My Journey with Sex, Shame, Intimacy and Celibacy.
I haven’t slept with anyone since I became single. I keep thinking (and saying) that it was about six months ago, but it has actually just gone nine.
Nine months. A sacred time. The time it takes to gestate a baby, only this time has been about birthing me.
I’m telling you this because the topic of sex and intimacy is something I have struggled with my whole life.
I had my first orgasm at about nine. It was an accidental occurrence between myself and an over-sized teddy bear at my grandparents’ house that started the ball rolling and it was… wonderful.
Who knew it was possible to create a feeling like that? I felt like I’d stumbled upon a hidden secret, which of course, I kinda had.
I remember my grandfather coming into the room shortly after I made my discovery, and I felt like he knew exactly what I’d been doing, even though he probably did not. My cheeks flushed, and I was filled with shame at the possibility of him knowing.
I continued with my hidden practice for the next eight years (minus the bear), but despite my self-mastery, was not ready for my first time with another person. I was 17 and more concerned with fitting in than just about everything else.
It was not special or loving or cutely awkward.
It was not even the slightest bit enjoyable, and was far less fun than the time with the teddy bear. I’m quite sure alcohol was involved.
My boyfriend then cheated on me and dumped me because I didn’t want to do it much after that.
I fell in love at 19, in my second year of university. He was a caliber of person who was worthy of my love, only I didn’t believe I was worthy of his.
I made up for my lack of self-worth by creating pleasurable experiences with him in the bedroom and it was beautiful. It was such a relief that I could enjoy sex with another person (sober!), rather than just by myself.
Then, one day, he shattered the confidence I’d built by telling me that my sexual appetite was a bit much for him.
The familiar searing of shame burned through me.
First I wasn’t enough, then I was too much. Which one was it?
I had a beautiful boyfriend for about two years in my early twenties.
I considered what we had to be a healthy sexual relationship, but one day he gently observed, “You love orgasms, but you don’t really seem to love sex.”
That one stumped me. What was the difference?
But he was kinda right: by this stage, I was in my final year of university, reading feminist literature and becoming obsessed with the female orgasm.
I was enraged that there was so little information about it, and that it seemed to be overlooked by society at large.
I became a self-appointed, female orgasm advocate, and a firm supporter of equal-pleasure rights.
I had no qualms about taking matters into my own hands (literally) to have my needs met if it looked like they might not be, which is why my sweet boyfriend at the time had a point — I was making it all about me and actually not about us.
Fast forward to my living room several months ago…
I’m single after the end of a nine-and-a-half-year relationship.
I’m posing a question to a friend in the hopes that I may shed some light on a concept that had seems to have alluded me in all my relationships, both short and long-term: intimacy.
By then I knew that it wasn’t merely physical pleasure that I was seeking through sex, because I had experienced that in spades, and yet I knew I’d been missing something.
“I mean, what is true intimacy?” I asked.
After bandying around a few thoughts, the definition we settled upon was this:
Intimacy is the experience of seeing and being seen.
It turned out that for me, true intimacy was less about sex than it was about being seen, appreciated and known, and reciprocating that to another.
In that moment, I decided that sex for me could only ever be an expression of that.
Anything less would be dishonoring myself and another.
Hence, I now find myself exploring the longest period of celibacy that I can remember.
But before I go on, I feel called to share a bit more of my journey with sex, shame and intimacy.
When I met my last partner, I felt like I’d finally found it. The first time we made love, I remember thinking, “So, this is what they are talking about in the movies!” It was passionate, romantic and tender. It felt like we fit.
Things moved fast, and before long, we’d moved countries together and were shacked up in Australia, paying bills and playing house.
By this point, my drinking had progressed beyond the good-time party girl status I was desperately trying to cling to, and into the red zone of addiction. Honestly, I had always hovered in the red zone with my genetic predisposition, combined with unhealed childhood trauma and warped self-image, but I denied that for a long time.
I now know that we didn’t stand a chance against my addiction. If intimacy is what I now believe it to be, then sadly, we would never have it because I was unable to see myself, let alone him.
In my denial, my desperation and my dis-ease, I pressed the Destruct button when I slept with someone else after an extended drinking binge.
Guilt and self-loathing would have eaten me alive had I not told my partner, who I had been with for three years at that point, so I vomited my truth over him and watched him break before my eyes.
It was the most harrowing thing I’ve ever witnessed.
I did this, I did this, was all I could say to myself as I watched him writhe in pain.
I did the thing that I said I would never do and I no longer knew myself. My self-hatred was fueled by this proof that I was not a good person, because good people don’t hurt the people they love (I obviously knew nothing about the nature of addiction then).
He did not yell at me or call me names. I would have preferred that at the time, for it would have given me something to be self-righteous about.
Rather, he offered to forgive me, which made it even worse, for I no longer trusted myself with his love.
His was the grace that saved my life, because I could no longer kid myself that I was okay, and I knew I had to get help.
Soon after, I attended my first recovery meeting. I found an intimacy there that night that I’d been looking for my whole life in sex and men and parties and booze.
I saw them and they saw me.
They knew me. And they gave me a shred of hope that there was a chance I could know myself.
Two years into my recovery and our healing, my partner and I decided to go traveling. The psychologist I had been seeing before we left told me that statistically, we probably wouldn’t make it as a couple, but the defiant and idealistic part of me desperately wanted to prove her wrong.
I was sober. We loved each other. Surely that would enough.
But oh, how little idea I had about the journey of self-recovery within a relationship. How difficult it would be to show up for another when I was just learning to show up for myself.
And yet, we both did a damn good job of trying.
It may seem strange to talk about a relationship being a success after it ends, but I still declare ours one. And I am so grateful for the growth and love we gave each other.
While I risk being judged on my past mistakes by sharing this, I am grateful to be finally coming to a place where I no longer judge myself.
I am certainly not proud of who I became, but I love who I am becoming as a result.
So, back to celibacy.
I didn’t decide to be celibate, I just decided to honor myself in a way I never have before. The way that 17-year-old girl deserved to be honored but didn’t know it.
Celibacy, it seems, is part of that journey for now.
I’ve actually never felt more connected to my sexuality, because I am finally honoring my body, my soul and my heart.
My trauma in this area came from a lack of awareness, disconnection and chronic self-dishonoring. My healing is a direct result of awakening to my divinity, which is guiding me into self-love, one day at a time.
I want true intimacy with another, there is no doubt about that, but I am not willing to bypass any part of myself to get to someone else.
I’m realizing that it’s going to take a very special individual to be able to see me, because there is a lot of me to see, but I trust that when that time comes, I’ll be ready to see them too.
Sarah Chamberlain is an Australian writer, dancer and ‘soul sherpa’ based in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. She shares her personal journey of transformation on her blog, Sarah Somewhere. Her journey has taken her through addiction and disconnection into liberation and love. Sarah is the creator of an intuitive movement practice, Divine Dance, and leads women’s retreats in Bali and Mexico.