What’s the longest you’ve gone…

…without sex? It’s the simple question that Marie Claire asked a bunch of unsuspecting women who, by the looks of their accompanying snaps, were out enjoying a splash of lunch-hour sunshine Thames-side.

Marie ClaireThey and their intriguing responses feature in the August issue, at the end of a piece I wrote about my own chaste year.

There’s Laura, a 28-year-old teacher who went a year and half between relationships. ‘I can live without it because I enjoy the other elements of getting to know a man, too’ she says.

Stage Manager Emma, 29, went eight months when her partner of three years returned to Australia. Admin Assistant Katy, the youngest at 21, has gone a year and counting. And Mel, a banker and the oldest at 35, recalls how she once went six months: ‘I was single and wanted to find myself, which meant getting away from men.’

Marie Claire‘s intrepid reporters followed up with a second question. What was it like, they asked, when you did finally take someone to bed again?

You’ll have to head to a newsagents to find out how that one was answered, but I’m curious: how long is the longest you’ve gone?

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Chaste or chased?

With the hardback edition of the book newly released (you should find it in the self-help section of your local book shop, unless I’ve paid a prior call and cheekily repositioned it more prominently), plans are afoot to test some of the lessons I’ve learnt.

The sieve relates to the story of Tuccia, a Vestal Virgin who proved her chastity by carrying water in a sieve. Note also that long line of men.

The sieve relates to the story of Tuccia, a Vestal Virgin who proved her chastity by carrying water in a sieve. Note also that long line of men over Elizabeth I's padded shoulder.

We’re calling it the ‘Chaste Challenge’, and later on in the year I’ll be asking for volunteers to swear off sex. Not for a full 12 months like I did, but for three, maybe four – no more than six.

Though the details are still being fine-tuned, I thought I’d float the idea with a scientist friend over the weekend.

I’d barely finished explaining when Heather, let’s call her, had a question to ask.

Could a person volunteer if they had nothing to give up? In other words, could they join the ‘Chaste Challenge’ midway through an involuntary dry spell?

My answer is yes, because it’s making the decision that counts. However long you’ve gone, by taking charge and making that dry spell your own, you fundamentally alter its dynamic. Everything becomes different.

What’s more, as Heather the scientist suggested, as soon as you rule sex out, mischievous cupid will no doubt dispatch a fairy tale’s worth of suitors. That’s certainly how it felt to me.

This seems the perfect moment to share a hilarious and sweet story told to me recently by the excellent critic HB.

Years ago, sat in an A’level history revision class, she happened to glance at what the boy beside her had written in response to a question about why Elizabeth I had never married.

It was, he declared, because ‘she wanted to preserve a chased image.’ He’d misunderstood the term ‘chaste’ for two whole years. Or perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps he knew exactly what the delicious but inconvenient perk of a chaste image could be.

What is it they say? Men love a challenge. Those 16th-century princes and dukes were presumably no different beneath their tights and codpieces.

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‘We rode the N train together’

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After a week spent writing and talking, the weekend was all about reading.

Book-wise, I’m enjoying Jules Asner’s debut novel,Whacked, a dark tale of romantic obsession disguised as chick lit. You can’t help feeling a smidgen of sympathy for its heroine, Dani, whose crackpot antics dramatise the extremes of what the L.A. dating scene can do to a person.

In the newspapers, I loved this little article from Friday’s New York Times. Reporter Alan Feuer trawled the ‘Missed Connections’ section of newyork.craigslist.org, adding line and stanza breaks to his favourite pleas from subway riders, smitten by their fellow passengers. The results are touchingly poetic and deeply romantic.

I bought the book / but I never got your name…’ rues one love-struck commuter, who talked Carlos Ruiz Zafon with a blonde beauty on the N train at 5:15.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder – and romance loves a challenge. In an age of instant ‘connections,’ be it texts or Skype chat or campus hook-ups, we forget that real connections can deepen when given space and time. If you’re still thinking about someone hours, days, weeks after your eyes met as the train doors closed, you’re perhaps on to something.

My own ‘Missed Connection’ involves not a subway train but a rain-slicked street. New York City’s East Houston, to be precise. As I hopped over a puddle, a handsome stranger asked me how the knishes were today. That isn’t kinky code (well, not that I know of) – I happened to have just stepped out of the magnificent Yonah Schimmel’s. I smiled from beneath my brolly and strode on, English-ly.

Where are you, dishy knish aficionado? If only I’d stopped to chat! But it’s undoubtedly the fact that I didn’t that makes it so romantic.

Would love to read your tales of ‘Missed Connections’…

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P.S. Latest coverage…

Hot off the press, this just in from this morning’s Daily Mail

Great to see that they’ve picked up on all the positive aspects.

photographer: Paul WebbFavourite comment so far from the message boards, a woman named Kathy who quotes advice doled out by her granny in 1971: ‘Be the one they practise FOR, not the one they practise ON.’

Also, respect to the reader calling herself ‘Marie Claire’ from Brussels, who’s been chaste for eight years and counting. Or rather, not counting, since she sounds far too busy and contented.

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Chastened’s newsstand debut

A big thank you to The Guardian, who kicked off coverage of the book on Saturday with an edited extract in Weekend magazine.

