Last fall, after almost a decade of on-and-off long distance dating, Lindsey* and Jake* finally decided to take the next step and move in together. Lindsey left her home state of Texas to be with Jake in Connecticut, and though there was a period of adjustment, the couple are now enjoying cohabitation, and as they describe it, “very much in love.” It’s a somewhat traditional romantic relationship, but there is one major twist: Lindsey and Jake don’t currently have sex. They don’t plan to be sexual with each other in the future. And they couldn’t be happier about it.
In our culture, the idea of a “sexless couple” generally summons a sexist stereotype of a (cis, heterosexual) woman withholding sex from a (cis, heterosexual) man, to the overall detriment of their relationship. However, the reality of what actually goes on in American bedrooms is far more complex. Americans, especially millennials, are having less sex than ever, with one study finding that American adults in 2014 had sex nine fewer times per year than their 1990s counterparts. And some experts estimate that 15 to 20 percent of American couples are in sexless relationships, defined as having sex less than ten times a year. While in some of these relationships, not having sex is a sign of greater relationship or personal issues, in others, a decision to not have sex can be empowering. Today, some couples are negotiating sexless relationships that help them feel healthier, happier, and rewrite the rules of what a romantic partnership can be.
For Lindsey and Jake, having a sexless relationship is a tool that keeps sexual incompatibility from sabotaging a deep emotional connection.The pair met in the summer of 2008, when both were 15, chatting on a site devoted to Harry Potter fanfiction. But soon, their conversations turned deeper. Lindsey was about to begin high school, still reeling from middle school bullying and coping with her father’s recent incarceration. Jake felt similarly isolated: he frequently jumped from school to school and one family member’s home to another, often experiencing abuse; his gender transition (Jake was assigned female at birth, and later transitioned to male) was also greatly misunderstood by his peers, which only made his social detachment more acute as he entered high school.
“She was safe when a lot of other things weren’t safe.”
Soon, the two were talking on the phone for hours every night. Jake was the only person Lindsey told about her father, and Lindsey was one of the first people Jake ever introduced himself to with his chosen name. “Even though we weren’t physically together, we were spending anywhere between one and five hours together every day,” Lindsey told Bustle. Despite the distance between them, Lindsey and Jake began a romantic relationship at 16. “She was safe when a lot of other things weren’t safe,” Jake recalled to Bustle. During this time, they saw each other in person only once, when Lindsey’s family took a trip to Connecticut. However, the two teens realized they lacked the resources to visit each other frequently, and broke up soon after the visit. They wouldn’t see each other in person again for almost ten years.
They never completely gave up on their relationship, though. “Every couple years, for six months, we’d try to date [long distance],” Lindsey said. But the couple would always ultimately “break up because we wanted to be physically intimate with people who were around us and we didn’t know how to be together in a monogamous way and get our sexual needs met.”
In October of 2017, Jake and Lindsey planned to meet again, for Lindsey’s bachelorette party in Texas. Jake had agreed to be the best man at Lindsey’s wedding to another woman the following month. But when he arrived, he found Lindsey in a state of distress. Her relationship with her fiance had grown increasingly abusive over their three years together, and “I had isolated [myself] from everyone,” Lindsey remembered. “I didn’t know it was as bad as it was.”
When Jake asked Lindsey why she was getting married — “I thought it was a fair question,” he said — Lindsey realized she had no answer. Days after the bachelorette party, Jake returned home to Connecticut with Lindsey, who delayed, then called off, her wedding and moved in with Jake. “I’ve always been in love with Jake,” said Lindsey. “I felt safe with him when I didn’t feel safe with anybody else. He allowed me to heal from that relationship in a safe place without any pressure.”
“I tried to be what she needed for a very long time and she tried to be what I needed and neither of us was ever satisfied.”
During their periods apart, both Lindsey and Jake had other sexual partners and came to identify with the kink community, gravitating especially towards BDSM and polyamory. When they began living together, they discovered that they both identify as sexually submissive, which proved to be a problem. “I tried to be what she needed for a very long time and she tried to be what I needed and neither of us was ever satisfied,” Jake explained. “One of us was always frustrated and the other was probably having an identity crisis. It always seemed to strain something we both enjoy very much.”
Rather than feel completely discouraged by their sexual incompatibility, Jake decided to look on the bright side. “We’re here together, finally,” he recalls thinking. “We just need to take a good evaluation of who we are and find something that fits as opposed to trying to make ourselves fit into something else.”
