NEW YORK – It might be the biggest breakthrough in sex research since the invention of the Pill.
Two Georgia State University sociologists have come out with a study finding that people who aren't having sex, but want to, are frustrated and unhappy.
Nuns, priests, monks and others who choose abstinence aren't part of the Journal of Sex Research report, co-authored by GSU sociology professors Denise Donnelly and Elisabeth Burgess. Instead, so-called "involuntary celibates" are the study's focus, and were often found to be depressed, cranky and insecure.
The less-than-stunning conclusion, along with the less-than-solid sample they profiled (82 people, all found on the Internet) have led some to ponder why they bothered.
"I wonder why the authors thought this was an interesting question," mused Sally Satel, a staff psychiatrist at the Oasis Clinic in Washington, D.C. "They did not make a convincing case for undertaking it."
Donnelly said she's heard similar criticism before: She and Burgess have been accused of wasting time and money on research whose conclusion seems ridiculously simple. But the project provided valuable insight into a common problem, she said — and only cost $5,000, which came from an internal university research grant.
"Some parts of the study are obvious, but some aren't," she said. "We knew we were going to find people who weren't absolutely ecstatic, but what we didn't know was how much it affects all aspects of their lives."
Researchers divided participants into three categories: virgins, singles (non-virgins who wanted an intimate relationship but didn't have one) and partnered celibates (those who were no longer having sex with their significant others).
Donnelly said most people who participated in the study reported depression, low self-esteem, poor body image and emotional paralysis at the thought of initiating a relationship.
"It snowballs — the longer one goes without a partner, the harder it is to find one," she said. "It's important to do the study because sex is an important part of our lives. We don't often talk about it."
Donnelly and Burgess found that the "involuntary celibacy" problem is usually ignored, despite the fact that about 10 to 20 percent of the population falls into the category.
"It's not stupid — it's me," said a middle-aged Russian woman identifying herself only as Tatiana. "I'm divorced and I don't have it. I need it, but I can't just go out there and get it."
Others who were asked what they thought of such research were more skeptical.
"It seems kind of silly," said Matthew Kelly, 21, a Rhode Island college senior. "It's a really hard thing to do a scientific study on."
The conclusion might be a given, but the GSU authors aren't naive. After all, the topic of sex never fails to attract attention.
"It's obvious: A lot of people who don't have sex are grouchy," said Jerrozz Brooks, 22, a New York City cook. "But I would want to read about it."
Still, is titillating content a good reason to research something we already know — that lack of sex is a downer?
"A lot of people would say 'Duh!' but this information has potential usefulness," said Dr. J. Michael Faragher, a sex and addiction expert at Metropolitan State College of Denver. "There is stupid, funny research that goes on, but within obvious results there are sometimes intriguing trends we didn't know about before."
Satel, for her part, was unimpressed, but took heart in the fact that the project came cheap.
"It would be a shame to spend significant tax dollars on an uninformative study such as this," she said. "It doesn't tell you a lot. It's really a non-finding because the methodology is so weak."