Polyamory? Celibacy? Today’s sexual politics reveals much about the way we live | Eva Wiseman

Three years ago, around this time as summer came with its wasps and heat, I wrote about the return of sex. We were just leaving lockdown – do you remember those days? Of hope and fear, when we had spent many months considering things like the importance and nuance of touch, the mysteries that were other people, the many conflicting facts of a strange, warm body? The adult world was preparing to step feverishly out of its house into the arms, beds and cars of other people, soft and diabolically gorgeous in a way only a pandemic really allows; their minds were dirty though their hands had never been so clean. And then, well, nothing.

As this summer finally arrives and we drag our bare legs through the thick yellow air, newspapers all over the world are breathlessly reporting the rise of celibacy. Yesterday, I sat on a step in the garden, among the strawberries we planted in lockdown, and my phone overheated as I scrolled through the memoirs of women who gave up sex, the articles on the politics of celibacy, the new descriptive terms, like “boysober”, the apologies from dating app Bumble after they mocked it, running ads that read, “Thou shalt not give up on dating and become a nun.” Lenny Kravitz made an announcement about his own sexual abstinence, explaining, “It’s a spiritual thing”, and Julia Fox said, “With the overturning of Roe v Wade and our rights being stripped away from us, [celibacy] is a way that I can take back the control. I just don’t feel comfortable until things change.”

The mainstream reaction to this reported shift is largely one of panic and confusion. Confusion because, these are not unsexy people, the people now choosing to forgo sex. These are not livid incels (by their very definition involuntarily celibate, and by mine, violent and deranged), these are quite lovely, intelligent women, usually, whose decision to opt out for reasons of misogyny, disappointment or self-care has caused ripples of self-doubt and interrogation in others. And panic because this decision, despite its reflection in conservative religion, somehow suggests a terrifying dismissal of tradition, and marriage, and children, and sanity.

Additional confusion comes perhaps when the rise of celibacy is reported alongside the rise of polyamory, two seemingly opposing relationship choices. But, however different both states appear, one leaning into others, the other leaning away, it’s clear to me they’re coming from the same place. The people making these choices, these decisions about the ways they seek connection and intimacy, are unsatisfied with the relationship patterns or structures they’ve been expected to follow, and so both have opted out: one of monogamy, the other of sex itself.

For all the coverage of these trends, though, these choices are rare. Not only because so few people are willing to give up sex and all its associated wounds or blisses, or willing to engage in the spreadsheets and jealousy lifestyle that comes with polyamory, but because of something damper and duller. Which is: hardly any of us really make choices at all; choices about the shape of the life we want to lead.

Instead, it feels as though most of us float quite blindly into the kinds of relationships our parents had, or fall into them, or are pushed, with the limits of our fantasies still drawn faintly by old novels or Disney. And once embedded in the relationship, whether that’s with a long-term partner or one-night stand, most people accept its compromises, some even accept the suffering it might bring, even the feeling that it requires a polite, bloodless forgetting of who they were, or who they might, maybe, want to be. It’s better, they think wordlessly, than the unknown.

It’s funny writing about dating trends as a person who has never done dating; a person who has been with the same boyfriend since we came out of college, when phones weren’t for hooking up, just for Snake and missed calls and sparing messages, because 10p a text and 50p a minute. It’s funny not because, as I might have expected, these stories feel so foreign, and inapplicable to a suburban middle-aged life, but instead because the desire within them feels so prescient and relatable and exciting.

The more I hear about these trends, which are largely collections of similar decisions made by young women reacting to expectations about how they should love in the world, the more I realise how they can speak to all of us, regardless of our sexuality, or relationship status, or age, and how they can speak to us of things beyond sex, too. They’re like flares sent up at night, they’re like a sweater thread being pulled – these gentle diversions from the expected life, sometimes courageous, sometimes irritating, sometimes both, remind us to try to choose our own adventures, rather than sleepwalking down carpeted paths.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on X @EvaWiseman

The Guardian

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