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Sexless in The City

In a world of couples, being without a sex partner can be disheartening. You may be an involuntary celibate. But don't give up hope.
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WebMD Feature

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?

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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 goals.

"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 tells WebMD

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 College.

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.

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