If you've been scrolling TikTok for the past couple of months, you may have noticed a spike in millennial and Gen Z women sharing their choice to stay celibate.
A 2021 study by researchers at Rutgers University and the University at Albany indicated both men and women between the ages of 18 and 23 had significantly less casual sex, or sex without a long-term partner, compared to young adults a decade earlier. Research indicated 38 percent of young men studied had casual sex in 2007, but this number fell to 24 percent in 2017. Among young women during this time period, the percentage who had casual sex declined from 31 percent to 22 percent.
This trend has been interpreted as a form of a so-called sex recession in the United States.
Traditionally, celibacy typically means abstaining from sex for an extended period of time—such as before marriage or after marriage—and often for religious reasons. But the practice is now celebrated for purportedly facilitating healing and empowerment, especially among young women in their late teens and 20s.
Healing and empowerment
For some modern celibate women, abstaining is a way of reclaiming control over their body and sex life.
"I think it is a logical progression from an era of sexual repression to sexual liberation becoming its own form of repression," said sex therapist Kathy McMahon, Psy.D., founder of Couples Therapy Inc., a couples therapy center with counselors based in various regions of the United States and internationally.
"The decision about what a woman does with her body is hers alone to make. If she wants to give it a title saying, 'I have to really love you first,' that's a step forward for men and for women," she added. "And it's a statement that many women, before or after the sexual revolution, have been saying all along."
Celibacy could have different meanings for different people, McMahon explained. It could purely mean not engaging in sex, oral sex or stopping at various levels of touching, kissing and intimacy, depending on how they choose to draw their boundaries.
Documenting a transformational journey
"The beginning of celibacy, for me, was an act of desperation," Jeppe said. "After continuously losing myself in relationships and experiencing heartbreak after a three-month fling, removing myself from partners felt like a lifeline to finding myself again.
"As a woman that grew up with the pressures of attaining marriage and kids someday, I was programmed to believe those accomplishments made me worthy or more of a woman," she explained. "When I went celibate, it was the first time I didn't buy into that story. I believed I was enough without a man to fall back on. That was transformational to my levels of self-worth and confidence around protecting my energy and no longer giving my body away."
Jeppe added that her "secret weapon" while practicing celibacy was shadow work, the practice of developing self-awareness while working with the unconscious mind to uncover parts of yourself that you repress or hide from yourself. Shadow work derives from the term "shadow self," first used by 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung, and is often used as a tool in modern therapy.
'After continuously losing myself in relationships and experiencing heartbreak after a three-month fling, removing myself from partners felt like a lifeline to finding myself again.'
"Early on in my childhood, I experienced sexual trauma, and for many years, I suppressed those memories," Jeppe continued. "The unwillingness to look at my pain manifested itself in how I showed up in relationships. I often used sex as an escape, a distraction and a form of power. My ego loved playing games with men, so much so that I would settle for toxic and emotionally unavailable partners."
Abstaining from sex and sexual pleasure allowed her to heal from her trauma, Jeppe said.
"I had the opportunity to heal what that little girl experienced and to no longer let it define me," she added. "Eventually, what started as a call for hope evolved into a conscious decision to abstain from sex, dating and even self-pleasure, in order to optimize my healing and return the love I deserved back to myself."
Potential benefits in sexual arousal?
Forbidden fruit is always seen as more desirable, so celibacy could potentially, and ironically, lead to more arousal, McMahon theorized. A friend of hers claimed to have seen this phenomenon in action with her teenage son.
"Before he and his girlfriend began [having sex], they were constantly kissing, hugging and fondling," McMahon recalled. "After they began having intercourse, they stopped touching nearly as much. Sexual intercourse too soon into a relationship can stop the practice of sexually arousing one another. And arousal can and should last much longer than the journey toward orgasm.
"The more you practice something, like arousing your partner, the better you get at it," McMahon elaborated. "It's called seduction and, no, seduction isn't the same as celibacy. In fact, celibacy itself could be a form of seduction."
It's not an uncommon experience. We all long for things we can't have.
"Desire is inflamed when desire is denied," McMahon continued. "Orthodox Jewish couples who abstain from intercourse during a woman's niddah [menstrual period] have sex much longer and more frequently over their life span than non-Orthodox Jewish couples or gentiles without such a prohibition."
Self-empowerment vs. sexual aversion
McMahon warned individuals not to confuse self-empowerment through celibacy with religious or moral prohibitions, or even misidentify it as the abstinence a woman practices if she doesn't like sex.
"I believe some women decide to become celibate because they like sex a lot but aren't finding the right partners to be sexual with," she explained. "Being sexual with the wrong partners is painful and even possibly self-esteem wounding. It's perfectly fine to say, 'I really like sex. I want to share myself with someone who is worthy of me.'"
McMahon added that women with histories of sexual abuse may be triggered by being sexually aroused and, therefore, avoid sex.
"If they don't want to be in a sexual relationship with a person, ever, they need to say that and find a partner who will agree to it," she said.
Why you may want to practice celibacy
"Why is it important to you to be celibate? We need to understand the motivation behind [it] and ensure it isn't because you are avoiding emotional and physical intimacy for some reason," said behavioral health scientist and sex therapist Kristen Mark, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the University of Minnesota Medical School.
McMahon advised individuals to first define the meaning of celibacy, potentially by thinking through the following questions:
- Do I not want to hold hands? Embrace? Kiss? French kiss? Is making out OK? Fondling above the clothes? Above/below the waist? Grinding bodies? Oral sex? Outercourse?
- How and when do I want to discuss celibacy? In person? In my online profile? In a text or email? What words will I use? Will I say I like sex or have been sexual previously?
- How flexible am I in the definitions that I've outlined as "celibate"? Am I free to change my mind? Under what conditions? Do I talk about that first or just engage in whatever behavior I have previously set as off-limits?
Knowing when to stop
"The thing about celibacy is it's your own journey," Jeppe said. "Get really good at listening to that inner voice we all carry. Trusting yourself is so critical when it comes to making the decision to pause or even stop your celibacy, because it's how you differentiate a choice from your higher self—the one who knows what they deserve, has strong boundaries and self-worth—versus a choice from a lack-based state: Are you seeking to fill a void?
"Know that there is no such thing as failing at celibacy," she added. "One of my biggest lessons came from breaking my celibacy for a one-night stand. Eventually, you will know in your heart that it's time for you to put to the test everything you worked so hard at intentionally healing. When that feeling hits, go for it."
McMahon gave similar advice.
"Some women will engage in a sexual relationship again when they find a person they feel secure and comfortable with," McMahon said. "Some will want a formal commitment. For others, they may decide that they miss being physically intimate with someone, and may engage in sex again for a while with partners they wouldn't want a long-term commitment from but like and enjoy being physical with. Ultimately, empowerment means that you decide when, where, how and if, and you feel good about your decision."