15 years without knocking boots

I didn't intend to go without sex for a decade and a half. But celibacy isn't something you necessarily plan.

Published December 9, 2008 11:57AM (EST)

I haven't had sex in 15 years.

I thought I was just taking a break, temporarily climbing off the middle-aged dating roller coaster of hope and despair. I didn't intend to be celibate for the rest of my life. I just wanted to get some therapy, wanted to understand why I kept choosing men who were smart and funny but critical, sarcastic and merciless like my father. I figured I'd give it a go again later, when I felt stronger, more confident. In a couple of years, say. But here I am -- 55 years old, a spinster long past my sell-by date, no kids -- and I haven't had sex in a decade and a half.

It's my own fault, I know. I'm picky. Casual sex doesn't do it for me. (I've always thought I had to be in love in order to make love.) I regard men with ambivalence, with alternate longing and fear. I've grown accustomed to being alone.

"You so value your independence that in order to ensure it you fall in love with men who are not available," my therapist said. "You do 'yearning' very well."

But it's not like I don't try. Nearly 20 years ago, when I lived in the Bay Area, I enjoyed a brief out-of-town fling with a young engineer who captivated me because he could drive a forklift. He had grease under his fingernails -- a welcome escape from the socially awkward software guys in Silicon Valley. He wasn't exactly a Rhodes scholar, but he was a great smooch, and I started to make plans. I fantasized that we'd have a long-distance relationship. I'd encourage him to go back to school, get a degree. My friends thought I was nuts; my friends were right.

And yet, I was wild about him. I wrangled a business trip to Reno, Nev., where he lived, so thrilled about the illicit rendezvous that my nipples perked up as the plane taxied to the gate. I stood outside the baggage claim area, where Young Engineer had promised to pick me up, and waited. And waited. Finally I hailed a cab to the luxury hotel I'd booked, kept the appointments I'd arranged for the next day, and scurried home early, feeling scalded and ashamed. He'd changed his mind, he explained later. He didn't think it was such a good idea.

"And you couldn't have mentioned this before I boarded the flight?" I asked him. Apparently, night school was out of the question.

So I moved back to Minnesota, where I'd gone to college, planning to surf the second wave of husbands. I'd clearly missed the first batch, but in the early '90s we were all pushing 40 and many early marriages had ended in divorce. I hoped to encounter a former college flame or two, maybe one who was older and wiser and interested in some substance. I found instead that my male peers were pursuing 25-year-olds.

"They're dating children," I wailed to my friends.

Well, maybe I could find an intellectual buddy -- not a husband but a companion, a man who made me laugh, a man who reads and with whom I had something in common. So in '93, already half in love, I fell into bed with an old pal, long divorced from his first wife. He's a financial planner -- handsome and witty, highly verbal for a numbers guy -- and I adored him. I figured we could live separately but nurture an ongoing, affectionate friendship. We'd go out to dinner occasionally, take in a movie, enjoy some skin-on-skin action and laughter in the dark.

While I dreamed of romance, he plotted his escape.

He was at least kind enough to explain what had happened, from his perspective. Sleeping with me felt incestuous to him, like boinking his sister. "I thought we could lay each other with no emotional consequences," he told me.

"There are always emotional consequences," I said.

It was too bad. I miss him, and I miss male companionship. I adore men -- they are so different from women -- and I'm intrigued by the way they think. I had a grand passion once, with one of the men I nearly married (the luckiest of my lucky escapes), and before I caught him in bed with another woman we used to spend hours making love, rolling around together like dolphins, suggesting games: "OK, you be the gladiator, and I'll be the Roman maiden."  I was never athletic; in bed was the only place I knew how to play.

I suppose I could Internet date, but the very idea exhausts me. It feels like applying for a job I'm not sure I want. And it's so unfair, so hopelessly based on superficial things that I could weep. Cruise the online personals -- just scan the 40- and 50-something entries -- and you'll see that even men built like Danny DeVito demand youth and beauty. They say they're seeking "slender" or "slim" women at least 10 years their junior. Do I really need to pay a monthly fee for this sort of rejection?

Other women's husbands are off-limits, because adultery is a betrayal of the sisterhood and, besides, all you get there is a person you already know is capable of lying to and cheating on his wife.

