Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex
by Hephzibah Anderson
Viking, 288 pages, $25.95
A “year without sex” doesn’t mean what you might think it means. In Hephzibah Anderson’s memoir about a self-directed year of chastity, she doesn’t actually pursue chastity in the full sense but simply avoids “last base.” (She’s British, which may explain why “home” has become “last.”) Throughout the book she relates her year of strung-together dysfunctional relationships, revealing her pseudo-deep thoughts as she sleeps naked beside a series of men, has the “hottest, most X-rated nonsex” ever, and returns night after night to a variety of men’s apartments. In other words, her year is anything but chaste, although she does manage to survive twelve months without crossing, if you will permit a change in sport metaphors, the finish line.
The book is fundamentally misleading. Its modest cover and the author’s sincere desire to opt out of the date-then-fornicate routine to make sex personal again and to sort out love and lust may be well intentioned, but Anderson has no interest in restraining her sexuality. She hopes to empower it, and, in the end, find true love. She doesn’t realize that chastity requires an emotional discipline rather than a physical technicality. Rather than finding true love, she follows up her twelve months by having “intensely, profoundly, unutterably anticlimactic” sex with a near stranger.
The upshot is a book largely devoid of lasting insights. Anderson’s observations about femininity, romance, cultural taboos, and, of course, sex are at times funny and are framed in well-quipped sentences, but the truth about human sexuality remains remote and largely unexamined.
Kristen Scharold is a writer living in New York.