Thursday, June 13, 2024

Abstinence and Celibacy: Here’s the Difference

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Considering the difficulty of navigating the modern dating world, it’s no wonder that many people are entering their “celibacy era.” Julia Fox recently revealed that she has been celibate for two and a half years, while Lenny Kravitz also shared that he’s decided to be celibate until he “meets the right woman.” In fact, the term celibacy has over 268 million views on TikTok alone.

Many are now choosing to forgo sex and dating in favor of focusing on themselves and their personal development or goals. (Having spent nearly a decade in a love-hate relationship with the dating apps, I personally can’t blame them.) That said, there are also some considerations about taking a break from sex that some people seem to miss.

It goes without saying that the US has become known for its lack of comprehensive sex education. Rather than offer a well-rounded overview of sexual safety and wellbeing for adolescents already teeming with hormones, many states across the country still require abstinence-focused sex ed. This sex-negative perspective may persuade some young people to avoid becoming sexually active, but ultimately it can never stop the natural curiosity and exploration that comes post-puberty.

Failing to equip them with critical knowledge regarding sexuality can (and does) understandably result in students growing into adulthood with misconceptions and misunderstandings about sex as a whole — including the difference between abstinence and celibacy.

The choice to be celibate or abstinent can be intensely personal for some, but it’s still important to understand what each term actually means, and how they are individually implemented. Ahead, we tapped a certified sex expert to explain the why and how behind abstinence and celibacy.

Experts Featured in This Article

Emily Jamea, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and an AASECT-certified sex therapist.

What Is the Difference Between Abstinence and Celibacy?

As someone who writes about sex and dating, I sometimes find it amusing how much it impacts my social media algorithms. Because of this, I’ve noticed just how popular the concept of celibacy has become. Many women, especially, have shared their personal experiences about choosing to be celibate and how it has impacted their lives. There’s just one issue: quite a few of them have misunderstood what celibacy actually means.

According to experts, it’s common for people to consider themselves celibate when they actually mean abstinence. “Abstinence tends to be for a shorter period of time, and celibacy is more of a choice that someone makes as part of their overall lifestyle. There tends to be more of a religious component to celibacy, and it’s a bit broader in terms of what it encompasses,” explains sex therapist Emily Jamea, PhD. She points out that you can abstain from basically anything — eating chocolate, drinking, or having sex — so the word abstinence is “a bit more fluid” and varies from person to person.

Celibacy, on the other hand, is often a decision that requires extra intention and motivation. Rather than simply waiting to have sex or taking a break from it, Dr. Jamea explains that celibacy is more of a lifestyle choice than a temporary measure. “Celibacy is the choice [to refrain] from everything having to do with sex. So not just intercourse, but it could extend to having sexual thoughts or self-pleasure,” she says. “It tends to encompass a bit more compared to abstinence, where people are kind of picking and choosing what component of sex they might be abstaining from.”

Someone who chooses to be abstinent while they’re getting to know a new partner may still masturbate regularly or watch porn, while someone who is celibate is more likely to remove anything sexual from their life and habits altogether.

Why Do People Choose Abstinence or Celibacy?

Many of us have experienced a string of bad dates or a lackluster hookup before. For some, it’s easy to brush these off and move on to the next. For others, a pattern of disappointment or frustration with sex and dating as a whole can be motivation enough to choose abstinence.

Dr. Jamea says that for some people, abstinence “may give them a break from sexual interactions that have been unpleasant or caused distress, anxiety, or trauma in their lives. Maybe they have just had enough with dating. Maybe they worry that they’re having sex with people too quickly and not establishing enough of an emotional connection or friendship with potential partners first.”

Like Dr. Jamea previously mentioned, celibacy tends to involve some spiritual or religious motivation behind it. People whose religion stresses the idea of waiting for sex until marriage or folks who have discovered that they have an unhealthy relationship with sex may feel that being celibate is best for them. This typically implies a long-term commitment to decentering sex in their lives altogether and shifting their focus on other things.

On TikTok, there are quite a few creators who have chosen a period of celibacy while they opt out of dating and work on themselves and their goals. Even though it may not last forever, this in-depth decision is set apart from abstinence because of the way it changes their behavior and impacts their daily lives.

While some people may have fully valid reasons behind their decision to abstain from sex or choose celibacy, Dr. Jamea suggests that it’s not always necessary when you’re looking to heal your relationship to sex or focus on other forms of connection. In fact, swearing off sexual pleasure isn’t backed by science — and it may simply be keeping you from enjoying a very human experience.

“We don’t have much research that really finds any true benefit to long term sexual abstinence or celibacy, whatever word you choose,” Dr. Jamea says. “For centuries, people have put sex in its own box because they think that bodily pleasure is somehow different from the pleasure you get from eating a piece of chocolate cake or doing anything else you enjoy . . . At the end of the day, humans are hardwired to seek pleasure.”

Lexi Inks is a lifestyle journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to her contributions at POPSUGAR, she is a staff writer on Bustle’s Sex & Relationships vertical and a lifestyle news writer for The List.

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