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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 looks different to each person, so there’s no single way to practice it.

Some people abstain from all sexual activity (including penetrative and non-penetrative sex), while others engage in things like outercourse.

Although celibacy is usually associated with religion, there are a number of 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.

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 pre-determined by your 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, as well as their actions, as a way to signal purity or virtue.

In some religions, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this extends only until marriage.

Oftentimes, religious leaders 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.

Solo (masturbation)

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 non-penetrative 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 kissing, hugging, massaging, and dry humping.

For those who consider certain types of penetration outercourse, this could also include fingers, toy play, oral sex, and anal sex.

While outercourse likely won’t lead to pregnancy, some forms (such as oral and anal) can pose the 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 on 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 that they believe in.

Celibacy can also be a way to develop deeper relationships without settling down and committing all of their love to one individual. 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 medical decision following a diagnosis of a sexually transmitted disease (STD) 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, a lack of sexual attraction. Celibacy is a voluntary choice, whereas asexuality is a sexual orientation.

Potential benefits to becoming 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 the pill or hormonal IUD, may still be needed for other medical reasons.
  • It may provide space for you to get 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 tend to spend careful time and consideration 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.

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 them — 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 their feelings and provide unbiased advice. This could include friends, family, or a counselor.

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 allows for other isolated individuals to unite and connect over their shared circumstance.

In recent years, though, the incel movement has quickly become a front for people to act violently in response to people who knowingly or unknowingly reject them.

There are plenty of books that offer further explanation about religious and non-religious celibacy, including: