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Celibacy is a voluntary vow of sexual abstinence. In some cases, it can also be a promise to remain unmarried.
Celibacy can look different for each person, so there’s no single way to practice it.
Some people abstain from all sexual activity (including penetrative and nonpenetrative sex), while others engage in things like outercourse.
Although celibacy is usually associated with religion, there are a number of other reasons why someone might choose to remain celibate.
Whether you’re a curious observer or considering a lifestyle change, here are a few answers to the most commonly asked questions about celibacy.
Although many people use “celibacy” and “abstinence” interchangeably, there is a difference between the two terms.
Abstinence usually refers to the decision not to have penetrative sex. It’s typically limited to a specific period of time, such as until marriage.
Celibacy is a vow to remain abstinent over an extended period of time. For some, this may mean their entire life.
With both celibacy and abstinence, it’s ultimately up to the individual to determine what is and isn’t included in their lifestyle and what sexual activities they are or aren’t comfortable limiting.
In some cases, these limitations may be predetermined by religious or cultural practices.
Chastity and celibacy are usually intertwined, especially if you’re taking a vow of celibacy for religious or cultural reasons.
People who are chaste make the conscious decision to control their thoughts and actions as a way to signal purity or virtue.
In some religious communities, members may choose to practice specific forms of chastity that align with religious texts or belief systems. For some, this means committing to chastity that ends at marriage. Religious leaders in some communities promise lifetime chastity as a way to honor their commitment to their faith.
It all depends on how you, or the beliefs you subscribe to, define “celibacy.”
For some, masturbation is a way to be sexually satisfied without breaking the commitment to celibacy.
It can also be a way to get to know your body on a deeper level without being sexually active with others.
Some people who practice celibacy may also partake in mutual masturbation, where they masturbate at the same time as their partner.
With a partner (outercourse)
On the other hand, some people who choose to be celibate still engage in some physical activities with others.
This involves outercourse, or nonpenetrative sexual activity.
Some define outercourse as anything that doesn’t include penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetration.
Others define outercourse as anything that doesn’t include penetration of any kind.
In either definition, outercourse can come in the form of:
For those who consider certain types of penetration as outercourse, this could also include:
While outercourse likely won’t lead to pregnancy, some forms (such as oral and anal) can still pose a risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Some people are born into or adopt belief systems that encourage or require celibacy as a part of their practice.
But that doesn’t mean everyone who’s celibate is religious — there are many other reasons to adopt the practice.
Few people have one solitary reason for being celibate. There are often several factors at play, even within organized belief systems.
If religion is a factor
Some people practice celibacy as a way to feel closer to their religion or commit to a higher power they believe in.
Celibacy can also be a way to develop deeper relationships without the element of physicality. This is why some people expand their definition to include refraining from marriage.
If religion isn’t a factor
For some, celibacy is a way to feel more empowered. It can help move their attention away from relationships or sex and turn it inward, allowing them to focus on personal development.
For others, it could be a medical decision following a diagnosis of an STI as a way to prevent transmission.
For those who experience compulsive sexual behavior or sex addiction, celibacy could offer a way to recover.
It’s important to note that some people might confuse celibacy with asexuality. Celibacy is a voluntary choice, whereas asexuality is a spectrum of sexual orientations for those who experience little to no sexual attraction.
Potential benefits to being celibate include:
- Overall, there’s very little risk of contracting an STI or STD. There’s still some degree of risk for those who practice forms of outercourse that include genital contact.
- There’s little-to-no risk of unintended pregnancy.
- It may reduce the amount of money spent on contraception, such as condoms. Other forms of birth control, such as birth control pills or hormonal IUDs, may still be needed for other medical reasons.
- It may provide space for you to get to know your partner outside of sexual activity.
- It may help you further understand the difference between physical and emotional attraction.
- It may free up more time to focus on your career, friendships, or family.
Potential drawbacks to becoming celibate include:
- It may be challenging to engage in romantic relationships, even if your partner is also celibate, if it introduces physical desire or pressure to engage in sexual activity.
- Some might feel as though they’re missing out on key life experiences, such as marriage or children, by eliminating or limiting sexual activities.
- Some might feel as though others judge their decision, which can lead to feelings of isolation.
Because celibacy is a major life decision, those who choose to be celibate often spend careful time considering the decision before jumping right in.
Do your research
As mentioned, the definition of celibacy can vary a lot, so it’s important to do your research. Thorough, thoughtful education will help you decide what’s best for your personal version of celibacy.
Make the commitment
Whether you make a vow of celibacy to a religious organization or to yourself, this promise is something that takes practice and commitment to carry out.
Define your boundaries
As you begin to understand what your commitment to celibacy means for you, you can start outlining your boundaries. You may find that these boundaries evolve as you move through your practice.
Involuntary celibates, or incels, are a self-identified community of people who desire sexual activity but are unable to find partners who will engage in sexual intercourse.
Incels often create online communities that allow for other isolated individuals to unite and connect over their shared circumstances.
While these communities were founded with the intention of sharing empowering outlooks on a celibate lifestyle, the movement and title as a whole has come to be known for its tendency to validate dangerous feelings of anger and resentment toward others, at times resulting in violence.
Some people who practice celibacy abstain from marriage entirely. Others continue to date or marry while limiting sexual activity. This can present its own challenges.
Communicate your needs and expectations
As with any relationship, it’s important for you and your partners to understand each other’s wants, needs, and expectations.
Even if all partners are celibate, it can be difficult to find a comfortable level of intimacy, so this requires honest conversation.
Explore other ways to be intimate
Sex isn’t the only way to be intimate. It can be helpful for you and your partner to engage in other forms of intimacy to find what works best for both of you — whether that’s through physical touch (like hugging or cuddling) or deep conversation.
Seek out or engage with a support system
Sometimes, it’s necessary to find an outside support system that can help you work through your feelings and provide unbiased advice. This could include friends, family, or a counselor.
There are plenty of books that offer further explanation about religious and nonreligious celibacy, including:
- “A History of Celibacy” by Elizabeth Abbott
- “The New Celibacy: A Journey to Love, Intimacy, and Good Health in a New Age” by Gabrielle Brown
- “Formation for Priestly Celibacy: A Resource Book” by Thomas W. Krenik
- “Demythologizing Celibacy: Practical Wisdom from Christian and Buddhist Monasticism” by William Skudlarek