Just Say No
Curtis Bancroft has problems. But they're not the sort that would elicit much sympathy. To illustrate his issue, the 35-year-old comedian with model good looks and no shortage of surefire opportunities to get laid shares one of his hard-luck stories: A couple of months ago he met a sexy redhead following a comedy performance at a small club in lower Manhattan. A willowy Nicole Kidman lookalike, she told him his act was "very funny in a smart wayâ€ then invited him to have a drink with her, claiming that she never did this kind of thing as she ordered up two extra-dirty vodka martinis. They knocked back three quick rounds before stumbling out of the club onto East 11th Street, where they started making out under a No Parking sign. She tasted of olive juice and cigarettes. It was late on a Tuesday night. They both had to work the following morning, but Bancroft knew the deal was sealed.
"As we were kissing she looked at me and said, â€˜I want you inside me.' I ended up taking her back to my place,â€ he says. "But that was only because I didn't want to reject her. I was torn, because of my pledge.â€
The pledge Bancroft was referring to is a self-imposed vow of celibacy he has been observing since fall 2006, inspired in part by events just like this: late-night romps with women whose names he didn't know, messy bar hook-ups and a series of "one-month stands.â€ Still, Bancroft often loses his footing because he likes female attention, and to maintain his vow he finds himself sabotaging sure things, using creative tactics to avoid sex. To get out of sleeping with the redhead, he decided to make a phone call to a friend who works in tech support to discuss why his iTunes wasn't registering new downloaded songs. This, despite the fact that it was after midnight. He ended up spending more than an hour on the phone, leaving the 28-year-old redhead alone on his bed. "When I was done I walked over and put my hands on her hips and started kissing her neck,â€ he says. "She was like, â€˜Don't even think about it.' I knew she'd react that way. I had to rig it so she would reject me. I couldn't have sex with her.â€
While Bancroft's voluntary decision to turn down all this potential pleasure may make him sound crazy, he is far from alone. According to Dr. Ian Kerner, a noted sex therapist and author of the forthcoming Sex Detox: A Relationship Rejuvenation Program for Everyone, research suggests that millions of otherwise-sane men have, at one time, chosen to take a break from sexâ€”and, in many cases, masturbation and the consumption of sexual images in any formâ€”in search of something deeper, safer or less complicated.
But before you dismiss these guys as chumps using celibacy to mask their sexual inadequacies, ask yourself the following question: What would you do if you were a 27-year-old multiplatinum rap star considered to be a driving force behind West Coast hip-hop's
resurgenceâ€”a handsome, single dude with charisma, connections and cash to burnâ€”able to bed any woman you wanted, seven days a week (and twice on Sunday)? Among the many potential answers, few men would say that they'd squander all this milk and honey by announcing a self-imposed vow of celibacy. Unless, of course, they were hip-hop impresario the Game, who did exactly that in March 2006, putting his physical wellbeing ahead of busting a nut, for a little while, anyway. Male celibacy, it seems, has become trendy.
What drives so many men to voluntarily refrain from sex? For some, it's a simple matter of health and welfare. If you're not out there chasing tail, you're not going to catch any nasty STDs or end up with an unwanted pregnancy. Others simply want to impose a new sense of discipline on lives that have gotten too hedonistic and a culture that is overly sexual.
"I don't want to make it sound like I'm a gigolo, but I hang out in a social circle that is filled with women who have the same very liberal attitudes toward sex that I do,â€ says Jason Crawford, a 25-year-old entertainment editor who has decided to commit to a year-long vow of celibacy, beginning on New Year's Day 2008. Until then, though, he'll be having his cake and eating it too (we presume). "Since losing my virginity at 17, I can't remember a month that I have not had sex.â€ As a single black man living in New York City, where women outnumber men, Crawford says that the odds are stacked in his favor, making it almost too easy to hook up. "Sex has become devalued to me because of the simple fact that it happens so often.â€
When asked what he hopes to gain from his period of sexlessness, Crawford sounds like Morpheus from The Matrix, talking about how every man must go on a journey that leads him to a deeper understanding of his life. "Taking a vow of celibacy is a way for me to see what I'm truly capable of,â€ he says. Before he begins his tumble down the rabbit hole, however, he'll have to try to convince the woman he's datingâ€”a sexy, golden-brown beautyâ€”to come along for the ride. Based on their history, however, it seems he may be taking this journey solo: At the first mention of his celibacy-seeking intentions, she punched him so hard he was bruised for a week.
Despite its popularity, voluntary male celibacy still strikes many as an oddball choice in today's anything-goes world, where men are told they're losers unless they're having sex like porn stars. But this wasn't always the case. In fact, celibacy has been revered throughout history, especially in Eastern cultures (both Buddhists and Hindus practice celibacy). In many societies, men who were able to attain it were looked upon as wiser and more spiritual: Celibacy was seen as a source of empowerment. "Throughout the world and ages, celibacy has been a key element of human existence,â€ says Elizabeth Abbot, a research associate at the University of Toronto and the author of A History of Celibacy. "It has pulsated throughout classical poetry and camp literature, throughout canon and civil law.â€
Part of its appeal was tied to the ancient belief that a man's seed is his essence, and that the act of celibacy allows him to preserve and protect this power, Abbott says. Modern men sometimes apply the same principles, especially in the area of athletics. "In ancient Greece, the Olympiads had to be celibate for up to a year before they performed,â€ she says. "Celibacy was seen as a way of enhancing their physical prowess and sharpening their mental strength. And that has carried through today. There is a kind of celibacy that's not seen as a privation; it's seen as strengthening the body and spirit.â€
Muhammad Ali practiced selective celibacy to help him float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. "He used to hold himself back for six weeks or more before a big fight, because it made him meaner and more focused,â€ Abbott says. It's hard to imagine the Greatest Of All Time needing to make himself any fiercer, but you can bet that Sonny Liston and George Foreman wish Ali's training regimen called for a little more time between the sheets.
