Abstinence from sex seems to increase sexual appetite

The abstinence-desire index (the ADI)

“Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder” is a well-known aphorism that sums up the effect of sexual frequency on sexual appetite—and vice-versa. The effect is not linear. There is also a hint in this saying of something more– that abstinence not only affects sexual desire, which is plainly true, but that it engenders affection or some other warm feeling—even love. In thinking of such matters, King Henry the Eighth immediately springs to mind. When he lusted after Anne Boleyn, she kept him at bay, increasing his desire, until he married her. After they had been intimate for a few years, he had her beheaded, which can be taken as an indication of a lessening interest. This would be an example of abstinence heightening desire. “Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.” And the reverse: the easy availability of sex leading first to indifference and then to homicide.  Anne Boleyn was not the first wife, or the last, to recognize these truths belatedly. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” is another maxim that may have relevance here. In fact, murder contributes to the instability of modern marriage, although not as much as divorce.

Limiting my remarks strictly to the effect of not having sex on the desire to have sex, I report these statistical relationships which I have discovered after years of keen observation:

Starting with the condition of having no sex whatever, the desire—rather than being at a peak—is likely to be absent altogether. I argue from observing young children and knowing personally a few very old men and women in religious orders. Despite not having had sex for years, or in the case of young children, ever, lust is not characteristic of either group, at least judging from their casual remarks. Although there are always exceptions. Some of this is documented in “The lore of the Priesthood.” (Not to be confused with “The Lure of the Priesthood,” which was a promotional pamphlet put out by the Jesuits in the 17th Century, when all that hanky-panky was going on.) In fact, the very old, in general, do not report waves of sexual torment even though they may have had no sex for years! At the extremes of life, it might be judged that the relationship between abstinence and sexual appetite does not exist.
In the middle-age, however, things are different. It is well-documented that during the Second World War, when soldiers were stationed far from home in the South Seas or the Aleutians, there was an upsurge of sexual relations with women who were passing through but who never would have been interesting to these men at other times. One such woman suffered from an endocrine disorder and weighed over three hundred pounds. These men were youngish compared to old men but might reasonably, for scientific purposes, be described as “middle-aged.” (Somewhere between childhood and old age. The more conventionally middle-aged are on a different place on the abstinent scale.) These soldiers had been abstinent just long enough to have their sexual appetites honed to a fine edge.  Had they been abstinent much longer, however, as were some of the Japanese soldiers who hid out in the jungle for years thinking the Second World War was still going on, their sexual appetites would have faded and wasted away, particularly after the first ten years. These various observations have been integrated into The Abstinent-Desire Index (the ADI.)


(This is the place for me to draw a graph of the ADI, but I am not computer savvy, and when I draw a graph, it looks like something drawn on an Etch a Sketch. Therefore, you need to use your imagination.)

Consider these various situations:

A high school couple were dating for two years. Although their parents disapproved, they began having sex during the Christmas holidays of their senior year. They were then separated. They came to reside, first in camp and then in college, in different states. The young man reported being “horny” (a slang term to represent sexual desire) more and more every day after separating from his girl- friend up until two months had passed, after which his desire receded slowly as he became involved first in sports and then in the demands of a course of study in engineering. So, abstinence increases desire only for a little while. Someone else might have grown disinterested more quickly. Or less quickly. In fact, his girl-friend reported no such waxing and waning of desire, but only, I think, because she immediately became sexually involved with someone else, an auto-mechanic, as it happened. So, the ADI is not reliable entirely. Sexual desire may be affected by other things besides abstinence. (Notoriously, by headaches; but, also, by extreme hunger or thirst, by a significant illness, such as cancer, and by menopause.)

A couple devoted to each other were unable to have sex because they always waited for the children to go to bed. When the children were six or seven, their sexual life was unremarkable, still managing to drift along at a frequency of around two or three times a week. When the children were nine or ten, however, and stayed up longer, this couple became distraught. After about a week of abstinence they began having sex in a closet, which they were not previously accustomed to doing. When the kids were old enough to watch the late show, their sexual life centered exclusively on holidays when the children visited cousins in Ireland. The rest of the year they had very little sexual desire and spent most evenings staring dully at the television set or ironing clothes. They had grown out of the habit of making love.

Sex in prisons falls in and out of similar patterns but because some readers are made uncomfortable by talking about homosexuality, I will not explore that issue further.

There is a lesson to be learned here:

In order to maintain sexual desire at a nice level, an individual should have sex no less than once a week or once every week and a half. It may be desirable—although not necessary—for the partner to be a spouse. The appropriate saying to keep in mind here is “use it or lose it.” Otherwise, prolonged abstinence cannot be counted on to insure desire any more than a long-term vegetarian can be expected to long for steak, (although I have always suspected that deep down most vegetarians do indeed yearn for steak but refuse to admit it out of stubbornness.)

P.S. Since putting up this post, a reader has informed me that the saying I quote should be “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I see by doing a little research that he may be right, although, then, the thought expressed is plainly wrong. A more accurate proverb would be “out of sight, out of mind.” That says it all.  (c) Fredric Neuman Author of “The  Seclusion Room.” Follow Dr. Neuman’s blog at http://fredricneumanmd.com/blog

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Fred Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center. After serving as Associate Director for 21 years, Dr. Neuman assumed the directorship in 1994. Educated at Princeton University and the NYU College of Medicine, Dr. Neuman specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is the author of the following books: Caring: Home Treatment for the Emotionally Disturbed, Fighting Fear: An Eight Week Guide to Treating Your Own Phobias, Worried Sick?: The Exaggerated Fear of Physical Illness, and Worried Sick? The Workbook. Dr. Neuman is also the author of numerous magazine and newspaper articles on the efficacy of Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Neuman is a member of the American Psychiatric Society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Science. Dr. Neuman is also the author of the following novels: "The Seclusion Room," Viking Press. "Maneuvers" Dial Press "Come One, Come All," "The Wicked Son," "Detroit Tom and His Gang" "Superpowers." All these books are available from Amazon.