving was seeking love, which is so different than lust. Lust is this desire to get. We say: ‘I want to get laid.’ Love is an act of generosity. We don’t say, ‘I want to give laid.’
“When I got more serious about my meditation practice and my spiritual practice, I realized, I had to address this. Because here I am, meditating all the time, but when I’m not meditating, or even while I am meditating, I’m thinking about sex.
“Celibacy was incredibly powerful. In the two years I practiced it, celibacy allowed me to see that I could want, and not get, and still be happy. It helped me break that delusion that my happiness was dependent on satisfying my cravings.”
Is Less More?
Levine seemed to have a point: I mean, sex is suffering, there’s no doubt about that. But then, it was all I knew. Who was I, after all, if I wasn’t trying to bust a nut I’m an ex-pornographer. I gave my twenties to the smut industry, where I was so focused on lathering myself up into daily orgiastic Los Angeles frenzies with a gaggle of glistening, giggling, pheromone-heavy sex professionals that I never even had time to consider a life apart. A celibate Sam Benjamin just wouldn’t make sense.
Or would he?
Both Levine and Anderson found they could increase their happiness via celibacy. And for all of my habituated behaviors in regard to sex and sexuality, I found the notion of being, well, happy, pretty alluring. The whole chase ritual surrounding sex, the game of it, tended to make me a little miserable. I’d suffered through long dry spells before: In fact, to be totally honest, I didn’t have sex for nearly 10 months after I came out of a painful break-up in 2009. But this was celibacy the old-fashioned way: Completely involuntary, and with huge amounts of suffering—and huge amounts of masturbation.
I probably would have perished, in fact, if it wasn’t for good old masturbation. Thank goodness, I thought, that if one chooses celibacy, he can at the very least fall back on masturbation.
“I didn’t masturbate,” says Levine, firmly dashing my hopes. “Even though the cravings continued to arise … Part of the practice of Buddhism is training yourself to see that the mind is so powerful—but you are not your mind. You are not your sexual desires. There’s part of the mind that’s so critical and judgmental, which in the West me might refer to as superego, but I found I could disobey it, not do what it was telling me, and find happiness. In fact, I was incredibly happy.”
The No-Pleasure Principle
So let me get this straight: Two years of celibacy, without even the occasional get-out-of-jail-free masturbation? Wow. Wow. The concept was getting more and more far-fetched. But I tried to let the concept sink in a bit, and when I did, I realized there could likely be some advantages gained from letting the wanking habit go its merry way.
For one, I would achieve tremendous annual savings on lotion.
For another, the time saved would be enormous. I could raise a team of orphans in my spare time if I effectively cut out all the hours I spent staring dully into a computer screen, searching vainly for the perfect image to satisfy my insistent libido. I could clean most of the tar balls off of a stretch of Gulf Coast beach, if I actually cut masturbation clean out of my life.
The mindless search for sexual release had led me into all kinds of fractured nonsense, even beyond masturbation. Dating was its own kind of special hell. Internet dating? Just that much more hellish. No man Internet-dates because he wants to improve his personhood, much less the world at large. No, he’s looking for carnal satisfaction, period, and he’ll endure whatever awkward situation arises to achieve that end: expensive dinners, terrible nightclubs, talking to Republicans.
The more I thought about it, suddenly, celibacy wasn’t looking so bad. I would rule my own will! I wouldn’t be so controlled by my ridiculous urges. I would join the ranks of the non-wanking. For one sweet, perfect moment, Dude Chastity seemed splendid.
Then, of course, I got real.
I love sex. I love the suffering that goes into sex. I like asking people out on dates, and getting turned down, and moving onto the next challenge. I like fishing on the Internet for pointless onanistic material for hours on end, when I should be cleaning tar balls off of a Gulf Coast beach. (Masturbation is easier. And I don’t live anywhere near the Gulf Coast.) I like the way that sexy women look with their clothes off. Hell, I like the way that most women look with their clothes off. They look incredible. Big butts and thick ankles. Whatever. I’m into it.
When it comes down to it, I’m a machine that’s built for this: for the sport of modern-America sex.
I’m not a great-looking guy, and I’m not a smooth-talking Romeo. I have little to no “game.” When I am able to procure sex, I’m basically a slob who can only handle a few positions. But dammit, how could I voluntarily give up the purest source of pleasure in my wan little life? What would I turn to, if I couldn’t turn to a good ol’ orgasm enjoyed in the comfort of my own home? And though I may never win an Emmy, I just might have a three-way before I die—and, Lord, I’m just not ready to give up the dream.
Being ruled by one’s desires is one thing, but being swayed by them? Deliciously swayed, every once in a while? I think I have to sign up for that plan. And make no mistake: I admire Hephzibah Anderson and Noah Levine for their patience, insight, and strength of will. Levine speaks eloquently about seeing spiritual practice as rebellion: “My mind and my body is insisting on obedience—but I can disobey. Going with the stream is, desire arises? Satisfy it. Against the stream is, desire arises: investigate it, if it’s completely skillful, you can satisfy it, but if it’s unskillful at any level, let go of it.”
Yes: I will let go of desire.
But tomorrow, or the next day, I’m gonna pick it back up again.
Because although it keeps me chained to my so-called suffering, to the weakest part of me, it also keeps me ... kinda normal. And the truth is, I like being part of the club. The club of the Normal American Dude, our destinies determined by the rank desires of our own dumb members. For some strange reason, I trust that.