One click around the TV dial, one flip through your favorite
magazine, and it's hard to ignore: Sex seems to be everywhere -- with everybody
doing it more often, with more partners, in more ways than ever before.
But what if you're not one of those people having sex on a
regular basis -- and particularly if you are someone whose life is void of
virtually all sexual activity?
By Ty Wenger
Fifteen years ago, I found myself in a romantic pickle: Cheryl, a woman I
had been dating for about three months, was nearing her 25th birthday. The
birthday gift in any three-month-old relationship is a dicey one, and I
deliberated over it for weeks. Too big too soon and it could look like I was
trying too hard. Too little and I might appear indifferent. Too romantic and
I'd run the risk of setting the bar too high.
And so it was with great enthusiasm that I finally unveiled...
If so, you may be part of a growing group of adults known as
"involuntary celibates" -- otherwise healthy folks who want to have sex
but can't make it happen in their lives.
"These are often people who, for one reason or another,
have put their sex life on hold -- maybe they were shy and plagued with social
anxieties when they were young, or perhaps they were just concentrating on
school and then their career -- or were saddled with other responsibilities or
issues that took priority in their life at the time," says Philip B.
Luloff, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, Mount Sinai Medical
Center, New York.
Sex Life on Hold
By the time they decide to open their life to a partner, Luloff
says they can feel so far behind their peers in social skills or even sexual
prowess, it drives them further away from achieving their relationship
"You simply don't know where to begin -- so you just put
off starting, and as time passes, and your feelings of frustration and
isolation grow, self-esteem falls even lower, creating a vicious cycle of
discontent that makes it even harder to find an intimate partner," Luloff
Indeed, in a small but significant study published in 2001 in
the Journal of Sex Research, doctors from Georgia State University found
that folks who are involuntarily celibate are frequently afflicted with
feelings of anger, frustration, self-doubt and even depression -- all
invariably linked to living without sex.
But while celibacy may be the hook upon which many of us can
legitimately hang our cloak of discontent, psychiatrist and sex therapist
Barbara Bartlik, MD, tells WebMD that for just as many people, living without
sex may be more of a symptom than a problem.
"Not having sex is really more about not having a partner
-- and not being connected to someone in an intimate way -- so you really have
to look beyond the physical act of sex to understand what might be the
underlying factor that's preventing you from connecting to another on an
intimate level," says Bartlik, a psychiatrist at the Weil Cornell Medical
Often, she says, that underlying factor can be undiagnosed
depression, as well as problems related to low self-esteem.
"Sometimes not having a partner causes us to feel
depressed, which then drives us further from our goal of meeting someone. But
sometimes the opposite is true -- the depression or the self-esteem problems
come first, and celibacy is simply the end result; it's a symptom and not the
source of the problem," says Bartlik.