For a period of my life, from my 27th to my 39th years, I slept alone: I had no sex. I wasn’t unhappy. Or frustrated. I found no sex preferable to disappointing sex.
Just before giving up, I had a boyfriend. He often said that we were happy sexually, but frankly he was blind to my unhappiness. So that winter, I went skiing without him.
Alone in all that sun and snow, absorbing energy from the sky and mountains, I let my body breathe quietly. The freedom and whiteness of the snow and mountains produced a kind of ecstasy. And the special pleasure I found skiing in this paradise made me think about the possibilities of my body, my sensuality. And I asked myself, “Sophie, is your sexual life so very stimulating, actually?” And my answer was, “No.”
I realized that even when I took pleasure, I was not ecstatic with my sexual life. In fact, I seemed to be going through the motions of lovemaking because, I thought, that’s what everybody did. I decided to take a break, to recover a true desire.
And what a break! Twelve years! It was so easy to stop.
At the beginning, I kept the fact that I had given up sex a secret, and nobody around me could guess how untouched I was. I knew perfectly well that people accept all kinds of sexual behaviors — just so long as you are doing something with your body.
Are you single, married, engaged, “it’s complicated”? Are you straight, gay, a lesbian? All of these categories suggest sexual activity, which somehow reassures us. You are doing something.
But I don’t think that’s our true life and rhythm. We are not machines. Nothing is so tidy about our sex lives. We are very alone in how we dream. We are not making love as easily as we boast we are. And when we are making love, it is not always enjoyable.
We are liars, poor liars, trying to mystify one another. Perhaps French people are especially big liars. At the very least, we are full of contradictions. If you visit Paris, you will notice that we are very thin, even if we are the country of bread and cheese. We are also very sexy, but maybe it’s only a show to save our reputation.
By giving up sex, I abandoned all this pretense. During the 12 years I didn’t have sex, I learned so much. About my body, the role of art in eroticism, the power of dreams, the softness of clothes, the refuge and the importance of elegance. That I can take more pleasure while watching Robert Redford shampooing Meryl Streep’s hair in “Out of Africa” than being in a bed with a man. Sometimes I took pleasure just by staring at men’s necks. Sometimes, just by listening to a voice.
It was libido, trust me. It was desire. But society doesn’t recognize this kind of felicity. It’s too much! I’ve learned that most people mainly want to prove that they are sexually functioning, and that’s all. Strangely, people are ashamed to admit that they are alone in their beds, which I discovered is a huge pleasure.
Even the pleasure you can give to yourself (everyone asked me about masturbation) is a paradise. Alone, you are so completely free. Your imagination can sleep with who you want, even Cary Grant! He was one of my lovers, actually.
As I wrote about my experiences, I thought a lot about privacy. I realized privacy is not about what you are doing so much as about what you are not doing. Privacy is that which you can hide — which, in our modern society, is not much. Sexuality is completely on display. Around me, children know about their parents’ sexuality; parents know about children’s sexuality. Where is the treasure of silence, of things not shown? Where is the mystery?
Our openness is a good thing, for many reasons (of course!), but it has made indiscretion the norm. Everywhere, the question of “Who are you?” is answered with an explanation of sex. This is silly. We’re more than that. We’re poetry, we are floating creatures, sometimes happy sexually, and sometimes in a desert, even as we share our lives with someone.
I believe that a desert is sometimes necessary. Sometimes, it is what your soul and your body need. A rest. To dream instead of do. And believe me, when the body really wants the skin of someone else, it knows perfectly how to behave. You will look into someone’s eyes, and nature will take over. No matter how old you are. No matter wrinkles, or norms.
Finally, I’ve met someone. Not a long story, but a very important one. I’ve met a man who is not afraid of my long years of solitude and is perhaps heated and reassured by my honesty and what he calls my “exciting expectations.” Who could ask for more?
Sophie Fontanel is author of the forthcoming book “The Art of Sleeping Alone.” She wrote this article for The New York Times.