Let’s Break Down the Differences Between Abstinence and Celibacy, Shall We?

Let’s Break Down the Differences Between Abstinence and Celibacy, Shall We?

There’s a whole lot to learn about sex and all its forms if you’re actively in pursuit of pleasure, including but not limited to: sex terms, sex positions, sex toys, and even different types of sex to consider if you’re getting it on. But, PSA: Contrary to what you’ve probably heard, not everyone is doing it! Plenty of people refrain from sex for a number of reasons, which is where celibacy and abstinence come in. And while you might have heard the terms used interchangeably, they actually mean different things. In fact, certified sex and sex addiction therapist, Christene Lozano, LMFT, says knowing the difference between celibacy versus abstinence is pretty important when it comes to supporting others, expressing needs, and setting boundaries.

“Using accurate terms helps with better understanding and more effectively communicating about one’s decision to be abstinent or celibate, along with the impact the decision has,” she explains. While both terms can mean that someone isn’t engaging in sexual activity, the word “abstinence” can be used in a variety of other situations as well.

Very simply, abstinence means “choosing to refrain,” says sex and relationships therapist for AdamEve.com, Jenni Skyler, PhD, LMFT, CST. Sure, this could mean refraining from sex, but it could also mean refraining from using drugs, drinking alcohol, texting your ex—you get it. On the other hand, Skyler says celibacy is always linked to sex and means refraining from sexual activity (and in some cases, marriage as well, but more on that later).


There are a tonnn of reasons why someone might be abstinent or celibate, ranging from their sexual orientation, to their religious beliefs, to their current dating situation. Whether you’re considering abstaining or are simply trying to educate yourself (love that for you), here’s everything you need to know about the difference between being abstinent and being celibate.

What is Abstinence?

Abstinence in general refers to the practice of stopping oneself from doing or using something, says Lozano. This could mean abstaining from watching porn, engaging in certain behaviors, consuming alcohol, and more. Oftentimes the person abstaining does so because they believe not engaging in something outweighs the benefits of whatever it is they’re abstaining from. For example, maybe someone who’s abstaining from coffee finds that even though they get a nice buzz when they drink it, they become jittery, anxious, and have headaches (not to mention they spend all their money at Starbs). Even though the caffeine rush is nice, the other consequences make it no longer worth it, so they abstain.

Sex-wise, Skyler says abstinence is typically practiced for religious, familial, or moral reasons. “The idea is that sex is sacred, and sharing this with another person should be discerned for the appropriate person and time,” she explains. “The value being practiced is to find a lifelong love partner or spouse before sharing their body and sexuality.” Someone might also choose sexual abstinence to avoid pregnancy, protect themselves or others from sexually transmitted infections, heal from a breakup, practice self-care, or even just concentrate on other areas of their life like their career or friendships.

Since the definition of sex varies from person to person, saying you’re “sexually abstinent” could mean a number of different things. “This can be subjective to how an individual assumes this meaning and value,” Skyler says. “Basically, someone might refrain from anything from kissing, manual play, oral play, penetration, or even masturbation.”

What is Celibacy?

While abstinence could encompass pretty much anything you’re refraining from, Lozano says celibacy is specific to sex. “Celibacy refers to the practice of stopping sexual activity, which can include all forms of sex (including solo and mutual masturbation, giving or receiving oral sex, and intercourse),” Lozano explains. Again, what counts as “sex” is personal, so one celibate person might be comfortable with non-penetrative forms of sex like masturbation, while another might not.

Some people are voluntarily celibate, which means they made the conscious choice to not have sex or engage in sexual activity. Lozano says it’s oftentimes for religious, spiritual, or personal reasons. Priests, nuns, and many other religious figures are required to take a vow of celibacy—sometimes for life—in order to complete their work and be part of a specific institution or house of worship. These vows often prohibit them from marriage as well.

