While the words "abstinent" and "celibate" are related (they both essentially mean you’re not doing something), the terms are not exactly interchangeable, says sexologist and Bloomi founder Rebecca Alvarez Story. And understanding the difference is key because communication is integral to overall well-being. In this case, knowing the true definitions and using them correctly might help us all be on the same page regarding sexual health.
“Celibacy is very sex-specific and abstinence is not sex-specific.” —Rebecca Alvarez Story, sexologist
“Celibacy is very sex-specific and abstinence is not sex-specific,” says Story. For instance, when someone says they’re abstaining from something, one can’t assume that they’re automatically referring to sex. Folks can also abstain from coffee, alcohol, hiking, yoga, or any other activity that they feel they need a break from. So, while you can be abstinent from any number of things, being celibate refers specifically to abstinence from sex.
If—after understanding this difference—you identify as celibate, know that there are multiple forms of celibacy: voluntary and involuntary. According to certified sex therapist and neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD, author of Why Good Sex Matters, there are a number of reasons someone may be voluntarily celibate, including that they're a priest, a nun, or anyone else who’s agreed to abstain from sex because their affiliation to an institution is contingent upon that. These folks choose to take a vow of celibacy and abstain from sex, sometimes for the duration of their life.
However, “sometimes, people haven't actually made the decision that they're not going to have sex,” says Dr. Wise. These people would be classified as involuntarily celibate, a term that’s often shortened to “incel.”
How might a person end up in an involuntarily celibate state? According to Story, reasons may include "asexuality, where you are not typically attracted sexually to people, or you're not having sex because you're preferring other forms of intimacy,” she says. If you're wondering why this situation wouldn't fall squarely in the "voluntary celibacy" camp, keep in mind that sexuality isn’t a choice folks make. So, an asexual person could absolutely fall into the involuntarily celibate camp, depending on what they define as sexual activity and which sexual activities they may or may not subscribe to (e.g., penetrative sex, oral sex, kissing, foreplay, etc.).
Additional possible instances of involuntary celibacy might include going through a sexual dry spell or not having a romantic connection that lasts long enough to feel safe in exploring a sexual relationship. Other times still, says Story, folks “grow up in a very strict religious culture where there is no kind of sexual activity, except during specific times.” That could constitute involuntary celibacy, she says, because that person may not have actively chosen celibacy for themselves but have been indoctrinated into a culture that removes it as an acceptable component of a full and healthy life.
Again, it’s important to understand this semantic difference between being abstinent and being celibate (as well as the different types of celibacy) so that sexual-health conversations are accurately portraying folks' experiences. With lacking education and resources rampant, it's especially true that words matter.
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