It’s not as bad as you think
Words & images © Paul Ransom
It was the last night of a long distance relationship. I think it was a Thursday. I am sure it was in the first week of September. She was due to fly back home the following day. To be honest, I think we already knew we were nearing the end, but what I did not know on that bittersweet night in 2012 was that her departure would mark the beginning of a new virginity. Ten sexless years later, she is a tender memory, I am an expert onanist, and the idea of coupling seems more remote than ever – although in truth sex is as available as any other discretionary purchase.
I say this because it reminds me that, despite a decade of abstinence, I am not entirely ‘incel.’ When two of my closest friends went to Pattaya (Thailand) last month I could have joined them. Like them, I could have consorted with svelte young ladies and indulged wholeheartedly in the numerous ‘handsome man’ fantasies that said ladies sell so well. I had the funds, I had the time…but I did not have the desire. Or rather, curiosity and a sense of adventure were not enough to impel me.
Thus, to some degree, my ten year celibacy marathon has been voluntary. If, for a few years, I still held onto the girlfriend dream, consecutive rebuffs and the passage of time have combined to quiet the chorus of longing. Since my last near orbit encounter with a woman ended before it even began in early 2016, I have not felt a single pang. Even the cute girls on the Thai Friendly app have not been sufficient to rev the horny engines.
However, the confluence of the BFFs’ erotic odyssey and my tenth barren anniversary has served to bring the issue into sharper focus. Not so much the sex – because I can buy that any time – but the emotion and psychology that swirl around it.
On one level sex is like eating, sleeping and shitting. Raw animal function. A no-brainer. Yet, on another, it is enmeshed with notions of lovability, of feeling noticed and validated, and of being able to give. It can also ask questions about the self and the nature of desire. What do I truly want and why do I tell myself I want it? What, in the end, am I fucking for?
- Feelings of power and potency?
- To feed an addiction?
- To make a baby?
Of course, the motivations for sex are as diverse as the people having it, and I am not here to judge the individual drivers. If the sex is freely consensual, (as in, not driven by predation or violence, distorted by asymmetries of power and wealth, and/or sanctioned by narratives of duty or entitlement), all good.1
As an imaginative and ambidextrous veteran of self-pleasure, it is not the sheer release of orgasm that I have missed these last ten years. Neither is it a sense of ‘we two’ or the oxytocin fuelled sugar hit of head over heels. Moreover, going without has not plunged me into either despair or woman blaming, nor has it precipitated a crisis of self-esteem. Indeed, since I washed the gorgeous guzheng2 player right out of my hair in 2016, I have never been happier. Truth is, I no longer seek it. Not sex. Not romance. Not the fantasy of the one. Even lack of the intimacy – and the girl shaped void it leaves inside me – has yet to manifest as bitterness; for though I sometimes feel alone and undesirable, the mood passes quickly.
- For more on this theme, check out The Benefits of Sexual Invisibility elsewhere on this site.
Reflecting on this now, I wonder if this is why I did not catch the plane to Pattaya. Because I have something to lose. I am no longer on the hook. Perhaps, in the short time embrace of a lovely stranger, something would break. A dam. And in the resultant flood who would most likely drown?
Though you may consider this overthinking, I am all too aware of my patterns. Suppose that, beyond the agreed parameters of transaction, I glimpsed something of the human being? What if I liked her or, more foolishly, contrived to convince myself that she liked me?
In fact, upon his return, one of my ‘mongering’ friends said that he could not escape the reality that “she was being paid to pretend to like me” and that as much as he wanted to believe that he could be the exception, and that there could be a genuine connection, it was clear to him that all his consorts were playing a role and selling him the idea of his own attractiveness and importance. “And why do I want to feel like that?” he pondered in a moment of late night, debrief honesty.
Then, when one of the Thai girls started messaging him, I heard the tremor of stirred sediment in his voice. (I am fairly sure he will get over it because he is both resilient and pragmatic, but it served as a warning. Even the most stoic and self-questioning of us are not fully vaccinated against the promise of the late-day miracle.)
I say ‘late-day’ because, like my two friends, I am hurtling towards 60 – and much as I may prefer to believe in my silver foxy powers of attraction, both the mirror and the available evidence suggest (repeatedly) that I am far from a great catch. Even if I have partly chosen the road less fucked, it is also clear that it has chosen me.
Stripping out self-pity and other dramas, the key question here is: what attitude will I take? Will I wallow and pine and lurch into paranoid misogyny, as if my celibacy were somehow the fault of overly fussy women, or will I seek out a place of equanimity that lets me extract all the benefits of singledom? Sensibly, I have opted for the latter. After all, moaning and blaming won’t make her love me. It will simply add defeatist misery to the increasing aches and thinning hair of inevitable aging.