Sometimes, however, people people are involuntarily celibate, which means they’re not celibate by choice. Lozano says someone might be involuntarily celibate due to a lack of partner options, lack of interest from others, or not feeling safe enough in relationships to engage in sexual intimacy. A few other reasons may include feelings of fear and anxiety around sex, societal expectations, sex not being a priority, sexual shame, sexual trauma, and a lack of interest in sex.

It’s important to note that when the term “involuntary celibacy” is shortened to “incel,” it refers to an online subculture of involuntarily celibate heterosexual men who feel deep anger and resentment for their circumstances and blame women and society in an often hostile, radicalized, and dangerous way. But someone could be involuntarily celibate and not refer to themselves as an incel or subscribe to that ideology.

When determining the difference between voluntary and involuntary celibacy, oftentimes only the person who identifies as such can make the distinction, and sometimes it can be a little of both types. “Celibacy due to religion can potentially be considered voluntary and involuntary depending on the circumstances,” Lozano notes. “For instance, one may be choosing to abstain from sex to honor their religion, but it may not be a true ‘choice’ if they are ‘choosing’ due to fear or coercion.”

Another instance of voluntary and involuntary celibacy could be if someone is asexual. In general, asexual (or “ace”) people don’t experience sexual attraction. Of course, since sexuality is a spectrum, some ace folks might never experience sexual attraction, some might experience it rarely, and some might experience it only in specific situations.

Just because someone is asexual, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re celibate. Plenty of asexual people still choose to engage in sexual activity for a number of reasons, ranging from wanting to experience pleasure, to wanting to please a partner, to expressing intimacy. While someone doesn’t choose to be asexual, they can still decide whether or not sex is something they want to experience. (Of course, on the flip side, they could feel like celibacy is involuntary because of their sexuality, which is also valid!)

What Are the Differences (and Similarities!) Between Abstinence and Celibacy?

By now, you’ve probably realized that abstinence and celibacy, while similar, can actually be pretty different. To recap: Celibacy is specific to sexual activity, whereas abstinence is not. “Many people use the terms interchangeably, but sexual abstinence is often time-limited until an individual finds a life partner,” notes Skyler. “Voluntary celibacy is often a choice a person makes (sometimes for life), like those in positions of religious or spiritual leadership. Those who are celibate are inevitably abstinent, but not the other way around.”

If you find yourself involuntarily celibate, Lozano says there are ways to switch things up, but it all starts with awareness. “First, assess whether having any sort of sex is something you want to engage in,” she suggests. “Just because you have the option to have sex, it doesn’t mean that you should or need to. You want to make an informed decision with your sex life, whether that is having tons of sex, practicing voluntary celibacy, or something in between.”

If you come to find you’re having trouble connecting with others, Skyler says being “confident, authentic, and making your needs known” is a solid place to start when dating. In cases where someone was raised without the foundation that sex is a healthy thing to do as an adult, taking the time to unlearn these restrictions might be necessary. In either situation, working with a sex therapist is a great option to help you overcome anything blocking your path to sexual fulfillment and expression.

Ultimately, though, Lozano says there’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing not to have sex, and it’s a choice that should be respected. “Being abstinent or celibate does not make one ‘less than,’” she says. “There are many understandable and valid reasons for one to practice abstinence or celibacy, none of which changes the value of a person.”

Whether you identify as celibate, abstinent, or neither, making your values known, staying true to yourself, and honoring others’ experiences and terminology is the key to a fulfilling human experience—sexual or not.

Headshot of Rachel Varina

Rachel Varina is a full-time freelance writer covering everything from the best vibrators (the Lelo Sona) to the best TV shows (The Vampire Diaries). She has over 10 years of editorial experience with bylines at Women’s Health, Elite Daily, Betches, and more. She lives in Tampa, Florida, but did not feed her husband to tigers. When she’s not testing out new sex toys (100+ and counting so far!), she’s likely chilling with her dogs or eating buffalo chicken dip. Ideally at the same time. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter

Source link