So what does it really mean to be celibate, when is it useful, and when might it just be a red flag of other issues that need dealing with?
The meaning of celibate
Traditionally, celibacy was a religious choice, and a vow of celibacy meant not getting married or engaging in sexual relations or activities.
In modern use, the definition of celibate is looser. It’s a conscious decision not to have sex with other people (self sex is often seen as permissible). Some even describe themselves as celibate within relationships, with ‘celibate dating’ a term being used.
The difference between celibacy and abstinence
The celibacy movement of the 1980s led by writers like Gabrielle Brown claimed celibacy is different than sexual abstinence. It’s more of a lifestyle choice about self-empowerment. Abstinence is merely ’refraining from’.
It is true that celibacy, with its roots as a religious vow, does seem to bear more weight than abstinence, and did originally also mean not having relationships, as opposed to just abstaining from sex.
But meanings change with time and there is no hard line here. If you are wanting to refrain from sex and/or relationships, you can feasibly use either term that works for you.
What celibacy isn’t
It isn’t ‘not having sex’.
Some people don’t have sex because they haven’t found a partner, but are actively looking. In this case not having sex is not a voluntary choice like celibacy is, just happenstance.
(That said, entire movements have sprung up reclaming this sort of enforced abstinence, such as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates).
This means someone is asexual. Or, in the case of someone who occasionally likes sex, demisexual.
In this situation it’s not a choice not to have sex, it’s a natural way of being for you personally when it comes to sexual activity.
It isn’t withholding sex.
In a relationship and angry at your partner because they betrayed you in some way? So refusing to have sex with them in order to ‘even the score’ or ‘get back’ at them? This is not a choice to not have sex, it’s a choice to punish and control someone, and sex is being used simply as a tool.
It isn’t ‘doing everything but penetration’.
It’s indeed a Christian-centric and heteronormative version of sex. But for a psychologist, sex is any sexual activity designed to arouse you or another person.
If you are bragging you are celibate but having all kinds of physical interactions including things like fondling and oral sex, just not penetration, it could be seen as a sort of limited abstinence. But if you are writing it off as celibacy it bears looking at what this game is really about for you.
If you are in a period of life where a big project or opportunity is on the plate, celibacy might given you more headspace as well as physical energy to get things done (if your sex life has meant late nights or poor sleep from cohabiting a bed!).
It can increase your sense of agency and personal power.
A study of clergy in South India found that celibacy was positively associated with personal accomplishment and engagement. Note, however, that it also found that long-term celibacy was connected to burnout.
When is celibacy NOT a good thing?
Like everything, celibacy has positives and negatives, and it all comes down to how it’s being used.
Movements like ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates) or MGTOW’ (men going their own way’) are often questioned for the negative ways they frame and use celibacy.
Ideally, taking a break from sex if it’s become addictive or destructive and thenseeking support to deal with the addiction and slowly learn healthy ways of having a sexual relationship can be a useful treatment plan.
But what if you randomly decide to become celibate, without seeking any support for your addiction? Then think of your celibacy all the time? Talk about it all the time to anyone who will listen? Draw people in, then at the last minute, when you are sure they are into you, push them away as you are ‘celibate now’? Are so obsessed with your newfound celibacy that you have lost friends, aren’t focussing at work?
Still have a question about being celibate, and if you are using it in a healthy way? Or want to share your experience? Post below. NOTE: all comments are moderated to protect other users and we do not allow harassment of any kind.