A physically mature person who does not engage in sexual behavior is said to be celibate. In complete celibacy a person neither masturbates nor has sexual contact with another person. In partial celibacy an individual masturbates but does not have interpersonal sexual contact. Celibacy is not commonly thought of as a form of sexual expression. However, when it represents a conscious decision not to engage in sexual behavior, this decision in itself is an expression of one’s sexuality, and it may manifest a person’s sexual intelligence. Celibacy, or abstinence, can be a viable option until the context for a sexual relationship is appropriate and positive for a given individual (Zafar, 2010).
Celibacy is most commonly associated with religious devotion; joining a religious order or becoming a priest or nun often includes a vow of celibacy. The ideal of religious celibacy is to transform sexual energy into service to humanity (Abbott, 2000). Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mahatma Gandhi of India exemplified this ideal, and they are admired for their moral leadership (Sipe, 1990).
Historically, some women embraced celibacy to free themselves from the limitations of the expected gender roles of marriage and motherhood. In the Middle Ages a woman could obtain an education if she became a nun. In a convent, nuns had access to libraries and could correspond with learned theologians. Laywomen were prohibited such privileges. Elizabeth I, England’s Virgin Queen, avoided marriage to maintain her political power, but she had several unconsummated love affairs during her rule. She entertained proposals from numerous well-connected suitors for her own political purposes, subjecting herself to repeated court inspections to confirm her virginity (Abbott, 2000).
Today many factors can lead a person to be celibate. Some people choose to be celibate until marriage because of religious or moral beliefs. Others maintain celibacy until their personal criteria for a good sexual relationship have been met. Some
choose celibacy because they have experienced confusion or disappointment in past sexual relationships, and they want to spend some time establishing new relationships without the complicating factor of sexual interaction (Terry, 2007). A 28-year-old man explained:
There was a period not too long ago in my life where I had been abstinent for about four years. I had been on both sides of the cheating fence and began to realize that sex wasn’t just something that I wanted to take, or could take, lightly. The feelings that can be created out of a physical relationship are simply too powerful to toy around with. I was terribly afraid of being hurt again, or of perhaps hurting someone else, so I chose not to get sexual with anyone. (Authors’ files)
At times a person can be so caught up in other aspects of life that sex is simply not a priority. Health considerations, such as concerns about pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, can also prompt a decision not to have sexual intercourse.
Some people find that a period of celibacy can be rewarding. They can often refocus on themselves during such a period—exploring self-pleasuring; learning to value their aloneness, autonomy, and privacy; or giving priority to work and nonsexual relationship commitments. Friendships can gain new dimensions and fulfillment. Of the many options for sexual expression, celibacy is one that people sometimes have considerable trouble understanding. However, celibacy can be a personally valuable choice.