The Guardian, June 20thProving my point that even while appearing nonchalant about high street lap-dancing clubs and call-girl confessionals, people continue to take anything sex-related very, very personally, the message board was deluged with comments.

Almost 300 in all, most were pretty exercised (so much pent-up frustration – you have to wonder…), but some raised interesting points. How ought chastity be defined? At what point in a relationship should you sleep with somone? A British guy in New York fessed up to being about a year into his own ‘chaste’ quest for a meaningful relationship, having realised what a turn-off constant availability was.

Hephzibah-Anderson-001In the blogosphere, mentions popped up on ErosStruck and Mental Imaging, and NBC Chicago flagged another woman’s six-month ‘sex sabbatical.’

A special mention goes out to the intrepid reporters over at MyVeryWorstDate.com. They blogged The Guardian‘s extract with a pithy preface that introduces the concept of ‘running the bases backwards.’ Check it out here.

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What’s big in ‘Hung’? Non-sexual sex

Yet another reason to wish HBO were available in the U.K.

‘Hung’ is the channel’s newest comedy, dreamed up by husband-and-wife writing team Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson. Its premise goes something like this: imagine an everyday guy – a Detroit high school teacher who maybe coaches some basketball on the side. His marriage has already imploded and now the economy is tanking. He is so cash-strapped that he’s camping outside his parents’ fire-trashed home.

The one thing this guy – Ray Drecker, they’ve called him – has going for him is a really, really big…

Well, the show’s title says it all. But beyond that title is a story that seeks to address middle-class economic distress, and the fate of high school stars (back in the day, Ray was an athlete with an apparently golden future).

And then there’s the sex. This is where things promise to get really interesting. When Ray sets about capitalising on his biggest asset, he finds himself wrestling with that eternal question: what do women really want?

As Lipkin told Dan Barry in a New York Times interview: ‘There is sex in the show. But a lot of it is not sexual. It’s psychological. It’s emotional.’

For those who can get it, the show premieres June 28th on HBO.

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“It’s about chastity,” she blushed

It was when I first began telling people about my book that I rediscovered the ability to blush.

ChastenedIn our sex-saturated age, chastity can feel like the last titillating taboo. Accordingly, I’ve lately experienced the full spectrum of blushes, from delicate rose to shaming puce.

Of course, there’s nothing like blushing to make you blush even more. It’s a form of communication that can seem peculiarly direct – oddly personal, even – to those of us who do an increasing portion of our socialising online, screened from one another by our screens, never mind our screen names and privacy preferences.

It’s not surprising, then, that psychologists have found that blushing helps strengthen social bonds. If nothing else, it’s a sign that the blusher cares. The New York Times carries a colourful report on the latest research here.

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Credit-crunch dating

Thanks to my good friend JSL for spotting this hilarious skit over on the Onion:

But a word of warning to those girlfriends for whom it’s not yet time: a gloomy economy puts extra temptation in the way of chaste intentions.

Be on your guard, girls (and boys), and watch out for cost-cutting invitations along the lines of an intimate dinner for two at theirs rather than at that new corner bistro, or an impromtu sleepover (you’ll get your very own side of the bed!) to avoid a taxi splurge.

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She’s old-fashioned

Topping my tower of must-reads just now is Sarah Dunn’s endearing new novel, Secrets to Happiness (Little, Brown, $23.99).

The story of a thirtyish screenwriter and novelist named Holly Frick, it flits around Manhattan, charting her somewhat disjointed romantic and artistic (mis)adventures. Secrets

Before you get the wrong idea, know that Holly abhors the term ‘chick lit.’

There is unexpected depth to the book’s comic appeal. As Jincy Willett pointed out in her New York Times review, ‘In a world — fictional and non- — where doing a good thing gets you accused of having a messiah complex, and doing whatever you want is justified as following your path, Holly never stops trying to figure out where her duty lies.

‘Underneath it all — the sex, the shopping, the city — she’s an old-fashioned heroine.’

Let’s hear it for Holly and her old-fashioned sisters!

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‘Modern Love’ Mayday

In casting off our sexual inhibitions, have we become more inhibited romantically?

It’s a question I pondered plenty during my chaste year, and the New York Times‘s latest ‘Modern Love’ essay has me thinking about it again.

The column offers a weekly glug of reality romance for those who find the happily-ever-after of ‘Vows’ too sugary. May 1st’s was written by Alexis Schaitkin and described how, as a young teacher far from home, she became the object of a Thai student’s florid affections.

He left gifts on her desk, wrote her poems, sent midnight texts. After she returned to New York, he stepped up his verbal courtship via instant messages – several each day.

Having discouraged him but from the start, Schaitkin got firm when he confessed that he wanted her to be the mother of his children. He promptly vanished, leaving her mind turning on dark scenarios. After all, hadn’t he said he couldn’t live without her?

The episode made her realise something. Never mind corny, his epistolary devotion had struck her as ’emasculating, oversweet and maudlin’ at the time. But in its absence, she began to see it differently.

As she says, ‘Maybe this expressiveness seems strange to us, or pathetic. But it has something to teach us, too, about the note of cowardice embedded in our romantic culture, about the intensity of emotion we have a right to, about everything we could say, but don’t.’

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