Involuntary celibacy (colloquially incel) is chronic near-total or total absence in sexual intimacy or intercourse, due to involuntary reasons. While the term celibacy, on its own, usually implies being voluntarily unmarried and sexually abstinent, celibacy within the phrase involuntary celibacy simply means a general lack of sexual activity with another person. The phrase involuntary celibacy therefore refers to a general lack of sexual activity for reasons other than voluntary ones (such as sexual abstinence, asexuality, or antisexualism).
Distinct from other forms of celibacy, involuntary celibacy is a term used to describe individuals who are just as sexually driven as typical individuals, but despite a normal amount of effort on their part or other circumstances have failed to produce sexual partnerships. Incel individuals therefore lack intimate physical connection for very long periods of their adult lives (see dry spell), while often failing to secure opportunities to lose one's virginity in the first place.
Because involuntary celibacy is linked to perpetual virginity (see Causes below), incel individuals who are also virgins can experience teasing and negative reinforcement through movies characterizing virgins as socially inept.
Most individuals identifying as incel exhibit the same social behaviours as their peers who have sex lives. A few of the involuntarily celibate population might exhibit discernible personality disorders that preclude current and future sexual opportunities, but the small amount of research done on this subject indicates that the incel population are on the whole socially normal, otherwise healthy individuals whose frustration is merely a product of their lack of sex, and not vice versa.
There is very little sexological study regarding involuntary celibacy. Prior to a self-directed study on modern involuntary celibacy initiated in 1998 by researchers from Georgia State University, there were zero publicly searchable research-based sources on the phenomenon. Even the 1998 study was only started once a member of an online discussion group for involuntary celibates inquired about current research on the subject. The study, Involuntary celibacy: A life course analysis, was published in 2001 in the Journal of Sex Research, produced by the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. Involuntary celibacy: A life course analysis has also been included in an anthology of scholarly literature. A more recent study has been made into involuntary celibacy inside marriage and long-term cohabiting relationships and was published in 2008 in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
An analysis by Denise Donnelly et al. of a group of incels revealed that only 29% of virgin incels (those who had never had a sexual experience) had ever participated in kissing or other activities involving a partner. Her research indicates that as incels (and virgins in particular) miss key milestones in their sexual trajectory they find themselves on a radically different sexual development path than their peers.
Other factors, as identified by Donnelly’s 2001 life course analysis (unless otherwise cited) include shyness; inability to relate to others; poor body image; difficult living arrangements (e.g. with parents, roommates, or in an isolated area); inconvenient work arrangements; lack of transportation; disinterest in having sex in the absence of love or a relationship; commitment to a marriage or relationship with a partner who is not interested in having sex with them; reduced physical ability to have sex as a result of illness, injury or handicap, or because of difficulty in developing and maintaining erections as a result of erectile dysfunction or impotence.
Additionally, men may disqualify appealing women as "relationship material" based on the stereotype that beautiful women are less likely to be faithful as girlfriends or wives, or to become good mothers, and would be the most likely to seek divorce.
The single chapter devoted to involuntary celibacy in historian Elizabeth Abbott's book The History of Celibacy bears little similarity to current use of the term. The examples cited include  those living amidst skewed sex ratios caused by the death of many men in a war or preferential abandonment or abortion of females (the latter is particularly severe in China and India), prisoners, those without access to the money needed to deal with a child, those denied the right to marry by social norms like widows in certain Hindu communities or younger sisters in societies that call for the oldest to be married first, women whose families lack money for the dowries required by their society, people who would lose their jobs if they were known to be sexually active like apprentices and journeymen in certain trades in Medieval Europe, or certain Western domestic servant or educator positions prior to the previous centuries, and men castrated against their will.
Donnelly's analysis states 35% of celibates express dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger about their lack of sexual relationships. In most Westernized and sex-positive societies, additional social standards pressure people to have experienced sexual interaction in some form by their 20s or 30s. If the person lacks any such experience while all of his or her peers have it, serious psychological consequences can result.
While sexual abstinence diminishes the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STD) it may necessitate relinquishment of potential health benefits of sex. Some researchers suspect that male involuntary celibates are more likely to binge drink as a substitute for sexual relations. A news article reporting on the study indicated that involuntary celibacy can lead to anger and depression.
Behaviours associated with this prolonged lack of physically intimate events can include self-absorption and an unhealthy preoccupation with sexual activities, caused at its root by a backlog of sexual arousal which can adversely affect social interactions. The prolonged lack of partnered sexual release can also make it more difficult for affected individuals to channel sexual energy into other pursuits.
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