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Is No Sex the New Sex?

Humans are wired to bond. In our earliest beginnings, the key to our very survival included co-operative tribes, clans and families. Intrinsic to that system is an individual’s psychological need for attachment and close connection.1 It is no coincidence that our most tortuous punishment -- from grade school to prisons -- is social alienation. Humans don’t do well in solitary confinement, but we do thrive in loving relationships. 

In today’s high-supply sexual economy, where the price of sex has dropped to the barrel-bottom price of one well-worded text, it seems bonding has gone out of vogue. And the cultural message in the West is to take all sex, any sex, at any cost.

Of course, that message leaves quite a few human beings out in the cold. Plenty of people can’t have sex. They may be physically impaired, psychologically wounded, or proudly self-identify as asexual. Case in point: One-third of men over the age of 50 have erectile problems.2 But that doesn’t stop them from wanting to bond with a relationship partner, and for good reason. People in satisfying, long-term relationships live longer,3 have better health,4 and accumulate more wealth.5

Business people who see a niche in the online dating marketplace are now stepping in to create dating websites for people looking for platonic relationships. Two of those sites, which recently launched in the UK, platonicpartners.co.uk and nosexdating.co.uk, promise to help adults find a meeting of the minds and some much needed affection, all within a celibate relationship. Now, before you start the “No Sex Please, We’re British” jokes, consider this: A study in 2004 showed that 1% of the American population, or about three million people, are asexual6 -- that is, lacking sexual attraction to anyone of any gender.

Plenty of others self-identify as “born-again virgins,” often as a reaction to the types of highly sexual, low quality relationships that are proliferating along with the growth of technology. Others are real life modern virgins. Consider, for example, a recent analysis of over 13,000 participants from the National Survey of Family Growth study suggesting that fully one quarter of college students are virgins, and they may not be abstaining for religious reasons. Virgin college students indicate that a fear of pregnancy and/or STDs, or the notion that sex could interfere with their education, ranks way above religion as the reason these modern virgins abstain from sex. Although most people assume that college campuses are a hotbed of non-committed sex, in fact, some data suggest that young adults who do not attend college have more sexual partners than those who attend college.7

Finally, people looking for platonic relationships today may not rule out sex in the future. Delaying the onset of sexual activity is one way to increase the odds that a couple will stay together. For example, I spoke with Anthony Paik, professor of Gender and Women’s Sexuality at the University of Iowa. He suggests that the onset of sex after the first month of dating can lead to commitment. “In one of my studies, it turned out that the longer couples delayed sex, the more exclusive the relationship. And if men engage in sex within the first month of dating, they are 4.5 times more likely to be nonexclusive later.”

Yet many people hold the modern belief that in order to have a long-term bond, they must audition their mate sexually, as if hooking-up is a way to win the marriage lottery. Sexual chemistry, they say, is necessary for long-term happiness. If this theory were true, people who do not test their sexual chemistry before commitment should have shorter, less happy relationships. But psychology professor Dean Busby and his colleagues at Brigham Young University were unable to make this connection in a study of more than 2,000 couples. People with good sexual chemistry early on did not stay together longer.8 He explained his results to me this way: “The mechanics of good sex are not particularly difficult or beyond the reach of most couples, but the emotions, the vulnerability, the meaning of sex and whether it brings couples closer together are much more complicated to figure out.” 

Perhaps those seeking platonic love online understand more than anyone the nutritional benefits of companionship, trust, and non-sexual touch. Maybe no sex is the new sex.

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1Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

2Laumann, E. O., West, S., Glasser, D., Carson, C., Rosen, R., & Kang, J. H. (2006). Prevalence and correlates of erectile dysfunction by race and ethnicity among men aged 40 or older in the United States: from the male attitudes regarding sexual health survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 4, 57-65.

3Liu H., & Umberson, D. J. (2008). The times they are a changin’: Marital status and health differentials from 1972 to 2003. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 49, 239-253.

4Proulx, C. M., & Snyder-Rivas, L. A. (2013). The longitudinal associations between marital happiness, problems, and self-rated health. Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 194-202.

5Zagorsky, J. L. (2005). Marriage and divorce’s impact on wealth. Journal of Sociology, 41, 406-424.

6Bogaert, A. F.  (2004). Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. Journal of Sex Research, 41, 279–287.

7Regnerus, M., & Uecker, J. (2011). Premarital sex in America: How young Americans meet, mate, and think about marrying. New York: Oxford University Press.

8Busby, D. M., Carroll, J. S., & Willoughby, B. J. (2010). Compatibility or restraint? The effects of sexual timing on marriage relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 766-774.

Dr. Wendy Walsh - Facebook | YouTube | Twitter

Wendy L. Walsh, Ph.D., is the author of "The 30-Day Love Detox" and the host of Investigation Discovery Networks’ “Happily Never After.” She is regularly featured as CNN’s human behavior expert. As adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Channel Islands, she lectures on human mating strategies.

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