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My life as a government-mandated incel

How being celibate helped me reconnect with myself

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I realized how bad it had gotten while I was on one of my state-sanctioned, daily walks. My dusty white crocs kicked at loose gravel on the road wrapping around the little lake in Eastern Washington my parents call home. It was nice to scroll through Twitter outside. 

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In the distance, I saw three figures rounding the lake. They became more obviously human as we slowly closed the distance between us. The largest of the three blobs shifted like a mirage into a boy — more specifically: a boy who was around my age, decently attractive, and most importantly, dangerously close to entering my government-mandated, 6-foot radius. 

If I had known I would see a cute boy, I would have worn leggings with less hair stuck to them.

As per the newly established common courtesy, I decided to cross the road to keep these three strangers out of my germs’ reach. I also decided to gather the excess corduroy of my oversized sweater in one hand to cinch its low-hanging hem up to the band of my high waisted leggings. This way, as I crossed the street in perfect profile to the boy, he would have a clear view of the black spandex material hugging my ass. 

It was like a weird, touch-starved mating call that I hardly felt in control of, a primal urge my confused-girl-body could not resist. 

In most cases in the animal kingdom, it is the males of a species who put on strange displays to attract sexual attention from potential mates. As a believer in science, I respect the research of this biological phenomenon. As a feminist, I do not care. 

It had been a week. I had been in COVID-19 induced celibacy for just one, single week and I already forgot how to act. 

Coronavirus has brought college campus hookup culture to a grinding halt. With the country in lockdown, once sexually active people without access to live-in sex partners have become, in essence, incels. Hopefully without the dangerous misogyny, but nonetheless many of us find ourselves suddenly and involuntarily celibate — truly unprecendented for some. 

Over half of the American adults polled by the American Psychiatric Association in March report anxiety due to some aspect of the coronavirus outbreak. Some are stressed about contracting the virus themselves, though most worry about a loved-one falling ill. 

“People will report, even when they’re not in the middle of a pandemic, when they’re studying for exams or in a stressful period, they’ll crave more sex,” UW psychology professor Nicole McNichols said

“Living in the age of a pandemic, when we’re all stressed out about the world, sex is great because it literally makes you live in the moment,” McNichols said. “It literally shuts down your ability to be worrying about all those outside things.”

Despite it being more or less illegal right now, casual sex is not bad. It’s never been bad and it never will be bad. However, there is one small caveat. 

“The downside of hookups is when they are entered into for other purposes: in effort to get someone to like you, or to get back at someone, or because you are stressed out and you are just looking for a form of escape,” McNichols said. “Those types of experiences tend to lead to negative emotional outcomes.” 

Sex as a form of escapism is almost always appealing, like a quick-fix cocktail of dopamine and validation. During this stressful time, I think many of us would love for the onerous “whats” on our to-do lists to melt into “whos.”

But perhaps sex is not a healthy, long-term solution for stress. So while it sucks right now — and it sucks tremendously — this might be the perfect opportunity to outgrow old, faulty coping mechanisms. 

The last major break I took from all things physical was from June to January. I’m not in the business of denying myself simple pleasures, but by the new year, I was basically a born-again-virgin.

This break was partially by choice and partially trauma-induced, nonetheless, last summer was a period of immense growth in my life. 

I lived in a little yellow house on 11th Avenue with my best friend. Our shoebox bedrooms were joined by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom with fake crystal door knobs that would fall into your palm and lock you inside if you were so bold to demand privacy. We listened to each other pee a lot. 

During this time, I hardly saw anyone outside of work, the class I took at North Seattle and my roommate. I went on one date, and we might as well have been following social distancing protocol — we never got closer than 6 feet. 

I wasn’t thinking about sex. I wasn’t pulling up my sweaters to show strange boys my butt. I was more preoccupied with the mysterious liquid leaking from our fridge. But also, I spent my summer finding productive ways to deal with anxiety symptoms that would later be diagnosed as PTSD — which is different than the end of the world, but for me it felt basically the same. 

I developed a rigorous, multi-step skincare routine to start and end my days. I snuck into dorm music rooms to play piano. I went to different churches and believed nothing. 

I would climb out my bedroom window and sit cross-legged on the roof. I would bring my little notebook to scribble down all the bad thoughts I couldn’t distract myself from. I always thought the little sheet of shingles outside the window with the broken screen would be the perfect place to fall in love. And though I had sworn off dating, and love, and most of all — sex, I did fall in love on the roof that summer. 

Celibacy, voluntarily or otherwise, is difficult. I mean, I don’t have any data, but I’m pretty sure Twitter became at least four times its usual horniness during quarantine. These difficulties are exacerbated by the stress of our current situation. In my own time of less-mandatory stillness, I found comfort in solitude. I thought a lot about sex and power and agency and intention. I’m thinking about that at this time too. 

Reach writer Hannah Krieg at pacificwave@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @Hannah_krieg

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