Advice: I want sex but am not ready for marriage

Dear Miss Sunshine and Shy Desi Boy,

I’m a recent college graduate, taking a year off before beginning graduate studies in the fall of this year. I am very serious about my professional goals (getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor), and I know that to realistically achieve these, I should not get married for several years. But here’s the problem. I find myself wanting to have sex. What should I do to make this desire go away? (I’m not open to sex outside of marriage.) Should I consider getting married early? I think this is professionally unwise, but do you know of any success stories of married Ph.D. students??

Lonely Grad Student

Miss Sunshine replies:

The desire for sex is as complicated as sex itself and I know of no healthy way to “make this desire go away.” Even if I did know of a healthy way to disappear sexual desire, I’d be hesitant to advise it. Comforting touch, physical and emotional intimacy, and the safe, consensual fulfillment of sexual desire are important components of overall well-being. Sexual exploration is not only a source of tremendous physical pleasure and emotional delight, it is a valuable means by which we come to understand, accept and meet our needs, develop fulfilling relationships, and maintain physical and psychological health. It is also a spiritual practice praised highly in the hadith and held sacred enough to be declared a means of serving Allah. Sex is ‘ibadah— a worship in congress.

Of course, according to most interpretations of Islamic law, the boundary demarcating sexual expression that elevates (worship) and sexual expression that denigrates (sin) is firm. Along this line of thinking, the only sex that elevates is heterosexual sex that takes place after a contract between consenting parties has been established. This presents a problem for the many believers whose desires and/or circumstances challenge the cultural and religious norms and values they’ve internalized.

If your sole desire is for sexual release, I’d counsel against getting married. Having a loving, supportive partner to help you bear the burdens and celebrate the joys of your journey through academe could provide you with a huge advantage. But building a relationship strong enough to nurture each of you and endure through the numerous challenges you’ll face takes time and effort. Typical Muslim marriages where the parties have had precious little time to work through the challenges of turning “me” into “we” before making the significant commitment to marriage can be extraordinarily demanding. The stress of trying to build an academic career while building a family can easily prove too much for a new and fragile relationship to bear. You could end up with the collapse of both your marriage and your career.

This leaves you with a few options:

You could consider contracting a mut’a or fixed-term marriage, considered permissible by a small percentage of Islamic jurisprudents. This would give you the ability to nurture your sexual self without the demands of a traditional marriage. You could go through the screening process to seek out a supportive and compatible spouse, marry and maintain separate households while you “date” your new spouse and do the work of trust-building and negotiations that premise satisfying romantic relationships. Doing this while living separately can help you ease your way into the day to day demands of full-time monogamous commitment.

You could attempt to masturbate your way through, though I suspect that if that were working for you this question would have never made it to my inbox.

Lastly, you could continue to attempt to stifle your sexual desires and pour those generative energies into generating mind-blowing scholarship. As an aspiring academic myself, I can tell you that this solution can be useful in short bursts, but long-term it can actually hinder more than it helps. Your mileage may vary.

Your situation is no doubt difficult but it’s indicative of challenges faced by many believers across numerous faith traditions as we try to negotiate increased economic demands and social liberties. I wish you the best.

Shy Desi Boy replies:

When we started this column some time back, we made a decision that we would not dispense Islamic advice. But that has been harder to do than I imagined and I find myself in that position once again with your question.

My first instinct is to say the obvious: have sex. I realize and respect your hesitation and my object is not to change your understanding of Islam. But we grow and learn through our relationships, as well as our sexual experiences, and I find so many Muslims get married without having developed the emotional maturity that often can only be gained through successful (and failed) prior relationships. And we have such a puritanical view of dating — as if dating before marriage is only about sex. It can be about that but it can also be about learning how to love another person and, equally important, learning how to receive love.

That said, if you are committed not to having sex before marriage, then there is temporary marriage (mut’a) which, depending on your school of Islamic thought, may or may not be lawful in your view.

