What Happens if You Don't Have Sex for a Long Time
The average adult has sex 54 times a year, about once a week, according to an Archives of Sexual Behavior 2017 study. But what happens if you have much less sex than that?
We all go through periods of sexual drought. Sometimes it's voluntary, such as the popular No-Nut November challenge, whereas other times it's unintentional, such as when your Bumble matches continually leave you on read.
From loneliness and low moods to negative effects on vaginal health, missing out on sex can be more than just frustrating.
1. Weakened immune system
According to Debanjan Banerjee, a consultant geriatric psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences and one of the consultants at DoctorSpring, regular sexual activity has many health benefits, one of which is an effective immune system.
He cited a 2004 study published in Sage Journals, which indicated college students who frequently had sex (defined as one to two times per week) had higher concentrations of immunoglobulin A or IgA, a cold-fighting antibody found in the salivary glands.
If you go long periods without "swapping saliva," the concentration of these antibodies decreases, which can leave you more susceptible to colds and other minor illnesses.
2. Decreased blood flow
"Regular sex at least once a week increases blood flow, keeping genitals healthy," explained Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., a sociologist and sexologist, and the sexuality and relationships expert for SexToyCollective.com. "Sexual arousal and orgasms are physiological processes that help our genitals maintain their sexual functions. So, long periods of not having sex can negatively affect your reproductive health."
Vaginal atrophy—or atrophic vaginitis—is when the vaginal walls become thin, dry, and inflamed. Melancon noted low levels or a lack of sexual activity can contribute to this condition.
This is especially true for menopausal and postmenopausal women ages 50 and older since decreased estrogen decreases the levels of vaginal fluids. Discomfort can lead to further depression in sexual frequency, exacerbating dryness and inflammation.
"No, your vagina won't close up," Banerjee clarified. "But the dryness is uncomfortable. Fortunately, masturbation can help ease the discomfort since the stimulation can keep the vaginal walls lubricated. You can also use lubricants or moisturizers for treatment."
"ED happens when poor blood flow to the penis affects a man's ability to become aroused and have intercourse," Banerjee explained. "For men, low levels or lack of sexual activity can contribute to problems like erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation."
A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Medicine reported that men who had sex less than once a week were twice as likely to develop ED. While this doesn't necessarily mean long breaks between sex outright cause erectile dysfunction, a lack of sex has been associated with it. Whether via masturbation or sex, a good strategy might be for men to ensure regular stimulation.
3. Increased stress and anxiety
Mood problems are the most noticeable effect of not having regular sex. People with lower levels of sexual desire won't be as emotionally affected by abstinence, but those who want physical touch and can't have it may experience emotional weight.
"During the pandemic, patients who lacked physical intimacy for an extended period found the lack of regular sexual activity affected their mental and emotional states," Banerjee said.
Sex can reduce stress and anxiety thanks to mood-boosting chemicals, such as serotonin, oxytocin, and testosterone.
"Not having sex means fewer chances of these brain chemicals getting released into your body, which can negatively affect your mental health," Banerjee added. "Oxytocin also helps you sleep, so not having this chemical can lead to sleeplessness."
If sex with a partner is not an option for you, masturbation can have many of the same benefits, giving you the oxytocin and serotonin hit you need. In addition, orgasms—even those self-attained from masturbation—can release endorphins, which help reduce stress.
4. Touch starvation
Have you ever felt like your skin is yearning for another human's touch? Banerjee called this "skin hunger." If you've ever been in a long-distance relationship, you can probably attest that this sensation is very real.
"Humans crave each other's touch, and if you go without it for a long time, it can lead to stress and a hit on your self-esteem," Banerjee explained.
Touch starvation can even affect your immune system because your body releases the hormone cortisol in response to stress. Cortisol has negative effects on your heart rate, blood pressure, and immune and digestive systems.
5. Change in sex drive and arousal
"Going long periods without sex can change your desire for it," Melancon said. "Having sex on a regular basis keeps our sex drive strong and can make it easier for us to get aroused. But, on the flip side, low levels or lack of sex can contribute to performance anxiety and sexual inhibition."
For women, if it's been a while since you've been with a sexual partner, it can feel uncomfortable and take longer for you to get aroused.
Melancon noted some people with social anxiety might have a particularly difficult time initiating sexual activity with a partner, especially when it's been a long time since they last had sex.
And the answer is...sex is good for you
Being sexually active gives us a plethora of mental and physical benefits. From releasing hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins that reduce stress and help us sleep to strengthening our immune system, sex is fulfilling in many more ways than pleasurable feelings.
Conversely, not having sex for a long time can leave you feeling deprived of touch, lonely and anxious.
If having sex on a regular basis with a partner is not going to happen any time soon, fret not. Supplementing sexual activity with masturbation can help mimic many of the mental and physical health effects of sex with another person. Plus, you can keep yourself nourished in other physical ways, such as giving more platonic hugs to your friends, spending time with pets, and exercising.