Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 1: Abstinence
In Africa, many sex educators use what has become known as the ABC strategy to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention. There are three components to the strategy: Abstinence, Be Faithful, and Condoms. In this series, Clarisse Thorn, an American sex educator now working in Southern Africa, writes about each component in turn, talking about its significance in her work and her own sexuality.
In the beginning of 2009, I made a name for myself as a sex-positive, pro-BDSM educator in Chicago—and no one was more surprised than me by how suddenly successful I was! I curated the explosive pro-sex, pro-queer, pro-kink documentary film series Sex+++ at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. I lectured on both BDSM and sexual communication in Chicago, San Francisco and New York. I even fielded a call from Oprah's office! Then, just as my life was going all crazy, I was offered a job doing HIV/AIDS mitigation in southern Africa. I've wanted to do it for years, so I accepted—though not without some soul-searching.
Rather a change of pace, right? I thought I might even give up basic romance by coming here ... but not so fast. Only a month after moving, I met a guy I really liked. He's another American, also here to work on HIV/AIDS; we live a bit far apart, but flirted constantly by text message. We discussed etymology, traded literary recommendations, compared religion—I'm Unitarian, he's a Baha'i convert. He lived one summer in Chicago, and we discovered that we'd shopped at the same bookstores.
One night, we found ourselves in the same nightclub. Using a cigarette as an excuse to go outside, we abandoned the music and talked for hours. Our friends came to check on us multiple times, with varying degrees of smirking insinuation; we kept promising to go back in after one cigarette, then neglecting to actually smoke it. The conversation went through homesickness, ethics, more literature. I lent him a book. He promised to visit me.
His next text message, a few days later, was plainly nervous. Can you imagine someone blurting a text message? That's what he did when he told me that he takes the "no sex before marriage" part of his Baha'i faith seriously. I was stunned—but I had to laugh, too. Of course Miss Clarisse Thorn, pro-sex advocate, just had to fixate on a man who wouldn't sleep with her!
I did not undergo abstinence-only sex education. My middle school's health teachers were admirably forthright and even hosted condom demonstrations in the auditorium, more power to 'em. I also had the good fortune to be raised Unitarian—so I received incredibly compassionate, complete sex education in Sunday School.
Still, for a long time I was strongly attracted to chastity. In my teens, I decided that I wouldn't lose my virginity until I was much older—I think I picked age 25—because I wanted to be sure I'd be mature enough to handle it. This resolution didn't last, but after I became sexually active, I occasionally came back to the idea. A few female friends took "time off"—in some cases, full years of abstinence. I considered doing so myself, strongly, and for a long time.
Back then, I was terrible at communicating about sex. Reading explicit sex scenes made me feel anxious, perhaps because I felt they set standards I couldn't "perform". Talking explicitly to my partners felt impossible, not least because I had practically no idea what I wanted. Worst of all, I could feel the societal boxes around my sexuality—for instance, the idea that good sex looks like mainstream porn*, with a certain stereotype of men's pleasure establishing our sexual norms—but I couldn't articulate them. Plus, there were dark undercurrents to my sexuality that simply scared me. Abstinence was the only obvious way around all my sex-negative cultural baggage!
Once I adjusted into my BDSM orientation, once I got a grip on how to circumvent some problems with how Americans tend to think about sex, once I experienced mutual sexual communication that was totally trusting and adventurous... my attraction to chastity was greatly reduced. These days, the idea only seems awesome when (a) I've just been romantically burned, or (b) I want more time to myself.
It's tempting to think that Chastity Boy might be the same way: that he's uncomfortable for similar reasons; that he'll "get over it". Tempting—and offensively presumptuous. Maybe he'll re-examine his motives someday, and maybe he won't. The important thing is to respect his feelings. So when he sent me that text, I did what any responsible sex-positive girl ought to do: I honored his boundaries and thought seriously about whether I could work within them.
I wrote back:
"I think it's adorable that you told me the vow thing by text- & on a serious note, I rather admire you for challenging yourself & social expectations of masculinity. I can't afford exegesis of my sexual history by text; we can talk about it when you visit- which I hope you do, even if you insist on sleeping on the floor. I promise not to push you- though I confess I'm curious about the vow's limits. But I also understand if you don't feel comfortable coming down."
His relief, in our next few exchanges, was palpable. I think a man who wants to abstain has a far trickier journey ahead of him than a woman: America's sexual assumptions may be formed around stereotypical male sexuality—which really sucks for women—but it's a very narrow stereotype that limits men too. Men are expected to be insatiable, and preferring not to have sex casts a man's entire masculinity into question. His abstinence can cause anxiety for the female partner, too: after all, given an assumption that men are nigh-indiscriminate sex machines, a woman might feel that there's something terribly wrong with her if a man won't bang her.