Recently we’ve been hearing more about “incels” or involuntary celibates — people who want to have sex but can’t seem to find a partner — especially in the context of mass violence. For example, Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in 2014 as part of a self-declared “war on women,” publicly blamed women for his inability to find a willing partner. Articles in the popular press have suggested that masculinity has more to do with this group’s behavior than wanting to have sex. In fact, social science research clearly demonstrates that there are plenty of adults out there who want to be having sex — but aren’t — and do not commit horrendous acts of violence.
First, many people fit into the category of “involuntary celibate.” One researcher defined it as someone who desires to have sex but has been unable to find a willing partner for at least six months. There are many reasons people don’t have sex, from religious beliefs, to physical ability, to a partner’s preferences. Depending on one’s age and relationship status, the path to involuntary celibacy can look very different. For instance, men and women with little relationship or sexual experience reported lack of experience to be the main reason for celibacy, in addition to social skills, body image, living arrangements, work arrangements, and transportation. Further, young adults tend to report feeling “off time.” In other words, they believe their peers are already having sex, a lot of sex, and they feel like they will never catch up.
- Denise Donnelly, Elisabeth Burgess, Sally Anderson, Regina Davis, and Joy Dillard. 2001. “Involuntary Celibacy: A Life Course Analysis.” Journal of Sex Research 38(2): 159-169.
- Laura Carpenter. 2005. Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. New York: New York University Press.
Even though having sex is a key part of masculinity for most young men, some avoid feeling “off time” by pledging abstinence until marriage. These men do not feel less masculine than their peers. Instead, they reframe the choice as one that requires self-control and therefore their masculinity is dependent on not having sex until marriage.
- Sarah Diefendorf. 2015. “After the Wedding Night: Sexual Abstinence and Masculinities over the Life Course.” Gender & Society 29(5): 647-669.
While many people in partnered relationships — married or not — have sex at the beginning of the relationship, some report their relationship becomes “sexless” later on, often due to one partner’s sexual desires (or rather, lack thereof). While most view the lack of sex in their relationship as negative, they are often reluctant to leave a stable relationship. Many decide the benefits of staying, like strong emotional connections, outweigh the costs of leaving like financial instability and loneliness.
- Denise Donnelly and Elisabeth Burgess. 2008. “The Decision to Remain in an Involuntary Celibate Relationship.” Journal of Marriage and Family 70: 519-535.