Why I was celibate for 5 years

Telegraph Wonder Women, July 2015

On the whole, we’re pretty messed up about sex.

What should be a satisfying experience of intimate physical connection with another human being (or several – if you wish) all too often becomes riddled with difficulties caused by poor self-esteem, performance anxiety and basic inability to have an honest, respectful conversation with our partners.

This is a particular challenge in the South Asian community (I have Pakistani heritage). Too often we don’t talk openly for fear of ‘breaching’ family ‘honour’ through any behaviour that might be perceived as sexually expressive.

I’m sure there must be plenty of women from this background who don’t have a problem, and who are enjoying healthy, fulfilling sexual lives. But for too many others – myself included; I escaped from an abusive family situation, aged 12 and the threat of forced marriage – this simply isn’t the case.

Oscar Wilde wasn’t kidding when he said that everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.

I’ve made it my business for a number of years to talk about sex openly in an effort to break the taboo. Physical intimacy is a basic human need – it should be okay for women to want sex and pursue satisfaction.

It’s slightly embarrassing, then, to finally admit my guilty, not-so-dirty little secret: until recently I hadn’t actually had any sex for five years.

For someone who believes that women should be able to embrace their sexuality, there certainly wasn’t much physical contact going on in my life from the ages of 27 to 32.

So why the lack of action?

It began when my last relationship ended in 2010. My ex – let’s call him S – was emotionally abusive, critical about my appearance and lifestyle, and on occasion his behavior bordered on coercive.

He was also deeply obsessed with my sex life before we met, and in fact took my previous sexual history personally, behaving exactly as if I’d cheated on him. He interrogated me about every detail. Over and over the questions came: how did it happen? Did you use a condom? How am I supposed to trust that you want to be in a relationship when it’s so easy for you to have these casual flings?

When I finally left this toxic situation, I vowed never again to be with anybody who didn’t respect me, who didn’t care about my happiness and who didn’t make me feel totally safe.

I had no idea at the time that that vow would mean no sex for half a decade.

In the intense period of self-reflection that follows any break-up, I wondered if I was the problem. I even adopted the same obsession S had with my past.

And I was finally able to admit to myself that on three occasions, before meeting him, I hadn’t exercised any choice. I had been raped. I just hadn’t applied that word to those experiences, because I thoroughly believed that they were my fault.

In one case, I’d been drinking. In another incident, I went home with someone I thought I could trust after missing my last train home. The last time it happened, I had actually consented to one act but had another forced upon me.

I also believed the popular myth that it couldn’t have been rape, because I didn’t fight back. It wasn’t until I became more involved in social media and read more widely about feminism that I realised I wasn’t alone in my painful experiences. An instinctive response to attack – one that many rape survivors describe – is to freeze or disassociate, exactly as I did.

I met M soon after the break-up. We used to work in the same building and often, when he passed my office, he would pop his head around the door and flirt with me.

He was physically stunning, cheeky and charismatic. I wanted him, and he wanted me – but not for anything more than a fling. As someone who believes women should be able to enjoy casual sex, it should have been simple.

M fulfilled most of my criteria: he was polite and respectful, and he clearly cared about my pleasure. Most importantly, he listened when I said ‘no’ to his regular enquiries about whether I was ready for some ‘no-strings-attached’ sex, as I did several times during those years.

He didn’t pressure me at all, which was sadly a novel experience for me up to that point.

But he couldn’t make me feel safe. Perhaps no one could at that time. And this was what lay at the heart of my five-year abstinence.

Nothing ever happened with him, because we wanted different things, and he’s married now. But he did restore a glimmer of hope that perhaps I simply needed to meet the right person, one who would be able to show a similar level of consideration when it came to sex.

It’s only earlier this year that I started dating again.

One important way of making sure I feel safe is to have a discussion about consent early on, so that I’m reassured about my date’s understanding.

Depending on how it’s done the conversation can be amazing foreplay. Seriously.

Satisfactory casual sex is complicated for many women. Unethical porn has a lot to answer for in its laughably inaccurate depictions of how women reach orgasm, if they bother to show it at all. Too many men watch and replicate; and what ends up happening isn’t sex. It’s simply an exchange of their own hand for a vagina, and calling it so.

Coming from a Muslim background (although I no longer identify as such), where women’s sexuality is often very strongly policed by both family and community, I’m aware that, to some, my experiences demonstrate some sort of ‘proof’ that it requires such scrutiny.

But I refuse to accept any form of sexual subjugation (unless it’s agreed upon in advance – but that’s another story for another time). I don’t accept our broken justice system that allows rapists to walk free and makes suspects out of victims. I don’t believe that the best we can or should hope for is sex that’s free from pain and abuse.

And I certainly don’t accept that I’m a bad person for pursuing what should be a joyful intimate act of human connection that – finally, after five long years – is giving me pleasure.