This week, the Atlantic’s Kate Julian plunged into a sea of data on sex in America and delivered some startling news: the nation is “in the midst of a sex recession.” Not only are teens and young adults having less intercourse than in eras past, she writes, but older generations have ramped down their physical intimacy as well. The piece names a host of contributing factors, including the hidden pitfalls of dating apps, the way porn encourages masturbation (or potentially painful bedroom maneuvers), millennials living with their parents and the current inhibitions surrounding nudity. But what it ultimately comes down to is choice: We have the option to pursue sex or not. Some people do not.
There’s a part of the so-called “manosphere” devoted to this abstention, made up of factions like the MGTOW (“men going their own way”) and “volcels” (the “voluntarily celibate”). But often their anti-sex philosophies bend toward simple misogyny. I wanted to hear why men — and women! — far outside this toxic realm may forego sexual experiences for months or years at a time. Horny platforms like Twitter and Tinder normalize the idea that all of us are cruising for ass 24/7, and it’s rare to see sexlessness referenced as anything other than a mind-bending horror. What I found out, however, is that taking yourself out of the dating pool can have positive effects as well.
‘I Still Have More Work to Do on Myself’
Adam (not his real name) is 28 years old, and he lives in Georgia. For him, sex had become a source of dread. “I’m out of shape and depressed and I was at a point where even when I wanted to have sex I couldn’t successfully make that happen, and then I’d feel even worse because I’d fret about it all of the time,” he tells me in a Twitter DM. “Eventually, I just gave up and deleted all of the [dating] apps and tried to change my priorities. I’m feeling better mentally, but I still have more work to do on myself before dipping my toes back in.” He says it’s actually been a relief living without the immediate possibility of sex. “The whole ordeal of trying to meet people and get to that point stresses me out, and then, on the rare occasion where it gets to the point of actually having sex, I’m just riddled with anxiety and esteem issues, and it doesn’t even seem worthwhile.” Nevertheless, this pause on intimacy may be temporary; Adam says he’s “not swearing all of that off forever.” His focus now, of course, is therapy and self-care.
‘What I Don’t Want to Do Is Waste My Time’
Several of the currently celibate women I spoke to recalled specific encounters or relationships that led them to quit sex — at least for the time being. Jen, a 37-year-old woman living outside Seattle, says she deliberately didn’t “date or fuck anyone” for two years during and after a heartbreak over an unavailable man. “I had a super hardcore crush on a former co-worker, who was married with two kids,” she explains. “I only had eyes for him, even though I wasn’t going to make a move, as he was married. I was consumed with fantasies of him for almost a year and a half. I was miserable, of course, and wished things were different. He moved away this past July, and since then I have tried to move on.”
That didn’t go according to plan either: “I met a nice guy and dated for a short while. After having sex, he shares with me that he was a virgin. I de-virginized a guy (without realizing it) and was very creeped out by that.”
So, Jen says, she has embraced “full-on spinsterhood,” aided by her fancy sex toy collection: “I’ve avoided online dating, I don’t have Facebook, and I have social anxiety, so meeting new people is rare and awkward. Avoiding the world (and men) is so much easier.” Like Adam, though, she hasn’t lost her interest in romance or physical intimacy. “I want to be in love again. I suppose that won’t happen if I keep myself hidden away all the time. What I don’t want to do is waste my time with someone who isn’t right for me. It’s important to have high standards.” Her type of guy, she says, resembles “a young Oliver Platt” (if that describes you, let me know, and I can try to set you two up).
‘All the Emotional Effort Required to Just Have a Damn Orgasm — Nah.’