And for Jake and Lindsey, that meant exploring polyamory and sleeping with other partners. As Lindsey puts it, once you break down the “boundaries” of one identity — of gender, of sexuality — then it becomes easier to envision “breaking them all.” Why, Lindsey and Jake wondered, should they adhere to the boundaries of monogamy when doing so “quite frankly would not make us happy?” Polyamory isn’t uncommon — a 2014 study found that approximately four to five percent of individuals identify themselves as part of a consensual non monogamous relationship — but few of us may associate it with the idea of a primary couple who don’t have sex. However, as sex therapist and life coach Nathan Guerrin told Bustle, exploring polyamory can “allow a different level of intimacy to begin to develop” in a couple — one different than the kind we traditionally associate with sexually monogamous couples.
At the height of their unsuccessful attempts to be sexual together, Lindsay and Jake noticed that forcing the act “caused a lot of tension,” between them, according to Jake. Trying to have sex, he explained, “made intimacy of any kind significantly harder, because I would shut down knowing that this was not working for me.” The two even stopped sharing a bed at night, due to confusion about whether or not to initiate sex or anxiety about potentially misreading cues. They didn’t kiss as much; even touching became awkward.
“There’s not a huge elephant in the room that neither of us know what to do with.”
But once they took sex off the table, the communication in their relationship immediately improved. As Jake put it, “There’s not a huge elephant in the room that neither of us know what to do with.” Both Jake and Lindsey have had sexual encounters with other people while living together, and feel that doing so has allowed them both to have all their needs met. The two have discussed everything from what kind of person would ideally make a third person in their relationship to details of specific dates; they have to let the other know who they’re with and where they’re going, and have found that they like to cuddle when they’re both home after dates at night.
“I’ve never been so settled in a relationship before,” said Lindsey. “I’m not giving up anything that is fundamental to who I am, but still getting so much from [Jake]. I feel like a better person with him.”
For other couples, skipping sex is not just an emotional necessity, but a physical one as well. 25-year-old Vianka met Bill* at her office last year. On their first date, the two “talked until 6 am” and, for the first few months of their relationship, rarely stopped. “He made me feel safe,” Vianka told Bustle
Vianka had been celibate for several years before meeting Bill, and in those early months of their relationship, she never felt pressured to have sex. But she still worried that “he was supposed to be trying to have sex with me...So I thought there was something wrong with our relationship.” While Bill sensed that Vianka didn’t want to be touched, she insisted nothing was wrong, as she “didn’t want him to think I was damaged.”
Finally, the two had sex. It was painful for Vianka, as sex had always been for her in the past. They tried a few more times before Bill finally asked what was wrong.
Vianka explained that she was excited to have sexual intercourse for the first time in 2014, when she was a college senior. But she found it immediately painful. “The whole night was a terrible experience,” Vianka says. The intercourse “felt like fire. It felt like someone was ripping apart my legs and my insides.”
Yet, despite this, she and her partner sex again. “I felt like I had to have sex. “I liked him so much, I wanted to please him. I thought it was expected of me. And there were a lot of girls who liked him, too. He could’ve had anyone he wanted. Even though sex was so painful, I just sucked it up.” He didn’t seem to notice the excruciating pain she was in, or feel the need to moderate what Vianka would later characterize as a particularly “violent” and forceful means of having sex.
“I was thinking I would be single forever because of the pain I had.”
The two parted ways a few months later, but even though Vianka was abstinent after their break-up, her pelvic pain remained. After she graduated and moved back home to North Carolina, she “would be driving and have a spasm and have to pull over on the side of the road.” Dating, let alone having sex, felt out of the question. “I was thinking I would be single forever because of the pain I had,” she said. “I felt disgusted with myself as a female.”
To Vianka’s surprise, upon hearing this story, Bill responded: “We just won’t have sex then.”
Vianka’s issue is far from unusual: one 2017 study of almost 7,000 women in the UK found that sex is painful for one in 10 women. Yet getting a clear diagnosis is uncommon, as is access to effective treatment. In 2015, a doctor told Vianka that her encounters with her first partner had likely resulted in pelvic floor disorder, a condition that occurs when the “sling” that supports the pelvic organs becomes weak or damaged. At a local women’s clinic, Vianka received “physical therapy for my vagina,” but could only afford a few months of treatment, as her insurance didn’t cover the disorder. Her pain persisted, and in 2017, another doctor offered yet another diagnosis: vaginismus, or an involuntary contraction of the pelvic floor muscles in anticipation of vaginal penetration. A history of sexual abuse, which Vianka survived as a child, is also often a factor.
