The idea that large minorities of adults might have little or no sexual contact with others seems odd to many people.
16% of married couples had not engaged in sexual intercourse in the prior month (1993 U.S. survey).
14% of men and 10% of women had not had sexual behavior involving genital contact in the past year (1994 U.S. survey).
Celibate married people often give reasons such as:
unhappiness with the marriage
plans or desires to leave the relationship
lack of shared activity
presence of preschoolers
acute illness or injury
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.
Transitions are brief events that mark chronological movement from one state to another. First sexual intercourse and commitment to a monogamous relationship are examples of transitions.
Trajectories are more complex measures, which measure the long-term processes and broader patterns of events in an individual's experience in specific life spheres over time. Sexual histories and marital relationships are examples of 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
timing (when transitions occur)
sequencing (the order in which transitions occur)
duration (how long life events last)
prevalence (how many persons experience these transitions)
Most countries have normative expectations about sexual transitions,:
Assume begin to date in teens or early 20s
Experiment with and initiate sex at some point thereafter
Eventually marry or partner in a long-term relationship which includes an active sex life.
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:
What social factors inhibit transitions to sexual activity for involuntary celibates?
At what point do the sexual trajectories of involuntary celibates become 'off time'?
What is the process by which involuntary celibates become 'off time' in regards to sexuality?
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.
Most between 25-34
28% married or living with a partner
89% had attended or completed college
Professionals (45%) and students (16%) were the two largest groups
85% of the sample was white
89% were heterosexual
70% lived in the U.S.
30% from Western Europe, Canada and Australia
13 categorical, close-ended questions assessing demographic data such as age, sex, marital status, living arrangement, income, education, employment type, area of residence, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious preference, political views, and time spent on the computer.
58 open-ended questions investigated such areas as past sexual experiences, current relationships, initiating relationships, sexuality and celibacy, nonsexual relationships and the consequences of celibacy.
Their respondents fell into 3 categories:
virgins (those with no sexual experience)
single celibates (not currently partnered but who did have past sexual experience)
partnered celibates (those in partnerships and had past sexual experience)
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.
78% of this sample had discussed sex with friends
84% had masturbated as teens.
91% of virgins and 52% of singles had never dated as teenagers.
Only 29% of virgins reported first sexual experiences that involved other people, and they frequently reported no sexual activity at all except for masturbation.
Singles were more likely than virgins to have had an initial sexual experience that involved other people (76%), but they tended to report that they were dissatisfied with the experience.
78% of partnered respondents recounted initial activities involving other people (kissing, petting, oral sex, intercourse).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
As a group, all involuntary celibates appear to have difficulty with the timing and maintenance of culturally sanctioned age-based norms of sexuality.
All celibates appear to feel despair, depression, frustration and a loss of confidence. This negatively affected the ways in which they viewed themselves, and they seemed less likely to take steps to initiate sexual activity. The longer the duration of the celibacy, the more they despaired of ever having a normal sexual relationship.
Cultural expectations about masculinity and femininity affected the respondents. Men were more likely to have graduate or professional degrees than the females, to work in sex-segregated jobs and to spend more time on the computer. Women were more likely to report that their bodys were a barrier to sex and to feel constrained by gender role norms that influenced them to act in traditional ways. Men reported that they felt trapped by expectations that they should take the initiative in relationships, with women felt they should not initiate dates or sexual activity.
Less than 25% of this sample reported that they filled sexual needs by viewing pornography, engaging in sexually explicit cyber chatting or having cyber sex. They appeared to use the internet more to find moral support than for sexual stimulation. For most, the internet provided them with a community and filled emotional needs. Just as they were hesitant to begin sexual relationships in real life, this sample was hesitant to establish sexual connections on-line as well.
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