We tend to associate the sexless periods of our lives with stereotypes of inexperienced virgins, the socially awkward or the eternally single (see also: the entire American Pie franchise). But in truth, dry spells are one of the most common and unspoken experiences in our sex lives — and they're not necessarily a bad thing.
Data from the Kinsey Institute shows that dry spells are common for men and women at any age, whether they're single or partnered. While exact stats are hard to come by, an oft-cited National Health and Social Life Survey from 1994 found that 10% of men and 14% of women in the U.S. hadn't had sex in the last year. The reasons we go through dry spells (that is, if the spell really is just a spell) are obviously unique to each individual — intimacy issues, early sexual experiences, self-image, shyness and even limited social and work environments are all factors, according to a 2001 study.
But no matter the reason, the periods in which we are either purposefully or involuntarily abstinent are often the periods that teach us the most about sex — its role in our own happiness, its impact on our relationships and its power over our sense of selves.
Below are the stories of 20-something men and women who stopped having sex for a few weeks, months or even years at a time. Their experiences, from stints in singlehood to exceptional loss, reveal the significant lessons sexless solitude can teach us all.
Without sex, you get back in touch with your own worth.
Lauren, 25, has been in a dry spell for the last four years. And she feels sexier than ever.
"I broke up with a boyfriend after a two-and-a-half-year relationship. I was also graduating college at the time and moving back into my parents' house. Less than a year later, one of them died. After that, I didn't want to date or have sex at all. I was identifying as asexual for about three years. Just no sexual desire or attraction at all. I was consumed in family stuff and put on weight from stress — I wasn't feeling very desirable.
"A few years later, I met someone I really liked, and his presence felt like it jolted me out of any sexual or physical hangups I had. And it helps because now it's not the first thing I think about when meeting someone. Back then, I would've been nervous even contemplating sexual tension. Now when I talk to someone, it's almost like I've removed that part of the equation, or at least it's not as important as it once was.
"I feel more pride and respect for my body. I feel sexy when I take care of myself. Before, if I wasn't wearing 800 pounds of makeup, I couldn't even begin to feel sexy. It's cliche, but as I get older, I've moved from believing sexy comes from physical appearance to believing it comes from a state of mind. I think it would've taken me longer to realize what makes someone sexy if it hadn't been for this experience."
Dry spells allow you to redefine intimacy.
Zach, 27, hasn't had sex since November. His long-distance relationship has been tested by the dry spell, but it's made him appreciate his partner even more.
"It's been since November that I last had sex. I guess the reason is a long-distance relationship with no clearly defined relationship status. It's difficult to talk about the ins and outs, but let's say it has to deal with exclusivity and trust.
"The most difficult part of this dry spell is the stress, physically, and managing the ways to release stress outside of sex. But it does make you appreciate your partner more in their absence. I miss sex on a very basic physical level to begin with. But also, during a dry spell, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. It's made me miss my girlfriend in so many ways: emotionally, friendship-wise, even as a Netflix buddy.
"It ends this spring break. We don't have any big plans for the occasion. And I'm not really apprehensive, either. I just want it to be loving, real, affectionate and fun."
Living without sex pushes you to evaluate your own self-confidence.
Ben, 26, has experienced a number of dry spells in his lifetime. Whether from breakups or long-distance relationships, the biggest struggle for Ben is remembering his sense of identity as a man without sex.
"Dry spells are odd because of how they are perceived as a failure in some sense. My last dry spell of note was two or three years ago, while I was living in Spain. It began after a rather harsh breakup — she was 30 and from South America. It wasn't an intentional dry spell, but it was perpetuated by being uncomfortable with possible long-term relationships post-breakup.
"During that particular dry spell, a growing sense of dread grew, pertaining to my status as a guy. I constantly felt that I was failing because I wasn't finding partners, casual, serious or otherwise. Every weekend without that very objectified version of success men feel they need kind of made me feel less and less able to access confidence. The dry spell eventually ended after a one-night stand after an OKCupid date, [but] it changed almost nothing about the situation. I had a bigger problem of confidence linked with sexuality.
