Celibacy: Four Years On

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.—Elizabeth Bishop

Taking a leaf from a former student, I’ll venture into the confessional, though I am only Catholic by inheritance. My father was one. Does that count? This summer will mark four years since I was kimwili. Some of this is about proximity: my favorite sex shop in Champaign was a few blocks from where I lived in 2005—and then I moved to Amherst and when I returned to Illinois, I moved elsewhere. It became a bus ride away. I am lazy about such things. Taking a bus for sex? Too much work. Early on, probably in the early 2000s, I lost the habit—or never acquired the habit—of inviting sex partners to my house. And I also lost the habit of going over to other people’s houses. I preferred not to learn about décor and reading habits and cleaning habits and the color of bedsheets and towels. Also, alas, my desire is so very idiosyncratically tied to accent that I prefer spaces where I don’t have to listen to speech in any form. I must also confess that I find it very difficult to listen to music—I’m getting better about this, but I require a lot of silence to think. I have re-introduced music into my environment to manage thinking and to un-think. Sometimes it works.

My desire has always come in waves—much stronger in the spring and summer, diminished in the fall and winter. In that sense, I am primitive. Or like a flower. Or a bee. (I don’t like flowers). I do not have the habit of monogamy—nor the desire for it. Nor do I have the habit of attachment. When I was younger, I fantasized that a fuckbuddy would be the “perfect” solution, but I found multiple sex encounters with the same person impossible to sustain, even when the sex was very good. And it was very good—3 figures come to mind, one from Pittsburgh, another from Champaign, a third from Portland. Of the three, I don’t recall any names, and I’m pretty sure none were exchanged. Oh, and there was Phil—a married, church-going deacon or something. Phil was fun! But the religion was simply impossible.

The deal has always been that I will return to kimwili practices once the book is done: that’s the reward. Or threat. That I am in no rush to complete the book might suggest something of my ambivalence. An ambivalence that I continue to think is based on location, though that might be its own convenient fiction. Desire felt different in Nairobi. It felt possible. I could suspend the obstacle course that sex in the States has always posed for me, an obstacle course considerably diminished by spaces set up for sex. Sex spaces lubricate something that non-sex spaces cannot. And perhaps should not. After six months in Nairobi, I am more aware of how much work it takes to be in the States. One would imagine the labor would have become less conscious after fifteen years-sixteen this August—but it feels even more laborious. That’s another post.

And it’s not clear what I’m looking for in sex at this stage in my life. In my early twenties, I wanted experiences: my first threesome, second, and third—by and large, I find threesomes less interesting than advertised; my first orgy, second, and third—I suspect these might have been more interesting had I acquired a drug habit. I remember the very first blowjob I received—I spent most of it cataloguing sensations and wondering why I was not “lost on a sea of passion” as described in the romance books I read. Alas, women romance authors, you vastly overestimate the appeal and power of the blowjob. I wanted the thrill of public sex. But I checked that box. I wanted an encounter with someone hyper-muscular. Box checked. Fucker’s hard muscles bruised me. I wanted an encounter with someone twinkishly attractive. Box checked. And it was only interesting because he worked as a hustler on the side. Straight married men. Box checked. Attached gay men. Box checked. College students. Box checked—and that was incredibly boring. College professor when I was a student. Box checked. Never again. Blue collar fantasy. Box checked. Several times. Many other boxes checked. The more boxes I checked, the more I felt like Linda Lovelace’s character in Deep Throat: I felt tingles, even climaxed (why not use the language of romance?), and felt incredibly bored. Three minutes into most encounters, I was incredibly bored. Were I a certain kind of literary character, I would be reading a novel as some person had sex with me. (I am too much of a prude to disclose what I actually do when I have sex, but it’s probably not what most people assume.)

Because I am so terribly conventional, I have started using words from women’s romance novels to describe my expectations: I want to be surprised and overwhelmed. Like all those secretaries seduced by their bosses, nurses seduced by doctors, working-class women rescued by tycoons. Maybe not that last. But this, I find, is not very far from queer fantasies—self-shattering, after all, is simply about being surprised and overwhelmed, no matter how fancy the theory gets. Even as I remain fascinated by the calculation in the Marquis de Sade and the anonymous author of My Secret Life. I am fascinated by the ritual of the sex diary, but that might be more academic than libidinal.

So, what’s the payoff? What has celibacy taught or offered? Unsurprisingly, the answer is nothing. I have not written more than I would have had I been having a more robust sex life. I haven’t learned to turn on and off desire—I’m yet to find the right spigot. I haven’t really learned anything about appetite and control. I’m not a “better” person by any stretch of the imagination. And, yes, I have had more sex partners than the national average for heterosexual men—and I’m probably about average for gay men in my age-range, or slightly higher than average. In Samuel Delany’s words, I have had a “statistically significant” number of partners.

I have no clue what will happen in summer 2013, when the book is done. Perhaps I will be surprised and overwhelmed and like a good Barbara Cartland heroine, I will stutter something or other about love and forever to some unimaginable hero. But seeing as I haven’t come across anyone the least bit interesting over the past four years, I find that scenario highly unlikely.

I suspect I’ll get a cat and start knitting sweaters.

