We live in a society where sex is considered a normal and necessary part of life. This is the result of a decades-long effort to overcome deep-rooted feelings of shame and guilt associated with sexuality. Because sexuality is so intimate and so consequential, it has led to problems in social organization throughout human history. The topic is so burdened with moralizing because it is an obvious subject to address when establishing social norms.
But what does this mean for the individual? How does having or not having sex affect your health? Is there a recommended regular amount for optimum health?
The most recent “sexual revolution” happened in the US in the 1960s and 70s. The new emphasis on social liberation meant that it became more acceptable to engage in sex outside of marriage. The contraceptive pill was also developed around the same time, which made it possible for more women to have professional careers. Because of these changing attitudes, sex began to be used much more overtly in advertising, and over time modern consumers have become inundated with sexual images, leading to the impression that happy successful people have sex on tap all the time. But this is not true.
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Biologically, sex is how humans reproduce. Our bodies are programmed to do it. Each of has a sex drive, but the strength of this drive varies from individual to individual, from one life stage to another, and in response to biological and social circumstances, for example physical health or social expectations.
The amount of sex a person has also varies over their lifetime. There is no “right” amount of sex, and not having sex for a long time doesn't negatively impact one’s physical health.
It is not dangerous to live without sex.
Apart from the biological imperative to reproduce, in humans sexuality can be a means of physical expression and intimacy. But a person who does not have a sexual life is not in danger. Eating, drinking, and sleeping are basic needs for all people. And while humans do need some sort of social contact to thrive, it doesn’t necessarily have to include sexuality.
Happy and healthy without sex?
Many people live full and satisfying lives without having sex. While most of us feel the urge to have sex at various points in our lives, some people choose to abstain or to live a life of celibacy. Others don't experience much of a sex drive and consider themselves to be asexual. And sometimes there just isn't an opportunity to have sex, no matter how much we would like to. While some of these conditions may come with a certain level of discomfort, none of them is dangerous.
Abstinence is choosing not to do something. Sexual abstinence is choosing not to have sex. This can be for a long time or for a short time. People choose to abstain from sex for many different reasons, including waiting for marriage or until they are ready for a sexual relationship and have found the “right” partner, after a breakup, wanting to avoid pregnancy or STIs, pursuing academic or professional goals, to conserve energy before a physical challenge, on the advice of a doctor after an illness, in support of cultural or religious values, or for reasons of ritual purity.
Celibacy is abstaining from marriage and from sexual relations. This word was once reserved for those who abstain for religious reasons but is now used more widely. If someone is celibate, they are understood to abstain from sex for all their life, or at least for a long period of time. By renouncing sexuality, it is thought that one can develop a greater capacity for spiritual enlightenment and live a life of service to others instead of taking care of themselves and their own families.
Simply not interested
Some people consider themselves to be asexual, meaning they do not experience sexual attraction. This is not a result of trauma or some medical condition but is considered a sexual orientation—or a lack of one. Asexuality can mean different things to different people, and asexual people may engage in sex from time to time for a variety of reasons, including starting a family or creating intimacy with their partner.
Someone who is asexual experiences little or no sexual attraction. Unlike celibacy and abstinence, asexuality is not a matter of choice and it has nothing to do with being unable to find a partner: many asexual people are in happy, healthy romantic relationships.
Although asexual people do not experience sexual attraction, they may experience the many other forms of attraction humans can feel, such as:
romantic attraction—wanting a romantic relationship with someone
aesthetic attraction—being attracted to someone based on their appearance
sensual attraction—wanting to touch, hold or hug someone
platonic attraction—wanting to be friends with someone
emotional attraction—wanting an emotional connection with someone
Or they may experience sexual attraction only in very limited circumstances, for example, only when they have a deep intimate connection with a partner.
How does a lack of sex affect our physical and mental health?
While many studies claim that sex is good for your health the quality of your sleep, your memory, and even your IQ, not having sex for months or even years does not have a negative influence on a person’s physical health.
However, not being able to have sex can sometimes be detrimental to one’s mental health, especially if one longs for sexual connection but is unable to experience it. Some people who must abstain from sex involuntarily report feeling tense, impatient, and even aggressive. Others report feeling physical loneliness, longing for touch, or an inability to concentrate.
Sometimes people in a relationship have different levels of interest in sex. Not having sex can be a relief to one person, while it can make another person feel insecure or anxious, fearing that their partner’s lack of sexual interest is a sign of an overall lack of interest. Feeling sexually unattractive can be a blow to one’s self-esteem. It is important for partners to talk openly about their perceptions and feelings regarding sex.
How to see the positive in the absence of sex
It is not always possible to have sex just because you want to. Perhaps you don’t have a partner, or if you do they may be absent, or ill, or less interested in sex than you are. Whatever the case may be, there are benefits to be found in periods of abstinence.
Abstaining from sex for a while can be a relief.
A period of no sex can be a time to let go of social pressures and engage in non-sexual activities that feel pleasurable and soothing, as sex does on other occasions. It can be a time to pursue forgotten interests or to put yourself first for a while.
A period without sex could create space for you to:
discover new interests and activities that bring you joy
appreciate your entire body, instead of focusing on the “naughty bits”
build a richer emotional bond with your partner
If sex is your stress reliever, a period of abstinence could:
help you reconnect with yourself, instead of using sex to avoid dealing with what is really bothering you
allow you prioritize sleep and self-care
allow you to practice emotional regulation—stay with your emotions instead of escaping
encourage you to find another physical activity that allows you to release tension
If sex is all about performance for you, taking a break might encourage you to:
practice conscious touch
focus on your own body awareness and pleasure without having to please someone else
increase your physical activity to maintain cardiovascular health
The media lie
Personal fulfilment does not come only from an active sex life. Advertising tells us: “If you don't have sex, your life is empty.” Many people are fed up with the constant pressure to be sexually attractive imposed on us by the media. By seeking sexual activity as an end in itself and as something necessary for a satisfactory life, many of us make unwise choices and have been hurt by a painful divorce or by relationships without love and real intimacy or “one-night stands”.
There are many kinds of love and many ways we can connect with each other. Sex can be fantastic, but the world is much richer than just that.
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