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What do you on a wet summer Sunday? You watch old movies – some not really old at all, though you’ve seen them so often that they have to count.

Well, that’s my excuse for revisiting random cinematic moments sure to bring a smile to the lips of any chaste romantic. Moments like this, from Cameron Crowe’s 2005 Elizabethtown.

At the heart of what Drew dubs 'the rich flurry of our almost romance.'

At the giddy heart of what Drew dubs 'the rich flurry of our almost romance.'

Failed shoe designer Drew (Orlando Bloom) has lost his career, his girlfriend, and his father in the space of a few days.

Dispatched to the Deep South to represent his mother and sister at the memorial service, he meets air hostess Claire (Kirsten Dunst) en route.

Ever heard the saying ‘he chased her until she caught him’? Their romance is the epitome. Claire even invents (or does she?) a married boyfriend for herself, Ben, whose name is invoked when they at last get around to kissing.

Drew: Ben’s very lucky all we did was kiss.

Claire: Most of the sex I’ve had in my life was not as personal as that kiss.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s also worth catching for their first date, which is near perfect – so physically chaste they’re not even in the same town for most of it, yet wholly and gloriously soul-baring.


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Not done yet

I’ve confided my passion for The New York Times‘s ‘Modern Love’ series before, but lately I’ve heard others wonder whether the column isn’t running out of inspiration. This week’s proves just how endlessly intriguing the subject can be.

Written by an artist named Nancy J. Freedman, ‘Yes, We Do. Even at Our Age’ tackles that enduring taboo: golden age passion. It’s a subject guaranteed to get even the most with-it 20-somethings shuffling their feet in embarrassment. Threesomes? Whatever. Latex? That’s so, like, last millennium. But sex among the over-70s?

In her candid yet discreet essay, septuagenarian Freedman ponders her own happy marriage, reflecting on the assumptions she’s encountered among health care professionals, and the ‘creative lovemaking’ DVDs she and her husband mail-ordered after spotting an ad in a magazine for retirees (they arrived in an unmarked package).

Yet it raises plenty of the questions that aren’t age-specific. Is lifelong passion a realistic relationship expectation? And what constitutes an active love life anyway? Pharmaceutical companies are eager for us to define it in sexual terms, but what if it’s something altogether more complex?

My favourite passage is this:

‘An active love life isn’t based on a random number in a study of couples’ intimacies. It’s based on decades of enjoying each other’s company; sharing silly jokes; recalling life’s events both good and bad; voicing our opinions, concerns and fears; and encouraging and caring for each other as we age.’

You can read the whole thing for yourself here.

p.s. It all reminds me of my wonderful great aunt’s response to receiving a copy of Chastened. She was thrilled that I’d finally got around to writing it, and she loved the jacket, too. As for what lay within, ‘I’ll read it when I’m old enough,’ she promised.

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And let’s not forget…

We in the West are constantly prodded by pop culture to be turned on and up for it. Even staying in to wash your hair – that time-honoured turn-down – is nowadays sold as an orgasmic experience. Yet here’s the thing: we can always simply switch off.

We take that for granted, as we should. But we’re often so busy lamenting dry spells or joking awkwardly about what a great contraceptive marriage and parenthood makes, that we forget how hard-won a right it is, our right to say no.

A face of Afghan womanhood not see often enough: MP Malalai Joya

A face of Afghan womanhood not see often enough: MP Malalai Joya

A news story that emerged from Afghanistan a few days ago is a disturbing reminder.

As the UK’s Independent reports, back in March, the Afghan parliament passed legislation that effectively legalised marital rape.

World leaders were outraged (President Barack Obama described it as ‘abhorent’), and within the country itself, brave women took to the streets in protest, only to be attached by mobs of men.

President Hamid Karzai ordered a review of the law, and according to Human Rights Watch, signed off on the amendments July 8. All change?

Not exactly. Instead of condoning marital rape, it now permits husbands to starve wives who refuse sex. A host of other appalling clauses remain, say civil rights groups, including one that enables rapists to marry their victims by way of making amends.

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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.


Filed under Chastened - the book, Romance, Sex, Things literary

‘We rode the N train together’


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.


Filed under Chastened - the book, Romance, Sex, Things literary