July 24, 2001
For many, sexless lifestyle is not a choice
Involuntary celibacy contributes to depression and negative self-image
ATLANTA - For nuns and monks, celibacy is part of a divine spiritual path. But for many others, the lack of sexual intimacy is an embarrassing fact that affects their self-esteem and self-perception. For them, celibacy is not a choice.
"It's an interesting paradox, in a society that discusses sex so much, that we don't talk about this," said Denise Donnelly, a Georgia State University associate professor of sociology whose latest research on involuntary celibacy is published in the current issue of the Journal of Sex Research. "We preach abstinence to our high-school students, but at some point abstinence becomes deviant."
In a study of 82 people who identified themselves as involuntarily celibate, Donnelly and co-author Elisabeth Burgess concluded that unwanted abstinence often results from events that occur over a person's life. Most study participants felt their celibacy stems from a lack of sexual experiences at key transition points in adolescence, young adulthood or even in their adult lives.
The majority of respondents reported feeling as if opportunities had passed them by and their sexual development somehow had stalled in an earlier stage of life. Participants reported suffering from depression, and many celibates were dissatisfied, frustrated or angry about not having sexual relationships.
In the study, the researchers defined an involuntary celibate as a person who wanted to have sex but had been unable to find a willing partner at least six months prior to being surveyed. The researchers examined why respondents became celibate, how long they had been celibate and their feelings on celibacy.
The study was initiated in 1998, when a member of an online discussion group for involuntary celibates approached Donnelly about current research on the subject. Donnelly and Burgess began gathering data after finding that little information existed.
Participants in the study filled out a confidential questionnaire over e-mail or on a Web page. The questionnaire delved into demographic characteristics, as well as past sexual experiences, current relationships, sexuality and celibacy.
Since the data-gathering took place online, the majority of respondents had characteristics typical of people who have access to computers - young, male, white, well-educated individuals who hold professional jobs. Overall, 60 men and 22 women participated in the study, which included responses from heterosexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals and transsexuals.
Although the study's findings stem from a small sample population, Donnelly argues the findings are significant. "We may not have captured all the demographics, but we did capture the major issues for involuntary celibates," she said.
Respondents generally fell into three categories - virginal celibates, single celibates and partnered celibates. Virginal celibates were defined as people who had never had a sexual experience. Single celibates weren't in current relationships, but they had past sexual experience. Partnered celibates were either married or in long-term relationships but no longer had sex with their partners.
The researchers found that teen-age experiences with dating and sex played a significant role in virgin and single respondents' state of involuntary celibacy. The majority of virgins and singles never dated as teen-agers, and many of the singles expressed dissatisfaction with past sexual encounters.
Both singles and virgins said they had difficulty finding and maintaining relationships, and they felt that barriers to future relations included shyness, negative body image and sex-segregated work environments.
Unlike the virgins and singles, partnered respondents were more likely to have had dating relationships and past intimate experience. Partnered respondents described becoming celibate as a slow process. Most started out with sexually active relationships but slowly stopped having sex over time.
"In most people's minds, it's harder for married couples having intimacy problems to talk about it," said Burgess, a Georgia State assistant professor of sociology. "Married people often perceive their situations as permanent, which is a frightening realization for them."
For partnered respondents, barriers to leaving their current relationships or establishing intimacy with other partners included children, commitment to marriage, and finances.
In their paper, the researchers suggest that most industrialized societies have expectations about when sexual transitions occur. People begin to date in their teens or early 20s, later experiment with sex and eventually commit to a long-term, sexually active relationship. Family, friends and the media reinforce those expectations, said Donnelly.
Participants in the Georgia State study used society's expectations to measure their own progress, judging themselves as either "on time" or "off time." Most respondents viewed themselves as "off time" -- and when a person begins to feel different from others, it becomes harder for him or her to establish intimacy, said Donnelly.
In a previous national survey of U.S. residents, Donnelly found that 16 percent of married couples hadn't had sex for a month. Other research showed that 14 percent of men and 10 percent of women in the United States hadn't had sexual activity for a year, and 3 percent hadn't had sex since their 18th birthdays.