In discussions of sex and sexuality, conversations tend to focus more on act of having sex and less on people for whom the absence of sexual activity is just as meaningful. A key element of being “sex positive” means embracing various manifestations of sexual agency, including the decision to not have sex at all. Though most people have had premarital sex at least once before age 30 (93%), there are still those for whom sex isn’t something they’re ready to have or feel they absolutely need in their lives right now.
I love sex. I feel compelled to state that because my experiences with sex have not always been positive, and being able to embrace a positive connection to sex remains, for me, one of the most courageous things I’ve been able to do. There was a time when I had sex and felt almost no connection to it; I went through the motions for every reason other than the most important one—because I wanted to.
Was it worth anything? In hindsight, not really. And there have been times when I allowed regret to take over as I wished for the chance to turn back the hands of time and choose to abstain. Our connection with sex should be healthy and enriching; we should never feel obligated to participate in sexual activity for any reason. People choose to abstain from sex for a myriad of thought-provoking reasons.
What Do You Call It?
There are people who have never had sex (usually called “virgins”), and people who’ve had sex at least once, but now choose not to have sex for reasons that range from religious/spiritual commitment to personal empowerment and healing. “Abstinence” is the act of refraining from activity during which one derives pleasure, but may, at times, be considered detrimental to one’s wellbeing (sex, food indulgence, gambling, etc.). Not everyone who practices abstinence views sex as being detrimental per se—it’s often that having sex is simply not optimal or is distracting at these points in their lives.
“Celibacy” is the act of abstaining from sexual activity and, in most formal definitions, is almost always connected to religious or spiritual reasons. Some celibate people have had sex at least once, but now chose to wait until they are more comfortable with having sex again, while some others are “virgins” raised to wait until they are married. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but I think it’s important to note these differences for the purposes of this discussion.
Developing a positive relationship with sex and partners is a recurring theme among people who choose to refrain from having sex. Derrick*, a 48-year-old bisexual-identified man, says that abstaining from sex has been liberating for him. “There were many issues regarding the sex/love dichotomy that needed addressing before I could show up and be present [and begin] exploring ‘adult love’,” he says.
For Darlene*, who chooses to be celibate because she often “felt like an object and a receptacle for men,” celibacy has been helping her develop more positive relationships with men. Melissa* realized she rarely got anything out of sex because there was a major disconnect between her and her partners. “I lacked a connection with those I was being sexual with and I didn't like that,” she said, which was a common reflection among the people I interviewed. Sometimes we receive messages that suggest having significant connections with sexual partners is less desirable, but that’s not remotely true. For many, no connection means no sexing and there’s no compromising on that, even if it takes years to make a meaningful connection with someone.
Kaya* decided to stop having sex, with men especially, because she realized she is more attracted to women. At 33, she has decided she no longer wants to lie to men or hide the women she might become involved with, so until she sorts it all out, she would rather abstain altogether. Brandon, an introverted 25-year-old heterosexual man, says that while he feels being inexperienced with sex makes him unappealing to a lot of women, he maintains control over his dating life and doesn’t feel desperate at all. “You can’t miss what you never had,” he says, and the lack of stress and drama makes it worthwhile for him at this point.
While less than 10% of Americans report having never had sex, religion is still a guiding force for many who choose to abstain. “I was raised to believe that sex was for marriage and under no circumstance was I to explore that. Since I was a ‘good girl,’ I never questioned that,” says Monique*, a 39-year-old heterosexual woman who admits that she wishes she could be more of a casual dater because she longs to experience intimacy with someone.
Carol* is 47 years old and has been celibate for 10 years, though she did have sex for the first time at 21. She struggles because she does go through periods of arousal and become frustrated not having a way to release the sexual tension. Darlene struggles too, but works out her frustration at the gym and is very committed to reaching some of her health goals, which helps keep her focused.
Sometimes, Monique feels trapped by her decision. “In this current dating climate, it has been difficult to find a man who both respects my decision and is willing to take that step with me,” she says. But she has found that special man who respects her decision and is willing to grow with her. Carol says that people have mistakenly assumed she is a lesbian and her views have been called archaic. She rolls with it, though, and finds that being celibate helps her work on developing different ways of communicating with potential partners.
It is important to remember that freedom of choice means freedom to choose to not have sex, too. It’s not at all fair to make people feel bad for choosing to not have sex if that makes them feel the best about themselves and where they are in their lives. Abstinent people would do well to connect with those who respect their decisions, even if those people aren’t on the same path.
Yes, it can be very hard to refrain from having sex in a society where sex seems to ooze out of every corner of our culture, but it can be done. Also, not having sex doesn’t make someone any less sexual a being. It just means there are those who don’t feel sex is so essential a part of their lives that they can’t function without it. And you know what? I salute those folks for being true to themselves and living by their own sets of rules. Kudos!
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.