SEX IRL: 4 People Share What They’ve Learned About Their Sex Lives After Being Celibate

"It has made me realize that I like the idea of sex more than actual sex!"

Not everyone’s comfortable talking about their sex life, but knowing what goes on in other people’s bedrooms can help us all feel more inspired, curious, and validated in our own experiences. In HG’s monthly column Sex IRL, we’ll talk to real people about their sexual adventures and get as frank as possible.

Warning: Story mentions sexual trauma.

Sex positivity—the idea that all sexual activity is fundamentally healthy, so long as it’s consensual and pleasurable—has allowed us to have more frank conversations about our sex lives. But celibacy is typically left out of the conversation, even though to truly be sex-positive, there has to be room for people who choose to abstain from having sex, as well as those who don’t experience sexual attraction at all.

Data released in recent years has shown that many people in the U.S., especially millennials, are less sexually active than generations before them. According to 2019 data from the General Social Survey, 23 percent of American adults ages 18 to 29 reported spent 2018 being celibate.

While celibacy used to be thought of as a practice reserved for conservative or religious folks, there are many other reasons why someone may choose to be celibate. It’s also not uncommon to fall into a period of celibacy when there’s a lull in your dating life or because you want to tend to other parts of your life.

Celibacy also has its benefits, which include greatly decreasing your risk of contracting or transmitting an STI, virtually eliminating the risk of unintended pregnancy, and maybe even more time to nurture other areas of your life or establish non-sexual intimacy with a partner, if you do date while celibate.

Regardless of how people choose to practice celibacy, and their reasons for doing so, it isn’t a monolithic experience and it can look different from person to person. Ahead, I spoke to a few people about the pros and cons of celibacy for them, how they tended to their sexual desires, and how celibacy impacted their views about sex. Here’s what they shared.

Celibacy made sex a bit of a let down initially.

“I was raised to save as much of yourself as possible for your wedding day/husband so I didn’t date or even have my first kiss until I was 20. I was a really awkward teenager from a small town in Ohio who was raised in a cult-like megachurch. I wasn’t even close to figuring out my gender so, in a way, it was good that I didn’t have to juggle the extra component of incorporating a partner into all of that. I was never tempted by sex when I was a teenager (I’ve always been a bit graysexual), and I also wasn’t the prettiest girl on the block, so celibacy wasn’t exactly hard to practice.

“I masturbated a lot [when I was a virgin]. I had a lot of guilt around it, though, because of my religious upbringing. It was something that I constantly struggled with. I would go through phases where I’d jerk off multiple times a day for several days and then feel horrible about it and toss out any toys (or items I used as sex toys) that I had. But then a week or so would go by and the cycle would start over again.

“The first time I had sex, it was anal sex. It was great and I felt no guilt about it, I was in college and had broken free of my church’s control and was finally starting to think for myself. We did anal a couple of times before I was finally like, “This is dumb, let’s just have sex.” The first time I had vaginal sex, it was very anti-climactic. The sex itself was fine but I had been taught all my life that sex was this huge life-changing deal. I had a real fear that when I had sex with someone, I would end up developing some sort of intense emotional bond with them. I distinctly remember getting f*cked for the first time in my dorm room, waiting for my life to change, and thinking “This is it? I could have been doing this years ago.” To me, it felt no different than any other activity you might do with a friend.

“Celibacy made sex a bit of a let down initially; I really don’t know what else to say about it. I honestly can’t imagine not being celibate until college because I was so brainwashed by my church at the time.”

— Jake, 38, Philadelphia

I tell people they should try celibacy all the time.

“I was celibate for about two years, following the end of a relationship that lasted for three. It was less of an intentional, vow-setting sort of thing than it was a gradual realization that I rarely enjoyed the partnered sex I had—whether I was single or not. I didn’t have any shame about pleasure or my body and had always been able to meet my own needs with ease, so I was just starting to become curious about the source of that disconnect. I just instinctively knew [being celibate] would involve emotional work—and it was best to sort through it alone. The major pro was that I got exactly what I was looking for, and found a lot of healing and growth during that period. I brought a spiritual element into solo sex for the first time, which is a practice I’ve been building on ever since. I don’t think I even missed sex [during this time].

“Ironically, I was working in a sex toy shop when I went through the breakup and entered that period of celibacy. At that point, I had amassed a small arsenal of sex toys, so I was totally set. I did purchase my first crystal dildo around this time, which was the most incredible thing. That’s when I learned how potent sexual energy is, and how it can be utilized for healing and manifesting.

“Believe it or not, the first time I hooked up with someone again was at a sex party! It was a threesome with strangers, which was the last thing I ever expected. I assumed it would be with someone I was really falling for, but after feeling instant chemistry with a gorgeous femme and our mutual friend at the party, I noticed I was much more excited than scared, and I went for it. It was so much fun, and I even dated one of them for a short while afterward. It felt amazing to step out of my comfort zone, after all that time, and be rewarded for it. I felt like I trusted myself so much more to be a good steward of my body.

“That period of celibacy ended nearly three years ago now, and it’s still paying off hugely. I think it’s also prepared me really well for the realities of being single during a global pandemic. I’m so glad I shook off the mentality of “I’m in my twenties, I should be having all the sex!” and rather, did the work of understanding and loving myself more deeply. I tell people they should try celibacy all the time.”

— Aria, 27, Atlanta

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Celibacy has allowed me to feel more comfortable with my sexual needs and help me put into words the desires I have.

“I was celibate until I was 18, and I say that because I did have opportunities to have sex but I didn’t engage because of religious reasons. It caused a few breakups, where I was even cheated on even though I was upfront about it. I eventually did break celibacy.

“In regards to my sexual needs, I denied them for a long time. When I did begin having sex, I was finally more comfortable with interacting with my own body, but I still apprehensive about it. Having sex for the first time was traumatic. I’ve had a couple of traumatic experiences with sex, oftentimes, where what I wanted was denied by sexual partners and some partners didn’t care if I enjoyed it or not. [Sex] was always hard and fast and [my] partners never listened to my needs or noticed if I was enthusiastic or not. It felt like a violation of my boundaries and a disregard for my preferences; it felt like some partners didn’t trust my needs.

“I kept [having sex] for so long because different people treated me differently, and I was always hoping for more positive interactions because when they were good… they were so good. I’ve been celibate again since February 2020, but I’m not sure if I’ve made it this far just because of the pandemic.

“I feel like [going] back to celibacy has allowed me to feel more comfortable with my sexual needs and help me put into words the desires I have. It’s given me the chance to stop thirsting over so many people.

“I don’t want to be celibate forever. I enjoy having sex and I enjoy other people’s bodies—but I want to be sure I can communicate and understand what I need before going back out there. Because when I am out there, I will be able to understand the needs of other bodies as well. I needed the space to be alone to understand myself and relearn what it means to be touched and intimate. It’s kind of like taking a tolerance break.”

— Alex, 27, Philadelphia

Celibacy has made me realize that I like the idea of sex more than actual sex!

“I’ve practiced celibacy for almost a year now. [I’ve been] able to focus on me more. I’m able to create more of a separation from myself and others and focus solely on my personal needs. I enjoy this because it ends up meaning that I don’t have to pour from an empty cup as often when I’m more focused on myself. When I’m not searching for sex, I have more time to think about other important things in my life. Of course, [I miss] reaching orgasm with another person. More than the orgasms, though, I miss intimacy with others. I miss the physical closeness, and more than anything, the emotional closeness that comes along with sex.

“I decided to start refraining from partnered sex, for the time being, for a few different reasons. I’m having issues getting my expired birth control removed. Long story short, I have decided to wait until the pandemic has blown over when navigating COVID-19 becomes easier and safer to have partnered sex. This means penis and vagina sex is riskier for me and I’m not currently comfortable partaking in that.

“However, I am refraining from all partnered sex, not just penis and vagina partnered sex. My reasoning for that is because of the pandemic; I don’t feel very comfortable dating around and being physically close to very many people. I am taking this time that I’ve been celibate from partnered sex to work on myself. I am diving headfirst into therapy and going one to two times a week to start tackling some of my own issues I’ve been struggling with. It’s been a positive experience overall, in my opinion.

“Celibacy has made me realize that I like the idea of sex more than actual sex! As someone who is demisexual, I really enjoy partnered sex with people who I enjoy being around, and being intimate with these people (physically and emotionally close) can be very healing!”

— Anonymous