On New Year’s Day, Jill deleted all of the dating apps from her phone. “I realised how fed up I was,” the 27-year-old says. It wasn’t just that she had tired of dating, though, or that she’d grown bored of endless swiping. The problem was sex. “I’m not looking for a relationship, but sex has somehow become my only romantic correspondence with a person. It just became so meaningless; I started to question why I was doing it at all.”
The solution might sound unconventional, particularly for someone Jill’s age. Aren’t your twenties supposed to be your sexual prime? A period of reckless, venereal abandon? And yet, Jill is just one of many millennials choosing to start 2023 with a vow of celibacy. No sex. None at all. Or for a little while at least. Technically, this is abstinence rather than celibacy, which is associated more with religion. Online, they’ve become interchangeable.
Search “celibacy 2023” on Twitter and you’ll see thousands, like Jill, vowing to start the year sex-free. It was even one of the dating trends suggested to The Independent earlier this year by Jessica Alderson, a relationship expert and co-founder of dating app So Syncd. “We are seeing increasing numbers of people choose to be intentional about their celibacy in order to further develop self-love, respect and autonomy,” she said. “As well as to gain a better understanding of the type of relationships they want.”
In recent years, “self-love” has been parodied as much as embraced. But the shift towards celibacy seems to have come from it. It at least seems to sit somewhere in it. That is certainly the case for Jill, who thinks a period of celibacy could allow her to shift focus. “We’re all so quick to fall into a routine, doing what everyone else does without thinking about it,” she says. “I’m hoping this will teach me more resilience and self-respect.”
Similar reasoning appealed to Sophia, 32, who tried celibacy after coming out of a long-term relationship. “I started dating again and realised I needed space to get to know myself before jumping into bed with someone new,” she says. “I wanted to build up my self-esteem and confidence.” She was celibate for two years. “It worked – but I recently started dating again and experienced a sense of fatigue from it; that’s what prompted me to try celibacy again. I realised that in order to move forward, I needed to step back, observe patterns, and try to forge a new narrative for myself.”
The appeal of celibacy is such that even celebrities have been open about their experiences with it. Drew Barrymore revealed in October that she decided to abstain from sex following her 2016 split from ex-husband Will Kopelman. “At nearly 48, I have very different feelings about intimacy than I did growing up,” she explained. “Since entering life as a single mom, I have not been able to have an intimate relationship.” The mother-of-two went on to say that she would consider a relationship in the future but, for now, the focus is on herself.
There are many reasons why, if you’ve been having issues in relationships, celibacy could work for you. At least for a short while. It doesn’t mean you have to stop dating. The hit Netflix series Too Hot to Handle sees a group of impossibly ripped and randy twentysomethings competing for a cash prize by abstaining from sex. The idea, as repeated by the show’s notorious “virtual assistant” host Lana, is to form “deeper connections” that go beyond insatiable libido. It doesn’t work for everyone – this is a reality show, after all – but the challenge tends to result in tangible personal growth for a select few. With sex off the table, there’s space for something else.
“Some people may choose to try celibacy to see what it’s like to connect with others on a different level,” explains Tamara Hoyton, a counsellor and sex therapist at Relate. “Or they may want to counterbalance what they see as an over-reliance on sex and relationships.” She suggests its resurgence could be a consequence of modern convenience culture. “In today’s society, it can in some ways feel like everything is available all of the time whether that’s music, food or porn,” she says. “As an antidote to this, some millennials are leaning towards a clean living ethos, such as healthy eating and mindfulness. For some, this may be extending to the idea of celibacy. Some people report a feeling of empowerment through celibacy. It can be seen as a wholesome discipline that is experienced as cleansing.”
It’s not reserved for single people, either. Experts suggest that there can be major benefits to periods of celibacy within relationships – particularly if a couple have problems in communication or intimacy. In some instances, this form of recalibration is referred to as “sensate focus”.
“This is used to intensify intimacy by taking sex away and focusing on other sensory experiences and different forms of touching,” says Marianne Johnson, a relationship and psychosexual therapist. “It can be useful to have a sort of ‘reset’, allowing a couple to [learn] what works for them and [take] the attention away from goal-orientated sex.” It’s not quite the same as celibacy per se, but the goals are similar. “It’s a way of shifting the focus away from a typical understanding of what sex might mean,” she adds.
The benefits from a period of celibacy are endless because, ultimately, it’s about self-development. And that’s a practice that will always provide some sort of enlightenment – regardless of your relationship status. This time around, Sophia intends to try celibacy while dating.
“I know at first it won’t be easy,” she says. “But I think it will be great to eliminate people whose values may not align with mine. It’s like what Albert Einstein said: it’s insanity to repeat the same method all the time and expect a different result.”