young women at library

Sologamy: “The state of being single and not wanting a romantic/sexual relationship.”
—Robert Weiss

The Cult of the Individual

Not so long ago, the worst possible form of punishment was not prison or even death, it was exile. For instance, in 1814 the controversial military leader, politician, and megalomaniac Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled after 10 years as self-proclaimed Emperor of France to the Mediterranean isle of Elba – separated from his wife and son, who were sent to Austria. A year later he escaped, returned to France, and re-took his throne for approximately 100 days before his ultimate defeat at Waterloo. So did they execute him this time? Or at least lock him up and throw away the key? No, they did not. They exiled him yet again, this time to a much smaller and more remote island, St. Helena, 1,000 miles from the nearest land mass in western Africa. Once more, Napoleon was sent away without his wife and son. By all accounts he died a miserable, protracted, and very lonely death on St. Helena.

So yeah, living solo has long been regarded as a horrible thing. Alone we are diminished and tortured. Or so the thinking seems to go.

Nevertheless, in the last 50 years or so this centuries old assumption has begun to shift. Today, for the first time in history, great numbers of people of all ages, races, religions, and political persuasions are choosing to live alone. Sometimes they’re even choosing to live alone without the perceived primary perceived benefit of singledom – dating and being sexual with whomever you wish, whenever you wish.

Want some statistics on this? OK, here you go. In 1950, 22% of American adults were unmarried, and approximately 4 million American adults lived alone. Today, half of American adults are unmarried, and 32.7 million live alone. Furthermore, living alone is now among the most stable household arrangements. For instance, one study found that over a five year period living alone is the second most stable living situation. In other words, people who live alone are more likely to maintain that status than almost any other demographic. The only living arrangement that is more stable is “married with children.”

Eric Klinenberg, author of the book Going Solo, posits four primary reasons for this profound cultural shift.

  1. The rising status of women
  2. The digital communications revolution
  3. Mass urbanization
  4. Increasing longevity (living longer and healthier lives)

In other words, women no longer feel the need to “catch a man” as a way to thrive, fit in, and/or survive, so many women are perfectly happy being single. Meanwhile, individuals of both genders are able to stay in touch with friends and family via digital devices almost constantly, with urban centers offering endless possibilities for in-person socialization. As such, young adults’ needs for emotional connection can now be met in ways that don’t require coupling up. Plus, scores of seniors are outliving their spouses and not feeling a need to re-partner – perhaps, in part, because they are able to feel connected through social media and various in-person social venues, much like their younger singleton counterparts.

What About Sex?

So far in this discussion you’re probably following along just fine, understanding how and maybe even why some folks might want to live alone. But now I’m going to talk about sologamy – the state of being single and not engaging in or even wanting a sexual relationship. And you might be thinking, “Living alone is one thing, going without sex is quite another.” So the question here is this: Can emotionally healthy people intentionally live alone and intentionally go without sex? Or do humans have an inherent need to couple up and get it on? I mean, shouldn’t single folks at least occasionally be having affairs, dates, fuck buddies, casual sexual encounters, anonymous hookups, and the like?

The answer is that it depends on the individual. For instance, some perfectly healthy people live alone and have sexual urges, but feel that being sexual with another person is just too much of a bother. Sean, who recently turned 40, has lived alone since his late-20s and hasn’t had sex (or even tried to have sex) in at least three years. “I don’t feel like I ever got that much out of it,” he says. “Mostly it just seemed like a lot of work for not a lot of payoff. I’d rather hang out with my friends in a nonsexual way and just have a good time. If I get really horny, which happens once in a while, I can take care of the situation by myself, and then I can move back into the parts of my life that I actually enjoy.”

Other singletons self-identify as asexual, meaning they’re not interested in sex at all, with anyone, no matter how physically and/or emotionally attractive. So instead of being heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual, these individuals are asexual. That’s their sexual orientation. And the fact that their friends and their siblings and sometimes even their therapists don’t understand that fact doesn’t change it. As Kim Kaletsky writes in the New York Times, “Asexuality, I tell people, is not necessarily about a lack of desire for relationships. … It’s simply a lack of sexual attraction. … And we don’t have to believe it’s some kind of pathology for us to be this way.”

Nevertheless, plenty of folks will judge both living alone and being nonsexual/asexual. As Sean says, “I can’t tell you how many people tell me I can’t possibly be happy living like this. They think it’s not possible to have a fulfilling life without a romantic and sexual relationship. But honestly, I’d rather be alone than wish I was alone. And that’s what I see in a lot of these same people who insist that I need to couple up or at least to get laid once in a while. They’re hooked into someone, but they’re miserable in that relationship. Or they’re miserable about the sex in that relationship. Or whatever. Meanwhile, I’m pretty happy most of the time.”

These almost comical attempts to pathologize tend to be most fervent if/when a person self-identifies as asexual. In a Drunk Monkeys article, Julie Sondra Decker writes, “These solicitous, confused folks project onto me a host of psychological, physical, and emotional problems that I must be suffering from, though sometimes it’s unclear whether they believe my suffering caused my orientation or my orientation caused my suffering. … These folks are baffled beyond all reason that I could be happy as an asexual, aromantic, unpartnered, child-free woman, and they don’t seem to think ‘I’m actually very, very happy with my situation’ is sufficient grounds for leaving me alone. … The truth is that the absolute largest impediment to my happiness over the years has been other people’s obsession with changing me.”

Connection is the Key

So we have three very real people, Sean, Kim, and Julie, who are single, not having sex, and just fine with that. In fact, each professes to be happy, content, and emotionally fulfilled. And the reason for their life satisfaction is that they’re not sitting alone in a dark room with the curtains drawn and the phone unplugged, analyzing the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath. Instead, they’re very busy spending time with other people. No, they’re not living with anyone else, and no, they don’t have a sexual bond with anyone, but all of them have something far more important – an emotional and psychological connection to another person or people.

As Klinenberg states in Going Solo, living alone might paradoxically bring people closer together. He writes, “Evidence suggests that many people who live alone compensate by becoming more socially active than those who live with others. … In many cases those who live alone are socially overextended, and hyperactive use of digital media keeps them even busier.” The simple truth is singles and people who live alone are significantly more likely than married people to go to bars and dance clubs. They also eat out more often, take more art and music classes, attend more public events, and just plain hang out with their friends more often. In other words, single people are a lot more social than married people.

At the end of the day, it appears that it might not be the type but the quality of our interpersonal connections that matters most. After all, it’s possible to live with a romantic partner and to have regular sex with that partner, yet feel completely alone and emotionally empty much of the time. Meanwhile, people like Sean, Kim, and Julie live solo (and don’t even have sex), but they don’t feel at all lonely because they understand what they need to be happy – a form and degree of intimate connection that works for them. And no, I’m not advocating sologamy for everyone; I’m simply suggesting that we stop trying to pathologize those for whom this lifestyle works.