Celibacy As Survival

Sex dominated my life for years. When it stopped, the truth behind why became impossible to suppress.

Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock/UK / Contributing Photographer
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock/UK / Contributing Photographer
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock/UK / Contributing Photographer

Desire is a strange thing. How do you track it? How do you know it to be true? What is my own desire? Not something fabricated to meet another’s expectation or something I was taught to simulate in order to feel worthy but what is mine, purely my own, rooted in (and from within) my own body, what feels good for me? The more I consider these questions, the more my body has shown me it wants to be celibate.

It has been three years.

Which is strange, because sex had forever been on my mind. At my all-girls public high school in Sydney, Australia, I realized young that I was queer, because I would hungrily watch the curve of breasts through the taut pink cotton of our uniform, wanting to be consumed. I craved a body on top of me, that feeling of sexual obliteration, and even if I didn’t know the feeling intimately, it still felt like a familiar linger. So in private, I would read erotica and Rumi poems as I sucked on my thumb and drew it down my body as if it were a lover’s tongue. I was cognizant forever of sex, and whenever I was faced with it — in the movies, in a stranger’s leering eyes — even if I hated it, I found some sick safety in the gaze as if my body had been primed to be watched and desired from a very young age; there was something habitual about the danger.

By my early 20s, I’d had more sex than most people I knew and I felt extremely capable in a very corny way. I was a self-described nymphomaniac, and it was a fascination I garnered young after finding the works of Sidney Nolan, a contemporary Australian painter, in the pages of my mother’s Australian art magazines. I related to the artist’s fantastical series on nymphs — these magical beings of lust and color. The word itself, nymph, felt peculiar yet resonant like something worthy of my attention.

Growing up, I was severely surveilled at home. Autonomy wasn’t something I was raised with. Being in an oppressive environment with postcolonial parents who had survived a genocide, fleeing to find safety meant that pleasure was a faraway or hidden thing. Mental illness, abuse, and control ravaged my home life, and there was little to no reprieve. By the time I lost my virginity to my Indian Australian boyfriend outside the Sydney botanical gardens, I had made a deal with the devil. I wanted to forsake my Muslim upbringing for lust. I wanted to live, to be free. For the less than a year we were together, we only ever had sex in parks, in cars, in movie theaters. The thrill of getting caught was electric, I felt my most carnal, and I welcomed the euphoria of sex in my otherwise tormented life. At the very least, I was being desired by someone I also desired; it felt like I finally had value.

After this relationship ended, I moved from Australia to America — alone — which became a way for me to understand what sex was for me outside of a familial or religious gaze. It was a way for me to find what I thought was liberation back then, meaning I throttled myself into any body that would have me. Sex became the perfect disassociation tool. So I experimented: I found threesomes, queer sex, and kink. I slept with other people’s partners, lied, and consumed myself with the shadow parts. I did drugs, fucked strangers, and got myself into dangerous situations. But there was something, I convinced myself, that was freeing in knowing myself intimately — to begin to grapple with myself as a sexual entity, with no shame, believing this ugly part of me could finally be adored. Suddenly, I didn’t need to hide this uncouth, slimy part of me anymore; it could move with me, dance with me, and become a second skin. My naïve pursuit was that I wanted to be known, intimately, by a lover. And though all good in theory, something felt so wrong inside of me as I continued to broach sexual relationships from my mid-to-late 20s. Something started to become very clear about the dishonesty with which I was carrying myself.

By 29, my body suddenly felt as if it was divorced from my soul; always in a performance of self rather than being myself, I felt as if I was constantly floating. I couldn’t recognize myself anymore. After finding myself in a relationship where sex was frequent, I began to question what I liked. Did I actually like being dominated? What did something like “Fuck me, Daddy?” mean … to me? Moreso, why did I want to disappear during sex, and why did I crave this obliteration so much? Especially, curiously, when I was having sex, I wasn’t physically happy. I experienced small erosions and cuts on my vagina, which made it hard to pee and meant I was always in the cycle of repair, always struggling with some kind of sexually related pain. This began an existential conundrum that turned into something deeper. What was I hiding to myself? What was I missing? Why couldn’t I just be well? Why wasn’t my body normal?

My then-partner and I were both film nerds, and a lot of our relationship was spent watching movies together; I enjoyed psychological thrillers the most, and I bragged about watching serial-killer films, spending too much time in the crepuscular darkness of man’s decrepitness. I told myself that I wanted to understand us as a species, but now I think what I was wanting was to understand the psychology of the depravity I had witnessed as a child. Toward the end of our relationship at the end of 2018, we watched the haunting film The Tale, by Jennifer Fox. Something about The Tale did something to my insides. I turned to my partner at the time and said, not fully understanding what I was admitting, “I think something happened to me as a child.” It was one of the first moments in my life when suddenly things — all the things, primarily about my body — made sense.

Memory is strange because it can exist so abstractly and if one thing doesn’t make sense, it’s easy to dismiss and believe in its impossibility. It would take me months and going back to Australia, back home, to fully comprehend what I realized I had always known but had never wanted to say out loud. Because I had felt, as I had been groomed to believe, that I deserved it and that what had happened to me wasn’t a big deal.

It has taken me a long time to announce that I’m a child-sexual-abuse survivor, something that these days I take great honor in stating. Others think it comes with a lot of pain (and it does), but for me, what it has provided is a framework of understanding myself, my grief, my body’s memory, and all the intricacies of myself that I denied in order to support the narrative of my life that others had written for me. When I call myself a child-sexual-abuse survivor, I feel liberated. It allows me to find my kin, others like me, who are the only people who have ever been able to understand what level of pain my body holds — without projection. I say it as frequently as I can for others so that it can be a lighthouse for them as well. We are not alone, there are so many of us, and it’s powerful to move through the shame to arrive at a place of acceptance with yourself.

When I was younger, I thought nobody would ever love me and that my body was a disgusting remnant of the horror I tried to hide. Decades later, I’m here in the same body filled with tenderness and respect for myself. For the past few years, I’ve worked tirelessly to be accountable to my own body’s memories and feelings — even ones I can’t explain. I’ve committed myself to years of trauma therapy, EMDR, and the sacred medicine ayahuasca. Early on in my journey, my therapist would tell me, “Fariha, you’re safe in your body,” again and again and again as a reminder that whatever had happened to it in that past was not my fault and I was now here, safe in my body with agency over myself.

It has taken years, and it will take many more, but I’ve worked hard to disentangle myself from the years of grooming, when I was convinced that I was worthless and unworthy of a good life. I pulled myself out of the gutter, cleaned myself up, and sat upright. I’m not a victim. I know that now. This life of mine has been tragic, but the rewards of the lessons are immense. That’s not a consolation prize; that’s just what happened to me when I learned to alchemize grief.

So for the last few years, I’ve chosen celibacy as a way to slow down and understand myself. The mind forgets what the body keeps the score of, but sooner or later, you have to face it all. My body stopped wanting to have sex as a way to remind myself, Take yourself seriously; take your body’s pain seriously! And that’s just it, isn’t it? So many of us are so far from ourselves, distant from who we are, because for so long, we’ve been running. Celibacy as an action has meant that I have to look at the void. I have to face it. I’ve had to stop running, but I’ve also had to come back to myself and honor everything that is here, within me, alive.

Celibacy As Survival