Being Celibate and Abstinent Aren’t the Same—Here’s Why Sexologists Say the Difference Is Important

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While you may have heard of the terms celibacy and abstinence being used interchangeably, the truth is, they’re not the same thing. But you’re not alone for getting confused—they really are often incorrectly conflated with one another. While the words "abstinent" and "celibate" are related in the sense that they both essentially mean you’re not doing something, the terms are not exactly interchangeable, says sexologist Rebecca Alvarez Story, founder of Bloomi. Understanding the difference between celibacy vs abstinence can be important because as with all things sex: clarity and communication are key.

“Celibacy is very sex-specific and abstinence is not sex-specific.” —Rebecca Alvarez Story, sexologist

For starters, “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. These examples can be helpful to keep in mind if you get confused about the difference between celibacy vs abstinence. While you can be abstinent from any number of things, being celibate refers specifically to abstinence from sex.

Experts In This Article

For more on the difference between celibacy vs abstinence, we asked several sex experts and sexologists to help break down the differences and similarities of abstinence vs celibacy, how they relate to asexuality and chastity, and more.

What is abstinence?

“Abstinence is about consciously abstaining from having sex, even though you want to have sex,” says sexologist Leigh Norén, intimacy coach. You may have heard of the term growing up in health class, as Norén notes that the term is often used when it comes to teenagers and sex-ed. Norén also notes that abstinence can refer to certain sexual acts, such as penetrative sex, or more broadly, anything sexual, such as making out.

What is celibacy?

On the other hand, celibacy is a vow someone makes to themselves to not partake in any sexual activities on a permanent basis, says relationship and break-up expert Angelika Koch, expert for queer dating app Taimi.

Where abstinence is more temporary, celibacy is seen as more permanent. As sex and relationships expert Zachary Zane, expert for Fun Factory explains, the main difference between celibacy vs abstinence is timeframe.

What’s the difference between celibacy and chastity?

Besides celibacy vs abstinence, you may have also heard of the term “chastity” thrown in interchangeably with the other two terms. However, “chastity is a term tied to specific morals and values regarding ‘purity’, Norén explains.

Are any of these the same as being asexual?

No, explains Zane. “Asexuality has to do with sexual desire, as asexual people lack a desire to have sex,” Zane explains, adding that “whereas abstinence and celibacy are about actual sexual behavior.” Abstinent and celibate people may still have a desire to have sex (and often do), however, “they are just choosing, for whatever reason, not to act on their sexual desires,” Zane says.

What are the benefits of celibacy and abstinence?

Lower risk of STIs and pregnancy

“Celibacy and abstinence allow you to truly get to know someone at the core, outside of a sexual aspect, says Koch, adding that “it eliminates the fear of getting pregnant and lowers the risk substantially of STIs.”

The risk is substantially lower, but not zero, since as discussed above, personal definitions of abstinence may vary, with some abstaining from all sexual encounters, while others may only abstain from certain sexual acts. STIs can still be passed through sexual acts like oral sex.

Potential for greater emotional connection with partners

For those who may seek a greater emotional connection, like demisexuals, Koch adds that choosing celibacy or abstaining from sex may also allow you to “strengthen the relationship by eliminating the pressure to have sex before getting to know someone.”

Space to take a break from sex to reflect

Finally, Zane adds that “for those who don’t have the healthiest relationship with sex, it can be impactful to take some time away to assess how to have a healthier and more fulfilling relationship with sex.” In certain cases, Zane explains that “sometimes people have sex just for the sake of having it but really aren’t enjoying it. Or people are compulsively having sex all the time and shirking other responsibilities. When that’s the case, a temporary break from sex can be great to reflect.”

How long is a “normal” period of time to be abstinent in a relationship?

“There’s no such thing as ‘normal’ when it comes to having sex in a relationship,” says Zane. “Some people like to have sex from the first date and continue having sex until they die. Some people never have sex in their relationship. It may be a platonic yet romantic relationship. As long as that’s what both partners truly desire, that’s totally okay too,” Zane adds. Whatever you and your partner are comfortable with and decide is best — there are no strict guidelines or timetables to follow.

When is it a good idea to see a therapist or seek counseling if you choose to practice celibacy or abstinence?

“If you find that you are struggling with your decision to practice celibacy or abstinence or find that it’s impacting you in a negative way, you should seek therapy or counseling to help you navigate through it,” Koch says.

What are the two forms of celibacy?

The two main forms of celibacy you may hear about are voluntary and involuntary celibacy.

Voluntary Celibacy

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. Some other people choose to be abstinent temporarily, practicing celibacy in order to reap some of the more positive effects of not having sex, like regaining genital sensitivity. In any case, these folks choose to take a vow of celibacy and abstain from sex, sometimes for the duration of their life.

Involuntary Celibacy

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.


What are the various reasons why individuals would choose celibacy?

As stated above, individuals might choose celibacy for a range of reasons including occupation (like priests or nuns), taking time to regain genital sensitivity (perhaps after surgery or for another medical condition), or other personal reasons that lead them to voluntarily choose celibacy.

How can individuals effectively practice abstinence in their relationships?

What your personal definition of abstinence includes will be up to you. Whether this means you abstain from penetrative sex, oral sex, or things such as heavy petting or making out, is entirely your and your partner’s decision. However, know that there are plenty of other ways to build intimacy without sex in relationships.

What are some potential challenges and benefits associated with celibacy and abstinence

When it comes to potential challenges and benefits associated with celibacy and abstinence, one of the main challenges can be the desire to have sex even though they are currently not having sex. As discussed, many who are celibate and abstinent may still have the desire for sex in their lives.

As far as benefits go, reduced risk of STIs and pregnancy, greater potential for emotional connection between partners, and space to reflect and take a break from sex are some of the benefits our experts named.

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