Sexual Abstinence as a Form of Whole-Body Mindfulness

By Clara B. Jones


PHOTO: Liz Williams

PHOTO: Liz Williams

Simone de Beauvoir, French philosopher and intellectual, claimed that women are made, not born. I begin the present article about my non-linear path to Sexual Abstinence with a selfdisclosure: my self-presentation as a woman holds a very high position among my most valued personal concerns. My focus on womanhood as a category of traits is, in effect, not so much an expression of sensuality in relation to the spaces that I inhabit, but, to a greater degree, a controlled projection of my personal statements, including my voice.


Some philosophers have claimed that most lives are boring, not worthy of conversion into personal stories for others’ consumption. I am inclined to agree, primarily because confessional postures seem to often reflect self absorption, if not overt demands for attention. In the present personal statement, I attempt to devise a middle-ground between reserve and arrogance. My concern persists that recounting elements of my life’s experience will prove uninteresting and disappointing to the reader. I am also concerned that, following American Indian proscription, sharing private and individual matters violates my own relationship to self. However, sharing personal experiences is productive and justified to the extent that the material can be framed to impart lessons of interest and significance to others. As a modest goal, this essay is intended to employ the voice of one adult to encourage other adults to consider the topic of sexual abstinence in novel ways.


Coming of Age and Sexual Power


Many young women of my generation married as teenagers with conventional expectations about their roles in the family. I did not have customary expectations, but I was certain that I could live like my maternal grandmother, Clara, a hausfrau devoted to husband, children, and hearth. I had not yet read the French intellectual, Francoise Giroud or tested my capacities for independent living. Indeed, the previous choices seemed remote because I had successfully repressed their possibilities and, in particular, had no experience with the skill sets required for personal agency or for self-empowerment and self confidence. Alternatives to marriage seemed, ultimately, more unsettling than the lack of emotion I felt for my new husband who had generously offered marriage as I faced expulsion in my second year of college. I had imagined a promising, fruitful future with physically appealing and bright children.


Knowledge and Sexual Power


When I married, I considered myself a social inferior, unable to act with self-definition or to confront living in a grown-up posture. My fate was to marry, give birth to three children within five years and, like a parasite, depend on another’s largesse. Martin E. P. Seligman’s learned helplessness experiments demonstrated a correlation between perceived self-potency and freedom. If a woman’s life is embedded in a social network, she can learn, like Seligman’s research subjects, to escape socially-imposed constraints. A female can combine and recombine physical, biological, social, and spiritual pathways for a future minimizing poor choices and co-dependence, a life that maximizes individual accountability. Helpless states, familiar to many women, may also promote social phobias and fear of evaluation by others and fear of success. I continue to experience social anxiety as a set of debilitating emotions, leading me to avoid many situations or to tolerate a significant amount of discomfort.


Power between Sexual Partners


Men and women write differentially of relationships, men with a concern for the universal and the instrumental, women for local relationships. Compare Wordsworth and Adrienne Rich (“I am present and local, but I know my power”). Compare Flaubert and Virginia Woolf (“Nothing was so solid, so living, so hard, red, hirsute and virile as these two bodies for miles and miles of sea and sand hill”). As a graduate student in upstate New York, no book impressed me more than Giroud’s autobiography, I Give You My Word. Her talent for communicating time, emotion, and place in her own role revealed a woman wounded by love yet open to future experience, friendship, and change.


My copy of the volume became worn as several female students studied Giroud, each commenting in the margins with different colored pens. We were captivated by this singular personality who, from 1974 to 1977, served France as the first Minister for Women’s Affairs and Culture in Valéry Giscard D’Estang’s cabinet. Writing about Alma Mahler in 1988, Giroud observed: No, she was certainly not just anybody, this young woman around whom men never ceased to buzz. Alma had the feeling that she really was a perfect example of a superior human being. This lofty idea of herself, so rare in women, this satisfied awareness of herself, was one of her striking characteristics. Giroud might have been describing herself. This virtual absence of female archetypes in my life became a sign of my early self: alone, precocious, and emotionally impoverished. I am less in awe of Giroud today, but I remain grateful for her role, or my perception, in my psychological progression to womanhood, self-confidence, and, currently, sexual abstinence.


Sexual Abstinence Violates Cultural Norms


The power of conformity inhibits impulses to define, to name, and to act contrary to group norms. As if characterizing females, Shelby Steele wrote that conformity … amounts to a self-protective collectivism … leading to a … diminished sense of possibility. Steele advocated … pushing the collective identity out of our individual space … in order to utilize the classically American and middle class profile of … hard work, self-reliance, initiative, property ownership, family ties, and so on. A problem for many females (including myself) is personal identity.