Many men say that taking a break from sex gives them a newfound ability to focus and the freedom to get reacquainted with themselves. Hameed S. Williams, a 34-year-old sociologist who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, recently underwent a "sexual fastâ€ as a means to get to know himself better. "I had come to a place of dissatisfaction of the outcomes of the relationships I was having, and I wanted to make a shift,â€ he says. Craving an authentic spiritual experience, Williams didn't set hard and fast rules in terms of what behaviors he would forbid. As it turned out, he didn't masturbate or allow himself to watch porn during the fast. Moreover, he tried to avoid "the sexual communication and engagement that is just below the surface in our everyday lives.â€ He sidestepped the casual flirting present in so many social interactions, from chatting with the cute receptionist at the office to making eyes with a stranger on the street.
Williams chronicled the progress of his sexual fast in a "celibacy journalâ€ as part of an online column he writes for the website blackfunk.org. "In a sexual climate in which sex waits perched in the next moment â€¦ my decision to be celibate and value sex, intimacy â€¦ and emotional fulfillment is a declaration of optimism,â€ he wrote. And what was the result of all this optimistic self-reflection? He reconsidered a person who had been in his life briefly in the past but whom he was not "head-over-heels about.â€ But Williams realized this person actually had the values and "emotional vocabularyâ€ he wantedâ€”the sexual fast helped him see with a new set of eyes. Williams ended his celibacy to begin a relationship with this person, and they both think it'll last for the rest of their lives.
But not everybody is so convinced that celibacy is the best route for a guy to take. Some are even willing to call bullshit on the idea. "If a man doesn't have sex for six months to a year, and he wants to refer to it as celibacy, that's fine,â€ says comic Chelsea Handler, the sultry blonde star of E!'s The Chelsea Handler Show and author of My Horizontal Life, a raunchy collection of tales that detail her vigorous appetite for one night stands. "But I call it a dry spell.â€
Handler probably wouldn't have much time for Philip Arthur Moore, a 24-year-old from Houston who runs a blog called thephink.com. For Moore, celibacy is a lifestyle choice with broader moral overtones. In an incendiary blog posting from August 2006 entitled "Celibacy, Condoms, Black Women,â€ he wrote that "I stopped having sex not because I â€¦ think sex is immoral or believe I should now wait until I get married. The reason I stopped is because the last time I found myself constantly in coitus with a woman, I was making horrible mental decisions and moral errors that put me too close to the irreversible side of Mistake Avenue.â€ To Johnson, a walk on Mistake Avenue would include the threat of disease and bringing a child into the world who he cannot afford to raise properly. In his view, there is a trade-off between pleasure and doing the right thing. So what do all these celibacy seekers do with that pent-up sexual frustration? Not much, actually. Though it sounds counterintuitive, abstaining from sex actually makes people feel less horny. This is because taking a break from it alters the brain's neurochemistry. "Casual sex and dating, for the single guy, results in a lot of anxiety, which leads to swings in the brain chemistry,â€ says Dr. Kerner. "Stepping off of that merry-go-round of casual sex allows a man to get to a less stressful place because two things are going to happen: Testosterone levels will fall, and serotonin levels will rise. In layman's terms, this means that a guy's sex drive will decrease, while a sense of calmness will increase.â€
While they may not be able to write a term paper on the science behind it, many men do find that taking a break for sex makes them more mentally nimble. "For me, it has helped to wash away the confusion of all my past relationships,â€ Bancroft says. Bancroft is not necessarily holding out until marriage, though finding a lifelong partner is certainly one of the goals of his fasting period. But celibacy has also allowed him to focus on other aspects of his life, including his career, which had previously been pulling him in too many directions. He is now writing a humor book and finds it easier to navigate the shallow world of entertainment and ignore minor setbacks. "My vow has helped me realize I don't want to spend a minute of my time doing something artificial,â€ he says. "I'm starting to weed out stuff that on the surface looks glamorous. I don't need to be a sitcom star or a household name. I'd rather do the work that makes me happy.â€
Still, for all of the gains that Bancroft has made, he will be the first to admit that consciously avoiding sex can be hard to master. "It takes a lot of will power to say no to a cute 26-year-old who's willing to come back to my place after a show,â€ he says. "I'm a guy, after all, and guys are supposed to get as much as they can before they get married, or so we're told. But I'm trying to exercise a new kind of restraint, transforming from a young guy who fucks a lot of chicks to this man who dates women for reasons that are deeper than the fact they are hot and find him funny.â€ We should all have his problems.