Donnelly, Denise; Burgess, Elisabeth; Anderson, Sally; Davis, Regina, and Dillard, Joy. (2001). Involuntary Celibacy: A life course analysis. The Journal of Sex Research, 38 (2), 159-169.

Denise Donnelly

Elisabeth Burgess

Regina-Davis Sowers

Joy Dillard

Link to Celibacy paper


The idea that large minorities of adults might have little or no sexual contact with others seems odd to many people.

Definition: An involuntary celibate is one who desires to have sex, but has been unable to find a willing partner for at least 6 months prior to being surveyed. This includes married and partnered couples whose partners no longer desire sex with them, un-partnered singles who have had sexual relationships in the past but who are unable to find a partner currently, and they include heterosexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals and transsexuals in their sample.

The authors use a life-course perspective that emphasizes how age-based transitions are socially created, socially recognized and shared and acknowledges that change over time can occur on multiple dimensions.

This kind of perspective emphasizes transitions and trajectories.

Cultural expectations suggest that certain events and patterns are normative for different age groups, and these expectations exist in all societies. These expectations can be examined using four dimensions
  1. timing (when transitions occur)
  2. sequencing (the order in which transitions occur)
  3. duration (how long life events last)
  4. prevalence (how many persons experience these transitions)

Most countries have normative expectations about sexual transitions,:

In Western societies, dating, sexual experimentation and mating take place sequentially. The majority of adults are assumed to have completed these life events by the mid to late 20s. People are expected to remain sexually active for major portions of their adult lives.

People judge themselves by these normative expectations to measure their own progress and determine if they are 'on time' or 'off time'.

The cultural norms for sexual activity seem to be rigid and being 'off time' has great consequences.

Adults who have never had sex or who go for long periods of time without sex may begin to feel 'off time' in regards to sexuality.

The same is probably true for partnered involuntary celibates. They are expected to have sex with their partners, except when the partner is ill, disabled or late in pregnancy. They may begin to feel 'off time' and experience themselves as different from other partnered persons.

The authors suggest that people who become 'off time' in regards to life transitions involving sexuality begin to feel as if they are no longer traveling on the same path as their peers, and once this happens, it may be difficult to conform to the normative sexual trajectories that their peers are following.

They focused on 4 research questions in their paper:

  1. What social factors inhibit transitions to sexual activity for involuntary celibates?
  2. At what point do the sexual trajectories of involuntary celibates become 'off time'?
  3. What is the process by which involuntary celibates become 'off time' in regards to sexuality?
  4. What factors keep involuntary celibates 'off time' and inhibit the establishment and maintenance of sexual relationships?


An questionnaire was mailed to 35 volunteer members of an on-line discussion group about involuntary celibacy. Eventually 60 men and 22 women took the survey once it was posted to a web site about involuntary celibacy.

Table 1 shows the respondents' characteristics.

Survey Questionnaire:

Celibacy Status:

Their respondents fell into 3 categories:

Virginal celibates tended to be younger than the other two groups, and to have never or rarely dated. 76% of the virgins were male, 24% female.

Teenage Experiences with Dating and Sex:

By the time they reach adulthood, most U.S. adolescents have masturbated, dated and experimented with sex with partners.


Virgins and singles may have missed important transitions, and as they got older, their trajectories began to differ from those of their age peers.

While virginity and lack of experience are fairly common in teenagers and young adults, by the time these respondents reached their mid-twenties, they reported feeling left behind by age peers.

The authors suspect this is particularly true for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans adolescents, and in their sample, all 8 people in that group were either virgins or singles.

Becoming Celibate:

Many of the virgins reported that becoming celibate involved a lack of sexual and interpersonal experience at several different transition points in adolescence and young adulthood. They never or rarely dated, had little experience with interpersonal sexual activity, and had never had sexual intercourse.

Singles were more likely to have dated and experimented sexually, but had difficulty in finding and maintaining relationships and tended to go for long periods of time between sexual partners. 20% of single men reported that their only sexual encounters were with paid sex workers.

In contrast, partnered celibates generally became sexually inactive by a very different process. All had initially been sexually active with their partners, but at some point stopped. At the time of the survey, sexual intimacy no longer or very rarely occurred in their relationships. The majority of them (70%) started out having satisfactory relationships, but slowly stopped having sex as time went on.

13% reported that one partner had been sexually reluctant from the beginning of the relationship. See comments.

17% of the respondents reported one partner making a conscious decision to suspend sexual activity.

There were no male-female differences among partnered persons, all were not having sex and all were unhappy about it.

Thus the trajectories by which each group of celibates arrived at their present condition varied greatly, with virgins becoming 'off time' in their teens and early twenties, and never experiencing the transition to sexual activity.

Single celibates showed some signs of difficulty as adolescents, but appeared to have been at least somewhat similar to their age peers in establishing sexual relationships. Similar to partnered celibates, they got 'off time' as adults.

Partnered celibates were unique, however, in that they were currently in relationships that had, over time, become nonsexual.

Barriers to Sexual Relationships:

Once respondents felt 'off time' in their sexual trajectories, they suspected that several factors kept them from having sexual relationships:

  1. Shyness:
    • Virgins (94%) and singles (84%) were more likely to report shyness than were partnered respondents (20%).
    • Men (89%) were more likely to report being shy than women (77%).
    • 41% of virgins and 23% of singles reported an inability to relate to others socially.
  2. Poor body image:
    • 1/3 of the respondents thought of their weight, appearance, or physical characteristics as obstacles to attracting potential partners.
    • 47% of virgins and 56% of singles mentioned these factors, compared to only 9% of partnered people.
    • Women were more likely to mention being overweight as a problem, while men were more likely to mention being underweight.
  3. Living arrangements, work arrangements and lack of transportation:
    • 20% of virgins and 28% of singles report these barriers.
    • Virginal and single men were more likely to be in sex-segregated occupations than women and to see this as a barrier.
    • For partnered celibates, children (50%), commitment to marriage (32%) and finances (27%) were the biggest barriers to leaving a current relationship. Even though 82% had thought about leaving, 86% reported no plans to do so.
    • Most of the people reported that they were reluctant to establish a extramarital relationship because of moral beliefs, concerns about their family or lack of opportunity.

The Consequences of Celibacy:

35% of celibates were dissatisfied, frustrated or angry about their lack of sexual relationships, and this was true regardless of partnership status. See comments, first column.

Many felt that their sexual development had somehow stalled in an earlier stage of life and feeling different from their peers and feeling like they will never catch up. See comments, bottom first column, top second column.

Partnered people also felt different than their peers, and frustrated by their partner's lack of interest. When they tried to initiate sex, they were often met with rejection. These rejections are often caused problems in other areas of their lives. See comment.

The longer the duration of the celibacy, the more likely our respondents were to view it as a permanent way of life. Virginal celibates tended to see their condition as temporary for the most part, but the older they were, the more likely they were to see it as permanent, and the same was true for single celibates. Partnered celibates saw their situations as unlikely to change.