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What 'Grown-ish' Gets Right About Spiritually-Motivated Celibacy

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what it means to make a faith-based decision to lead a celibate life.

Culture & Entertainment

As I near 25, I'm not sure if I'm the target audience for Grown-ish anymore, but I still watch it faithfully every week. On one hand, I feel it keeps me young; my old soul requires a regimen to keep with the times. On the other, I have a strong desire to support up-and-coming artists of color, like Yara Shahidi and Chloe x Halle, who are not only wildly talented, but also using their crafts to bring light to important topics. The show exhibits an earnest effort to incorporate stories that represent diverse walks of life. Naturally, being set on a college campus, Grown-ish discusses sexuality a great deal, investigating topics ranging from exploratory experiences, to defining consent, to LGBTQ+ issues.

A few weeks ago, I sat down eagerly to watch episode ten of season three and was thoroughly fascinated when the topic -- celibacy -- was revealed. The episode started out pretty typically, with Ana, a member of the show's central friend group, going on a date with a guy named Javi. Based on the flirtatious banter in the car when they pulled up to Ana's house, it's clear the date went well. At this point, any viewer invested in the story rejoices, because Ana has had a difficult run when it comes to finding love. Javi walks Ana to her door and is invited inside, presumably to hook up. However, just as things are heating up, Javi stops things and gently tells Ana that he made a recent decision to rededicate his life to Christ and to, subsequently, practice abstinence. Hearing Javi say those words, Ana blanched with surprise. I was just as shocked as she was. I squealed with interest and made my husband watch it with me from the beginning.

grown-ish Season 3, Episode 10 | Sneak Peek: Javi Surprises Ana | Freeformwww.youtube.com

The source of my enthusiasm about the story that was unfolding was twofold. One reason I connected to these events was because my now husband and I, who I met in college, had decided first as individuals, then as a couple, to wait until marriage to have sex.

Practicing abstinence was probably the hardest and best decision I've ever made, and an important part of my story. While I share that story with my husband and some friends, it's not the mainstream narrative represented in the media which is the second reason I was so compelled by this plot. In my favorite shows, the most common picture of sexuality is generally one of liberal exploration; sex at is best is depicted to be with diverse partners, with frequent partners, and commonly occurring during adolescence. While this isn't always the case, virginity and sexlessness are often depicted as anomalous, involuntary, corny, and even an indication of inferiority.

Ana and Javi's storyline runs parallel to those of characters like Aaron, who holds the position that no self-respecting man would not have sex for six months. With that being the majority mentality of the show, I was eager to see how the show approached this alternative path. I wondered if the idea of a celibate lifestyle would be given equal dignity and respect as the other paths represented. I was increasingly pleasantly surprised as the show's events unfolded, and Ana and Javi's journey wasn't presented as this weird thing, wasn't overly idealized, and was treated as legitimate.

As someone who can relate to the ups and downs of celibacy, I noticed certain elements that Grown-ish got right about a journey of spiritually-motivated celibacy.

Sometimes You Fall Down and You Have to Get Back Up

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I know some Christians I know were disappointed to see Ana and Javi tumble back in bed after having made the commitment to wait. However, while I sympathized with the guilt the characters felt after violating their expectations of themselves, I found the depiction to be refreshing in its realism, because no one is perfect.

Celibacy can be a process that involves failures along the way, followed by rallying and renewed commitment, but that shouldn't lead to feelings of defeat. Abstaining from sex is countercultural and can feel like going against the grain, but it comes down to is making sacrifices where necessary.

In the show, I love how you see Ana and Javi going through that process of falling off the wagon, solidifying their "why," reassessing their boundaries, and relying on their faith and community to give them strength going forward. The important part was that they allowed the lessons they learned from their failures to inform a new approach as they tried again.

Saying ‘No’ to Sex Requires Saying 'Yes' to Something Else

The truth is that avoiding sex isn't easy, especially on a college campus, where there are so many opportunities to partake and sex is often considered an important part of coming of age. For me, though I grew up in a household that valued saving sex for marriage, my parents' standards weren't enough to keep me on that path in college. Being on my own and faced with so many choices, I had to develop a conviction strong enough to stand on in times of temptation. I was motivated by a desire to please God and trust Him; I genuinely believed obeying Him was best for me.

While I was interested in sex and found dating fun, I formed a belief that sex is deeply sacred, and I desired to focus my dating life on building friendships, healing my emotional traumas, and discerning whether marriage would be a reasonable goal with a given person.

In the show, Javi says that he decided to put sex on the shelf to clear his head so he could hear God better. He and Ana hit a snag in their relationship early on when her convictions didn't align with his. After asking Javi where he got his strength from and later rekindling her own relationship with God, Ana found her "why" for being celibate -- being at peace with God and pursuing relationships that were based on more than sex -- and it gave her the strength she needed to move forward.

It Helps to Have a Community of Like-Minded People

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A consistent theme in Ana and Javi's journey pursuing a celibate relationship is remaining rooted in community. Having access to and spending time with like-minded people plays a major role in fortifying their commitment to their faith and their celibacy journey, especially when they mess up. Another facet of having positive reinforcement was their friendship with one another and their shared values.

I can speak from personal experience when I say that remaining celibate is so much easier when you have a partner who shares your values and carries their own conviction about celibacy. It's difficult enough having physical boundaries when you're in love and longing to express that physically, without the added temptation of the other person low-key seducing you. It helps to be with someone who understands and knows how to help you meet your goals.

Some people also consider sex to be a vital component of a loving relationship, even before marriage, so it can cause some distress if you're not on the same page and one person feels their needs are not being met. When one person has to violate their own boundaries to meet the needs of the other, it can only lead to resentment.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what it means to make a faith-based decision to lead a celibate life. One that I've heard a lot is the perception that following Jesus makes you somehow disinterested in sex until marriage. The other is that celibacy is impossible. Neither is true.

To choose to abstain from sex is a daily commitment to live in that tension between acknowledging your existing sexuality, and that a desire for sex is natural and beneficial, and delaying gratification until your circumstances facilitate the best environment for you to thrive sexually, based on your convictions.

The beauty of art is that it can represent all walks of life. It's great to see celibacy included in the definition of what it can mean to be sexually liberated.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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