Could celibacy improve your self-awareness or even enhance your relationship with a partner?
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Claire Chamberlain
When many people think of celibacy, their understanding of the practice is likely strongly intertwined with that of religious belief. And while this is still the most common reason for celibacy, it’s not the only one.
Read on to discover what celibacy involves, who makes the decision to become celibate, what benefits it may bring and how it might affect relationships.
What is celibacy?
So, exactly what is the definition of celibacy?
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‘Celibacy is the word used to describe abstinence from sexual relations, and in some cases marriage, for an extended period of time, sometimes indefinitely,’ explains Dr Shirin Lakhani of Elite Aesthetics and Cranley Clinic. ‘Priests, for example, traditionally take a vow of celibacy. However, now it has become something that people choose to do not just for religious reasons.’
And because some people opt to become celibate without a religious reason to do so, it makes sense for the modern-day definition to become a little more fluid.
‘Celibacy is defined in the dictionary as abstaining from sex or being unmarried due to religious vows,’ confirms sex, intimacy and relationship coach, Duchess Iphie. ‘However, my definition of celibacy is choosing to avoid any sexual activity as defined by you and it is usually for a personal reason.’
Celibacy vs abstinence
While celibacy and abstinence might seem like the same thing, there is a difference.
‘Celibacy is different from abstinence in that abstinence is usually for a certain period of time, until marriage for example, whereas celibacy tends to be long term or indefinitely,’ explains Dr Lakhani.
Annabelle Knight, sex and relationship expert with sexual wellness brand Lovehoney, offers the following definitions:
‘This is a vow to remain abstinent over an extended period of time,’ Knight explains. ‘For some, this may mean their entire life.’
‘This usually refers to the decision not to have penetrative sex,’ she says. ‘It’s typically limited to a specific period of time, such as until marriage.’
Celibacy vs asexuality
While some people may confuse celibacy with asexuality, it’s important to make a clear distinction between the two.
‘Celibacy is a voluntary choice, whereas asexuality [a lack of sexual attraction] is a sexual orientation,’ explains Knight.
This means that, as with any other sexual orientation, for a person who is asexual it’s simply a part of who they are, whereas celibacy is a conscious decision.
Reasons for celibacy
While in the past, celibacy was almost exclusively practiced due to religious beliefs, there are now many more reasons a person might decide to become celibate.
‘‘Celibacy is not always a religious choice,’ agrees Dr Lakhani. ‘Nowadays it is often for lifestyle, moral or ethical reasons, too.’
According to Knight, some of the reasons a person might decide to become celibate include:
- To free up more of their time and energy for other pursuits
- To focus more on career, friendships or family
- To benefit a relationship in its early stages, providing space for you to get to know your partner outside of sexual activity
- To help you further understand and experience the difference between emotional and physical attraction
‘Rules’ of celibacy
While most people would define celibacy as lack of penetrative sex, there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to other “rules”.
‘Aside from religious celibacy, it’s difficult to assess how strict the rules are because the definition of “sex” is quite ambiguous,’ says Iphie. ‘When it’s a personal choice, the rules are as strict as you make them.’
Dr Lakhani agrees that the practice of celibacy is open to interpretation outside of religious parameters.
‘There are no specific “rules” to celibacy, unless you have made the vow for a particular religion, in which case that religion will usually provide the guidance as to the rules,’ she explains. ‘Some people choose to become celibate and interpret it as being able to masturbate, as well as being able to partake in masturbation at the same time as their partner, but not have sexual relations with someone else. Others believe that being celibate means abstaining from masturbation, too. Then there are others who become celibate but interpret this as abstaining from penetrative sex, meaning they’re able to enjoy foreplay as long as nothing penetrates the vagina. In this case, activities such as kissing, massaging and dry humping are permitted.’
Benefits of celibacy
Dr Lakhani says the most positive aspects of celibacy are:
However, there are other benefits, too.
‘Celibacy can help you to become closer to your partner on an emotional level, without the complication of sex,’ she says. ‘It can also be a way of allowing more time to focus on a career or on friendships.’
Can you become celibate even if you’ve had sex before?
What if you’ve previously had sex, but now wish to practice celibacy? Can you call yourself celibate if you stop having sex, but you’re not a virgin?
‘Yes!’ says Knight. ‘For some, celibacy is a way to feel more empowered. It can help move their attention away from relationships or sex and instead turn it inward, allowing them to focus on personal development. They can have lead a full sexual life before making this decision.’
Celibacy and sex addiction
For some, celibacy might even be a recovery option.
‘For those who experience compulsive sexual behaviour or sex addiction, celibacy could offer a way to recover,’ says Knight. ‘It’s a similar process to a person addicted to alcohol giving up drinking. They are breaking the link with the addiction that could potentially be destroying their life. Celibacy allows them time to recalibrate their life and arrive at a place where they can resume physical relationships without resorting to addictive behaviour.’
Celibacy and relationships
While celibacy may seem like a viable choice if you’re single or, as mentioned above, recovering from addictive behavioural patterns related to sex, what about if you’re in a relationship? What benefits and setbacks might you encounter?
Interestingly, Knight says a vow of celibacy could actually serve to strengthen your bond with others.
‘Celibacy can be a way to develop deeper relationships, without settling down and committing all of your love to one individual,’ she says. ‘This is why some people expand their definition to include refraining from marriage.’
If you’re thinking of becoming celibate, Iphie says honesty is key.
‘I believe that you should be upfront and honest about your decision to be celibate when entering a relationship, so the other person can make an informed choice about whether they can handle being in a celibate relationship,’ she says. ‘I would also recommend that you share your dos and don’ts, so they aren’t on eggshells while in the relationship. Will it affect your relationship? Most definitely, but it doesn’t have to be a negative effect. It can actually heighten intimacy, deepen your connection and let you be more vulnerable with each other.’
But Dr Lakhani has a word of caution: ‘Celibacy can prove to be a problem in some relationships, if both parties aren’t as committed to remaining celibate,’ she says. ‘In which case, it’s important to talk openly about the future and what you want long term. It can also result in sexual frustration and pent up emotions, because of the fact that the hormone changes that occur during sex and orgasm are not happening.’