These days, it seems you can't look around without being bombarded with messages about sex, but is everybody really obsessed with it? Anna Carey spoke to Hephzibah Anderson, who took a year's vow of chastity to see how it affected her relationships with men -- and herself.
Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, it's hard to avoid the topic of sex. It drives the plots of television programmes, and inspires almost all advertisements. Sensational sex scandals sell newspapers and magazines; half-naked, pouting men and women are used to sell everything from shampoo to pants.
Glamour models are mainstream celebrities. Porn is just a quick mouse click away. And young girls are encouraged from an early age to look sexy above all else. The implication of this sex-saturated culture is that we're all up for it, all the time. But what if we're not?
Three years ago, British writer Hephzibah Anderson decided to find out. Fed up with brief encounters that went nowhere and left her feeling unsatisfied, she started wondering what would happen if she didn't fall into bed with men just because it seemed like the inevitable end to a specific date. She wanted sex to "feel like something momentous again". And so she decided that she would not have sex for a year.
Now, she has documented those 12 months of "no more sex in the city" in Chastened (Chatto and Windus, €15.30), an elegantly written account of one woman's attempt to live by a whole new set of dating rules.
"When I meet people who've read the book, they'll say, 'Oh, I know so much about you!', which makes me shrink back a little bit," laughs Anderson. "But, interestingly, it's been encouraging people to reveal huge chunks of their personal life to me as well. It's been very reciprocal -- I feel like it's not just me putting myself out there. A lot of people seem to really identify with the book."
In today's sex-crazed world, people who aren't having a lot of sex can feel isolated -- even if it's by their own choice. Those who aren't obsessed with getting as much sex as possible can be made to feel like strange, asexual freaks. "One of the things that inspired me," says Anderson, "was definitely the feeling that permissiveness has almost become restrictive in its own way -- because now it's the only option. And to say that you don't want to behave like that -- even if you're in no way judging anyone who does, but it's just not for you -- it makes you sound reactionary or prudish, or extreme or weird. I really wanted to make people feel better about the periods when there isn't much happening to them in the bedroom."
In recent years, the idea of chastity -- in particular female chastity -- has become a hot-button issue, especially in America. But this obsession with sexual behaviour seems like just another aspect of a sex-obsessed culture. The abstinence movement has become a phenomenon -- and teens aren't the only people being targeted.
Plenty of books aimed at adult women have been published over the past decade, including best-sellers such as Dawn Eden's Thrill of the Chaste and Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty. However, most of these books are coming from a decidedly conservative, often Christian, slant. The new advocates of modesty and chastity are usually against pre-marital sex full stop, and insist that it inevitably leads to unhappiness in women. They tend to view every unmarried, sexually experienced woman as a tragic victim or a brazen trollop (who is, of course, also doomed to misery, even if she doesn't realise it).
Anderson says she wanted to reclaim the idea of abstinence from these conservative moralists who insist that their approach to sexuality is the only correct one. "I didn't want to be out there saying, 'This is what you should be doing'," she says, explaining that she wanted to make not having sex "something that people could bring back into the social spectrum, make it an option. I think there's a real appetite for discussing this issue without having to take that sort of conservative stance".
Luckily, Anderson isn't the only writer to approach the topic in a more measured way. Jessica Valenti, of the popular blog Feministing.com, recently published a book called The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, which highlights the ways in which the focus on young girls' virginity reduces girls to their sexuality and nothing more -- and which denounces them as somehow impure when they become sexually active. Anderson is equally uncomfortable with the idea of female purity as something to be guarded, lest girls become damaged goods.
"The obsession with sex, purity and virginity is not helpful," she says. "Not only does it send out all sorts of really troubling messages to young people, usually prepubescent girls, but once you've made what they consider to be that huge mistake, there's no guidance, so you might as well just sleep with everybody now you've slept with one person. It's ridiculous."
Although she doesn't agree with them, Anderson says she can understand one aspect of the abstinence movement that might appeal to teens. "I think it can be really hard to resist [the pressure to have sex before you're ready], and I can see that, just as I had my vow, which took some pressure off me, someone can say, 'Look, I have this ring!' as a reason not to have sex, because they just want some space in which to figure it all out."
