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December 12, 1998


In a nutshell, the problem (if it *is* a problem) is that I'm 44, straight, male, a virgin, and I don't know why. I'm a bit shy in normal social situations, and tend toward the silent type, but I've managed to learn to overcome normal shyness in most situations. I can function in society, at least in those situations where there are enough people around to blend in, or where there's some kind of script, real or implied (such as public speaking or teaching). So people who know me find it hard to credit that I'm extremely, painfully even, shy in intimate situations.

I've dated from time to time, throughout my life, though I started late (junior year in college, age 20). It's pretty much true that I fall in love first, then start dating the desired person, and find that I don't really know how or when to express my feelings without scaring the person away. I guess the notion of casual dating is foreign, in part because dating itself is such a stressful experience that I can't imagine doing it for fun. But since it is a necessary part of forming relationships in our society, I took it on as a required course; like engineering students taking lit classes. And, naturally enough, the idea that I was not enjoying myself was communicated nonverbally, and my date thought I didn't enjoy her company. Not so; that was the only part of the experience I *did* enjoy.

There's also the anxiety. I was nervous about being alone with someone, with the stakes so high. For once in my life there was something I cared about: whether she liked me or approved of me. And I cared desperately about that. So I was the more nervous. And then I got nervous about the nervousness itself; fearing the loss of bodily control that the queasiness threatened to become (and actually did become on several occasions). This returns forcefully from time to time, in some relationships, over the years.

So it seemed (and still seems) that in some way I was different from most people, who find forming relationships possible, or easy, or fun. And all the talking to myself didn't help at all. So the problem, whatever it is, seems to be a pretty hard-core one, a matter of my nature. Perhaps not, but so it seems. Maybe the hope of changing, when it comes, is the cruelest part of the experience, since it goes away again, each time.


An essential problem of this kind leads one to doubt nearly everything else in life, trying to make things all fit together in a tolerable fashion.

For example, I have from time to time doubted that people actually come in two sexes. Never having experienced the female, it seems sometimes to be an elaborate hoax. Intellectually, of course, I know there are women and men, who is who, and what their roles and normative behaviors are. Except these latter are changing through my lifetime, so keeping track of these rather abstract (in the sense of being foreign to my experience) notions is a bit difficult.

All the talk in late years about sexual harassment leads me, in the best Jewish-style tradition of building fences around the law, to radical doubts about whether it's possible to have relationships between men and women at all. Some feminists have claimed that all sex is rape, and sometimes I believe it. They're wrong, of course, but still I believe it on some days.

This kind of meditation, plus the shyness in intimate situations, leads me to a kind of respect bordering on awe of people's personal space. It seems to me that touching someone in more than an incidental way (and I'm including everything not truly accidental here) is a violation of some kind of zone of avoidance. One does not stroll into another person's living room without an invitation. One does not touch another person without invitation, either. But being male, it seems to be expected that such touching as happens should be initiated by me, without invitation.

At some point in each prospective relationship, my physical reticence leads to the question of whether or not I'm gay. The answer is no; but then perhaps I'm not all that straight either. I'm attracted exclusively to women. But I'm also, at close range, afraid of them.

Another thing to doubt is if I'm actually male. Physically, yes; all the proper hormones are present in more or less the usual doses. For example, voice changes, facial and body hair, baldness all developed according to the usual schedules. But I can't help but wonder if my reluctance to approach a person of the desired sex isn't discordant with these plumbing details. My mother remarked during my childhood that when I was expected, they had ordered a red-haired girl, but they got me instead. There's nothing a boy can do to satisfy such an expressed desire on the part of a parent. So maybe I paid more attention to sex differences earlier than most guys, because of the notion that my mother wanted me to be a girl? I had lots of friends who were girls and not that many boys around the neighborhood as a young child; I was friends with the girls at school (and boys too) up until we all reached puberty in junior high school, and was then shocked at the changes, not only in them, but in myself too.

I find myself embarrassed by male sexuality, including my own. And on some days I find it impossible to believe that anyone could be attracted to such things. The fact that some (including some of the most visible) men are such jerks, and that I can feel the call of the same hormones and understand, revolts me.


In this age of internet web pages, one doesn't have to go to all the trouble of writing a book and getting it published to say something about one's experience of life. Lots of people are putting their stories, or parts of them, on the internet. So when yet another love fell apart, I spent a year or two being aggressively alone, hunting around in the literature and on the internet for people who might be articulating non-standard, or at least non-traditional, sexualities that might be similar to what I was feeling. Looking into the closets other folks have come out of, to see if I could find myself lurking in one of them.

And there is a wide variety of stories out there. The notion that there are exactly two sexual boxes people can live in, and that everyone fits in one or the other, seems quite absurd, once one starts listening to the stories people tell.

The transgendered community includes a wide variety of folks who are transgressing the two-box standard. Some are convinced they belong in the sex opposite to that of their birth and genetics (transsexuals); some want surgery to correct this, and others don't. Some masquerade as the opposite sex (mostly men looking like women, but it does go both ways); some gay and some straight, so there's no direct correlation with sexual preference. It seems to me sometimes that the freedom accorded genetic females in our society to dress as they please (subject only to a very few decency standards) is just not available to men. Women can shop openly in men's departments for their clothing and wear it in public; or female-tailored versions of traditional men's clothing; or more traditional women's clothing, or an endless set of variations on these themes. But, Scots excepted, a man appearing in public in a skirt is open to public censure.

Anyway, reading the trans literature, I haven't found yet a story like mine; someone only mildly displeased with one's birth gender; only slightly transgendered; someone transsexual in fantasy only and not desiring such things in the cold light of morning. This is perhaps related to the occasional belief on my part of the feminist rhetoric, and a desire to be sexual without threatening anyone with pregnancy or even penetration.

Another closet I found with a few people coming out of it is that of "Involuntary Celibacy," a term coined by Alana Boltwood to cover situations like mine, in which one can't seem to understand why one is celibate, but is nonetheless fairly hard-core celibate. She has a web page and a mailing list I found to be quite helpful in many respects, though it hasn't actually solved my problem. Some folks on the list are single virgins like me; others are married and for one reason or another not sexually active; still others have been active in the past but aren't now.


I don't know if there is a solution for me. I'm not sure any more I'd even consider it a problem. Others (some others, at least) seem to have found a way out of their dilemmas.

I find that meditating on the injustice of it all, comparing myself to other people's situations, is not helpful at all. Each person's circumstance is different, and so envying someone else's life and accomplishments and relationships is like envying the birds' wings. Perhaps we'll invent airplanes as a result, but we'll never fly like birds, or perch in trees.

So phrasing the problem in a ``what's wrong with me'' manner merely causes depression without giving much insight.

Analogies have been drawn between the involuntary celibate's state and other sad or peculiar people; I'll list a few here.

Alcoholics. There may be an element of entrenched habit; procrastinating recovery strategies we know would help; a kind of social shame (for example, of being over 40 and a virgin). The rejection, whether by a prospective partner, or of one's self, may be the same kind of bottoming out experience that the AA folks talk about.

Gays. There seems to be something very essential to my nature that leads me to be celibate, in a rather analogous way to the notion that homosexuality is something inborn. And being outside the sexual mainstream leads to similar kinds of disbelief, and (sometimes unintentional) harassment by those inside it. I should emphasize here that involuntary celibacy cuts across categories: we are male and female, gay and straight, single and married, old and young, shy and outgoing. And not few at all.

Transgendered folk. Again, there seems to be something different about the way we perceive our sexuality from other folks, at least for some of us. Though for us, it's not so much wanting a different one, as using the one we've been given.

Asperger's Syndrome. This variety of autism includes some people with great intellectual accomplishments but very poor social skills. (There's a web site about this.) I sometimes wonder if I missed out on the socialization training my peers soaked up almost without trying. Temple Grandin , a very public example of an Asperger's person, is celibate, because she finds the complexity of emotional relationship daunting when one has to deal intellectually with what other people do instinctively.

A few words are in order about religion and celibacy, involuntary and otherwise. I am a Christian of a catholic persuasion. So it seems to me that in all things the hand of God is visible, if one is discerning enough to see it. There is a place for voluntary celibacy within the ministry of the Church. What I read about this, however, is all about sublimating one's sexuality, giving up something to make one a better priest (or nun or monk). My experience is otherwise: my call, if there is one, is to self-acceptance rather than self-denial. Let me stress that involuntary celibacy does not in itself constitute a call to the priesthood or the convent.

I have, in a manner of speaking, persecuted myself mercilessly over my ``difference'' through the years; but it turns out that the self-flagellation is optional.

Perhaps the unifying thread here is one of self-acceptance. If the game you're playing is a no-win one, stop playing, rewrite the rules. Kick through the walls; take your football and go elsewhere. But with sex being used to sell everything from automobiles to food in our society, sometimes one has to be willfully blind to keep one's mind focused on this alternative game.