Can You Be Celibate and Have a Sex Life?
When people hear the word "celibacy," they readily think of a priest, nun, monk or their favorite singing sad man, Morrissey. But today, the strict confines of celibacy have expanded, and the lifestyle has become a highly personal choice with reasons varying between individuals.
What is celibacy?
Celibacy is often mistaken for sexual abstinence, and while both terms are similar, there is a key difference. Someone who is sexually abstinent refrains from sex for a set period of time, whereas someone who is celibate has committed to a longer-term or indefinite lifestyle without sex.
Traditional definitions of celibacy are archaic, with connections to religion and roots meaning single and unmarried. Now, we know celibacy exists both within and outside of partnerships, and individuals who identify as celibate have their own personalized parameters for the term. They may even engage in some sexual activity.
Celibacy versus abstinence versus asexuality
To better understand the difference between abstinence and celibacy, take this analogy: People abstaining from alcohol for a month are practicing abstinence, and people identifying as nondrinkers who avoid alcohol year-round are like celibates. Among these nondrinkers, some may occasionally sample fine wine but do not drink to get drunk.
There is a misconception that celibacy and abstinence equate to asexuality, but there is a distinct difference. People who are celibate and abstinent still experience sexual attraction, but they make conscious choices to control their sexual behavior. Asexuals do not experience sexual attraction, so asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a choice.
Celibate…to an extent
Some celibate people refrain from all forms of sexual activity and even avoid sexual thoughts. Others may masturbate or engage in virtual sex, including sexting, and some are comfortable with lighter physical affection, such as kissing and touching. Others still may consent to acts like oral sex or dry-humping but say no to penetrative sex or intercourse. Even so, celibate people are typically selective about their intimate partners and prefer connecting on other levels (mentally, spiritually, and so on) before getting physically intimate. Whatever someone's definition of celibacy may be, their limitations and reasons are entirely personal.
Religion and celibacy
Unfortunately, celibacy has in some cases been tainted with the connotation of religious corruption. In addition to histories of violence and sexual abuse, some churches force non-heterosexuals to be celibate to control their sexuality. For individuals who have experienced this oppression, the notion of celibacy can trigger negative emotions. However, across most religions, there are devout followers who value the virtue of chastity and live by it. They often make a pledge to abstain from sex until marriage, but some make a lifelong commitment to asceticism.
Celibacy for spiritual growth
Religion aside, a conscious break from sex can be therapeutic for personal development. There's a reason celibacy has been practiced throughout history as a way to engage in spiritual enlightenment. Remarkable figures who took up celibacy include Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Alfred Hitchcock and the father of psychosexual analysis himself, Sigmund Freud.
A serious breakup or divorce, death of a loved one or any other life-changing event can cause individuals to pause and reevaluate their lives. Celibacy can aid in this refocus and help people heal spiritually.
There are partners who make a vow of celibacy together in order to build on their relationship in other ways. Some, who may otherwise be sexually active, abstain from sex for a set time—say, before their wedding, as a way to rekindle spiritual connection and make sparks fly on their honeymoon.
Celibacy to cope with trauma
For assault survivors, celibacy can be empowering. Whether occurring in childhood or adulthood, trauma has tremendous effects on the psyche, sexuality included, and survivors of abuse and assault can subconsciously react hypersexually or hyposexually. Both reactions are ways to regain a sense of autonomy over their physical bodies after assault.
But there are problems—a history of abuse and hypersexuality can lead to risky sex and abusive relationships, and hyposexuality sacrifices pleasure for the sake of protection. These subconscious trauma responses both cause a loss of self, and celibacy can be a conscious way for survivors to reclaim their sexuality and set clear boundaries for what physical or sexual acts they are okay with, with whom and when.
Celibacy for addiction recovery
People in addiction recovery (for alcohol, drugs, sex or anything else) are advised to not enter into intimate relationships in the earlier stages of recovery, when risk of relapse is especially high.
If a person struggles with one addiction, they may very likely suffer multiple, and giving in to one desire can lead to seeking others. People with addictions tend to engage in risky sexual behavior and struggle with codependency, too, and celibacy is a way to keep their focus inward. Making conscious, rather than impulsive, decisions can build a sense of self-worth and assist in recovery.
There are countless other reasons why people do not engage in sex, including:
- Prevention of pregnancy and spread of STIs
- Inability or low libido due to illness, injury or sexual dysfunction
- Body image issues, such as eating disorders or body dysmorphia
- Performance insecurities caused by erectile dysfunction (ED)
- Fears of sex and intimacy
- Disinterest in prospects (voluntary) or no prospects available (involuntary)
It is your choice when and if you tell people you are celibate, or why. To avoid misunderstandings in dating, mention it early on with potential partners, but only when and if you see fit. Similarly, if someone you know is celibate, it is generally not tactful to ask why unless you have a meaningful connection with them, and even then, utilize grace and understanding.
So, can you be celibate and still have a sex life? Absolutely. How you define your celibacy is up to you. In a world full of labels, identifying as celibate can be a way to help others better understand you, but you do not need to follow any definition other than your own.