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Sexual Abstinence
Kissing pictures Port Elizabeth, South Africa 1999, photography Ed Templeton

Why quitting sex could be the answer to emotional wellness


TextSharlene Gandhi

As we broaden our exploration of sexuality and the self, why are some people abstaining from sex altogether?

Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.

Sex is good for your health. Not only is it proven to boost your immune system, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of prostate cancer, it can also improve your mood. Physical intimacy, whether with oneself or as part of a couple, can trigger the release of chemicals in the brain including dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins, our body’s natural pain, stress and anxiety fighters, while after orgasm, the body releases prolactin which can lead to feelings of relaxation.

But sex has always been good for your health. It is only now, with the explosion of “wellness”, however, that brands are cottoning on and it is finally being marketed as such. In 2017, the global sexual wellness industry accounted for $39.42 billion and that number is estimated to grow to a huge $122.96 billion by 2026 according to Statistics MRC.

With an emphasis on improving the mind, body and soul, the sexual wellness industry encompasses everything from products including luxury eucalyptus-infused lube and crystal yoni eggs (to engage both your vagina and your chakras) to practices including Neotantra – a Western interpretation of the Hindu and Buddhist Tantra traditions. Surrogate partner therapy, where a client and surrogate work through sensual and sexual touching with the support of a therapist, is increasingly being recognised as a legitimate part of the medical field. We’ve also seen the rise of sexual wellness influencers such as Eileen Kelly (@KillaandaSweetThing), and Karley Sciortino, host and EP of Viceland show Slutever, who are promoting open conversation about sex and sexual health in the digital sphere. These advocates are able to provide the sexual education their young audience may not be receiving at school and encourage them to talk openly and honestly about their problems and experiences.

Sex as a pursuit of wellness is a distinctly millennial phenomenon. So why, then, are so many millennials opting out? According to a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 15 percent of 20 to 24-year-olds born in the 1990s reported they had not had a sexual partner since they were 18. The last generation with as high an abstinence rate as us today was in the 1920s. Psychology Professor Jean Twenge, who co-authored the US study, found that those in their twenties today are two and a half times less likely to have sex than when their grandparents’ generation were their age. There is a similar story in the UK: the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that 23 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds had not had sexual intercourse in the year preceding the survey.

The definition of sexual abstinence is contested and often confused with ‘asexuality’ and ‘celibacy’. Asexuality relates to a sexual identity in which an individual does not feel sexual attraction towards others, whilst celibacy often has religious connotations, whereby an individual or couple do not partake in sexual activity in order to strengthen their relationship with God. Conversely, sexual abstinence is characterised by a willing abstaining from penetrative sex and often its associated activities. So, why are so many young people abstaining?

"Abstinence can be empowering in and of itself, serving as an eye-opener for individuals practising alone and couples practising together"

Practising abstinence, by the very definition of stopping sex, may automatically be a way of curbing any perceived negative effects that sexual activity could cause, such as feelings of rejection, emptiness, anxiety, depression, or physiological issues such as sex or porn addiction.

Cate Mackenzie, a sex therapist at the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT), approaches abstinence from this perspective: quitting sex cold turkey might be the best way for some to tip sexual and emotional wellbeing back into a healthy balance. Individuals working through sex addiction can find that “it can be very powerful to reclaim yourself and your boundaries and redefine your sexuality from a different place,” she says.

Abstinence can also come from a place of self-preservation and protection, particularly in a time when reported sexual assaults are on the rise. Take Jenny*, for example. Jenny is a woman in her early twenties who, having experienced sexual assault, has been abstinent for nine months, stating that it is partly “my subconscious protecting myself” from potential future trauma. With one in five women in the UK experiencing some contact sexual assault in their lifetime, Jenny’s story is not uncommon.

Journalist Kate Julian’s series of interviews on sexual abstinence have revealed that “most [women] described abstinence, not as something they had embraced ...so much as something they’d found themselves backed into as a result of trauma, anxiety, or depression”. For Jenny, removing herself from a culture which puts pressure on people to be sexually active has been empowering. Abstaining from sex also enhanced her own self-awareness and self-worth, she says, by giving her the opportunity to explore what it means for her to be emotionally ready to put herself in a relatively vulnerable position again. When that time comes, she will be looking for somebody “genuinely respectful” who can “connect with me on some kind of level” beyond sexual.

