How often a person has sex naturally changes from time to time, depending on age, fluctuations in sex drive, and relationship status. Many people enjoy a full and satisfying life without ever having sex.
In a study looking at data from 17,744 people in the United States, 15.2% of males and 26.7% of females reported having no sex in the last year, while 8.7% of males and 17.5% of females reported not having had sex for 5 years or more.
The authors concluded that “sexless Americans reported very similar happiness levels as their sexually active counterparts.”
In this article, we look at what might happen physically and psychologically when a person does not have sex for a long time and how it might affect people in a relationship.
Effects on the body
A person may not notice any side effects of celibacy.
People refer to not having sex for a long time as celibacy or abstinence. When someone does not have sex for months or years, they are unlikely to notice any negative physical side effects on their health.
However, research shows that having regular sex can result in certain health benefits, including improved immune system function, reduced blood pressure, lower stress levels, and less risk of cardiovascular events. Learn more about the health benefits of sex here.
People may get some of the physiological benefits of sex — such as reduced stress — from masturbation.
In males, prostate health can benefit from frequent ejaculation, whether this is with another person or alone. A 2016 study found that men who ejaculated at least 21 times per month had a lower risk of prostate cancer compared with those who ejaculated 4–7 times per month.
For females, frequent sexual activity — again, either with a partner or solo — can strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that support the bladder, improving bladder function and reducing incontinence and leakage.
Effects on mental health
There is a widespread idea that having regular sex is an important part of a person’s emotional well-being. While this is true for some people, it is not the case for everyone.
When sexual abstinence is involuntary, some individuals may feel negative effects on their mental health. Conversely, people who do not feel sexual desire may find these feelings distressing. Not having sex when in a relationship can make a person feel insecure or anxious. Talking about these emotions can help remove any sense of discomfort.
For others, abstaining from sex is important for good mental health. People may abstain from sex for many reasons, for example, because they have a low sex drive, are asexual, or simply choose not to engage in it.
The potential benefits of abstaining from sex, depending on the individual and their situation, include:
- having no risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- avoiding a source of anxiety
- taking time to work through negative feelings about sex
- living in a way that is consistent with one’s religious beliefs
However, research reports that sex is a good way to relieve stress, which can boost a person’s mental health. According to a study that surveyed 10,429 women with low sexual desire, 27.5% reported that it caused them distress. However, among those who had a current partner, the figure was much higher at 81%.
Some people may find that masturbation can reduce stress and anxiety because it releases hormones that produce a temporary mood boost.
Effects on relationships
Many people have fulfilling romantic relationships without having frequent sex. For others, regular sex can improve the health of their relationship.
A 2015 study reported that sexual frequency was only an indicator of well-being when people were in relationships. They found an association between having sex once a week and higher relationship satisfaction. This satisfaction did not seem to change when the frequency of sex increased to more than once per week.
For some people, sex can improve communication and feelings of closeness. People who feel as though they do not have enough sex may worry that there is something wrong with their relationship or fear that their partner is no longer attracted to them.
In these cases, people can try other methods of improving communication and intimacy. Cuddling, kissing, affectionate gestures, and opening up to one another can improve the health of a relationship, regardless of whether it involves sexual activity.
Celibacy and asexuality
An asexual person may have little or no sexual desire.
Asexuality and celibacy are not the same, though they are related. Not all asexual people are celibate, and not all celibate people are asexual.
Asexuality means that a person does not experience sexual attraction and does not feel a desire to have sex. Celibacy, on the other hand, refers to the abstinence of sex for a specific period or forever. Celibacy can be either a choice or the product of circumstance, while asexuality is not a choice.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation, and it exists on a continuum. Some people who are asexual do not desire sex at all, while others occasionally experience some desire. Some individuals only want to have sex when they are in a loving and safe relationship, which is known as being demisexual.
Some asexual people experience romantic feelings and a desire for a romantic relationship, while others do not. Experts refer to those who do not have this wish as being aromantic.
Some asexual people choose to have sex. They may make this decision to please a partner, to conform to societal norms, or because they fear that their identity is not valid. There is no evidence that trauma or other mental health issues cause asexuality. Asexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation that does not require a “cure,” and people should never pressure another person to have sex.
There is no correct amount of sex to have, and the ideal frequency will vary from person to person. Not having sex for a long time should not have negative side effects.
There is no right or wrong way to express sexual feelings as long as all parties consent. Likewise, no person should feel obligated to have a specific frequency of sex. Avoiding sex will not harm a person’s health, and it may even be healthy.
People who feel concerned about low sexual desire or the effects of infrequent sex on their relationship can talk about their concerns with a doctor or therapist. Medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, better relationship communication, and many other strategies may help.