Lacking the resources for medical intervention, Vianka and her partner haven’t tried to have sex since June 2017. They still talk constantly and provide each other emotional support. Especially in light of her past, Vianka says, “I feel safe. He knows one of my biggest secrets, so if he’s still with me, that means something.” Finding a partner who knows about her experiences with abuse and hasn’t “changed how [he looks] at me, how [he talks] to me,” Vianka explained, is incredibly valuable to her — and sex has little to do with that part of their relationship.
The arrangement isn’t perfect. The couple struggles with maintaining intimacy in the absence of sex, and have discussed Bill exploring sex outside of their relationship, though they haven’t landed on a definitive course of action yet. She doesn’t know what the future holds for them. But, Vianka, says, at least right now she “feel better now than I have in a long time.”
Though some millennials find sexless relationships to be the answer to their concerns, for many others, it is, in fact, a sign of a larger problem. Noah Church was surprised to find himself in a sexless relationship at 18. He and his girlfriend, who Church says he loved deeply, had recently decided to have sex for the first time. It was an experience he had been waiting for his whole post-pubescent life. But when the moment came, Church found he was physically incapable of intercourse — a result that surprised nobody more than him.
“I thought [my girlfriend] was very beautiful and she was who I wanted, but there was no physical response,” Church told Bustle. “I was ashamed and confused and didn’t understand.” The couple’s failed sexual attempts continued until Church “felt worse and worse every time I saw her,” and “began to dread [trying to have sex].”
Church broke up with his high school girlfriend, but continued to find it impossible to have intercourse with other partners. In college, his relationships would follow a traditional script, on a trajectory towards sex, and he enjoyed sharing intimate moments with his partners. But his relationships remained sexless, and became a source of pain. “It was like a dark and unspoken weight,” Church explained. “I felt inadequate, and it really tanked my self-confidence and ability to just relax and enjoy my time with the woman I was with.” With every attempt to have sex in his relationships, “I felt more and more broken,” said Church. “I felt that this is something normal men should be able to do and something I wanted to do all my life. I just felt non-functional.”
Ashamed to seek help, Church gave up on dating altogether and relied on porn, which he already begun to view increasingly often as he grow older. Years later, however, Church decided this solution was actually the original problem. After watching a TED Talk called “The Great Porn Experiment” by Gary Wilson, Church found he identified with the talk’s theory of porn addiction and, specifically, Porn Induced Erectile Dysfunction, or PIED.
“I had been desensitized not only to sexual stimuli, but to everything in my life.”
To be clear, both porn addiction and PIED are controversial diagnosis among American psychological community. While a 2002 Kinsey Institute survey revealed nine percent of the 10,453 respondents reported that they had “tried to stop using [porn] but...can't,” there’s no definitive scientific proof that porn has a direct, long-term effect on one's ability to maintain an erection, and the American Psychological Association has noted that experts aren’t in agreement about how to treat people who feel that their frequency of porn viewing is a problem.
But Church believes that his porn viewing “warped my sexual template and was a big part of what desensitized me to real-life intimacy, rendering me incapable of having real sex” within his relationships.
Soon after this revelation, Church met someone and told her about his past struggles, as well as his decision to stop viewing porn altogether. “I had been desensitized not only to sexual stimuli, but to everything in my life.” Church said. But after going cold turkey for a few months, he added, “my emotions returned. I could cry again. I cried for the first time in 14 years…[I was able to] feel love.” And he found himself in a loving — and, finally, sexual — relationship.
In many ways, Church's evolving relationship to sex mirrors a shift in our broader society. Sexless relationships are not a new cultural phenomenon, but what millennials bring to them is a fresh perspective that aligns more with their core values than their base needs. As this generation explores gender and sexuality on their own terms and without the same restrictive social constructs as previous generations, they are finding new ways to experience intimacy that do not include intercourse, and it excites them.
In some cases, the bonds of these relationships can even be more explosive than anything that normally happens in the bedroom. Identities are affirmed, consent and boundaries are taken seriously, and in Church's experience, entire paradigms are shifted.
As Lindsey says of her and Jake’s decision to remain sexless in a sexless relationship, “F*ck their molds. Let’s build what we want.”
*Names have been changed.