Sometimes when you’re paging through, say,Cosmo, it can feel like everyone in the world—your friends, your neighbors, and, hell, even your second-grade teacher—has a sex life reminiscent of those hot, sweaty, twisted (in the best possible way) scenes in “Unfaithful.” However, acrobatic or even plain old vanilla sex isn’t happening for you tonight, or any other night for that matter. But everything around you—magazines, movies, those constant reruns of “Sex and the City” you always manage to stumble upon while channel-surfing alone on Friday night—seems to be conspiring to remind you of your sexless life, which is worse than a cult showing up with Kool-Aid.
But not to worry: the INCEL movement is here. INCEL (How has this phrase not been splashed across t-shirts sold at designer boutiques yet?) is short for “involuntary celibacy,” and, in short, means the state of not getting any for reasons other than, say, an actual vow of celibacy or commitment to abstinence. Or as WebMD puts it, “ordinary healthy folks who want to have sex but can’t make it happen in their lives.” (We’re not sure how comforting it is to know WebMD is weighing in on it at all, as if it’s diabetes or ulcers, but we appreciate the clarity.) INCELs are a demographic so rarely discussed that there are no statistics on their numbers. However, you should feel at ease knowing that if you lately often find yourself starring in your own rendition of “Sexless in Seattle” or “Home Alone: The On My Couch On a Saturday Night Without Even My Vibrator Edition,” fear not, you are not alone.
“While envied by their married counterparts, the stereotypical swinging single may not be having all kinds of marvelous sex with other single people,” says Gale Holtz Golden, a psychotherapist and author of “In the Grip of Desire: A Therapist at Work with Sexual Secrets.” “Instead, many single people characterize their sex lives as being voluntarily or involuntarily abstinent for a multitude of reasons.”
INCELs can have intimacy issues and other emotional problems, or they can also fall into the category of people who have had active sex lives in the past, but are unconsciously sabotaging themselves for emotional reasons. “People who choose, consciously or not, not to have sex for long periods of time could be avoiding intimacy because of fear,” says relationship coach Annie Ory. “This can be done by choosing partners to obsess over who are unavailable, married, or gay.” [Sirens note: Not a good idea.]
INCELs might also fall into the reluctant-virgin scenario. (Picture Steve Carrell in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.”) “Virginity is coming back in fashion, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of,” Golden says. “However, if you are waiting for Mr. Perfect you may wait a long time because no such person exists. Finding the right guy may be a matter of the numbers game. Once you get used to kissing frogs and one turns into a Prince, you may like kissing and the rest will follow.”
Changing your viewpoint about sex could be the key if you are apprehensive about having been in a sexless rut for a while and feel as if you don’t know where on earth to start. You should first get a physical/pelvic examination and tell your doctor you are there because you have some specific concerns about sexual encounters. If this does not put your mind to rest, you should see a therapist who specializes in sexual issues to examine this fear, Golden advises. Or you could be suffering from depression, says a 2001 study in the Journal of Sex Research that found links between lack of sex and depression.
That means that, yes, even the dismal state of our economy has an impact on our sex lives. If you have recently been laid off or are worried about the possibility of losing your job, then your sex life has probably taken a back seat to your worry-riddled mind. Who has time to seek out partners when finding a job is hard enough? No job equals no money, which makes us worried about keeping a roof over our heads instead of hitting the silk sheets. “Stress is always a sex-killer,” Golden says. “If you have a crazy, overwhelming life, you have to stop and smell the flowers—or each other.”
But even voluntary abstinence can morph into the involuntary kind: Vanessa, 35, decided to give up sex cold turkey after a rough breakup following a relationship that spanned most of her twenties. “It was literally almost a year before I felt ready to approach the idea of dating, let alone sex,” she says. “I tried online dating but it didn’t result in any significant hook-ups, which resulted in my period of forced celibacy. I never intended to be on a hiatus, but it just worked out that way.” She found solace in ThatHappenedtome.com for all women who found their life and lifestyle grinding to a halt because of an unexpected breakup. The trauma can cause many aspects of life to be thrown into upheaval, and intimacy issues are a large part of that.
INCEL support groups are everywhere—from MySpace to YouTube. Just when you think you are alone out there, type INCEL into any search engine and a variety of support groups come up. OnIncel.myonlineplace.org, you can scroll through INCEL info on topics such as being a gay INCEL as well as message boards, which give specific advice on how to approach people if you are chronically shy. On the Yahoo INCEL Support Bulletin, there is even a motto for people living withcelibacy: S.H.I.T. (So Horny It’s Torture).
In the interim, what on earth are INCELS to do? “Exercise has a lot in common with sex and is a healthy way to reap the same benefit,” says author of “Addicted to Stress” Debbie Mandel. “Also creativity and productivity are excellent ways to channel sexual energy. Massage therapy is another healthy alternative.”
And don’t beat yourself up for missing sex—it is important. “If you look at it from the hierarchy of needs perspective, sex is a basic human drive like the drive for food and water, and if these basic needs aren’t met, then it may keep you from being a fully self-actualized human being,” says psychotherapist Dr. Michael DeMarco. “I would encourage anyone who is abstaining from sex with another person to continue being able to get that need met through masturbation.” Or you can even romance yourself in other ways. “Doing things like treating yourself to flowers, sexy lingerie, or a nice dinner with a good friend will make life seem better when you are between relationships,” Golden says.
But as good as sex can be for you, it’s also important to remember that going without it for a while is not even close to as bad as going without food or shelter. In fact, while sex has plenty of nice side effects, skipping it for a while does no harm. “So far, I haven’t shriveled up and died, nor have I thought of myself as any less appealing to the opposite sex,” Vanessa says.
“We are programmed through movies and magazines that if we are single, then there is something missing, when I would argue that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being single,” DeMaro says. “And if abstaining from sex makes it easier to stay single without possibly complicating things, by all means, abstain!”
So the next time you find yourself in an INCEL-rific situation, just ride it out (so to speak). “Afterall, one can still have a romance with life,” Mandel says. Or, to use the favorite motto of many a sexless website: NO SEX, SO WHAT?
– Stacy Horowitz