The phrase ‘too much of a good thing’ can absolutely apply to sex – we know that too much sex or rough sex can cause small tears in the vaginal wall and increase the chance of bacterial infections – but what about abstaining from sex for a long period of time?
For men, the effects of going without ejaculation for long periods of time can include epididymal hypertension (known colloquially as ‘blue balls’); sexual frustration; and the possibility that the body may ejaculate voluntarily, most likely resulting in a nocturnal emission (wet dream).
For women, however, the effects may not be as obvious. In this blog post, we explore the reasons for long-term abstinence, the physical and mental effects, and how masturbation can play a role in sexual health.
Reasons why you might abstain from sex
The are lots of reasons why you might go a long time without having sex, or stop having sex altogether. The societal pressures around having sex can sometimes be enough to make you want to abstain out of choice. However, it is important to know that there is no shame in not having sex, and many people live happy, sex-free lives.
Here are some common reasons for abstaining from sex:
Someone who is asexual is not sexually attracted to others, or has a low interest in sex. This may be due to personal choice, previous trauma associated with sex, health issues, a preference for platonic relationships, or being asexual from birth. Some asexual people may be celibate (sexually abstinent), while others may have sex occasionally.
Celibacy is practiced in many religions around the world, including Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. It is thought to be a sign of commitment to faith.
Not all relationships have to involve sexual activity, including marriages. Sometimes it may be agreed from the beginning that the relationship is platonic, a decrease in sexual activity might happen over time, or it may abruptly stop. If those involved in the relationship are content with the circumstances, there is nothing abnormal about a platonic relationship.
Preference for self-pleasure
Finding a sexual partner who understands your wants and needs can make intercourse very fun, however, self-pleasure can be equally as thrilling, as you are the person who understands your sexual preferences best. Those who enjoy self-pleasure more than sex with another person may choose to abstain from sex in favour of masturbation (more on this subject below).
Vaginismus is a condition where the muscles of the vagina contract involuntarily, making penetration difficult and sometimes painful. The cause of this condition is not known, but it can be treated with Botox, which relaxes the muscles in the vagina and can lead to comfortable penetrative sex.
However, while this condition is left untreated, sex can be distressing for the sufferer, and they may stop having sex as a result.
Low libido, or a low sex drive, can happen for a number of reasons, including: relationship problems, vaginal conditions such as dryness and vaginismus, mental health problems such as stress and depression, pregnancy, certain medicines, alcohol and drug use, and getting older. Many women who are going through the menopause may experience a low libido, which can be treated with holistic treatments, psychotherapy or hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
The effects of long term abstinence
There are no significant health benefits or disadvantages to having safe, consensual sex; equally, you are very unlikely to develop any serious health concerns linked solely to abstinence. Below, we detail a few physical and mental issues which may arise for women during or after a long period of abstinence.
Sexual intercourse can help to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, which are the muscles in the area underneath the pelvis that help control your bladder. When your pelvic floor muscles are weak, you may experience incontinence. This can range from peeing a little bit when you sneeze, to being entirely unable to control your bladder.
The good news is that your pelvic floor muscles can be strengthened using other methods, including kegels (an exercise involving clenching your pelvic floor muscles for a certain amount of time before releasing and repeating), yoga and pelvic floor training devices.
When a woman is aroused, her vagina will produce lubricant to prepare for intercourse. When going for long periods without sexual arousal, the vagina may temporarily stop producing this lubricant, which can result in a condition called vaginal dryness. In some cases, this can cause itching or soreness, difficulty inserting tampons, and discomfort or pain when having sex again.
If the vaginal dryness is caused by a lack of sexual stimulation or arousal, then artificial lubricants can be used to make sex more comfortable. However, there are other causes of vaginal dryness, such as the menopause, which can make the condition chronic without treatment.
Yes, women get sexually frustrated too! If you enjoy sex and are going through a period of abstinence, you may find that you become frustrated and stressed about not having sex. This may result in irritability, mood swings, lack of concentration and even poor sleep. You might even experience excess vaginal lubrication, or a feeling of heaviness in the clitoris due to increased blood flow from arousal. This may be relieved with masturbation.
How often should I masturbate?
Not everybody masturbates, and there is no prescribed amount of masturbation that is deemed healthy or unhealthy. It is important to know what feels right for you, and if you are unsure, speak to a doctor about your concerns.
In terms of the advantages of masturbation, in addition to combatting some of the above effects, this act of self pleasure can have some mental and sex-related benefits. A study published in 2015 found that women who masturbate have ‘significantly more orgasms, greater sexual desire, higher self-esteem, and greater marital and sexual satisfaction, and require less time to sexual arousal’.
However, for those who are content with abstinence and have good self-confidence, masturbation may not be necessary to achieve these benefits.
Seeking help for sex-related issues
Dr Aka, Consultant Gynaecologist at The Gynae Centre explains: “Long-term abstinence is unlikely to have any serious negative impacts. However, if you are involuntarily abstinent due to a condition such as vaginismus or vaginal dryness during the menopause, it may be wise to seek specialist medical advice to see if treatment can help you regain your comfort and confidence during sex.”