AIDS is changing the sexual behaviour of a generation and feel as if I am a visitor from another planet

Sharon, 36

Many years ago, at a women's liberation conference, I was in a workshop discussing celibacy, when an angry woman stood up and shouted, 'You're all heterosexual celibates and I am a lesbian celibate,' before stomping out in disgust. At the time, I was inclined to dismiss her outburst as a joke – as far as I was concerned, I was celibate because I wasn't doing it with anybody, nor hadn't before, even though I had been growing up in the 60s, when everybody knew that everybody was doing it all the time.

It was some years before I realised that most celibate women (I haven't talked to men about it) imagine that if they were having sex it would be with a particular sort of person (or people). I didn't allow myself to have any fantasies at all, and I even persuaded myself that sex didn't interest me. This is not the same as saying I didn't want to have a relationship – at times I got desperate about not having one, but I had a lot of trouble connecting it up with sex.

There are many reasons for this, to do with my family background, my religious upbringing, and my own particular resistance to being born female in a sexist society. However, it is only very recently, through talking to other bisexuals, that I have realised that part of not having a relationship must be to do with the lack of space to express my own true feelings. Just now I almost wrote 'my confusions', but in my deepest heart, I don't believe that the confusion lies in me. It is hard to hang on to this truth when the pressures are tremendous to conform to one 'normal' mode of behaviour or the other.

Despite the almost crushing weight of my family's and society's requirements, the one thing I have never felt is heterosexual. Apart from that, I go in cycles. These days they are more erratic, but they used to correspond with the seasons: three months each of being certain I was truly celibate, truly bisexual, truly lesbian, followed by a quarter of not thinking about it at all before the whole thing started again. It would revolve around my brain, making me unhappy, making me wonder how someone who was so decisive in other areas of her life could be so weak-willed in this one.

As a militant feminist I felt that my failure to come out as a lesbian was an awful betrayal of my sisters, and that if I could only pull my moral socks up, I would be able to withstand the pressures of my family and community and do the decent thing by the Women's Liberation Movement. This, I was assured, would provide me with all the new family and community I needed. It was an attractive proposition, especially as I fancied many more women than men, but somehow, I couldn't make the necessary adjustment. Even as I write this, I feel guilty and lacking in moral fibre, although I know that is inconsistent with the rest of my life.

Only last week, I sat around a table with the group of lesbians and listened to them all saying they knew they were dykes from the age of 13 or 14, even if they didn't act on it for many years. I couldn't feel comfortable with that description, because at that age I just felt different, lost. Sure, I had fantasies about my girlfriends, found most boys unendurably boring (still do!), but I was also always as interested in the concept of maleness as in that of femaleness. The first person I fell in love with at the age of 10 was a boy a year older. And, as I say, I was extremely disconnected from any real idea of sex, so my interest in people was primarily in their minds and, to a lesser extent, though connected, in their status.

Throughout my twenties, I had four or five one-night stands with women, which I enjoyed, but I never seemed able to achieve anything more permanent. I did try once, with a lovely woman who had been a friend, but I didn't fancy her and I felt ashamed of having deluded her. I fell hopelessly, passionately, weak-at-the-knees-and couldn't-sleep in love with two people over those years – one man and one woman – and I never made it into bed with either. There were excellent practical excuses in both cases, but mostly it boiled down to my own terror – partly a dread fear of catching something (long before the world had heard of AIDS), partly anxiety about my parents, and partly, I now think, an unconscious fear of committing myself to one gender at the risk of cutting myself off from the other.

When I eventually did get involved in a relationship, it was with a man. Although the underlying reasons were extremely complicated, the immediate practical ones were that we were a long way from home, I didn't think that we knew anybody in common or that it would last beyond three days (wrong on both counts!) and – most importantly – he asked me. As our relationship developed, I felt a huge surge of anger as I realised that I really enjoyed sex. All those years of being conned …. even now I find it hard to articulate my sense of outrage at that discovery. I would probably have ended our relationship sooner if I had not been reluctant to give up this pleasure so recently discovered. For I was under few illusions that finding another relationship would be any easier now that I had finally embarked on that one.

Even while it continued I was in a state of semi-celibacy, as my lover and I lived many miles apart and didn't see each other very often. I never excluded the possibility of other relationships closer to home, but met very few people I fancied. Rarely did I come across men, and which self-respecting lesbian is going to get involved with a woman who's involved with a man – even a man who was as effeminate and semi-detached as mine?

It is now nearly two years since that relationship ended. In these two years I have fallen madly in love with two women who both live thousands of miles away. I've also spent five months totally convinced that this time I had got it right and I really was a lesbian and I would never be interested in men again. The spell was broken by a man with whom I had spent one disastrous night eight years before. We were sitting in a pub when I decided I fancied him something rotten. Since then, I have been obsessed with four men, one of them gay – mainly on the basis of their potential as fathers of the child I think I would like to have. I have been simultaneously obsessed with a woman whose main attraction is how much she reminds me of one of the women I fell in love with. I have also spent a couple of months thinking I would go completely off my head if I didn't have sex with somebody soon. Throughout these two years, I have slept with nobody.

I listen to discussions about how AIDS is changing the sexual behaviour of a generation and feel as if I am a visitor from another planet. I try not to get annoyed with people who refer to celibacy as if it were a fortnight in Majorca. Obviously my lack of a sex life is due to many more things than simply bisexual feelings. But the more I think about it, the more it seems that it might, after all, be a significant factor.

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