I feel a bit apprehensive writing about being a virgin in his mid-thirties, although I have written several times about it (I’m hoping this post doesn’t just duplicate the previous ones. I suspect it might, as sometimes I need to work at an inner feeling or thought process for a long time, years even, until I understand it or see the flaws behind it). I guess it’s considered an embarrassing subject. In the frum (Orthodox Jewish and religious) community it’s very unusual to be a virgin at this age, as everyone is supposed to be married by now. In mainstream Western society marriage is not such an inevitable feature of life at this stage, but everyone seems to be assumed to have been sexually active since their teens. Certainly when I was an undergraduate (back in the era of dodos if not dinosaurs) the assumption seemed to be that everyone was having sex and the discussion, so much as there was any, was about safe sex. I’m assuming these days undergraduates are exposed to a lot more discussion about what constitutes consent, but either way the assumption is that everyone is sexually active and the only question is how to manage that safely, not whether there are circumstances in which celibacy is acceptable, let alone preferable. Even at the secondary school I went to, which was Jewish, but not particularly religious, the discussion of sex was fairly minimal and largely limited to the biological facts. I doubt anyone really wanted fifteen or sixteen year old children sleeping around, but the emotional issues around sex or even dating weren’t discussed in class (I don’t know what the students discussed, because I didn’t get involved in those kinds of conversations).
I don’t know why this is such a big issue for me, although I have made a few suggestions in the past. I don’t drink, due to fear of alcohol as much as the fact that alcohol is a depressant and that I’m on medication, but I don’t obsess on how much I’m missing out on by not having a whisky with the men at kiddush after shul (synagogue) on Shabbat (the Sabbath). I want to discuss my sexuality in therapy, but I rarely seem to get around to it and I struggle to find the words, including when I post about it. I’ve posted about it multiple times because I’ve never been able to really understand or articulate the vague and inchoate things I feel, to the extent that I’m wondering if this is some Freudian mechanism and I’m unconsciously stopping myself from talking about it properly, both on the blog and in therapy.
Obviously, unless you’re actually asexual (which I’m not) sex is going to figure in your life in some way, probably quite a big one. I read somewhere that sex is like water: if you’ve got it, you don’t think about it, but if you haven’t got it, you can’t think about anything else. That’s how I feel a lot of the time. I don’t want to think about sex, but often I can’t not think about it. It doesn’t help that we live in a highly sexualised society compared with even a couple of decades ago. I went into Smiths (newsagents/stationery shop) to buy writing paper and as I walked past the magazines the covers were yelling at me that they had tips to improve my sex life (well, I guess it couldn’t get any worse). I feel very guilty if I feel attracted to someone passing by without my really being able to articulate why I feel guilty. I guess it’s partly halakhic (Jewish law) reasons and partly feminism, but also that it makes me feel so lonely and unlovable. And I guess there are a load of subsidiary fears, like if I somehow do manage to get married, will my wife even fancy me, let alone love me, or will she just ‘settle’ for me because I’m not an awful person and she’s lonely and wants children? I don’t want someone to settle for me, I want to be loved for who I am (which I guess is the downside for going to a shadchan (matchmaker) for people with ‘issues’ – the fear that we’re both settling because we have issues).
Partly, as I’ve said before, it’s about being an adult more than being about sex per se. Sex is practically the most adult thing one can do, I suppose, aside from having a baby. So it becomes symbolic of all the other adult things I can’t or don’t do: drive, work full-time, drink, pay a mortgage, have dinner guests… Doubly so now my (younger) sister is married. But I think I would rather be sexually satisfied than drive or drink alcohol. I do often feel like a fraud, someone ‘passing’ as an adult rather than really being one. When my colleagues at work, all of whom have children and all bar one of whom are married or in a relationship, talk about their home lives with children and significant others, I feel infantilised, as if I’m not truly an adult because I do not have a partner or child. I actually feel much younger than all of them, even though one of my colleagues is my age and another is only two years older. That feeling is partly from being the newest one to the team, of course, and the fact that I am still learning the ropes at work, but being unable to join in with discussions about home life in the same way doesn’t help.
Beyond that, I suppose I don’t really know how to deal with my inner drives in general. I’ve mentioned before that I seem to have alexithymia, an inability to understand my own emotions. Certainly the emotions around sex are particularly difficult to understand, with it provoking love, lust, curiosity, fear, desire, guilt, shame, despair, anxiety, worthlessness, tenderness, perhaps even anger, a whole cocktail of emotions that I don’t really understand or know how to deal with and which I am not always fully aware of. Often I just feel bad when I find someone attractive and it’s only lately, now that I’m really trying to probe my emotions to deal with the alexithymia, that I can begi to identify these feelings.
It is doubly difficult when the feelings surround a ‘real’ person I’m crushing on (rather than a daydream or famous person I’m attracted to), because I don’t really know how to express those feelings to someone, particularly if they aren’t interested. I’ve only ever dated six people anyway, but of those six I was set up on blind dates with two and two approached me on a dating site, so there were only two that I actually asked out myself. I have asked other women who turned me down, including a couple who I thought liked me (one of whom I had an anxiety dream about last night. It seems that well over a decade later, I’m not fully over the situation, even though I know she’s married to someone else now), but I still find it hard to ask women out, hence part of the reason I’m going to a shadchan (matchmaker), because singles events are a non-starter for me, even beyond the fact that events in the Orthodox world are increasingly gender-segregated (which I think is a massive mistake and totally unnecessary, but that’s a subject for another time).
Freudian psychology is out of fashion, I think, in academia and certainly Freud and Judaism are seen as opposed (by Freud as well as by rabbis). But I think there is common ground in a number of areas, from my limited knowledge of each. One thing Freudian psychology and Orthodox Judaism have in common is the sense of the importance of the libido as a key component of the human psyche (libido in psychological terms is not synonymous with sex drive, but sex is a big part of it). In Judaism there is an acknowledgement that sex within marriage is a positive, healthy thing, essential for psychological well-being. There is also an acknowledgement that more highly achieving people tend to have higher libidos, which can get them into trouble if they aren’t careful and that curbing the sex drive is very difficult and it is better sublimated than totally repressed. Hence the whole machinery of Jewish sexual interactions, both active (e.g. early marriage) and precautionary (e.g. limiting interactions between men and women who aren’t married to each other or close blood relations).
Where this becomes difficult is this sense that I have powerful urges inside of me that I fear that I can’t control. I guess it’s like waking up and discovering that one is flying a 747 with no knowledge of how to fly even a little glider. I’m frightened of sex, as I’m frightened by any sense of power that I might have (hence avoiding davening from the amud (leading prayers in shul), showing off my knowledge whether Torah or secular etc.). It’s hard to know what to do or who I can talk to or how to talk about things I have no vocabulary to talk about. I have no vocabulary because in frum circles sex is simply not talked about, whereas in mainstream circles it’s not spoken about with a vocabulary I feel comfortable using or in language I can understand (not having experienced it and with alexithymia that means that descriptions of emotions are not always helpful to me). I wouldn’t know who to talk to about it and I don’t know what I would ask.
I guess a lot of it is ‘unknown unknowns’ again, which I can’t prepare for, the biggest being whether I would be able to give to someone in that way and whether I would feel comfortable being ‘known’ so intimately by someone or whether it would feel uncomfortable or invasive. My highly limited and tame experiences in this regard in the past are not encouraging in this respect. I want to be accepted and sex and love might feel like acceptance, but then they might be yet more things that make me feel uncomfortable and which I am incompetent at. It’s impossible to tell, which I suppose makes it such a scary, unknowable thing.