Anderson, who is 33, has a lot of sympathy for today's teenagers, growing up in more sexualised world. "I think our generation had it easier in many ways. We could wear big jumpers and Docs, but girls now are expected to dress much more sexily all the time."
Speaking of dressing sexily -- or otherwise -- one of the first things that Anderson did when she made her vow was buy some new clothes. "Initially, I went out shopping because that's what I do to mark a change," she says. "But then I stepped back and looked at the things I'd been picking out and realised they were actually quite demure." She discovered that not only did she like her new, more modest wardrobe, but that it was sexy in its own way. "There was also a grown-up, quite sexy glamour to some of the things," she says. "The sort of glamour that comes from within, from the way you hold yourself when you're wearing them."
Anderson went on plenty of dates during her year of no sex -- and indeed, her vow of chastity did allow pretty much everything apart from penetrative sex, which she considered to be the moment of true intimacy "at which I started needing more than I might ever have wanted from the man in question". She says that knowing that sex wasn't on the menu did make her approach dates in a different way. "It ruled out the cute but slightly dim guys, and it made me give other guys a chance who I might not have considered otherwise," she says. "Nobody really gives each other time any more. And although I was initially giving them time because of the vow, I think that they gave me time too because of this, rather than just wandering off and finding someone else."
In fact, for some men, not having to go to bed straight away was a relief. Anderson believes that men are under even more pressure to be constantly ready for action -- and if they're not, people think there's something amiss. "Men are still expected to make all the moves," she says. "I have a couple of female friends who have found themselves in bed with guys who were clearly attracted to them, but for some reason just weren't, um, reaching final base. And it completely freaked these girls out. They felt they couldn't really discuss it with the guys, but they felt rejected and that they were doing something wrong. But if it had been women holding out on sex until another date, I don't think people would have thought it was strange."
Anderson's year of chastity is long over now. But she says it has changed her forever. "Once you step back from it all and figure out what you want and who you are -- stuff it's very easy to lose sight of -- there's not really any going back," she says. "It's made me more considered. It made me take responsibility for my decisions about where my romantic life goes, rather than just waiting for it to happen to me.
"It has changed the way I approach dates: I have to be quite sure of somebody before I take it further. I haven't done what a friend of mine has done and said to a guy, 'Well, I'm not going to sleep with you for six months'. But, in my head, I've certainly got a much longer time frame, and I'm happier with that."
Anderson also appreciates that intimacy doesn't have to be sexual. "Less is more," she says. "Although it can be a fraught decision not to sleep with somebody, you can get very close to them through having a conversation about why you're probably not totally suited. There are different kinds of regret, and the regret about not sleeping with somebody is infinitely sweeter and more romantic. You can get a lot of drama out of that as well -- 'Oh, if only I'd met you earlier!'"
And when it comes to romantic relationships, Anderson discovered that slowing down can lead to greater intensity. "I found that once I'd set certain physical boundaries, I became more open emotionally. There are some conversations that you'd just feel too vulnerable to have in bed naked with a guy you don't know all that well; the idea of rejection at that stage is just so distressing. You're not going to be honest with yourself, let alone with him about how you feel about him and the whole thing. So, now I'm more honest with myself and with the guys in question. And I'm more open, which means I get more openness from them."
There is, Anderson says, something comforting about making a vow and living by rules that mean you don't have to make choices. But you can't live like that forever. "At the end, I thought if I can't make my own decisions now, then the year will have been a failure," she says. "It's not about making it to the end of the year, it's what happens afterwards. Learning the lessons is one thing, but living by them is a whole other thing. It does mean really thinking carefully about what you want from a relationship and being honest with yourself and with a partner.
"And it's hard, that stuff. And it doesn't mean you're not going to get hurt. But, hopefully, it will mean that you have more fun along the way." So, after all her adventures, is she seeing someone now? "Hmm," she says, and laughs. "There is some interesting potential -- I'll just leave it at that." Sounds like she's living happily ever after, whether there's any sex in the city or not.