The last time I had sex with my wife was Dec. 17, 1998. We were in a hotel in New York; our room was like something out of a Burroughs novel (William S., not Edgar Rice), but the city below was still in the midst of the dot-com boom, the streets were nearly paralyzed with Christmas shoppers and I had never seen Manhattan so festive. We made love atop the bedspread, wanting that extra layer between us and the no doubt rancid mattress, but otherwise enjoying the erotic frisson that sex in bad lodgings always seems to have.
I am glad now that I'm able to remember the occasion so well and so happily, because when I tell you it was the last time we made love, I mean it was the last time. We have not had sex since. I have been a celibate married man since that December night in New York.
I am 45 -- a bit early, some would say, to go into conjugal retirement. In fact, in the current sexual culture abstinence anytime before, oh, say, 110, has come to be seen as a pathetic failure of will. (I await the first self-help column advising us that death needn't get in the way of a healthy sex life.) Celibacy has also been given a bad name by the scandals in the Catholic Church; surely all those sad, desperate altar-boy diddlers would quit acting out in the rectory if they were only allowed to marry. Or so goes one line of reasoning.
But anyone who thinks wedding vows are a cure for pedophilia has misplaced his copy of Krafft-Ebbing. And I'm here to tell you that celibacy is an underrated option, especially for men, and that it functions pretty much exactly as the Catholic Church has always claimed it does: By repurposing the male to something other than getting laid every 72 hours, it allows the poor sap to put his mind to more than just himself and his johnson. For some of us at least, celibacy becomes an invitation to be a better father, a better citizen of the world, and, yes, even a better husband.
Not that I was drawn willingly into my life of chastity. At one time the notion would have appalled me as it would any normal tumescent lad. My wife, Sharon, and I had enjoyed a vigorous connubial life through our 20s and well into our 30s, including those nearly de rigueur patches, beloved of sitcom writers, when we grabbed every possible moment to put sperm to egg in an effort to conceive. The results of those efforts -- now 17, 15 and 13 years of age -- had the sedative effect upon our erotic lives that children usually do, but we continued to struggle gamely and for the most part successfully for our rutting rights as animals.
In her late 30s, Sharon developed endometriosis, a condition in which tissue like that lining the uterus grows elsewhere in the body, for reasons nobody really understands. The resulting lesions can, and did, sometimes make intercourse painful for her, but we learned to be careful -- no deep penetration -- and carried on pretty much as before. Then Sharon proposed having a hysterectomy.
"You want to have a hysterectomy?" I asked her. My impression was that hysterectomies were to women as castration was to men. But yes, she did.
"It might relieve the endometriosis," she said. "And we don't want any more children, do we?"
"No. God, no."
"Well then. And it'll reduce my risk of cancer." Sharon's mother had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42.
Naturally, I was glad to think that she might finally be rid of those two huge bugbears, or at least have her vulnerability to them significantly reduced. Secretly and stupidly, I also anticipated decade upon decade of unfettered sex ahead. No more condoms to unroll! No more periods to wait out! Free love was making a comeback!
Free love, of course, was actually slipping out the back door. Sharon went on estrogen for six months after the operation, but a prescient doctor, who wasn't about to wait around for the results of all the studies on hormone replacement therapy, told her he didn't think she should continue on it long-term. So now, at age 40, Sharon was post-menopausal. Sex only became more hazard-strewn for both of us, and, with her libido evaporated, she increasingly had little reason to want to negotiate those hazards.
She tried. But I, of course, knew she was trying, and swung between anger that our intimate life had turned into a series of mercy fucks, and abhorrence at the idea that it was also now basically coercive: If it weren't for the fact that Sharon felt she had to make love with me -- like some downtrodden peasant woman yoked to a brutish husband -- she would almost certainly forgo it entirely. The low point came when I glanced down from my own orgasmic reverie one night and saw Sharon's face twisted in pain.
Celibate marriages are common enough that the French even coined a phrase for them: un mariage blanc. Of course, the French didn't anticipate that the partners in such an arrangement would actually do without sex, simply that they would do without sex with each other, whether because husband or wife or both had something going on the side that consumed all their attention and sexual energy, or perhaps because the marriage was a sham to satisfy immigration authorities. But when I proposed to Sharon that we enter into a "white marriage," I was talking the real thing.
We were already sleeping in separate bedrooms. I suppose some readers will leap on that as evidence that there was some dysfunction in the marriage already, and there was: my snoring. As a child I had had the awesome experience of listening to my own father's snores rumble through our household, like a convoy of 18-wheelers, and had determined -- as my own log-sawing genes kicked in -- that I wasn't about to subject anybody, much less someone I loved, to that. So I moved myself to my office downstairs, where there was just enough room for a single bed.
