Caitlin didn’t set out to become celibate – at least not in the beginning. Three years ago, she was coming out of an abusive relationship and wasn’t ready to meet someone else. Then Covid happened, and the lockdowns made it impossible anyway. “I thought during that time I needed space to heal and reflect on what I’d been through,” she says. Towards the end of 2020, the 23-year-old artist started therapy. “I realised if I was going to be sexually active, I needed someone who would understand my past, and where I was coming from. I don’t want to be with someone unless I know it’s committed, and I’m not in a rush to find that.”
She had been on dating apps, but found it hard to meet men who wanted a relationship, rather than just sex. “I found they would stop talking to me if I made it known I wasn’t going to hook up with them on the first date. I found a lot of men would put on a bit of an act to appear as if they wanted a relationship, then as soon as you took sex off the table while getting to know them, they disappeared. It’s tricky when a lot of dating is around hook-up culture, which I’m not interested in.”
Caitlin’s celibacy, three years in now, became intentional. She hasn’t missed sex itself, she says, and certainly not casual sex, although sometimes, “seeing people in relationships and having healthy sex lives, can make me go: ‘Why don’t I have that?’” But it has had unintentional benefits. “It’s taught me more about what I enjoy in sex, which I wasn’t expecting. I thought it was going to put me at a disadvantage, but I feel a lot more confident in my own sexuality.” While sex with someone else is out, masturbation is still in, and she says her libido has increased. “I think because exploring different things without dealing with another person has allowed me to find what I enjoy.” It has also made her more relaxed about finding a relationship (or not). “I’ve got other things to focus on. It’s if someone fits into my life rather than me needing to make room for them.”
On TikTok, voluntary or intentional celibacy has become a trend – the #celibacy hashtag has had more than 195m views – with those who practise it claiming it has improved their focus, mental health and energy. In January, it was reported that there was a 90% increase in Google searches for celibacy that month.
“This coincides with a long?term trend among people today, in general, having less sex with fewer partners,” says Dr Justin Lehmiller, a Kinsey Institute research fellow and host of the Sex and Psychology podcast. “Humans are increasingly less sexually active, with some forgoing sex altogether.” Study after study of sexual behaviour, in different countries, show this. The last National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) in Britain found that 16% of men and 22% of women aged 16 to 74 were sexually inactive, and for most of them, it wasn’t a problem. While the authors noted the documented wellbeing benefits of a satisfying sex life, of those who had previously had sexual experience, the majority were not dissatisfied with their situation (around a third of men, and a quarter of women reported they were dissatisfied, although age had an effect, with younger people more dissatisfied than older people). The Natsal data is more than 10 years old, though, and its authors noted in a 2019 paper on the sexually inactive how little is known about them.
The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior in the US found that between 2009 and 2018 there was a rise in adolescents reporting no sexual activity (partnered and alone), from 28.8% to 44.2% of young men and from 49.5% to 74% of young women. In one interview, the study’s authors raised several possible contributing factors, including gaming and social media taking time and precedence, more awareness of asexuality as an identity, a decline in alcohol use, an increase in “rough sex” practices such as choking that may be frightening or off-putting to many, and lower incomes.
Voluntary celibacy in the US, where Lehmiller is based, seems to have more links to religion than it does in the UK. Furthermore, he says, “in this #MeToo and post-Roe era [with the rollback of reproductive rights] we find ourselves in, the perceived risks associated with sex are higher, particularly for women. And, when you factor in the orgasm gap and the fact that women’s pleasure still isn’t on a par with men’s, some women are asking themselves whether sex is even worth it. If you see it as a high-risk, low-reward kind of thing, you might decide you’re better off without it.”
He suggests that celibacy, for some, may be part of “the growing trend towards delayed adulthood. Individuals might see sex and relationships as distractions, or as not having much point until they’ve found stability in other life circumstances.” The pressures of studying, establishing a career or saving for a home may take priority. While voluntary celibacy seems less popular among non?religious heterosexual men, some have talked online about intentional celibacy providing more focus for their careers, with sex being a distraction.
For those who are dating, apps have changed the way many people find partners, but as Lehmiller points out, online dating is an arena “where there’s a lot of toxic behaviour, brutal rejection and feelings of intense competition for mates. It can make sex and relationships feel like a high-stress, high-stakes thing. Some people may find that taking a pause from that is good for their mental health.”
While celibacy is for many a positive personal choice, it can also be viewed as the result of, or a reaction against, a messed-up sexual culture, just as some of the second wave feminists chose political lesbianism decades ago. Last year, the “femcel”, or “female involuntary celibate”, went mainstream. “They feel the same sense of ‘humiliation and exclusion’ that ‘incels’ do,” as a piece in the Atlantic put it, “but they react to those feelings differently.”
Unlike the notorious misogynistic incels who blame women for not wanting to have sex with them, femcels posting in online groups tend to blame their celibacy on the soul-destroying sexual landscape and a society that, for all its hollow talk of “body positivity”, is still obsessed with looks and beauty conventions.
Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, says that many young heterosexual women “now feel as if they have to run the gauntlet of hook-up culture if they want to have any kind of sexual relationship. I think a lot of them, quite fairly, would rather not have any sexual relationship at all.” The influence and availability of pornography, she adds, “has had a really destructive effect on sexual culture.” She says surveys show that “most women don’t get that much out of casual sex. The problem is, because our sexual culture is so oriented towards a more masculine style of sexuality, a lot of young women in particular don’t feel as if they are able to demand commitment from their partners. Increasing numbers are opting out of the sexual culture altogether.”
It’s naive, she says, to think you can simply choose to avoid pornography and casual sex if you’re sexually active, “because the nature of sex in general, and social relationships, is that they’re networked – you have sex with people who have sex with other people, who watch porn. Even if you choose not to do that, other people do it, and it changes the culture. I think that, particularly in young people, who are super-sensitive to what other people think about them, the default setting now is to have pornified, casual sex.” For some people, opting out might feel like their only option.
Not that voluntary celibacy has just been invented. Stephen gave up sex more than 20 years ago, when he had just turned 40. “I’d become disillusioned with the gay scene, and too much casual sex with strangers. While I was in my 20s it could be fun, but most of the time, when I had sex with someone I’d just met, I was always hoping it was going to be more than just the one night. I was hoping for a relationship.” The last time he had sex, he contracted syphilis, which was the final straw.
A year or so ago, now in his early 60s, Stephen thought he might make another attempt at a sex life. “I gave Grindr a go, and that was quite an eye-opener.” The dating scene had changed in his decades of celibacy, with apps making casual hook-ups even easier, and he says he was alarmed by the number of people who wanted to have sex while taking drugs. He went on three dates with different men. “We did a bit of touching and kissing, but when it came to going any further, each time I said: ‘I’ve changed my mind.’ Now I’ve put myself back on the shelf. Most of the sex I’ve ever had, I wish I hadn’t bothered. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and it just seems so much effort for something that’s over quickly. Looking back, it’s all very disappointing.”
He has missed intimacy, but companionship and affection have come from friends and his dogs. He is still open to being in a relationship, he says, and hasn’t lost his sex drive, but he thinks he is unlikely to meet someone now. “I’d need to have sex with someone I’ve known, even just for a few weeks, or a few days, instead of with someone whose name you can’t quite remember. An intimate but non-sexual relationship might be the best for me. It would be nice to lie in bed with someone, be an old married couple from the start.”
Celibacy, says Ammanda Major, head of clinical practice for Relate, “works when it works, and it doesn’t work when it doesn’t work. A lot of this comes down to: is this something that you feel is important to you, and you’re doing it for you? Or is it something that you feel is imposed on you, for reasons that might be very difficult? Like you’ve had a period without a partner, or you’ve gone through a period of ill health, whether mental or physical.” If it hasn’t been a positive choice, she says, it could “cause people to feel potentially unloved and uncared for”.
It can also raise problems, unsurprisingly, in relationships where one partner wants to follow a celibate lifestyle, but the other doesn’t. In that situation, you have to be willing to have a potentially difficult conversation about what it means for your relationship. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on sex, “but it’s not for everyone”, she says. “Celibacy can be a conscious decision, or it may be something that you just gently morph into and that also feels OK for you.” Major suggests asking yourself what celibacy brings to your life. “Are you cutting yourself off from sex, or are you cutting yourself off from intimacy? Are they the same for you? Can you be intimate while being celibate?”
It can certainly have benefits in a variety of situations, she says. “It’s not unusual for people after the breakup of a relationship, or periods of a lot of sexual activity, to take a step back and think: ‘I need to do some self-care, which involves taking myself out of this sexual arena at the moment. I will engage with it again at some point, but this is time to think about what I want to do next.’ Which may be to maintain celibacy, or it may be to engage with an intimate partner or several partners.”
Without her period of intentional celibacy a few years ago, after a breakup, Kelly Jenner believes she wouldn’t have changed her relationship patterns for the better. “I went for men who were very unavailable,” she says. “Now I’m in the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had – I’ve got clear boundaries, we have healthy conversations, whereas I never had that before I did intentional celibacy.” Now a breakup recovery coach, Jenner often recommends a period of celibacy to others. How long it lasts is less important, she thinks, than the intention; simply a sexless period between partners doesn’t necessarily come with the same benefits. “The intention changes your whole mindset around dating.”
For Hope Flynn, 31, head of content for iPlaySafe, a home-testing STI kit and app, her eight-month stretch of celibacy – she had been having sex about three times a week, so it was intentional rather than a mere dry spell – was about resetting her attitudes to sex. “I really enjoy sex, but I started to notice I was using it in the wrong way,” she says. She was going through a difficult time – she was trying to launch a business and had experienced a couple of bereavements – and would seek no-strings sex as a distraction and for comfort.
“It wasn’t really doing anything for me, other than making me feel as if I was making wrong decisions. I had to put the brakes on it for a few months, and focus on myself and making myself feel better.” It was sometimes difficult, she says. “It was lonely at times, and I felt like I was being my own fun police, but it was needed.”
Earlier this year, she had another period of abstention – this time from pornography and masturbation, because she felt that had got out of control. “I wanted to have a better relationship with porn, and use my own imagination a bit more.” Both sexual breaks helped her focus on other areas of her life by removing sex as a distraction, and it made her appreciate sex more when she started being intimate again. “When I was having sex so regularly, it just becomes something that you do, but it was nice to have that break and make it special again.”
Some names have been changed