I strongly reject the idea that without sex, there is no real intimacy.
Confession: I honestly can’t remember the last time that I had sex.
But it seems I’m not alone in this, either — recent studies have shown that millennials, on the whole, are actually having less sex than previous generations. More specifically, the number of people who report having zero sexual partners after the age of 18 has doubled with millennials and iGen (15 percent), compared to GenX (6 percent).
The Atlantic recently coined this a “sexual recession,” suggesting that this numerical decline in reported physical intimacy could have an impact on our happiness.
I have to wonder, though: Are we being just a bit too hasty in sounding the alarm?
question isn’t ‘Are you having sex or not?’ The question is ‘Is everyone
engaged in the relationship comfortable with the amount of sex being had?’ Our
needs are individual.
— Dr. Melissa Fabello
It’s a long-held notion that sex is a key pillar for wellness and mental health, spoken about in the same terms as something essential — like food and sleep.
But is it really a fair comparison to make? Can we have a healthy, fulfilling relationship (and life, for that matter) without sex, or with very little of it?
“Yes. Unequivocally, without a doubt, yes,” Dr. Melissa Fabello, a sexologist and sex researcher, affirms. “The question isn’t ‘Are you having sex or not?’ The question is ‘Is everyone engaged in the relationship comfortable with the amount of sex being had?’ Our needs are individual.”
For a growing cohort of people choosing not to have sex, Dr. Fabello’s perspective here might resonate. As a part of that group of millennials who are prioritizing their lives differently, it certainly does for me.
My partner and I have our own unique reasons for not making sex essential to our relationship — their disabilities make it painful and exhausting, and my own libido isn’t high enough to make it as enjoyable as other more meaningful aspects of my life.
strongly reject the idea that without sex, there is no real intimacy.
When I initially stopped having sex, I was sure there must be something wrong with me. But after speaking with a therapist, he asked me an important question: Did I even want to be having sex?
With some introspection it became clear to me that it wasn’t particularly important to me.
And as it turned out, it wasn’t all that important to my partner, either.
We’ve been together happily for seven years, the majority of which hasn’t involved sex.
I’ve been asked, “What’s the point, then?” as if relationships are merely sexual contracts — a means to an end. Some exclaim, “You’re basically just roommates!”
I strongly reject the idea that without sex, there is no real intimacy.
We share an apartment and a bed, raise two fur babies together, cuddle and watch television, offer a shoulder to cry on, cook dinner together, share our deepest thoughts and feelings, and weather the ups and downs of life together.
I was there to hold them when they learned their father died from cancer. They were there for me when I was recovering from surgery, helping to change my bandages and washing my hair. I wouldn’t call that a relationship that “lacks intimacy.”
idea is that we couldn’t possibly fall in love or raise children without
[cisgender, heterosexual] sex. Logically, we know that couldn’t be further from
the truth. The question is why we continue to pretend that it is.”
In other words, we’re partners. “Sex” isn’t, nor has it ever been, a requirement for us to build a meaningful and supportive life together.
“[We’re] individual people with our own needs and free will,” Dr. Fabello explains. “[Yet] sociologically, there remains pressure for people to follow a very simple path: to get married and have children.”
“The idea is that we couldn’t possibly fall in love or raise children without [cisgender, heterosexual] sex. Logically, we know that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Dr. Fabello continues. “The question is why we continue to pretend that it is.”
Maybe the real problem, then, isn’t with how little sex young people are having, but the overvaluing of sex in the first place.
The assumption that sex is a health necessity — rather than an optional healthy activity, one of many options available to us — suggests a dysfunction where it may not actually exist.
Put another way, you can get your vitamin C from oranges, but you don’t have to. If you prefer cantaloupe or a supplement, more power to you.
If you want to build intimacy, burn calories, or feel closer to your partner, sex isn’t the only way (and it might not even be the best way for you!).
“The truth is that low sex drives are normal,” Dr. Fabello affirms. “It’s normal for sex drives to shift over the course of your life. It’s normal to be asexual. A lack of interest in sex is not inherently a problem.”
But how do you know the difference between sexual dysfunction, asexuality, and just choosing not to prioritize it?
Dr. Fabello says it starts with checking in with your emotional state. “Are you bothered by it? If you’re worried about your low (or lacking) sex drive because it’s causing you personal distress, then it’s something to be concerned about because it’s making you unhappy,” Dr. Fabello explains.
sexual incompatibility can be a valid reason to end a relationship, even
relationships with mismatched libidos aren’t necessarily doomed, either. It
might just be time for a compromise.
But maybe you just find other activities more fulfilling. Maybe you don’t even like sex. Maybe you don’t feel like making time for it right now.
Maybe you or your partner is asexual, or has a chronic condition or disability that makes sex too challenging to be worthwhile. Maybe side effects from a critical medication or recovery from an illness has made sex unappealing, at least for a period of time.
“[And] this question should be considered outside of relationship health. The question isn’t ‘Is your partner bothered by your lack of sex drive?’ That’s an important distinction,” she continues.
None of those things are inherently alarming, as long as they aren’t impacting your personal sense of satisfaction.
Not having sex is a valid choice to make.
Intimacy, after all, certainly isn’t limited to sex.
“Emotional intimacy, for example, the vulnerability we feel to take risks with those that we like or love, is an incredibly powerful form of closeness,” Dr. Fabello says. “[There’s also] ‘skin hunger,’ which describes our level of desire for sensual touch, similar to how the phrase ‘sex drive’ works to describe our level of desire for sex.”
“Skin hunger is satiated through touch that isn’t explicitly sexual — like holding hands, cuddling, and hugging,” Dr. Fabello continues. “And this kind of physical intimacy is associated with oxytocin, the hormone that makes us feel safe and secure with other people.”
These are both valid forms of intimacy, and they can also have varying levels of importance depending on the person.
While sexual incompatibility can be a valid reason to end a relationship, even relationships with mismatched libidos aren’t necessarily doomed, either. It might just be time for a compromise.
“Are the partners willing to have more or less sex to reach a happy medium? Is there a possibility for non-monogamy to have those needs met?” Dr. Fabello asks.
A lack of desire for sex isn’t inherently problematic, but the assumption that frequent sex is necessary for a happy life almost certainly is.
It’s an assumption, Dr. Fabello notes, that ultimately isn’t helpful. “The health of a relationship is so much more about whether or not everyone’s needs are met than about an arbitrary amount of sex people should be having,” she says.
Rather than panicking about whether or not millennials are getting busy, it might be worthwhile to question why we place such a strong emphasis on sex in the first place. Is it the most crucial ingredient for emotional intimacy and wellness? If it is, I have yet to be convinced.
Could it just be that going without sex is simply part of the ebb and flow of our very human experience?
It seems we’ve taken for granted the fact that by conditioning people to believe that sex is a necessary milestone in life, we also condition people to believe they’re dysfunctional and broken without it — which is disempowering, to say the least.
In Dr. Fabello’s eyes, there’s also no evidence to suggest this decline is alarming either. “Whenever there is a significant drop or rise in any trend, people become concerned. But there’s no reason to be concerned,” Dr. Fabello says.
“The world that millennials have inherited is very different from that of their parents or grandparents,” she adds. “Of course how they navigate that world would look different.”
In other words, if it’s not broken? There may very well be nothing to fix.
Sam Dylan Finch is a leading advocate in LGBTQ+ mental health, having gained international recognition for his blog, Let’s Queer Things Up!, which first went viral in 2014. As a journalist and media strategist, Sam has published extensively on topics like mental health, transgender identity, disability, politics and law, and much more. Bringing his combined expertise in public health and digital media, Sam currently works as social editor at Healthline.