But now I was proposing to Sharon that our in-house trysts and occasional dirty weekends come to an end; if we were ever to share a bed again, it would be to watch "Law and Order." Sharon was circumspect; whether she felt a sense of defeat, or was suppressing a cry of "Yippeee!" I couldn't tell you to this day. But she agreed. I figured that if she decided she didn't like the idea, she would simply show up at my bedside some night, slip between the covers, and that would be that. I was even hopeful that she might. But that visit never came.
And so I began my adventures in abstinence. For about a week, I felt pretty sorry for myself: 'tis a far, far nobler thing I do, etc., etc. Then, the perks began to kick in. As Sharon's and my sex life had dwindled, I had been reduced to the status of a frantic little corgi looking to hump somebody's leg, constantly wondering whether tonight would be the night I'd get some -- Yes? No? Maybe tomorrow? Maybe if we double up on the K-Y? Maybe if we watch "Emmanuelle" first? Now I realized that for the first time in months, maybe years, I felt like a full-grown, adult male again. By taking fucking out of the marital equation altogether, I had regained some measure of control over my yapping libido, and recovered some dignity in the bargain.
My libido, of course, was not so easily convinced. It still wanted to know where the snatch was. Jacking off in my forlorn bed, like Lester Burnham auto-eroticizing in the shower at the beginning of "American Beauty," I was that most abject thing on earth: a masturbating middle-aged married man. But one of the dirty little secrets of celibacy is that, counterintuitively, the longer you go without intercourse, the less you care. Over time, I found that I'd rather read another chapter of whatever it was I was reading than get frisky with myself. I had my self-respect back, and I finally finished "A Man in Full."
No doubt some men, per the French formula, would have gone out and found themselves a mistress. I have spent much of my life wishing I was one of those sorts of men, but, alas, I'm not; I am essentially monogamous, and not at all the roué type. I suppose if a mistress candidate had presented herself, I might have acceded, but none did. (Perhaps essentially monogamous males give off some sort of scent.) And then there was the fact that, having been the one who initiated our sexual holiday, I could hardly tell Sharon, implicitly or otherwise, to be a good soldier while I partied it up on the side. I can't help being essentially monogamous, but I can help being a jerk.
And, the fact is, increasingly I couldn't be bothered. I was enjoying my new hobby, and so, to all appearances, was Sharon. I'm still not convinced that abstinence results in sudden stores of energy to be put to other, more exalted uses, as mystics and professional athletes sometimes testify. For the record, I don't feel any closer to God now, and I still haven't run the four-minute mile. But what celibacy does open up is vast tracts of time. Where once I might have lounged seductively on the living-room couch, hoping to be noticed, and then, if I got lucky, spent the next two or three hours in pre-, during, and post-coital occupation, I now found my nights tantalizingly, reliably, uninterruptedly free -- free to watch "CSI" with the 17-year-old who, now that his Sturm-und-Drang years were fading, I was just getting to know again; free to assemble the ingredients for the perfect beef fondue; free to, of all things, talk with my wife, leisurely, truly intimately, with no erotic agenda crackling in the background. For as much as celibacy has allowed me to feel like a grown-up again, it has also allowed me to see Sharon as one, with no sexual strings attached, perhaps for the first time in our relationship.
Maybe that's why she seems changed as well. Watching her the other night addressing a crowd at a school function, I was struck by what a cool, crisp, poised item she has become in her middle age, wryly cracking asides to the audience and reminding me a bit of one of those Westchester matriarchs who know a lot more than they ever let on. Maybe that's just me; maybe that's because I'm no longer viewing her through a hormone-addled haze. But I expect that the change is real; that she really is a happier, more self-assured woman than she was five years ago. Wouldn't you be, if you no longer had to face the regular prospect of having the best idea God ever dreamed up turn out to be a painful, utterly unrewarding ordeal?
Talking with Sharon as I wrote this article, we both agreed that we missed the intimacy -- the messy, juicy, skin-rouging intimacy -- of a sexual relationship; hugs only go so far. So it may be that our erotic interregnum is coming to an end. This will mean adding some new tricks to our bedroom repertoire -- admittedly, an area in which we've been slack -- though I very much doubt it will mean a single bedroom again. Sharon still likes to sleep.
Because intercourse remains a bad idea, we will remain, technically, celibate. I like that idea. In fact, it seems to me it places me in a vanguard. As more and more women swear off estrogen therapy, more and more of their partners may find themselves walking a solitary path. But don't worry, boys. It's not so bad. In fact, you may find yourselves growing up for the first time.