And as for girl-on-girl diversions, the spirit's willing, but the flesh just can't get into it. Plenty of lesbian friends have hit on me over the years, and it's flattering, but I simply cannot go there. I wish men found me as attractive as other women do. Hell, I wish men were as affectionate with me as their dogs are. Dogs love me. These days, men, not so much.

OK, so I've gained some weight with menopause, and I am no longer a beauty, but that's not really the problem; plenty of zaftig women have husbands and lovers who adore them. I know I could walk into any bar in town and leave with some guy willing to come home with me for a one-night stand -- but that feels so sordid and ugly to me. I have known what it is to enjoy sex with love, in the context of a committed relationship -- comfortable, familiar, married sex, if you will -- and anything less than that feels sad to me. I would rather sleep alone than give myself away.

I guess I could dig up my old sex toy. It's probably around somewhere, the batteries long since corroded. My friend Katie brought it as a hostess gift when she came to visit from New York years ago. It's an enormous dildo, an unfortunate shade of orange, with veins and everything. I examined it dubiously. "I'm not entirely sure I would know what to do with this thing," I told Katie.

She laughed. "Trust me. You'll figure it out."

We left it on the couch and tottered off to bed. The next morning, my landlady let in a painter to touch up some woodwork and there, hiding in plain sight, sat the monstrous orange schlong. I was so mortified I tossed it in a Nordstrom bag and hid it in the back of my linen closet. I could easily buy another one online, but I'm inclined to take a lesson from my friend Gini, who says of hers that she falls asleep with the damn thing in her hand.

So what do you do?

I'm not sure. I know that, eventually, the longing lessens. It never goes away entirely -- I still tear up at Hallmark commercials -- but it's like quitting smoking. After a while your motor shifts into idle, and you just stop thinking about it.

And I suppose it would help to leave the house. I am quite reclusive, as most writers are, and unless some drywall guy who reads Russian literature shows up on my doorstep, it is highly unlikely that I will meet an available straight single man any time soon.

I hope I find love again, I truly do. But -- unwilling to risk any further rejection -- I am too attached to my comforts, to my books and threadbare oriental rugs and the two cats. As an oft-married friend exclaimed the first time she saw my little house, "This is exactly how I would have lived if I hadn't had all those husbands."

But we all crave human contact. "So," I resigned myself, scheduling a back massage, "welcome to the wonderful world of the middle-aged, celibate single woman. You now have to pay people to touch you." It's funny how comforted I can feel simply by hands rubbing my body. I know some men are willing to offer extra for a "happy ending" -- for them, sensuality isn't achieved unless it ends in orgasm -- but for me, I'm perfectly content just letting someone rub my shoulders, my back. Having enough money to get a massage or a facial every week for the rest of my life -- that's the kind of happy ending I crave.

Of course living with a spouse or a partner doesn't necessarily guarantee great sex -- or any sex for that matter. I suspect many married couples are celibate; some have probably gone without sex as long as I have. They are partners who coexist platonically, like siblings.

At least I've been spared the trauma of divorce. And because I live alone I have time and energy to devote to friendships, which are emotionally quite sustaining. Life presents us with many different ways to love. Who's to say the sexual kind trumps everything else?

While I sometimes calculate that I have a better chance of being clobbered on the head with a piece of falling asteroid than I do of ever making love again, I also count my blessings. I'd rather want sex a couple times of month and not have it than not want it a couple times a week and have to have it because I'm afraid if I don't he'll find somebody else.

And, hey, the toilet seat is always down, and I control the TV remote. The cats don't criticize; I haven't been subjected to Monday Night Football in years. Things could be a lot worse. And I hear a $15 pocket rocket can do wonders. It's also a bit more discreet than a fluorescent orange dildo.

As for the financial planner, he eventually married a woman some 15 years his junior. I went to their wedding. She is lovely, but they divorced within a couple of years. "She has no sense of humor," he complained. "She's so earnest about her career, and she's not all that enthusiastic in the sack."

"Well, what did you expect?" I asked him when he called to tell me they were through.

"I expected somebody like you, only younger," he admitted. We haven't spoken since.

We are -- finally -- no longer friends.

By Kit Naylor

Minneapolis writer Kit Naylor is working on a book about how to live happily alone.

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