Celibacy certainly has its rightful place, but when the abstinence is involuntary, the result can lead to anger and even doubts about self-worth for many adults, a new study says.
Those who have gone for an extended period without sexual relations - or have never had them - can experience problems ranging from embarrassment to serious depression, according to the study, which appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Sex Research.
Not able to find a partner
The study involved a survey of 82 people who had wanted to have sex for at least six months but had been unable to find a partner. The participants, 60 men and 22 women, were recruited from an online discussion group for involuntary celibates and ran the gamut from heterosexuals and bisexuals to homosexuals and transsexuals.
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. Some reported suffering from depression.
Celibacy almost by accident
Elisabeth Burgess, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University and co-author of the study, says many respondents reported that their celibacy occurred almost by accident while they were preoccupied with other pursuits.
"We had people who were in their 30s and still virgins, who had taken what might be considered 'the good path' by postponing dating when they were teen-agers in order to focus on their school work," she says. "They then went to college and focused on school work and then got a good career and focused on that. And then all of a sudden, they realized the postponing of sexual activity had caught up with them."
That realisation can be extremely embarrassing, Burgess says.
"Suddenly, their peers would be far more experienced, and [the respondents] assumed that they should be too," she says. "They would begin to feel that there must be something wrong with them if they're 30 years old and have perhaps never been on a date or have very little experience even with things like kissing or fondling of partners, let alone sexual intercourse."
Celibacy and low self-esteem
Consequently, many expressed feelings of low self-esteem and regret.
"They frequently have feelings of self-doubt, anger, frustration and depression because they feel they aren't where they're supposed to be, according to the norms of society," Burgess adds. "They would say, 'I should have done something when I was younger,' or 'If I wasn't so shy, or looked better or knew how to flirt.' "
Psychologist Dennis Sugrue, president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, agrees that many problems involuntary celibates seem to experience are probably in response to cultural pressures. But, he argues, people shouldn't feel swayed by those pressures.
"My concern is that [research like Burgess'] can be stigmatising to people who are not in a sexual relationship," he says.
Celibacy not abnormal
"People will argue that not being sexual is an abnormal condition, and this study, if you take it sort of on its headline value, kind of supports that notion, suggesting that if you're not in a sexual relationship, you're at greater risk for being depressed," Sugrue says.
"And the logical conclusion that that would lead to is that it's one more reason why you should be in a sexual relationship - because it's important for your mental health. And that's just not true," he adds.
Being celibate, Sugrue argues, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, shouldn't prevent people from being happy, creative or fulfilled.
Therapy focuses on building of social skills
"They may have some interpersonal deficits or have lacked opportunities to become comfortable in dating or interacting intimately with others," Sugrue says. "So for a therapist, the issue isn't how to help this person find a sexual partner so they can feel better. The therapy would instead focus on social skills building, as well as helping the person become more comfortable with their own sexuality and being sexual with others."