How celibacy became cool

Monica Karpinski 22 February 2022

Once seen as an archaic way of life, celibacy has regained popularity as a way to heal from toxic relationships or to help gain clarity of self. Two celibate women share their stories

A few months ago, Jasmine Anderson went on a date. She’d had some negative experiences in the past, and this time, wanted to make sure that her boundaries were clear.

“I’m celibate right now,” she told her date. They seemed to be okay with it, but within a week, Jasmine’s messages were being left on “read”. Things didn’t go any further between them.

Ironically, it was dating experiences like these—being ghosted, not getting back the effort that she was putting in—that made Jasmine consider celibacy in the first place.

Jasmine isn’t alone. From TikTok to Reddit, thousands of women are lauding the benefits of celibacy as an act of self-care: preserving one’s energy, rebuilding self-worth, and setting healthy boundaries.

"Thousands of women are lauding the benefits of celibacy as an act of self-care: preserving one’s energy, rebuilding self-worth, and setting healthy boundaries"

Just over one in five women in the UK are sexually inactive, according to the latest national data (Natsal-3). At the time of writing, TikTok content using #Celibacy has been viewed 47.2 million times.

How did celibacy, once seen as the stuff of prudes or priests, become so popular?

Coronavirus lockdown probably had something to do with it, says Ammanda Major, psychosexual therapist and head of service quality and clinical practice at relationships charity Relate, as this gave people the time and space to reflect on their needs.

“Sometimes, people call a halt to sex because they just need to recalibrate,” she says. “Part of that needing some space is asking: what do I want sexually?”

Resetting the relationship with sex

It was a breakup with a “toxic, narcissistic” ex-boyfriend that saw Ell*, 28, give up sex for just under a year in 2021.

“I was like, ‘If I just keep sleeping with people and going into another relationship, I’m just going to take that baggage with me into every single one’,” she says.

Having a “divider” from the experience via a period of celibacy helped Ell to realise that she doesn’t need sex nor to be constantly looking for it—and now, not only is she more confident but enjoys sex more than she did before.

“I think a lot of the time, people want to be validated by either relationships or sex,” she says. “But if you’re constantly looking for validation externally, then you’re never actually going to get it on your own.”

A period of celibacy can be helpful for people with a compulsive relationship to sex, such as hypersexuality or porn addiction, says independent psychosexual therapist Dr Ellie Birtley. Seeking validation through sex is on the lesser end of this spectrum, she adds.

"A period of celibacy can be helpful for people with a compulsive relationship to sex, such as hypersexuality or porn addiction"

“Because the brain is very plastic, when you have compulsive behaviours, in whatever activity it is…the neuro pathways get embedded in your brain,” she says. “In order to be able to reverse that, and weaken those chains of compulsion, it’s good to have a complete period of abstinence.”

How long this period is depends entirely on the individual, but in the case of sexual compulsions, Dr Birtley recommends an initial 90 days.

Setting boundaries

Jasmine, 33, has always had a high libido and is open about sex, but didn’t like the effect that one-night stands were having on her.

“Sometimes they bail out before you’ve got too invested in that relationship. And once you’ve had sex with them, it just brings up so many things, so many emotional things, so many triggers,” she says.

Jasmine’s dates would sometimes lovebomb her—showering her with affection in order to manipulate her—in hopes of getting intimate as quickly as possible.

Taking sex off the table was a way for Jasmine to step away from these experiences and establish new, healthy boundaries for herself. “This is a time to kind of get my head straight, and work out what I really want, without the pressure of sex when it comes to dating,” she says.  Now, she is only interested in dating people who respect her time and energy.

The pressure to be sexual can make people lose confidence or even trigger feelings of hopelessness, says Major. “If someone’s expecting you to be sexual, but that’s all they’re expecting from you, that eventually can make people feel very objectified.”

In situations like these, taking the time and space you need to emotionally recover can be very helpful, she adds. This advice doesn’t refer to cases of abuse, however, which are a different discussion and the responsibility of the abuser.

It’s not sex, it’s what comes with it

For both Ell and Jasmine, choosing celibacy wasn’t about sex itself but what was attached to it: pressures and expectations, bad relationships and experiences. By removing these factors and triggers from their lives, they were able to focus on themselves and heal.

A rejection of social pressures—to be up for sex, to not be single—could be part of the reason why more women are choosing celibacy, says Dr Birtley. “[It could be] to have autonomy and choice about how we express ourselves and not feel under peer pressure, to not feel under pressure from society to be a certain way.”

There’s also a collective sense of simply being fed up—of insensitive behaviours, selfish partners, and impossible expectations, says Major. “I think lots of women [are wondering], ‘Actually, you know what, why am I doing this? I need to have this more on my own terms’.”

If you feel that a period of celibacy might help you figure out what those terms are then allow yourself the space to explore that, she adds. “If it feels right for you, then that’s what you should do.”

*This name has been changed to protect anonymity

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