5 thoughts on “Celibacy: Four Years On

  1. Keguro

    This post has me laughing so hard, especially the bit about the “obstacle course” that sex in the US poses—which reminds me (and pole in advance for the heteroness of the relation I am drawing) of warning No. 2 in Martin Kimani’s Friendly Advice to the African Headed to Liberal Arts College in America:

    2. The Drought: You must forget sex for three-six months after your arrival on campus. You will discover that your language of sex (unless it is monetary) sounds like Martian to the co-eds around you. Being a writer and having dreads might allow you to cut some of the Drought period but make no mistake, there shall be a drought. What this will do is increase BMR and can potentially be demoralizing. There is nothing quite like disrespecting people who then refuse to be seduced by you. It crushes even the strongest egos. Even those that the owner did not know they possessed. The Drought will lead you down several wrong paths. It will make you believe for instance that the slow-nodding liberal girl from a small town in California is about to give you action. Nothing could be further from the truth, she is likely of the opinion that you are a diseased pet placed on campus for her entertainment (and here I stop to collect my breath and swallow a sudden, bitter spike of BMR).

    And yet, and yet! I must say that I understand or relate to this labor you speak of, the labor of being and desiring here in the US—and the ironic way in which the longer one stays here the more belabored desire becomes. Or is it that I am just lazy? Whoa, this notion of desiring here vs. desiring in Nairobi or other places should and must be explored more.

  2. I had to read it again, after which I have come to another conclusion: your only remaining unfulfilled fantasy might be that of you getting called out by a Nairobi street preacher for lusting after his body while he is busy preaching.

    Apropos the checked boxes of fantasies fulfilled: Is it not that the fulfillment of a fantasy (like the ones you list) is never the same all the time? Is it not that—allow me to transmogrify Donald Barthelme’s words—“you can never touch a [man] in the same way more than once, twice, or another number of times however much you may wish to hold, wrap, or otherwise fix [his] hand, or look, or some other quality, or incident, known to you previously”?

    Is it not that the fantasy is always different—that you can never dip your hand twice or more times into the same river?

    I, for one, have given up on ever fantasizing. I don’t really know that I do fantasize.

  3. Keguro, like you, I’ve been fixated with ticking boxes since when I arrived in the UK (freedom from the rather ‘stifling atmosphere in Nigeria where there are just too many relatives look after you).

    My own objective was to shag every women from every continent around the world and from every race. I haven’t slept with a South American woman yet although I came close with someone who is now a good friend.

    I didn’t enjoy my first threesome, the women were too much into each other but the second was mind blowing. And i have’t been lucky in that respect since. I guess it’s easier for gay men to fulfill their sexual fantasies than straight men. Or is that a stereotype?

    Your not enjoying sex with these men doesn’t mean you’re prudish, it’s perhaps because you over-think sex and perhaps you still have hangover from your Catholic upbringing. My father was never religious and he mixed traditional African religion practices with Christian rituals. And my father liked women!

    Sometime, we underestimate how much our childhood impacted on our adult life. There are still things I experienced as a child that I still can’t get over as an adult in his late 30s!

    Anyway, this piece is the stuff great autobiographies are made of. I must read and review this book when it comes out!

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Shola, are we really so Fanonian?Though I guess Salihian would be a better description. I’m not given to overestimating the influence of childhood–on this, I am a bad psychoanalytic subject. I’ve as written before, it’s not clear to me what “over-thinking” means. My few experiments with mindless sex were not very interesting. If there’s a background to my desires, it is rooted, for better or worse, in the millions of romance novels I have read since I was 8. My father was never a serious Catholic–he had the habit of going to a fashionable church–it was the bourgeois thing to do. And my years as fundamentalist Christian taught me the value of ecstasy. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also taught me the value of being surprised and overwhelmed–a certain pentecostalism is really as close to excellent sex as it gets.

    In general, I do not like the register of the autobiographical–I am bad at it and it makes me itchy. So never a book in that register. Not to mention, with Binya’s book around, I am very happy about the state of Kenyan autobiography and have no desire to add to the genre. (A few other friends are working on splendid autobiographical works, so the next few years will be wonderfully rich.) Do read and review my critical book when it comes out–it will need all the support it can get.

  5. Kweli,

    The Nairobi preacher is still a fantasy. As is, sometimes, the right makanga. I have a hard time thinking about fantasy and its fulfillment. Because so much of what I have desired felt scripted and relied so much on location–my appetites has changed with pretty much everywhere I lived. My tastes changed to a certain midwestern frame when I lived there and I continue to find men in the mid-Atlantic shockingly scrawny. Most men in Nairobi are way too skinny. I think the compounding of locations has produced its own “type”: working class from Pittsburgh and Portland; stocky-ish from the midwest; laid back from the Northwest; hyper-neurotic from grad school; drama free from Mary J. Blige; and the jury is still out on whether a dog-lover or a cat-lover (fish don’t count). But even these are really quite irrelevant in the long run.

    You need fantasy! Stop reading grown-up books. Return to Enid Blyton’s Mr. Pink Whistle series. It will seed your fantasies. Or prune them. Or whatever needs to happen.

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