How to be queer and celibate

Sex and sexuality aren’t as closely tied as you might think.

by Jamie Windust
03 March 2020, 4:00pm

Queer people -- and particularly trans people -- are often introduced to sex in a way that can skew their relationship with it later down the line. For trans people that can manifest in the form of relationships with “chasers”: cis men who see trans bodies as a purely carnal, rather than emotional thing to engage with. Heteronormative and cis-Eurocentric ideals of dating often make it feel like if you’re not in a relationship, you’re not worthy of one. As a result, you end up reaching out to whoever is willing to give intimacy as a way to feel like you are, too, part of the expected normality.

At this point in my life, my relationship with sex is skewed. Fucked, if you will. As I lay on my back looking into the mirrored ceiling, wondering whether or not dinner is going to be fish and chips or the leftover stir-fry from the night before, I forget that there’s a person in between my legs. Another late night turned into a hook-up that means nothing. Another person to avoid when trotting around the supermarket next week. It makes me ponder whether or not celibacy could be the answer to my problems. Like many people who have negative or harmful relationships with sex, I’ve been asking myself: is going cold-turkey the best way to sort it out?

A lot of young queer people are switching up the way we see casual sex. Research in the US of LGBTQ+ students at college saw that they were more likely to ensure their 'hook-ups' were the antithesis of heteronormative: focusing more on communication and discussion and sometimes not even including sex at all. Celibacy is often confused with asexuality, an orientation in which someone may experience romantic feelings -- but not physical, sexual attraction. Voluntary celibacy, however, is something that queer people actively choose to partake in, as a reaction to their complex sexual history.

Dr Karen Gurney, Clinical Psychologist and Psychosexologist at 56 Dean Street and The Havelock Clinic believes celibacy can be a viable option for people with past sexual trauma. “Talking about sex is difficult for most people, mainly because we’ve been socialised not to by a shame-based society,” she says. “Choosing not to have sex in itself can be an important part of sexual expression. For example, choosing not to have sex with others for a period of time can be a way to regain control and draw boundaries. For some people, it might be important to pay attention to when this strategy might be becoming less useful, and perhaps turning more into an avoidance strategy.”

Therapy and communication with your mind, however, are equally important when it comes to dismantling and later rebuilding our relationship with sex as queer people. Tori West, the editor of BRICKS Magazine, is bisexual and celibate, and understands this. “Celibacy happened subconsciously for me, because I’d gone through so much heartbreak and emotional trauma from previous relationships, and just sexual relationships, that I found it difficult to trust people,” she says. “I started altering my relationship with my body and my mind [until] I got to a point where I was like ‘How can I share my body with others if my mind isn’t in the right space?'”

Celibacy is often seen as a temporary fix for a problem that’s deeper rooted. Is that temporary fix right for everyone? Antoine, from London, is bi and genderqueer, and currently celibate. “I have a plan to continue at least for another few months and then re-evaluate how I feel,” they say. “When I stop [being celibate], I want it to be because it feels like something I’m doing consciously and joyfully, not because I feel lonely or touch-hungry. Celibacy has taught me that I have some things I need to work out, and that this work can’t and shouldn’t be rushed.” From Antoine’s viewpoint, celibacy is something we shouldn’t always see as a period of losing out on something. It’s a time to work on our relationship with sex in a way that means we’re earning something from its absence.

An absence from sex can provide the opportunity to unlearn various sexual behaviours and narratives, and rebuild a relationship that is healthier, and more enjoyable. “[At first] sex for me was intrinsically tied to romance,” says writer and model Radam Ridwan. “I believed in heteronormative concepts of love and attraction and sex -- wanting a Drew Barrymore haircut, a Hollywood husband, a candle-lit wedding night with love making. But at some point, I realised that my life wasn’t destined to be like these films. After unlearning heteronormativity and strutting into queerness I went through a phase of abundant sex with shitty (ie. racist, transphobic) people. The simple act of wanting me was enough to take me.” Abstaining from sex helped Radam regain their understanding of what they wanted from it. “Time away from sexual relationships gave me the space to figure out what turned me on, instead of how to make others cum.”

Falling into unhealthy coping mechanisms when it comes to sex can be normalised, because of the conversations the queer community often has around sex. Doing it all of the time can distract you from other issues, and it feels fine because we’re told that’s simply what queer people do. But it's important to remember your relationship to sex -- whether or not it’s tied to celibacy -- is still a relationship that’s worth working on. Speaking to professionals like Karen showed me that jumping towards celibacy isn’t always the right, or necessary thing for queer people to do, but it can be a successful temporary solution. Ultimately, it's intrinsically linked to the ways in which we communicate as human beings, so allow yourself to navigate your connection with sex without shame or stigma. Your mind and your body is precious cargo, and you need to treat it with respect.