What is Celibacy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Most people look forward to relationships and physical intimacy.
Most people look forward to relationships and physical intimacy.

Celibacy is a choice to remain unmarried and practice sexual abstinence. People may choose celibacy for a wide range of reasons and it is practiced in many cultures around the world. A common misconception about celibacy is that it is always religiously motivated. In fact, people can have many reasons to choose a celibate lifestyle. While religion can play a role, some people who are celibate are not choosing to be so for religious reasons.

In some situations, counseling may help people address their fears regarding sex.
In some situations, counseling may help people address their fears regarding sex.

The term “celibate” literally refers to remaining unmarried and is commonly taken to mean being sexually abstinent as well, a reflection of cultural beliefs that sexual intercourse should only appear within the context of a marriage. People who remain celibate may share this belief or may choose abstinence for other reasons. This term also specifically refers to a lifelong choice, rather than a period of sexual abstinence that occurs at some point during a person's life.

Some people wait until marriage to have sexual relations.
Some people wait until marriage to have sexual relations.

In some religions, it is believed that members of the clergy should remain celibate to strengthen their connection to the faith and to better serve the faith. Other religions may believe that people who are celibate are in closer connection with divine powers, or that celibacy can be a purifying choice. In religion, there is a strong stress on voluntary celibacy. People who cannot come freely to celibacy may struggle with it later in life.

Some couples who refrain from sexual intercourse can find other ways to be intimate.
Some couples who refrain from sexual intercourse can find other ways to be intimate.

Outside of religious contexts, celibacy may be practiced because someone is uninterested in sex and marriage, because it suits a person's lifestyle, and for other reasons. Historically, some social movements advocated celibacy for their members, although many were unpopular as a result. There may be cases in which people become celibate out of fear, such as fear of emotional intimacy or sexually transmitted infections. In these situations, receiving counseling may help people address these fears so they can decide whether they want to remain celibate.

Fear of emotional intimacy may be a reason some people become celibate.
Fear of emotional intimacy may be a reason some people become celibate.

People sometimes use the term “involuntary celibacy” to describe periods of time where they are unable to find romantic partners and are forced to practice sexual abstinence by circumstances, rather than choice. This term is a bit of a misnomer because a key aspect of celibacy is the choice to refrain from sexual activity, and the decision to make that choice for life. A temporary period when someone does not have sexual intercourse is a rather different matter, as presumably the person looks forward to resuming sexual relationships in the future.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

pastanaga

People kind of latch onto the idea of celibacy for teenagers and celebrate it as an accomplishment with things like celibacy rings and dances and so forth.

And yet, it doesn't seem to be doing anything for teenage pregnancy or STD rates. Honestly, it seems like the better route, just from the results, is to teach teenagers about sex and how to protect themselves.

indigomoth

@bythewell - It's an interesting case, and I can see the arguments for both sides. If you're supposed to be a servant to the parish and you have a family, you will always feel torn between your family and your duty.

On the other hand, you can hardly be expected to fully understand the human condition if you never have a partner or children of your own.

bythewell

I'm not a huge fan of celibacy within religious groups. I feel like it provides a rich ground for sexual misconduct.

I mean, if a person is expected to remain celibate for years on end, it makes temptation that much harder to avoid. On the other hand, if the person is married, they have much more support and are more easily included in the community.

Even aside from the really well publicized scandals in churches, my mother, who grew up around priests, told me she was solicited by more than one when she was a teenager.

Letting them marry won't stop the ones who are already predators, but it will attract more people who will be good leaders, but don't want to give up their partners to do so.

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    • Most people look forward to relationships and physical intimacy.
      By: vgstudio
      Most people look forward to relationships and physical intimacy.
    • In some situations, counseling may help people address their fears regarding sex.
      By: Bryan Creely
      In some situations, counseling may help people address their fears regarding sex.
    • Some people wait until marriage to have sexual relations.
      By: Sheri Armstrong
      Some people wait until marriage to have sexual relations.
    • Some couples who refrain from sexual intercourse can find other ways to be intimate.
      By: mast3r
      Some couples who refrain from sexual intercourse can find other ways to be intimate.
    • Fear of emotional intimacy may be a reason some people become celibate.
      By: Coka
      Fear of emotional intimacy may be a reason some people become celibate.
    • Celibacy that occurs in a previously sexual relationship can result in tension.
      By: MaxRiesgo
      Celibacy that occurs in a previously sexual relationship can result in tension.
    • Individuals who have chosen to be celibate out of fear of emotional intimacy may benefit from counseling.
      By: saap585
      Individuals who have chosen to be celibate out of fear of emotional intimacy may benefit from counseling.