Celibacy, and its use by asexuals

This post is being cross-posted to my personal blog, A Trivial Knot, and is written for a general audience.

“Asexuality is not the same as celibacy” is a common line in introductory explanations of asexuality, but as I discussed in an earlier post, mocking celibacy can still be asexual-unfriendly. Here I will go further in depth.

The distinction between asexuality and celibacy plays the same role that “born this way” plays for LGBT people. The purpose of each talking point is to establish that LGBT/asexual people did not choose their orientations. The slogans can be useful, particularly in hostile environments. However, if people become more accepting, if people realize it does not matter if it is chosen, perhaps we can move beyond slogans.

Aside from the politics, there is also a question to what extent it is really true that LGBT people are always “born this way”. If you look, you will find people who subjectively experienced a choice, people who emphasize that their identity or behavior are chosen, and people who would like an honest look at the empirical evidence.

Similar questions may be raised about asexuality and the extent to which choice plays a role in it. While asexuality and celibacy certainly have distinct meanings, we want to know exactly how far that distinction goes. For example, some people take that to mean that asexuals and celibates are non-overlapping groups. But is that really true?

What even is celibacy?

My commentary is indebted to ACH, who wrote three blog posts on this subject back in 2008. In his investigations, ACH realized that he did not truly understand what “celibacy” meant in the first place. He found the following definitions in the dictionary:

1. abstention from sexual relations.
2. abstention by vow from marriage: the celibacy of priests
3. the state of being unmarried.

To see which of these definitions was most common, he looked at a few different sources, finding that the first one was dominant. Although amusingly, the Wikipedia article at the time denied the validity of the first definition, while also using the same definition in its examples.

Aces most commonly define celibacy as abstention from sex. But even within this definition there are ambiguities. Is abstention a state of being? Is it an action? Is it a choice? How much of an active role does “choice” imply? And finally, if an asexual does not have sex, do they count as celibate?

Celibate aces, by the numbers

The answer, of course, is that different asexuals have different views on the matter. We now have quantitative data on this question, in the form of the 2014 Asexual Community Census, which I helped design and analyze. Among aces who are sexually inactive, 12% identify as celibate. Those who did not identify as celibate were asked to check off applicable reasons from a list:

I think celibacy suggests deliberate effort in not having sex.: 70.8%
I think ‘celibacy’ has strong religious connotations that don’t fit me: 42.1%
I’m not currently sexually active, but open to it, so I don’t think celibate would fit me: 32.7%
I don’t think a person can be both asexual and celibate: 6.11%

The percentages do not add up to 100% because respondents were allowed to check off multiple reasons. This is an amateur survey and should be regarded critically, but it suggests that many asexuals disidentify with celibacy because of the connotations of effort, choice, commitment, or religious motivations. And then, of course, there are those 12% of sexually inactive aces who do identify as celibate. Either the connotations aren’t strong enough to discourage them, or they believe that the connotations are apt to describe their personal situation.

Note that the census is not representative of asexuals in general, but is a sample of online communities, where most people have had some contact with the “asexuality is distinct from celibacy” slogan. I suspect that aces who have less contact with the community would be more likely to identify as celibate.

By the way, the survey asked about celibacy because someone on the committee wanted to gauge interest in a voluntary celibacy community, which would include both aces and non-aces. I want to give a shout out to their voluntary celibacy page.

Personal reflections on celibacy and choice

Another survey result was that 12% of aces are sexually active, and well I’m in that 12%, so naturally I would not describe myself as celibate. It seems to me that “celibate” could potentially convey useful information, distinguishing those aces who are sexually active, and those who are not. Alas, the statistics show that celibacy means different things to different people, thus failing to convey useful information. “Sexually active” and “sexually inactive” are much more informative terms (although also ambiguous at the boundaries), and bypass any religious connotations.

Regardless of preferred terms, I would like if more people embraced the idea that when aces don’t have sex, it is still a choice. That a choice is predictable and straightforward does not make it less of a choice. I want it to be clear that asexuals have agency.

In the opposite situation, if a person has said yes to every solicitation of sex they have received so far, we would not claim it had stopped being a choice. To say it stopped being a choice would be to deny the person’s agency. On the other hand, the decision to say “yes” to a solicitation seems more like an active choice, while merely avoiding solicitations seems more passive. So I could see it both ways.

When people criticize celibacy, I just have no idea what they mean. Do you know?

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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20 Responses to Celibacy, and its use by asexuals

  1. For me, asexuality relates to identity, and celibacy relates to behavior. But yeah, I can see how the term would carry religious connotations, and also connotations of self-denial. I wouldn’t describe myself as celibate to most people because they’d probably assume I had sexual urges but chose to not act on them.

  2. I’ve always been bemused by the degree to which many aces seem to disidentify with celibacy. I sometimes wonder if it’s a generational thing, since I’m somewhat older than most aces in the communities where these discussions are being held.

    To me it means a voluntary choice to abstain from sex for an extended period of time, and nothing more than that. Although I feel no intrinsic draw towards sex, I could choose to engage in it for other reasons. I choose not to do so, and therefore consider it to be an active choice on my part and one that is important to me. It has had a huge effect on the course of my life and therefore is something I identify as.

    As a side note, I recently analyzed experiences and attitudes of Muslim ace respondents to the 2014 community census. Identification with celibacy is more popular among this sub-group (27% identify as celibate) than among all respondents – but it’s still the case that the majority of Muslim ace respondents who abstain from sex (92% of Muslim ace respondents overall) do not identify as celibate and they give most of the same reasons that Siggy listed in the original post. If it was just the religious connotations, one might expect a higher rate of celibate-identification among a group defined by their adherence to a particular religion.

    • Jo says:

      I found the second part of your comment interesting, Laura, about feeling like you could engage in sex for reasons other than feeling an intrinsic draw towards it, if you weren’t actively choosing not to. I have the same lack of intrinsic draw towards sex – but I don’t necessarily feel like I could engage in it for other reasons. (I feel like if I could, I probably would have done so by now, out of curiosity – but I’ve never been able to get past the disconnect of it.)

      If you don’t mind me asking, what sort of circumstances could you see yourself potentially doing so? Just thinking because I could see why aces in romantic relationships might want to (and I know that some do), but as far as I know we’re in the same boat in terms of not being in romantic relationships with other people?

      • Actually, I don’t at all want to engage in sex for any reason, so I may have phrased that poorly. What I was trying to convey is that there are many reasons people engage in sex beyond feeling intrinsically drawn to it, and I could, hypothetically, choose to do so for any of those reasons. I do not in fact choose to do so, and therefore feel that my celibacy is an active choice rather than a default.

  3. Jo says:

    For me, celibacy does hold connotations that don’t fit with my own experience: mainly because I associate celibacy with actually wanting to do something, but deciding not to on grounds of principle or religious beliefs of some sort. When it comes to my own situation, yes, I choose not to engage in sex – but as a (for me) obvious result of not having anything driving me to do so.

    I can see the advantages of the different stances on celibacy and asexuality. I think it’s important to continue to emphasise that asexuality isn’t a choice for most, while celibacy is, just because we’re not in a very ace-visible space yet. At the same time, I can see where you’re coming from with your point about aces having agency, and that recognising that there is choice involved in whether someone ultimately engages in sex or not can be useful too. I have to say that I have never encountered anyone saying that aces don’t have agency because asexuality isn’t a choice, though.

    • Siggy says:

      No one ever says that asexuals don’t have agency, but people still seem to think it.

      But regardless, agency is precisely what choice means to me. It has nothing to do with whether I “could” choose A or B–and what does that even mean? Does that mean it would be reasonable for me to choose either, or does that merely mean there are possible worlds where I choose one or the other? And in a deterministic/stochastic universe, wouldn’t this definition lead to the conclusion that nothing is a choice?

      I take the viewpoint known as compatibilism, which means that free will is compatible with determinism. A choice is still a choice as long as it involves some deliberation, regardless of how predictable or deterministic its results are.

      • I see you have discovered the free will topic. It has interesting implications when it comes to people’s sexuality. People often talk about their identity as not being a choice as if it is somehow in a different category to other things that are a choice. But as a hard determinist I find that distinction meaningless.

  4. luvtheheaven says:

    I mainly don’t identify as celibate because I don’t hear ANY people around me in my life identifying that way. In one strong example, my dad hasn’t been with anyone in over 20 years but I’ve never heard him, a straight man, identify as celibate or use the word casually as a description of his life. He’s a straight guy “who hasn’t been on a date” in that long, and using the word “celibate” implies, in my head, like he was specifically choosing to avoid sex for some reason, likely political or religious, which he wasn’t actively doing.

    I have met many aces both online and now quite a few in real life too and not once in real life, and only a handful of times on the internet (a small percentage of the aces I encounter online) have these aces been using the term celibate to describe their stance toward sex. Mainly, people assume sexual inactivity once someone says they’re asexual, or use it to explain their stance on sex, as in talking to a new romantic partner and saying “Well I’m asexual, so sex is off the table”. There is no need for the word celibacy, when one can explicitly explain what they mean with a couple more words.

    I know this is complicated since some aces do have sex!!! Does what I did throw those aces under the bus? Maybe, yes.

    I turned down a date with a guy I had accidentally?? been flirting with?? on the metro — I thought I was just casually being friendly with a stranger, but then — he asked me out right before he had to get off for his stop. In practicality I turned him down because I was celibate, because I was making a choice not to date at all at that point in my life — possibly?? partially due to my (a)romantic orientation, but also because I didn’t want to deal with kissing and sex expectations from anyone. And yet all I told him, the first thing that came to my mind and the only thing I had time to tell him in the few seconds before he got off that train, was “I’m sorry, but I’m actually… asexual.” Asexuality was the simplest, first thought to come to my mind to explain not just the choice I was making (actually, I don’t date) but ALSO why in the world someone like me would make that choice (I’m not interested in people in that way, I have no sex drive, etc), and I guessthe why is pretty important to a lot of people who want to understand the world around them, and it’s definitely important to me. I, at least, ASSSUME people will care about the why.

    It’s not that I didn’t find this guy attractive enough to date but I do find other guys more suitable candidates. No. And it’s not that I have extreme political or religious views or devotions – I don’t want people to look at me that way, as if that’s who I am, partially because maybe I do still judge non-ace people who choose not to have sex in an unfair way: http://freethoughtblogs.com/atrivialknot/2016/04/19/before-you-mock-celibacy-listen/ but also partially because it’s just inaccurate and I want people to have an accurate picture of me in their heads.

    It’s that I didn’t want to date ANY guy no matter how gorgeous they were, or even how amazingly fun they were to hang out with/how great their personality is. I’d been enjoying my brief conversation with this stranger, I had.

    Yes, I could’ve just said “I’m celibate”, but among all the other things I just mentioned, that feels like it implies sex, when all he was doing was asking me for my phone number so we could arrange a date. Sex was not on the table yet. It seems extremely presumptuous to turn down a date with “but that implies sex and I don’t do the sex” – dating doesn’t always imply sex. Saying “I’m asexual” in response might sound identical to “but that implies sex and I don’t do the sex”, but I was thinking of it the way other sexual orientations are used, the way “I’m a lesbian” could’ve been seen as a pretty fair reason for not giving a date with a man a chance, that it’s about more than just the sex itself, but about the dating parts too?? I don’t know. It’s how it felt to me, I guess.

    I could’ve said “I don’t date,” and that would’ve maybe been more accurate and a better answer and not lumped in my aromanticsm and sex-aversion to my asexuality. But oh well, in the moment, I didn’t think about any of that, I just said I was asexual. I guess I consider aromantic asexuality to kind of be default asexuality, the way default homosexuality involves homoromantic tendencies as well, so… so…

    • I wouldn’t use “I’m celibate” in that type of situation either (my default response to people who approach me that way is “I’m not interested”), and I think you make a good point about how “I’m asexual, so sex is off the table” usually works.

      However, my choice about whether or not to identity as celibate isn’t related to whether or not I would use it as an explanation/excuse/response in various circumstances but instead it has to do with whether I feel the meaning of the term describes my life and the choices I’ve made and continue to make about sex. I think a person can adopt an identity label even if they only ever use it to explain themselves to themselves 🙂

      • luvtheheaven says:

        That’s true. I wrote a post about a year ago: https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/identity-vs-description-and-how-labels-are-used-for-both/ that deals with some of that concept. I think… I think depending on how people are defining celibate, I sometimes might use it to describe myself, but because I fear that too often the definition most people around me would be using has extra connotations than what is true in my life, I generally don’t consider myself celibate. That’s all. I was one of the people in that 2014 survey who, I’m fairly confident, would’ve checked both of these boxes:

        I think celibacy suggests deliberate effort in not having sex.: 70.8%
        I think ‘celibacy’ has strong religious connotations that don’t fit me: 42.1%

        as reasons I personally don’t identify as celibate.

        • I think it’s interesting that I primarily think about it in terms of intentionality/volition/agency and most people seem to think about it in terms of effort. That seems to be the key dividing line here, but I can’t really say why I might differ from most people (including most Muslim aces) in how I think about this.

          I do know that thinking about it in terms of intentionality/volition/agency feels more empowering to me whereas approaching the question in terms of effort seems to exclude me. If I deliberately don’t have sex but am unable to be described as celibate because it doesn’t require effort from me, then what am I? There’s no term or category for that.

          In my initial comment here I wondered if it was a generational thing. Maybe there’s a difference between how it feels when you’re almost 43 (as I am) compared to when you’re in your 20s.

          Given how profoundly my choice to refrain from sex and from relationships that might lead to or include sex has shaped my life over the last 20+ years, and how it continues to affect both my future plans and how I relate to (really: am marginalized by) communities I belong to, being in some sort of vague no-man’s-land without a label isn’t the right answer for me.

          “Celibate” under its primary definition (as indicated in the OP, i.e., the act of abstaining from sex) is the most accurate term and conveys the correct meaning in the communities where I use it. It works and that’s why I identify that way.

          I’m resigned to being in a tiny minority among aces on this, however.

          • Dawen says:

            Hey, I’m going to… kind of butt in, I guess. Laura, your definition of celibate matches pretty close to mine. I’ve always heard it as the choice to not have sex, full stop. I can sort of see how compulsive sexuality makes those six words take on an implicit meaning of “this choice takes effort,” but it doesn’t occur to me when I see the word celibate, because for me it doesn’t take any effort.

            And yet I only peripherally identify as celibate. I don’t know if it is a generational thing (I’m 19) but I identify as celibate the same way I identify as queer (because I firmly believe that ace people are queer, and I’m ace, I must be queer). If someone asked me if I am, I would say something like “Well, yes, I guess so,” or “Yeah, technically,” because I make the choice to not have sex. But it’s not a word I ever automatically reach for to describe myself. Perhaps it’s just because I don’t hear or see it used very often.

            On top of that, I almost feel like not having sex /isn’t/ a choice for me. Or rather, that not having sex is the only choice I can make. It’s not a lack of agency, really, because there’s nothing preventing me from waking up one day and saying, “I actually want to experience an orgasm with another person.” If I did that, I might start identifying more aggressively as celibate (due to my faith and waiting for marriage, etc.). But I am so thoroughly sex-repulsed that I cannot fathom ever deciding to try to have an orgasm with another person. It feels like the only possible choice I could make, for the sake of my mental health, is to not have sex. Is that still making a choice?

            Or did I talk myself into defining celibacy with a threshold of effort, no matter how minimal, that I simply cannot manage?

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  6. Nowhere Girl says:

    It is interesting for me to what extent it can be a matter of language. I have written (in my diary) fairly similar reflections on this kind of difference, however I didn’t use the word “celibate” or even “abstinence” at all. But perhaps “renouncement” is not the best translation of Polish “wyrzeczenie”… I can only rely on my own knowledge of English, which will always remain short of perfect and on dictionaries, which only give a partial overview of the contexts in which a particular word can be used.
    In my reflections (which weren’t only about rejecting sex) it was a difference between renouncement and rejection – “renouncement” (this perhaps-imperfect equivalent of the word I used in Polish) means that you decide not to do something you would yearn to do, something you perceive as valuable and meaningful, “rejection” means not doing something because you don’t even feel such need. If a person decides to give up something for whatever reasons – religious, moral, ideological, personal – it has much impact on how such a decision can be seen, simply on whether it’s an honest decision. A bit like in case of young aces thinking “what the fuss, why do they think it is so hard not to have sex”.
    OK, I shouldn’t keep such things to myself even when the problem is that while one part of the promise I had made (and partially broken) is something perceived as “no big deal” nowadays (the sexual part) – the other is still condemned and even illegal. Almost 20 years ago, at the age of fifteen, I promised not to have sex and not to use drugs – an the problem is that it was a clear case of this renouncement/rejection dichotomy. I was trying to paint my decision as more noble, to put it into an “ascetic” context (which wasn’t honest by itself, because with my love for sweets – true asceticism should mean not eating them…) – but “the sexual part” was in fact pure rejection, something I didn’t want to do anyway. The other part was much more problematic because I realised very well my desire to try psychedelic drugs – and my promise was simply a desperate attempt to keep myself from doing it. I can only tell others not to follow because my renouncement resulted in quite scary despair. Nevertheless, despite my subsequent realization that it was an extremely bad decision – partially by will, partially by circumstance I never rushed to try a psychedelic, finally I waited until I was thirty years old.

    • Carmilla DeWinter says:

      Yeah. German works differently again – here, “celibacy” has only religious context. (So German aces who took the survey probably wouldn’t have thought to apply the term to themselves.) Also, there’s the equivalent of “abstinent”, which can have an added “voluntary” or “involuntary” – but it never quite means the “rejection” you were talking about, because it always carries a context of missing out on something you’d want, not of a simple preference not to do something.

  7. Kokiri85 says:

    I wonder if what Laura says about age might well be a factor, since I’m almost 31 and identify strongly with celibacy. In my case a lot of it is because I didn’t know about asexuality until I was 24, so in the 10-ish years before that “celibate” was the closest I could come to explaining myself. If I had known, if there had been as much information around when I was a teenager, maybe I would never have needed the word celibacy to cling to?

    I still feel really attached to it now, though, even though I have other words too. Because it was a choice: it was my choice to take my own feelings seriously even back when I didn’t understand them, to not try and change or fix myself.

  8. Estrid says:

    I have often wondered whether I should identify with celibacy. In a way, giving the prevailing sexual normativity in Western societies (I’m from Denmark), it makes sense to me to have a word for the fact that I don’t engage in an activity that most people seem to consider an essential part of life/existence, and celibacy could potentially be that word if one goes with the first definition. On the other hand, I have a hard time considering my not having sex as a choice in the sense that I haven’t been faced with the question as such. There have been instances, where I didn’t have sex with someone, but in my view that have been instances rather than “life defining” situations. Also, I am kinda frustrated that allosexual people are not asked to define their life in terms of being sexaully active or not.

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  10. I have been in many asexual groups on facebook and people kept getting angry at me and telling me that asexuality is not the same as celibacy. I know that and I don’t know why they feel the need to remind me of what I know. However I thought I would be comfortable among asexuals because at least some of them are like me. But sadly I found most asexuals to be too sexual for my comfort. People spend a lot of time saying “I’m not sexually attracted to anyone but I sure do love fucking them!”.

    So these days I just call myself celibate rather than asexual even though I am both. Sometimes I wish I was either straight or gay just so that I could then still live a celibate life and then not be accused of conflating asexuality with celibacy. But people are just mean no matter what.

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