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I had been using sex as an ill-prescribed antidepressant, something to soothe me. Abstinence, I thought, was the only way to break my habit

Francisco Navas
Tue 25 Aug 2020 10.00 BST

On 24 March 2018, I quit sex. I decided I wouldn’t have sex, or even try to have sex, for an entire year.

I came to this decision a few weeks after my latest perfunctory effort at a relationship, when the woman I was seeing broke up with me over text. I deserved it; I had been a milquetoast lover. The curt brutality of a break-up text released me from any emotional obligations, but it also shook me into realizing I needed to make a big change.

As a 23-year-old living in New York with dating apps at my fingertips, finding sexual partners was, at first, surprisingly easy. But after a few years of hedonism I started to feel lost, sad and lonely. I realized I had been using sex as an ill-prescribed antidepressant, something to soothe me. It allowed me to momentarily step outside of my body and be released from the stresses of my life. In the presence of pleasure, my brain turned into a dark void. There wasn’t any worry, or any thought. There wasn’t any me at all.

When the therapeutic effects died down, I decided something had to change. Abstinence, I thought, was the only way to break my habit.

Not since the beginning of my sexual life – when boys traded condoms and Pornhub links around school as easily as memes on Instagram – was the idea of opting out of sex a possibility.

This went against the sex-ed teaching at my suburban south Florida public middle school, where all eighth-grade students were taught compulsory abstinence classes as a means of contraception. The videos shown were as instructional as Coach Carr’s from the movie Mean Girls, and in hindsight, far more malicious.

On Fridays, boys and girls were separated during our science period. Between PowerPoints of genitals with venereal diseases, a male teacher warned us we could get sued or arrested if we had sex. His story included all the ingredients of a moral panic fit to frighten a group of 14-year-olds into never having sex before their 21st birthday – or before they got married, whichever came first.

A few weeks into the program, he handed out silicone bands similar to the yellow Livestrong ones popular in the mid-2000s. The phrase “Boys to Men’’ was carved into them. “This is a symbol of how much you’ve grown after our lessons,” he said. “You should all wear them to show everyone the responsibility you now have.”

To this day, I have no clue what they told the girls.

I wasn’t the only one who had to sit through those lessons. Nationally, 49 of all US states have so far accepted federal funding for “abstinence until marriage” lessons in public schools via Title V, which passed in 1996. At the time, the US ranked first among developed nations in rates of both teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. By 2007, it was clear abstinence education had failed: teen pregnancies were higher among states that stress it. But still, the policy continued.

It’s impossible to say how many young minds this approach molded, but I know it warped mine. Fear and guilt became integral to how I viewed sex, with no space for joy, meaningful intimacy, or even clear communication and expectations between partners.

(And if you are wondering about whether I talked about sex with my parents – forget about it. My father did as much as chuck me a tin of condoms he bought at Costco and told me to wrap it up.)

When you don’t get sex-positive education at school or at home, you learn about sex elsewhere. By the time I was 12, sex comedies had come into the fray. Movies like American Pie, Wedding Crashers, Old School and Superbad were favorites among my friends and me. Those movies felt like they took a stand against the oppressive, moralist and fearmongering sex culture that surrounded me. The male characters were free to enjoy sex as they pleased, or spent their whole lives chasing it. Being an impressionable teenager, I thought I would rather emulate them – not giving a second thought to the predatory and backwards nature of frat culture – than be a virgin forever.

A decade later, #MeToo forced me to question everything. I was 23 by then, and the movement sliced through the toxicity and entitlement of the male mindset towards sex. It forced me to question if I ever hurt anyone (and while I may have hurt some feelings, I know I never coerced anyone). Consent culture brought fresh air to the conversation, and the oxygen rejigged my brain and forced me to look inwards. As a straight male, I never had to examine my sex life. The answers had all been created for me. I was meant to be a Casanova, an emotional rock, impenetrable and ruthless; women were a prize.

Soon after, I went cold turkey. I needed space to think.

Just like quitting cigarettes, the first two months were the hardest. I dreamed about sex. I daydreamed about sex. I thought about it all day. I stopped going out, saving a bit of money and sleeping longer hours than I had in years (talk about silver linings). And in resisting temptation, porn became a friend – or so I thought.

I’ll spare you the details, but yes, I masturbated a lot. The next video always sat there, loading, waiting to be watched. Porn was a friend that kept me company and then another thing to kick. Was I addicted to it? Maybe, but it felt like the least of my problems.

It became clear that I had replaced the excitement of possibility that comes with a night out with porn , and I had to nip it in the bud. Porn, as a medium and as an industry, has myriad issues as well. Surely it wasn’t helpful in creating a healthy mentality. Winding down how much porn I watched eased my brain off of the serotonin peak it delivered. I eventually had enough time to find myself, my presence, my consciousness in my body.

After a few more months, something clicked. I had the necessary brain space to dig deeper through my pain and discover both a feeling of disconnection and a longing for companionship and love. I realized I had been approaching women as vehicles for sex rather than an opportunity to encounter a new life, a complex human to potentially share an enriching experience with.

At about the eight-month mark, it hit me like a brick to the head. I realized that I longed to be known from the outside in, and no one-night stand was going to fill that. Trust would.

With about a quarter of my initial celibacy vow left, I felt like I wanted to try being in a relationship again. An old flame was back in town and invited me out to a concert in Manhattan. She slept over and nothing happened.

Starting my dating life from what felt like scratch was terrifying. On 30 March 2019, a few days short of the one-year mark, I had sex once again. It was with my current girlfriend, who I’m now living with. It is a deep, nurturing relationship which allows both of us to love and rely on each other.

This time, I knew what I was doing.