Traditionally, celibacy has meant choosing not to marry. Today, many people use it to mean not having sex with a partner, and sometimes not even masturbating, for a certain period of time. Some people choose celibacy in response to our culture’s overemphasis on sex, as a break from feeling the pressure to relate to others sexually all the time.
One woman who grew tired of always having to say yes or no describes her experience with celibacy:
I’m exploring myself as a sexual person, but in a different way. My sensitivity to my body is heightened. I am more aware of what arouses my sensual interests. I am free to be myself. I have more energy for work and friends. My spirituality feels more intense and clear.
In partnered relationships, we may choose celibacy when we want some distance or solitude, or when we just don’t want to have sex for a while. This can require careful communication:
I say to my lover, “I don’t feel like making love this month, and I may not next month.” Now, who does that? Is it okay? Am I allowed? The last thing we were ever taught was that it was okay to try what we want.
Some couples choose celibacy together. It can help couples break out of old sexual patterns, expand sensual/sexual focus beyond genital sex, and make us feel more self-sufficient and independent—all of which can strengthen a relationship.
Asexuality, a lack of interest in sex, is a natural human variation thought to be experienced by about 1 percent of people. It is not the same as a sudden decline in sexual interest or attraction, which may be linked to side effects of certain medications or illness.
Reporting on her groundbreaking 2008 study based on interviews with 102 asexuals, Susan Scherrer quotes one woman who doesn’t feel sexual attraction: “I love the human form and can regard individuals as works of art and find people aesthetically pleasing, but I don’t ever want to come into sexual contact with even the most beautiful of people.”
Another woman feels sexual attraction but not the inclination to act on it: “I am sexually attracted to men but have no desire or need to engage in sexual or even non-sexual activity (cuddling, hand-holding, etc.).”
One woman describes her ideal relationship as “the same as a ‘normal’ relationship, without the sex. We would be best friends, companions, biggest fans of each other, partners in financial, work, and social areas of our lives. I am very physical. I would like to be able to tackle my lover (as in “I love him” not as in “person I am currently having sex with”) to the ground, roll around until I pin him, then plant a kiss on his nose, snuggle into the crook of his arm, and talk about some random topic . . . without him getting an erection or entertaining hopes that this will lead to the removal of clothing or a march to the bedroom.”
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, known as AVEN, offers asexual people a place to connect and learn. The website identifies several aspects of asexuality:
- Unlike celibacy, which is a choice, asexuality is a sexual orientation.
- Asexuality is not a dysfunction, and there is no need to find a “cause” or a “cure.”
- Asexual people have the same emotional needs as everybody else and are just as capable of forming intimate relationships.
- Asexuals are generally very different from one another: some experience romantic attraction, some don’t. Some experience arousal, some don’t.
- Many asexuals talk about having a “romance drive.” They need to be intimate with another special person; it’s just that the intimacy they desire isn’t sexual.
- It may be more difficult to find someone who is willing to enter into a conventional relationship with the knowledge that sex will not be involved, but remember, there are other people with low or no sex drive out there and many people who care more about love and companionship than they do about sex.