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.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
5 min read

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?

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.

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.

When this is the case, she says, getting to the root of what's really making you feel so bad can have some magical effects on your sex life.

"As you start feeling better about yourself, you may be very surprised to discover how many others are feeling better about you as well -- suddenly all those missed opportunities of the past come full circle and you have another chance," she says.

While the desire for that warm, fuzzy, intimate, and, yes, sexual relationship is a healthy one, it's also important to recognize that you can be happy and healthy without one.

"I think many people who don't have an intimate partner, or even any sex in their life, feel bad because they judge themselves and their life by society's definition of happiness -- a definition that often includes being part of a couple," says Dennis Sugrue, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and past president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists.

But if you put society's definition on hold, Sugrue contends you might find you are perfectly happy living without sex in your life.

"If you want a sexual relationship and you don't have one, that's one thing -- but if you are unhappy because society makes you feel abnormal or unhealthy without a sex life, then don't be swayed by that argument -- as long as you feel good about your life, that's all that counts," says Sugrue.

Certainly, a healthy sexual relationship can have some important mental and physical benefits. Studies show that when you connect with another person on a physically intimate level, and particularly when you reach orgasm, you generate a cascade of biochemical reactions that can not only give you a natural high, it may yield some lasting health benefits, boosting your immune system and even helping you cope with pain.

But Sugrue reminds us that at least some of these same biochemical advantages can be had through masturbation, and it's possible to garner at least some feelings of gratification and self-fulfillment from other types of relationships and activities in your life.

"Being celibate, whether voluntary or involuntary, does not preclude you from living a happy, creative, or fulfilled life," says Sugrue.

More importantly, all three experts agree that if being in a sexual relationship is something you truly want, it can be well within your reach.

"There is almost no celibacy problem that can't be effectively dealt with and improved upon -- no one has to suffer alone, about being alone -- because there are ways to deal with whatever problem is standing between you and what you want in life," says Luloff.

If you find yourself among those who are sexless in the city -- or anywhere else -- our experts suggest finding a therapist that makes you feel comfortable talking about sex, even if he or she is not a sex therapist.

Says Bartlik: "What's really important is having someone who can help you explore your feelings and discover what's missing in your life -- even if, after all is said and done, you find out that all you really needed to do was learn how to flirt!"

Originally published March 10, 2003.

Medically updated Jan. 12, 2005.