Otherwise, the option is to marry before or during your PhD program. I know many academics who are married. Some of these marriages survive; others do not. Academia is particularly stressful on a marriage because of the low pay and the uncertain future that awaits. There is also the possibility that you will marry into a family that will not want their daughter-in-law to be in school for so long. It is unfortunate and sad that this attitude still persists today but I know several PhD grads who are forced to stay home because their husbands or in-laws do not want them to enter academics.

Here is my advice: Form your decision irrespective of your career desire. Are you ready to get married? Have you found a partner that you love (and someone who loves your desire to be an academic)? If the answer to both of these is yes, then I think you should marry. Being married as a PhD student is challenging, no doubt, but then what marriage does not have its hardships?

Best of luck.

4 Comments on “Advice: I want sex but am not ready for marriage”

  1. JR says:

    Thank you both for the advice . I have the same problem. I am a premed student taking a year off before going to medical school (in sha Allah). I will be at least 30 years old before I am ready to get married. I think the reward of being a virgin for the sake of Allah is tremendous. So remember that! The most important question is did the find the right women for marriage? If your answer is yes, you should ask for her hand in marriage and get engaged. You don’t have to live together until both of you ready. Until then you can build bonds with her and, surely, enjoy physical/ emotional companionship. Me thinks……Allah knows best…..

  2. Laila says:

    I’m a fourth year grad student. Most of my colleagues are married- I think people tend to get married a year or two in. Academics tend to wed academics. There’s never really going to be a down time if you want to be a prof– after 6-8 years of school there’s 6 years on the tenure track (assuming you’re going for soc sci or humanities). If you meet someone who is either willing to/ able to up and move with you every 5-6 years or someone who is prepared for a marriage with someone who has a virtual second spouse in the academy, jump and marry that person. As for desire, my advice, eat less, fast for long periods of the day and exercise. It’ll help you stay healthy through grad school too.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I was in the same position once. I started my doctoral program when I was 26 years old. I was going to finish it in the next few years but it took me seven years to get done. I was going to get married when I was still working on my dissertation but that did not happen. There were many many potential partners that I met on the way but it did not work out. Some Muslim men did not want to be with a woman who was not sexually active with them before marriage. With others, the timing was just not right.

    I met the love of my life the year I turned 34 after I had defended and landed a job. We got married almost two years later and have been married for 7 months. We are still long distance. I remained a virgin until after we were married. They day we consumed our marriage I was one month short of 36.

    There were times when I questioned if what I was doing (abstinence) was normal. I also had a strong desire to be sexually active. Sometimes I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Living in North America with very explicit pressure to be sexually active added to my struggle. When I would visit my home country in South Asia I also had to face a lot of pressure to get married.

    It was an extremely difficult journey. Abstinence was hard but I have a very strong faith. The wait was worth every single minute though. I had doubts and times when I was afflicted with the thought that I would never find my soul mate. What supported me was prayer, faith, hope, journaling, love of family and friends. I had many male and female friends during that time. I hung out with a very diverse group of people, old and young, married and single, straight and gay. I read voraciously. I was also consumed completely by my research. I also made sure that I had plenty of young children in my life that I could nurture and enjoy spending time with. I worked hard to eat healthy and maintain an active lifestyle. A positive body image helped in the long run. I remained positive and dealt with family who put pressure on me to get married with kindness and compassion.

    I am advocating for abstinence as it worked for me. I also very humbly admit that it was very difficult. I am also saying that it was completely worth the wait. I believe that if you find the right person for yourself before or during your PhD and the timing is right for both of you then getting married to them could work out.

    My husband, who also has a doctorate, did not completely abstain. I don’t judge him for that and that is his story to share or not to share. I love him unconditionally though. I just wanted to give you these two perspectives. Perhaps there is something here that might help you.

    Best of luck on your amazing journey.

  4. Dee says:

    I am not 100% sure if the writer is female, but if you think your desire for sex is more physical than emotional, birth control pills have been known for decreasing the libido- which is why many women gave up on that specific method, but in your case it might be a blessing. And even if you’re abstinent it can help with regulating your cycle as well as cramps, if you have any. Good luck!