‘It was a very strong signal from my body’: How celibacy is revolutionising people’s sex lives

Views around celibacy have completely changed in recent years  (iStock)
Views around celibacy have completely changed in recent years (iStock)

Every time Mangala Holland breaks up with someone, she vows to stop having sex for a while. “Normally it lasts for a few months,” the 51-year-old author of Orgasms Made Easy tells me. “It’s a way to come back to myself and work through the emotional pain, and reassess what hadn’t worked in the last relationship. It also allows me to become more emotionally mature, spot unhealthy attachment patterns and to do the inner work without projecting my ‘stuff’ onto someone else.”

If all that sounds very healthy and reasonable, it’s probably because, well, it is. While there might have been a time when pledging a vow of abstinence would have elicited judgemental sniggers and whispers, today it’s viewed by many as an integral part of self-care and personal development – something many of us could benefit from. Hence the brouhaha surrounding a new advertising campaign from Bumble, which saw billboards plastered across the US with the slogan: “You know full well a vow of celibacy is not the answer”.

Users furiously criticised the ad, which featured a photograph of a woman. “Run an ad campaign telling men how to write better bios, take better photos, how to actually hold a conversation and string a basic sentence together and not randomly bring up sex in the middle of a normal conversation,” commented one person on Instagram. “Then men will have more success on your app. This isn’t women’s problem to fix.”

Another tweeted: “Shocked by the Bumble ad saying ‘a vow for celibacy is not the answer’. In a world fighting for respect and autonomy over our bodies, it’s appalling to see a dating platform undermine women’s choices. Wasn’t this app supposed to empower women to date on their terms?” Even Julia Fox weighed in via the comments of a TikTok carousel showing images of the new campaign, writing: “2.5 years of celibacy and never been better.”

The dating app, which recently ditched its feminist USP that saw women making the first move in heterosexual pairings, has since apologised. “We made a mistake,” reads Bumble’s statement. “Our ads referencing celibacy were an attempt to lean into a community frustrated by modern dating, and instead of bringing joy and humour, we unintentionally did the opposite.”

Offensive or not, perhaps the real issue is that the ad highlighted how out of touch this view of sexual abstinence is. Because, as Fox pointed out, celibacy can be transformative for many people. Traditionally, of course, it is a religious practice fundamental for those outside of marriage in some denominations, such the Roman Catholic church. And, while many feel it is now an outdated idea, it has slowly started gaining traction online – there are more than 78 million posts on TikTok with the tag “celibate”, for example.

The subject is dominating conversations elsewhere, too. Consider Sofie Hagen, the author and comedian whose book, Will I Ever Have Sex Again?, details what the 35-year-old has learnt about herself after not having had sex in more than eight years and the complexities of female sexual liberation. “My almost nine-year long celibacy period was both by choice and not by choice,” Hagen tells me. “The choice was made by my body and mind; if a sexy opportunity came along, I would shut down and go into panic mode. It was incredibly helpful; whereas, in the past, I would have just pushed past my body saying ‘no’ to sex, and tried to do it anyways, I now physically couldn’t.”

Hagen adds: “It was a very strong signal from my body that hey, if I don’t start setting boundaries with people, sex isn’t going to be fun or safe. Being without sex for almost a decade means that whenever (or, if I ever) have sex again, it will be with a completely new mindset. A healthier and safer mindset.”

The irony is that abstaining from sex could ultimately be the best thing you can do for your sex life, argues Holland, who runs programmes on female pleasure – particularly if you’ve racked up a string of disappointing sexual experiences or suffered from any kind of sexual trauma. “Many of my female clients have expressed that they feel numb, frozen or shut down after any kind of grief or trauma and it’s important to have the space to work through this,” she says. “It’s so tempting to jump straight onto an app for a distraction, but if you take time to do the emotional work to fully heal, you’ll probably choose a healthier partner next time.”

By removing the physical act of sex from your life, you’re creating space for other important, and possibly more emotional, lessons that boost your sense of self and give you a greater understanding of what it is you’re really looking for from sex, says counsellor Barbara Santini. “It enables individuals to redirect their focus inward, allowing for introspection and the cultivation of a deeper understanding of self,” she adds. “This period of solitude provides an opportunity to explore one’s values, desires and emotional landscape, ultimately fostering greater self-awareness and confidence.”

This was certainly the case for Star, 48, who initially decided to go celibate for a year following a period of poor mental health. “The benefits have been innumerable,” she says. “I’ve formed new female friendships, found new hobbies, and reclaimed all those lost hours spent stressing over partners and all that extra mental labour.” Given how much she has gained from the process, Star has ended up staying celibate for far longer than planned. “It will be three years in August,” she says. “I don’t have a shortage of men interested in me but I’m just not interested in them. I’m not ruling out getting into a relationship in the future, but I’ve spent these last few years designing a life I truly love – so that’s a lot to compete with. If someone came along that was a good fit then that’s great, but I’m not compromising my peace, sanity and health just to be in a relationship I don’t need or want.”

But being celibate doesn’t have to mean being single; you can still date while abstaining from sex and reap similar benefits. “A lot of times people are blinded by the initial feelings of attraction to someone and get hooked on the neurochemicals that are being released during sex, which many tend to confuse for love – this can lead to unhealthy relationships if it’s with an unsuitable partner,” says Dr Limor Gottlieb, a relationships psychologist. “When people abstain from sex and go on dates to really get to know people, they can agree to having sex once emotional intimacy and trust has been created. It will allow for better judgments and less heartbreak down the line.”

Intention is critical in discerning when the choice of celibacy is or isn’t constructive

Stephanie Manes, therapist

Perhaps the only issue with abstaining from sex is identifying when it’s time to start having it again. By being celibate for a long period of time, you might wind up creating further issues down the line – getting so comfortable with being alone that you put yourself off having sex ever again, or creating an unhelpful mysticism around it that hinders your ability to form meaningful connections with new people.

“Intention is critical in discerning when the choice of celibacy is or isn’t constructive,” says therapist Stephanie Manes. “We have to be careful of the ways that celibacy might be an avoidance of self, versus a path to self-knowledge; there’s a danger of choosing celibacy simply as a reaction to wounds and disappointments.” In other words, if you’re going to practise celibacy, make sure that decision isn’t coming from a place of fear. It has to be a conscious choice that feels positive.

If it’s the latter, the chances are you won’t regret it. And, in spite of what Bumble’s now-defunct ad might say, it could be particularly beneficial for women, who are more susceptible to dominant societal and cultural narratives that consistently tell us what we should and should not do with our bodies.

“Celibacy re-establishes choice for women,” says Manes. “Saying no to sex for whatever period they choose lets them reclaim agency. They can separate the wheat from the chaff, and get in touch with what a real ‘yes’ feels like versus reflexive, compulsory assent. It can be a lesson in choosing yourself.”