The surprising benefits of swearing off sex
As increasing numbers of women are opting to take a sex sabbatical, Emma Ledger explores the growing trend for Netflix, no chill…
FOR LAURA JANE WILLIAMS, the turning point came when she found herself in a stranger’s bed after yet another unsatisfying one-night stand. She was using hook-ups to try to get over acute heartbreak, after her boyfriend dumped her then got engaged to her best friend. But after two years she decided to swear off sex completely.
‘I was sleeping with lots of men to try to fill the void and take back power, but it was so unfulfilling,’ says Laura, 32. ‘I decided to have a year of sexual abstinence. It was a quiet time of reflection, and it was inspiring. My internal dialogue had become quite mean, so it was a chance to rewrite that.’
In a culture where sex sells, few of us want to shout about not getting any. Until now. The number of people choosing a period of celibacy is on the rise. One US study found 32% of women have abstained from sex for six months, and 27% for a year or more. Another report prompted claims that Millennials are undergoing a ‘sex recession’. The American General Social Survey of nearly 27,000 people found 20-somethings are more than twice as likely to be abstinent as Generation X were at the same age.
It’s a similar story over here. A UCL study of 16,000 Millennials discovered one in eight were still virgins at 26, while the National Survey Of Sexual Attitudes And Lifestyles reported in 2001 that people aged 16 to 44 were having sex on average over six times a month – by 2012, that had dropped to fewer than five times. The reasons range from masturbation and porn being less taboo, to people actively choosing to wait longer to have sex.
Still, whether it’s a decision or circumstantial, hitting pause on sex can be positive. Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj have spoken about using periods of celibacy to boost their creativity, and US self-help guru Tim Ferriss advocates trying it to increase confidence and focus.
For Priya, 28, 18 months of abstinence was unplanned, sparked by dating app burnout. ‘I’d been single for two years and was disillusioned with the dating-drinking-disappointing-sex carousel never leading anywhere,’ she says. ‘I didn’t wake up one day and decide; I just started thinking more carefully about what I wanted. Then two months without sex turned into six, and I found I loved having more time for me. Some of my friends thought I was mad, especially those in couples who I think believed I’d be turning down loads of hot sex.’
The pervasive feeling that everyone is having more frequent and better sex than you can be oppressive. For Priya, stepping away from that helped bring clarity to other parts of her life. ‘I found it really helpful to focus on ways to make my life better that weren’t to do with men. I got a great new job, had more time for my friends and moved to a much nicer flat. I continued to date and decided to tell the guy around date two or three. It did change the vibe a few times, but my thinking was if they couldn’t handle a finite period of no sex they weren’t the man for me.’
For some it seems that taking sex off the table is part of self-care. Sex therapist Dr Nan Wise says that although there aren’t any physiological benefits to abstaining from sex, if you believe it will improve your mental health, it probably will. ‘For people who believe abstinence is going to help them, the belief itself may drive some of the benefits,’ she says. According to Melissa, 30, who took a year-long sex sabbatical last year, there are unexpected positives. ‘I found myself more confident in my body. I was looking good for myself and that is one of the best feelings,’ she says. ‘I no longer had hangups or insecurities before and after having sex with someone, and developed a better connection with who I am. That feeling has stayed with me and I’m stronger for it.’
During Laura’s planned year of abstinence, she moved to Italy to teach English in a convent. But when she moved back after 11 months she met somebody at a work event and they had sex. ‘ The opportunity presented itself and I felt empowered,’ Laura says. ‘It was good, respectful sex. Just what I wanted. I didn’t feel I had to get to an arbitrary date that I’d set. I had healed and I now liked myself.’
Laura met a boyfriend soon after, but they have since split and she’s celibate again. ‘I appreciate not having the distraction of having to pander to a man, and the substandard sex. I know so many clever, successful women who aren’t having sex because the sex on offer isn’t good enough,’ she says. ‘Sexual abstinence has changed me. It’s an opportunity to connect with yourself, to properly enjoy going out with friends rather than looking for a bloke to take home. It allows me to be a lot more present and focus on the positive relationships in my life with friends and family, rather than seeking out a new one. For now, this serves me very well.’
Celibacy might be defined as a lack of sex, but perhaps not putting out could be the secret to sorting your life out.
Laura (right) found celibacy offered a chance to reconnect with herself