What Is Celibacy (And Why You Should Consider Trying It)
When AskMen published an article entitled “A Man’s Guide to Celibacy” in 2001, it was literally a joke. The text suggested ludicrous approaches to going sex-free, like not showering anymore and wearing ugly glasses, and ended with this sentence: “Oh Lord! Who am I kidding?”
In the two decades since then, the notion that no man would ever really want to be celibate has gained some nuance. Today, celibacy is a surprisingly timely topic. For starters, you may have heard that millennials are, on average, having less sex than those from previous generations.
What you might not know, however, is that it’s a bit more shocking than it appears on the surface. In fact, if recent research into the matter is to be believed, celibate people are increasingly normal — we’re currently in the midst of a giant sexual drought.
According to the most recent General Social Survey conducted by NORC, a research organization based at the University of Chicago, the share of young people who hadn’t had sex at all in the past year was much higher than that same figure for older Americans. Twenty-eight percent of men in their 20s were had not been sexually active in the past year, compared to just 18 percent of their female peers.
But does going a year sex-free make you celibate? And are those guys forgoing sex intentionally, or just failing to get lucky? For a closer look at the current climate of celibacy, we spoke to a number of different experts on the topic.
1. What Is Celibacy?
It’s against the backdrop of a falling national sex drive that the concept of celibacy has crept back into mainstream sexual conversation. But before we analyze where it came from, it’s important to define it first.
While it’s often used simply to mean an extended period of not having sex in contemporary celibacy discourse, it’s a term with some history.
“The main point of celibacy is that someone is abstaining from sex due to religious reasons,” says Sophia Reed, Ph.D., a counselor who has chosen to be celibate for the past five years. “This is different but also similar from abstinence, in the sense that abstinence also means that you are not having sex, but there is no religious reason attached to it.”
And while there may certainly be a religious current running through some people’s notions of celibacy — or even a pseudo-religious, philosophical one — what we’re seeing today certainly isn’t your grandfather’s vision of celibacy. It’s not dressed up in a priest’s robes, and it’s not necessarily a part of some higher calling.
If anything, it’s often something coming in the form of a sort of rehab rather than a lifelong commitment to chastity.
2. The Rise of Modern Celibacy Culture
Trends, such as Americans, by and large, having less and less sex, can be hard to pin on any one factor. Even conclusively proving some combination of factors is having a causal effect can prove quite tricky.
But between dropping rates of people actually having sex to the appearance of online movements like NoFap and MGTOW, it is hard to deny that something is up.
Sex and relationship expert Ken Blackman thinks the modern resurgence of celibacy discourse has its roots near the middle of the 20th century. “It’s a natural continuation of the sexual revolution that began in the ‘60s,” he says. “Sex has become a lot less mysterious and illicit … and that’s a good thing. All that mystique and illicitness around sex was making it way more important than it actually is. If sex is healthy and normal, then people can put it into perspective. Celibacy is normalized because sex is normalized.”
Tom Ella, a host of “The Undesirables” dating podcast, sees it a bit differently, instead attributing it to much more recent cultural and social upheaval.
“These movements are on the rise because society in general is at such a weird place,” he surmises. “Technology is stunting social growth, leading to fewer in-person interactions and therefore, less sex overall — especially in young people. Millennials in particular were hit hard by the economic recession, and are often more worried about paying rent and student loans [while supporting themselves] on a lower-wage job than their parents had at the same age than [they are] about getting laid.”
Caleb Backe, a certified health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, feels that the conversation needs to address the role of internet pornography on the sexuality of millennial men. “The ease and volume of pornography available may be one of the factors to why millennials are having way less sex than previous generations,” he suggests.
With so much high-quality sexual material readily available, it might be tempting for the straight guys Ella described to prefer the comfort of masturbating to storylines that always have happy endings over the rigors of the actual dating world. Who wouldn’t want to avoid being swiped left, unmatched or ghosted while still being able to live out your sexual fantasies?
3. How Celibacy Can Help You
Considering how sex-focused our culture can seem at times, the idea that purposely choosing not to have sex is a positive move can seem a little puzzling.
Still, there’s a reason celibacy exists. Even outside of asexual or aromantic people’s relative absence of desire for the different trappings of dating, done right (and for the right reasons), celibacy actually can have quite positive effects on your life.
“Celibacy can be useful for a guy who’s grown dependent on sex as the primary way he feels confident or connected,” says dating coach Connell Barrett. “As men, we want to feel worthy and loved, but if sex is the only vehicle to feel this way, a celibate ‘reset’ period can be healthy. Removing sex from the menu forces you to find new ways to find connection, to feel worthy and confident. It also frees up a lot of mental RAM to channel into other areas of life — career, fitness, friendships.”
Blackman agrees that it can have a serious net positive effect on your mental picture. “Taking a break can greatly increase your appreciation for all the other ways you can connect with someone,” he explains. “It can dial up your overall body awareness. It can make everything else you are doing more fun.”
Those benefits extend outside your day-to-day activities, too — specifically, they can actually help foster more intimate romantic relationships.
“We are in a world where we are ruled by sex and the hookup culture, and the true meaning of human interaction and actually connecting with someone is starting to be lost,” says Reed. “It is a lot easier to see who someone really is and how you really feel about them without sex clouding your brain. If the couple is not having sex, then they really have no choice but to just talk and get to know each other, [often] on a deeper level.”
Essentially, taking a little break from the hamster-wheel nature of modern dating culture can actually help your cause in the long-run.
“A period of celibacy can help a guy’s long-term dating life by teaching him how to see others as people first, sexual beings second,” says Barrett. “A big shift some men need to make is seeing sex not as conquest or self-gratification but as a way to give. A sex break can help redefine how you see sex. It should be about connection and giving, not about hedonistic self-gratification.”
4. What You Should Know Before Choosing to Be Celibate
As the so-called incels are quick to point out, there’s a degree of privilege in being able to choose to be celibate. There’s even a term — volcel, or voluntarily celibate — to distinguish such people conceptually from the unwashed masses of incels lamenting their perceived non-desirability.
But if you do feel like you’re stepping back from the digital meat market that is modern dating, are there rules for practicing celibacy? Or at least some helpful dos and don’ts?
“For guys looking to be celibate, first ask yourself why you want to do it and what you hope to accomplish,” notes Ella. “Have a clear goal. Ask yourself what might prevent you from staying the course. Give yourself a realistic time frame you can achieve.”
Blackman agrees that some introspection first is useful. “I think there are good and not-so-good motives for celibacy,” he says. “Choose it because you want to explore the physical or emotional benefits. Or because you want to focus on other areas of your life. Don’t choose it out of anger or resentment — there are better options.”
Whatever your approach to celibacy is, if it was nothing more than a men’s mag joke in 2001, it’s a much more serious — and interesting — topic today.
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