But abstinence can be empowering in and of itself, serving as an eye-opener for individuals practising alone and couples practising together, both in terms of understanding sex and sexual partners in a more holistic light. For Jourdan*, who is in his mid-twenties and has been sexually abstinent for a year, abstinence helps him to remove himself from the hypersexualised world of hook up culture, and a media that perpetuates an omnipresent male gaze. “Technology and media have shifted the perspective of sexual activity,” he says. “because it is so easily accessible, it dilutes the essence of sexual activity. Some people would give their bodies to someone but at the same time, not let them look at their mobile phone.”

"If sexual empowerment is about choosing what to do with one’s body, both being sexually active and sexually abstinent tick that box"

Taking himself out of that world of instant gratification gives him, he says, a more long-term perspective. On top of this, being able to exercise self-control feeds into his personal growth and overall wellness. “From a spiritual perspective,” he says, “it’s about keeping your sacred energies intact. People need something to find fulfilment in, and abstaining is one of those things.” Jourdan also points out how abstinence has fed into his exercise routine: “Sometimes it can be a mental advantage [when lifting weights] to not have had any sexual activity because it keeps testosterone high.”

Practising abstinence as a couple has also proven beneficial. “Although sexual abstinence is not shown to have any dramatic physiological effects, it comes with a lot of emotional and psychological benefits,” explains Bobbi Banks, a relationship coach, neuro-linguistic programming practitioner and neuroscientist. Working with clients, she has seen abstinence used as a means to “reinforce the sense of self, increase confidence and reduce the risk of depression and unstable mental health. Most of my clients actually report increased intimacy, closeness and trust. They are able to get to know each other better and focus solely on the traits which made them fall in love in the first place.”

So, how does a couple show their affection for one another with sex off the cards? The idea is to find novel ways of expressing your intimacy. Joy and Justin Riley, who record a podcast called Married Millennials, went from having regular sex as a “default action” when dating, to three years of voluntary abstinence. The decision came partly as a means of enhancing the couple’s collective identity and emotional understanding of one another, outside “society’s teachings” of centring sex in a relationship.

As a result, the couple found that their mutual attraction was multifold. “A true friendship blossomed between us and we learned intimacy isn’t solely defined by sex,” they say. A true test of self-control and remaining disciplined, living in the same household and practising abstinence dramatically changed the dynamic of Joy and Justin’s relationship, strengthening their wellbeing both as individuals and as a unit. “The small act of holding hands or cuddling on the sofa took on a completely different meaning. We learned how to communicate our feelings and desires for each other with our words and actions. Sex was no longer a default way for expressing ourselves.”

"Sexual abstinence raises questions about what it means to be sexually liberated."

Cate Mackenzie echoes this sentiment, stating that “a sex therapist might recommend spending a period of time exploring sensual pleasure through touch, smell, taste and sound.” Using everyday senses to explore new angles of sexuality heightens playfulness and sensuality, showing affection for the whole body and encouraging the couple to take a new sexual adventure together, as the Rileys did. It also shows us that sensuality does not always have to lead to intercourse, highlighting the significance of self-control. In either scenario, appreciating the vital role of the mind in such a relationship allows for greater awareness of personal and collective wellbeing.

Sexual abstinence raises questions about what it means to be sexually liberated. If sexual empowerment is about choosing what to do with one’s body, both being sexually active and sexually abstinent tick that box. Sex and abstinence have ended up mirroring one another in contemporary society. Where sexual adventuring can improve emotional wellness for some, so can sexual abstinence for others. As abstinence increases sexual self-awareness from an emotional perspective, as it did for Jenny and Jourdan, yoni eggs and crystal dildos can increase sexual self-awareness from a physical perspective. As couples show affection through physical intimacy, they also find novel ways of sharing affection when abstaining. Sex and abstinence are not polar opposites, nor mutually exclusive. Both Jenny and Jourdan are not planning on being abstinent forever; both would engage in sexual activity if the opportunity arose with somebody with whom they felt comfortable.

So should everybody be abstaining? Certainly not. But should those who want to feel empowered, accepted and supported in their choice to do so? Absolutely.

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