Joan Avna watched as women in her support group each scribbled a topic on a piece of paper, folded it carefully and dropped it into a jar. One slip was pulled out. "It's time to talk about sex," the paper read. The women giggled. Eyes shifted around the group. Finally, one nervous woman, 45-year-old Gail, braved the stares. She and her husband had not had sex in four years, she said. By the end of the evening, four of the nine women, most in their 40s, told similar stories of sexless marriages. Ms. Avna, a former Florida therapist now living outside Asheville, N.C., realized she had stumbled on the great secret of many American marriages: Couples aren't having sex.
The result is "Celibate Wives: Breaking the Silence," a book Ms. Avna, 60, wrote with friend Diana Waltz of Atlanta. The book not only ushers this taboo subject into the sunshine, but also has caught the attention of talk-show hosts.
Ms. Avna appeared on a "Geraldo" show -- "Husbands Who Refuse to Have Sex with Their Wives" -- earlier this month. Ms. Avna also has appeared on "The Shirley Show" -- Canada's answer to Oprah. And she's negotiating with Bob Berkowitz, a nighttime talk show host on cable CNBC. Though the authors have written the book from a woman's point of view, they say the rejected spouse is just as often the man, and men can use the book, too. The reasons couples give up sex vary from illness to stress to infidelity.
What makes "Celibate Wives" different from other books on sexual difficulties is that it focuses more on what a neglected spouse can do, less on why sex has come to a halt. There are
three simple options, says Ms. Avna: working on your sex life (which only works if both partners are willing to try), accepting and staying in the sexless marriage or seeking divorce. The book is filled with checklists to help the reader decide which course is best for her: "Anger on a scale of 1 to 18," "Depression Self-Test" and "Your Marriage -- Rocky or Solid?"
What surprised Ms. Avna is the number of women she interviewed who choose to stay in the marriage anyway. They've decided reasons to remain married -- children, money, friendship or fear of AIDS -- outweigh their desire for sex. For those who choose to stay married and celibate, "Celibate Wives" shows how to give up trying to change their spouses, boost self-esteem and build a satisfying life. Says Ms. Avna: "What I'm concerned about is they don't torment themselves for the rest of their lives."
However, Judith Seifer, president-elect of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, says a sexless marriage signals a sick one.
"The solution isn't to abandon sex in a marriage, but to do something about it," says Ms. Seifer, who recommends that couples seek out qualified therapists, not only to work on their sex lives but on their marriage. "I have never, in the 19 years I've been practicing, heard of couples who have given up sex and felt better for it."
But Ms. Avna says their mission isn't to advise women whether to leave a marriage or stay. It's to help them deal with the situation through stories of other women, as well as self-help exercises on everything from trying to rekindle a sex life to working through anger and rebuilding self-esteem.
One thing is universal: the couples' feelings of shame and embarrassment.
"People feel very embarrassed," says Ms. Avna, who writes candidly in the book about feeling deprived of sex in her own first marriage. "It strikes to the heart of one's ego and body image. The implication is that something is wrong, that sex and marriage go together."
Even publishers balked at the sensitive topic. Eighteen turned down Ms. Avna's book idea before it was accepted by Lowell House. One warned: "No one will buy that book unless you put it in a plain, brown wrapper." But Ms. Avna found that once the silence was broken, stories poured forth.
"They're everywhere, under every stone," says Ms. Avna. "You get a group of 10 people together, you'll find someone." The day after her support group meeting, Ms. Avna was having dinner with her friend Ms. Waltz. "I told her about the group's discussion, and tears started coming down her face," Ms. Avna says. "I live in a celibate marriage," Ms. Waltz revealed for the first time in their decade-long friendship.
Another time, Ms. Waltz and Ms. Avna were having lunch in a restaurant, discussing the book. The only other diner in the room walked up to their table. "Did I hear you correctly?" the woman ventured. "You're writing about celibate marriages? Interview me."
The authors advertised in newspapers, turning up particularly fertile ground in a sewing magazine. "We wanted a cross-section of America. Ordinary people," says Ms. Avna. She drew from her own experience, too. Though she loved and respected her first husband, his sexual desire did not match hers. She became obsessed with their lack of a sex life, and was more open about her troubles than most. "I never shut up," she says. "I went up and down the street saying to my friends, 'How many times a week are you having sex?' "
"Celibate Wives" (Lowell House, $21.95) is filled with anecdotal accounts culled from interviews with about 100 people. All interviewees are granted anonymity, and Ms. Avna says a few are composites. But the stories ring with candor:
Judy: He'd say, "Don't touch me; get away from me." We went on sleeping in the same bed. There were times when I would reach for him and he would kick my legs hard.
Arlene: Adjusting to a new city, my husband gone a lot, plus the illness of my daughter, overwhelmed me to the point where having sex was the last thing I wanted to do.
Joan: I simmered with anger. I yelled at the kids, I criticized Neal. Nothing pleased me. . . . Sometimes I would lose control and throw things.
While hardly a scientific survey, the personal stories can reassure readers they are in good, if somewhat sheepish, company. That knowledge alone may be the most helpful part of the book, Ms. Avna says. She devoted a chapter to forming support groups. Ms. Avna and Ms. Waltz only guess at the incidence of sexless marriages ("15 percent to 20 percent of all marriages at one time or another"). A national Opinion Research Center survey revealed one-fifth of adult Americans had no sexual partners during the previous year. The research on married sex mostly serves to reinforce a spouse's feelings of inadequacy: A 1991 survey in the Journal of Marriage and Family reveals married adults on average engage in sex twice a week.
Though the book is available through bookstores, Ms. Avna says she will send it to anyone too embarrassed to buy it in a store: Write her at P.O. Box 411, Mars Hill, N.C. 28754.