Unwanted Abstinence

From the WebMD Archives

July 27, 2001 -- On TV, everyone who wants a sex life gets one. That's not the way it works in real life. And results from a new survey show that people who want sex -- but don't get it -- suffer in lonely silence.

"Many of these people are in their 20s and 30s but haven't ever had the experience of kissing or touching, much less intercourse," Elisabeth O. Burgess, PhD, tells WebMD. "So they feel awkward not knowing how to make the right move. It seems to them that they have a big sign on their heads that says "INEXPERIENCED."

Burgess is a sociologist at Georgia State University, in Atlanta. Her colleague Denise Donnelly, PhD, began the study after her earlier work on the subject drew the attention of an internet chat room for involuntary celibates -- people who want sex but can't find a partner. This contact revealed to the researchers a hidden world of hurt.

Via Internet questionnaires, they interviewed 60 men and 22 women whose sex lives either never began or had stalled for at least six months. Their findings, published in the current issue of the Journal of Sex Research, showed that these people often experience despair, depression, frustration, and a loss of confidence that spills over into all aspects of their lives.

"For these people, not being sexually active isn't just about the sex but about being connected to other people," Burgess says. "It's about the need for intimacy. They feel left out of normal relationships. And they think they are the only person experiencing this problem."

Since publishing this initial study, Donnelly and Burgess have gone on to interview some 300 people sharing various versions of this problem. Some are virgins. Some are single people who haven't dated in a long time. And some are married or in a committed relationship but have stopped having sex.

The study found that the virgins and singles had a lot in common. They typically reported being shy, and were likely to have put off dating and sex to concentrate on their education and careers.


"Suddenly they are 30 and are at the point in their lives where they want to get married and have children, but they have never been on a date," Burgess says. "They think everybody else their age has been through all these initiation stages 10 and 15 years ago."

Here's what one virginal man in the 35-44 age group told the researchers:

"The fact that no woman has loved me or cared for me enough to have sex with me is tremendously damaging to my self-esteem. It makes me feel like a freak, an unloved person who is not worth anything to anyone. I know intellectually that these feelings are to a large extent misleading and wrong. Nonetheless, this is the visceral feeling in my gut that I get when I think about this -- and I think about it every day, every hour. Sometimes every minute."

Married people who no longer have sex obviously differ from the virgins and singles in that they did have sex at one point.

"To some extent this makes it harder for them to speak up," Burgess says. "They are still very much in love with their spouses. They say, 'Well, I am not sexually satisfied but he is a good father and provider and a fun person -- I just wish he would find me sexually interesting.'"

Sex therapist S. Michael Plaut, PhD, is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and immediate past president of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research. Asked by WebMD to comment on the Donnelly and Burgess findings, he notes that their Internet-based study may actually have underestimated the problem by missing older people who don't use computers. And he would add a fourth category to the list of people who want but don't have sex: married people who later find that they are gay or lesbian.

Both Plaut and Burgess recommend that people who are troubled by their lack of a sex life should seek professional help.

"The message for anyone experiencing a period of involuntary celibacy is they are not alone," Burgess says. "One thing that has been very helpful to some people is to find community. This can be done on the Internet."