If one is on the downhill slide, make friends with gravity.
And so…ten years after she flew…although I still hear the songs of sirens, I am lashed to the mast and reasonably content to be so. Not overjoyed, but not distraught. Perhaps even a little pleased with myself, for now I am no longer an addict. The mythical ‘sexy soul sister’ that I spent so much time and energy trying to find, and to please, is no longer the focus of my striving or the poster child for a gnawing sense of lack. A decade without the distraction of her sex has removed the clutter of both romantic fantasy and relationship reality and allowed me to know her more fully. These days, she lives inside me, where I can adore her with quiet, almost imperceptible acts if devotion. Maybe, after all this wanking, I am happier with figments.
Which brings me back to the hard fact. Get on a plane. Visit Soy 6. Give the figment a name for a few hours. Pay her for the girlfriend experience. Lose my virginity again.
Yet somehow, I know I won’t. Possibly because I know I can.
- At this point, some of you will be expecting me to denounce the skin trade as entirely immoral and to lambaste my friends for using their Aussie dollars to exploit the commonplace economic disparity between mature Western men and young Asian women, but I prefer a more nuanced understanding. While true that prostitution often involves exploitation, slavery and violence, it is surely conceivable that the trade can (and sometimes does) take less vicious forms. Righteous, rich world posturing and its blanket assertions frequently do little more than add stigma and judgement to the mix – and while the image of the older, overweight Westerner huffing and puffing on top of a skinny 20 something Thai girl is not exactly pleasant, the cut/copy outrage response has thus far done virtually nothing to either curtail the trade or to improve conditions for working girls. Ideological dehumanisation is almost never the answer. (That said, I still have an emotional unease about paying for sex. Do I want to be that guy? Just another fantasising farang?)
Ultimately, what I think I want cannot be bought and sold. (I think.) Furthermore, I question whether I really want it anymore.
Yet, if she were to knock on my door, I know my heart would melt. The distance between writing this piece and the touch of her hand is as vast as the status quo and as brief as the tick of a clock. All things may shatter in her eyeline.
Back in the real world, the sex drought seems set to continue3 and the Pattaya princesses remain distant and abstract. To this, I am not merely resigned. Rather, celibacy and singledom have been transfigured into a form of lightness and acceptance. Mostly, they feel like freedom. Like a blessed relief. In risk management terms, I have placed my bets on dealing with the cards I am daily being dealt. Sure, I could buck against the sexless trajectory and try a little harder…but why?
Because, after a decade without, you don’t miss it. The hunger abates and the absence of feeding is less keenly felt. And there are alternative intimacies. No, not the love bubble, nor the poetry and sweeping drama of the great love, but connect points nonetheless. Thus, strange as it may seem, I am not lonely, and I do not feel neglected or unloved. Neither am I a victim. (If ever I had an axe, I long ago gave up grinding it.)
To conclude, I thank my friends for their willingness to swim into the sea of sexual transaction, and to experiment with the intoxicants of youthful bodies. That their Thai sojourn should so neatly coincide with the tenth anniversary of my last lover’s departure has prompted me to turn the stones once more and to examine both what I desire and what I have realised I can well do without.
To liberate yourself from loneliness, learn to be alone.
1: Let me be clear; as someone who has known (and been in relationships with) many survivors of rape, incest and other forms of vicious coercion, I have no tolerance for the sexual predators amongst you. The results of your violence are so often deep and long-lasting that they are akin to a cancer of the soul; and although it is true that a good number of the women and men in my circle have managed to move beyond the worst aspects of their experience, this does nothing to dilute your culpability or minimise the cruelty of your actions. Indeed, even if you are a survivor yourself, and you have followed the all-too-common victim/perpetrator path, I can find no viable excuse or way to sign off on your behaviour. Understanding your torment does not convince me to validate your torment of others. Please, do not take any form of encouragement or permission from this article.
2: The guzheng is a Chinese zither. It sounds ‘harp like’ to my ear. Btw, the lady in question plays it beautifully and is rather well known in certain circles for her mastery of it.
3: We may indeed ask a pertinent question at this juncture; namely, is part of the reason for my sexlessness that I have maintained unrealistic expectations and/or desires? I am prepared to confess that unobtainable, younger women are more instantly, instinctively and consistently physically attractive than their older sisters. For just as women do not typically swoon for squinty, balding, thin-lipped 56yo guys with blotchy skin, so too I am never flushed with desire at the thought of my female contemporaries. Naturally, this does not prevent other modes of coupling, nor indeed the kind of sex grounded in genuine care and connection. However, despite our polite middle class denials, it is undeniably true that we humans are sexually/romantically triggered predominantly by appearances, and that as we get older (and less fertile) the triggers are fewer and further between, and therefore harder to pull.