I recalled Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes while reading Steele’s book. The fairytale taught about conformity. The emperor’s subjects complied with the opinions of others, praising his nonexistent robes just as women in the United States comply with traditional roles of socialization and authorities (parents, partners, labor) defined by gender. The subjects of Shelby Steele’s essay conform to a political and social agenda demanding a construction of reality in which women are perpetually victimized by a hostile, dominant culture. In the fairytale and Steel’s essay, individuals modify their beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors to match those of people and institutions influencing them. As if speaking of the status of women, Thomas Henry Huxley stated, “If individuality has no play, society does not advance; if individuality breaks out of all bounds, society perishes.” The foregoing ideas highlight states of being and challenges facing many women who may envision alternative paths in composing their lives.


Costs and Benefits of Sexual Abstinence


Sexual abstinence has offered me opportunities to reflect about my relationship to self, my relationship to a potential partner, and my relationship to my internal and external spaces. As a result, I have acquired the tools to evaluate these relations in an individual stimulating my aroused physical states, feelings, emotions, and thoughts, including, impulses to act on them. These processes of mindful presence facilitate my guided search for quiet observation, whole presence, uninterrupted concentration, and measured focus. These intentional exercises are not, in themselves, a search for balance, but a search for experiential symmetry and congruence, including, harmony of spirit within myself and with another person. Extending the philosophy of Perceptual Psychologist Eleanor J. Gibson, these paths strongly influence my decisions to respond or not to respond to a potentially intimate relationship, however defined.


Since the 1980s, the aforementioned intentions have been immeasurably guided by a meditation technique and by Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings. I do not believe that meditation or yoga is a necessary or sufficient element for intentional sexual abstinence. I do believe, however, that a necessary, though insufficient skill for women choosing sexual abstinence, is calmly and believably saying, “No!”,to herself and another person, even when strong emotions propel her to a different response. In my experience, this skill required two years of conscious, aware self-instruction and self-care, a learning program initiated by loving communication from a valued female acquaintance rather than by subjective insight. The narrative outlined in this essay has comprised multiple stages leading to intentionality combined with serendipity; I surrendered fear of speaking with my own voice, an empowering process yielding self-confidence and, sometimes, overconfidence, a decidedly undesirable consequence.


From my perspective, other costs have resulted from my choices to abstain from sexual congress in any form. Perhaps the disadvantage of greatest concern is the degree to which that program requires not only physical, but also emotional detachment from a potential partner. Realization of emotional and mental intimacy is fundamental to friendship that, at my age of 69, is not as challenging a task as it might have been when I was 35 or 45. Nonetheless, I offer the idea that sexual abstinence need not be viewed as a long-term or a midrange state, but, rather, as an option to enhance self-exploration and self-agency, similar to the goals of a transformative spiritual retreat. I am not advocating sexual abstinence, per se, but simply asserting that, combined with self-pleasure in many forms, this process of conscious and aware forbearance has significantly enhanced my abilities to heighten whole-body mindfulness, resulting in more time devoted to events other than sex. This arrangement constitutes the self-presentation that has worked for me for 14 years.


Obviously readers realize that the skills detailed in this essay require deliberation and problem-solving. Many women are likely to view these characteristics as undesirable if they suppress spontaneity and fun. These issues require adjustment to individual personalities, temperaments, styles, and other factors, but I don’t consider these challenges oppositional to a sexually abstinent lifestyle. To the contrary, challenges can be motivating and intellectually and experientially stimulating. Redefining one’s expressions of sexuality via individual styles in clothing, home design, food, and other civilized alternatives is a neat experience.


Sexual abstinence as a lifestyle will not appeal to everyone. However, the option might be viewed as a new set of possibilities, enhancing a woman’s capacities for intimacy in a variety of forms. In essence, Sex and the City folkways and decisions may have their place as precursors to sexual activities, but emotional restraint, reflection, and periods of information gathering may benefit our long-term expressions of pleasure.


Suggested Readings


Giroud F, Lévy B-H (1993) Women and men: a philosophical conversation. Boston: Little, Brown & Company (English translation, 1995, by ©Richard Miller)


Koch PB, Weis DL (eds.) (2000) Sexuality in America: understanding our sexual values and behaviour. New York: Continuum


Rothblum ED (1994) Transforming lesbian sexuality. Psychology of Women Quarterly 18, 627-641


Sobo EJ, Bell S (eds.) (2001) Celibacy, culture, and society: the anthropology of sexual abstinence. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press



Clara B. Jones is a scientist specializing in social behavior and social organization. She is amenable to receiving brief queries (at no cost) via e-mail ( and/or to providing solution-focused coaching support (at cost) addressing a broad range of female issues, particularly, synergy between professional and private spaces (description of services available by e-mail request). Jones is a nontraditional Mother, Grandmother, Friend, Acquaintance, Mentor, and Respondent.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker