Exploring The Voluntary Celibacy Trend That Has Exploded On TikTok

Trigger warning: The following article mentions sexual violence.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were once central to the massive counter-culture movement of decades past. But now, it seems, the exact opposite trend has entered the mainstream. The sober-curious movement continues on amongst young people, as reported by Insider, while droves of people participated in Dry January and a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found a decrease in drug use amongst teens, perhaps due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, a movement to abstain from sex is taking over TikTok. The hashtag #celibacy has more than 165 million views at the time of this writing, while #celibacyclub has more than 2 million.

So how is voluntary celibacy defined, and how is it different from abstinence? Sex therapist Christene Lozano, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Cosmopolitan that while abstinence can refer to activities outside of sex — for example, abstaining from consuming caffeine — celibacy is sex-specific. What counts as sex differs from person to person, from masturbation to penetration. While both celibacy and abstinence could have a religious element to them, celibacy is most often associated with a religious promise or chastity. The Cambridge Dictionary defines "celibacy" as "the state of not having sex, especially because you have made a religious promise not to," while it defines "abstinence" as "the fact of not having sex, or not having sex outside of marriage." In other words, you could be abstinent as a product of being celibate, but you might not be celibate if you are abstinent from sex. 

Despite how you define it, the question remains. Why are young people swearing off sex in droves? 

The voluntary celibacy movement on Tik Tok

Of course, people can abstain from sex for a plethora of reasons that they do not have to justify — from wanting to forge a deeper bond with potential partners to focusing on a career path, to having strong religious beliefs, or wanting to work on their mental health, per Bustle. Some young people are simply disillusioned with the state of dating through apps, as though dating is an uphill battle with little reprieve, Vice reports. The stereotyping and stigma around casual sex, particularly for women, can be enough of a turnoff to steer clear of it, per VerywellMind

TikTok user and actress @lorensharice makes light of her decision to be celibate in her video, which shows her dancing while engaging in a fake conversation where she opens up to a man about being celibate. She also uses the hashtags #christiantiktok and #christiangirl alongside the hashtags #celibacy and #celibate. Commenters supported her. "And if he's the one; he's gonna respect it," wrote one commenter. Another responded, "Recently came to the realization that the only reason I lost my virginity is because I didn't know how to say no." And another said, "Me wanting a relationship but not having one bc men don't respect boundaries."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

The complexities of celibacy

But voluntary celibacy also implies an opposite term: involuntary celibacy. While the term involuntary celibacy was originally created by a single woman to connect with like-minded others who shared her loneliness, the term was appropriated by men who are typically white and straight, who blamed women for their lack of sex, per the Anti-Defamation League. The incel movement has deeply rooted online, but it can also have real-world costs in the form of violence against women. 

The voluntary celibacy trend, however, is often shown online as a positive tool for personal growth — if not to also air out certain grievances when it comes to dating. TikTok user @bobbbaaaay shares in his video seven lessons he learned from being celibate for more than 1,000 days. Some of those lessons include that your value is not determined by the number of people you've slept with, that you are responsible for your own happiness, that self-discovery is a process, that you need not feel ashamed of where you are in life if you are not yet where you want to be, and that you don't need to adhere to traditional societal expectations around marriage and children.