"I'm currently in a long-distance relationship, and that's a different kind of dry spell. The emotional connection is very powerful, so the physical lack rarely gets in the way. I've always worked on my confidence, mostly in that I'd like to disassociate sex from a culturally mandated identity of antiquated manhood. What I didn't have during my first dry spell was something mental and emotional."
You appreciate the small things when sex isn't in the picture.
Therese, 27, spent six months in a voluntary dry spell. During that time, she traveled and learned how to reconnect with herself and the world around her.
"I took six months off from sex after I had some of the best sex of my life. He was kinky and polygamous, [and] we tried everything, but I grew tired of the nonstop adventure. So I took off a whole six, super intentional months to figure out what I wanted out of sex.
"In those months, I rediscovered a sense of creativity I thought I had lost. I traveled, I intellectually flirted with tons of people who sincerely added to my 20-something life. I developed a whole lot of self-sufficiency in terms of lust. My six months off retaught me how to appreciate the little pleasures in life and let that be enough.
"Being disentangled from sweaty, overwrought moments in bed helped me engage with my more artistic side. The self that could focus on the curves of a vase, indulge in writing in cursive and run my fingers through low lying branches in the summer. I could enjoy my travels because I could truly feel engaged with new people without feeling like I had to seduce them or they were going to seduce me. Life seemed clearer."
When you go without sex, you learn what you really need.
Meredith, 25, hit a dry spell in October that is still ongoing. She often experiences dry spells as she's taking charge of her career and really figuring out what she wants in bed.
"Going anywhere from six to 12 months without sex is nowhere out of the ordinary for me. In fact, it's my pattern. And the impetus is the same: I never make dating a priority, am incredibly picky when it comes to partners, and am usually focusing on my career, which makes my personal life a bit smaller. It's taught me not to waste time on something that's not great and exactly what you want or need. I would rather be alone than have mediocre anything — I view my time as money and hate wasting it.
"I also need to get more in tune with myself and my body, which has been surprisingly difficult for me: I convince myself that I'm feeling the way I want to feel instead of how I really, truly feel, and that's gotten in the way of some relationships.
"I'm still trying to sort out issues about my sex life. I don't really get the enjoyment out of it or crave it the way most people do. But I think it's just my mindset: Eventually, someone is going to come along and totally capture my attention and rock me on my heels. And when that happens, I'll give myself to them more fully than I have to others in the past. I'm not in a huge rush."
Love, dry spells reveal, is about so much more than sex.
Leah, 26, is single and hasn't had sex in six years. She realizes that sexual fulfillment means more than just sex.
"I guess it's a matter of what you consider a dry spell. If you want to know the last time I had sex, that was in 2009. The last time I had what I'd call a 'sexual experience' was in October 2014.
"I honestly don't think not having sex is that difficult if you're doing other things with a person you are dating. I think emotionally, I'm protecting myself from the hurt that came with separating from someone I loved, which was magnified by the fact that we had sex. Now I don't feel as emotionally distraught when I end it with someone or they end a relationship with me.
"If I am not emotionally invested in the person, I just cannot expose this part of myself. I think at this point I'm waiting for my next serious relationship to have sex again, and ideally I hope that that person is the person I marry. I need to be with someone for more than sex. I need them to fulfill an emotional need first. But I am pretty confident about my sexuality. I don't see not having sex as making you less sexual."
When sex isn't on the table, your other passions come into focus.
Dating and sleeping around take up a lot of bandwidth. And it's not just the time you spend with the person, it's everything surrounding it. Worrying about why they're not texting you, planning date outfits, stalking their Instagram and the Instagrams of everyone they've ever tagged in a photo, planning funny texts in advance, obsessively staring at your phone while you're supposed to be working for no particular reason... and so on and so on and so on. It can cause so much stress and anxiety, often over people we don't even care about.
*Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Some names have been changed.