“I haven’t had sex since the night Debbie Reynolds died,” says Carla, a Texas woman in her 40s. “That line is good for laughs but true. And it’s pretty much voluntary. I miss sex, no doubt, but after a two-year fuck-buddy relationship [with someone who] stopped respecting me after about the six-month mark, I said no more.” And while Carla is open to meeting a new dude in real life, sex is “not a motivating factor” in her social activity. “My life is so full without it that the thought of going through all the emotional effort required to just have a damn orgasm — nah. I mean, if Bill Hader (I adore him) showed up at my door, hell yeah. But he’d have to be driven straight there. I’m too busy with other shit. And I gave up on apps because they’re horrible for your self-esteem, especially in your 40s. It’s subjecting yourself to never-ending scrutiny and then beating yourself up for it.” At some point, it seems, the prospect of hooking up becomes a more stringent cost-benefit analysis, and the upside isn’t tempting enough.
‘I’ve Reached a Zen Place’
Kelly (another pseudonym), age 33 and living in New York, echoed that opinion. For straight women, she says, “having sex often involves partners who aren’t particularly interested in your pleasure. So the idea of going out and finding a casual partner isn’t particularly satisfying” when the novelty of it wears off. Then again, a long stretch between sexual partners is typical for her, and what others might think of as a “drought” is hardly an issue to her. “I also think that ‘taking time off of sex’ sort of assumes that sex is constantly good or a positive part of life that you are removing yourself from, and I guess in my experience is that it’s always much more complicated than that,” she says.
If there’s a marked advantage to celibacy, Kelly adds, it’s less to do with abstinence than “not being in a lackluster or bad relationship” to retain sexual access. She knows that others, however, will make the tradeoff: “I feel like I’ve reached a zen place about it, but I think it would be harder/more frustrating for women with a higher sex drive.”
‘I’m on Tinder to Get Friends’
To judge by a handful of men who identified themselves to me as celibate for the moment, that ambivalence toward sex is more common than she thinks.
“I mean, I’m single,” says 37-year-old Scott in Arizona. “Been single a long time.”
Tom, from New Jersey, quips: “I was a virgin until I was 33, but let’s just say I’m now 34.” He chalks this up to “growing up closeted and Catholic and autistic,” which meant he “largely thought sex was for 1) pregnancy 2) abuse and 3) disease.”
Dylan, a 23-year-old in Delaware, says that not having sex is, for him, “sort of at the crossroads of lots of stuff” — that he’s “on the spectrum and definitely not a very sexually motivated person.” He elaborates on that: “I’d guess this is probably [the age] when most guys are sort of peaking in terms of wanting sex, and I just have no desire whatsoever. I’m on Tinder to get friends, and girls will message me wanting to hook up every now and then, and they generally end up asking if i’m gay or something more offensive, lol.” And he’s not too hyped on courtship rituals in general: “It seems, like, extremely rude to flirt with someone … just sort of foisting someone into something they might not/probably don’t want to do.”
‘Now That I’m Not Having It, I Just Don’t Care’
The common denominator in these stories may come as a surprise to someone swooning over their new crush: acceptance. Time and again, I heard that sexlessness really isn’t that big of a deal. Monica (pseudonym), a middle-aged New Yorker, hasn’t had intercourse with her spouse in years. “Long story short, my husband is a recovering alcoholic,” she says. “When he was drinking heavy, he basically lost his libido, and I just dealt with it. He has been sober over two years, and we have not gone back to having sex. We have never talked about it, and neither of us ever ask the other one for sex. We just got used to living that way, and it honestly doesn’t bother me. I rarely think about it. It’s been about five years since the last time and I’m oddly okay with that.” She stresses that this peace of mind is not what she would have expected: “I never thought I’d ever be okay with not having sex, but now that I’m not having it, I find I just don’t care.”
All of which is to say: The next time you start obsessing over the notion that everyone is constantly swiping left and getting down except you, remember that there’s more to life than docking bodies. It’s not that a regular thorough fuck isn’t great, but it’s also not going to solve your every problem and ensure permanent happiness. Celibate people, like the non-celibate, are getting by fine, doing what’s best for them. If that stokes worries about a “sexual recession,” well… we could always abandon sexual capitalism. Right? Hello? Goddammit, you’re on Bumble right now, aren’t you. Fine. I tried.