Article written by Brit Dawson and originally published on GQ Magazine.
When 29-year-old Bobby embarked on what would become three years of no dating or sex, he didn’t take a conscious vow of celibacy. In truth, he didn’t even know the word ‘celibate’ existed. “I felt the need to cut dating out of my life, which forced me into celibacy,” he says. “I was just taking it one day at a time.”
As is often the case, it was a break-up that sparked Bobby’s life audit. He’d just come out of a ‘situationship’ with a girl who he was very into but who didn’t feel the same about him, and, after a couple of post-break-up hook-ups, he found himself feeling empty. He’d also just graduated from university, and so the uncertainty of the future was weighing heavily on him. “I told myself to just go all-in on myself until I figured out what I truly wanted to do with my life,” he says. “Looking back, it was a hugely influential decision that allowed me to become who I am today. Not wasting any time or energy chasing people allowed me to be still and focus on myself.”
Although he didn’t tell anyone about it at the time, Bobby’s now a vocal advocate for celibacy – and he’s not alone. Celibacy has largely been linked in the media to involuntary celibates or ‘incels’, a term which has gained notoriety for the violent misogyny which has been perpetrated by some incels who have been unable to form romantic relationships. In recent months, however, there’s been an influx of non-religious voluntary celibates – or ‘volcels’, as they’ve come to be known – talking about sexlessness online. The concept is trending on TikTok, with the celibacy hashtag racking up over 200 million views, and the phenomenon picked up by the media.
For 28-year-old Jeremie, he entered into his year-and-a-half of celibacy because he realised he had a lot of uncomfortable feelings about himself, in particular in relation to women. But despite the benefits it eventually bestowed, Jeremie found the first few months of celibacy to be particularly tough. For him, the notion that a straight man would voluntarily opt for sexlessness stood in direct contrast to the ingrained ideas he had about masculinity. “The part of me that had bought into the idea that a man’s worth is tied to how thrilling his sex life is began to surface more and more,” he says. “If someone had asked me at that time if I believed my value was tied to how many women I could sleep with, I’d have quickly responded, ‘No’. Yet there I was, second-guessing [that].”
As well as finding himself sitting with a newfound sense of shame, Jeremie’s self-confidence took a hit. Without the distraction of dating, he was forced to face the feelings of anxiety, stress and boredom he’d been avoiding for so long. “I had almost no other outlets to get these emotional needs met,” he explains, “so I created an unhealthy dependency on [romantic relationships] to navigate through it.” It didn’t help that he felt unable to talk to his friends about it. “[Shame] played a part, but not knowing any men in my life or even online who’d gone through this before – or even considered it – made me feel like this was something I was going to have to navigate in isolation.”
Largely it is women and queer folk dominating the voluntary celibacy conversation online; they share stories of how trauma, bad relationships and even worse sex, or a disillusionment with hook-up culture led them to adopt abstinence. In the US, voluntary celibacy has even been linked to the rollback of abortion rights, as, in many states, sex now comes with a higher risk for people who can get pregnant.
Slowly there are signs of the celibacy conversation changing for straight men. Some of my own single male friends are opting for sexlessness over casual sex, only pursuing sexual relationships if they feel a connection with the person. Last week, the singer Craig David revealed his own year-long celibate lifestyle, explaining that he wants to be in a “healthy place” before entering into a new relationship.
Yet despite this, voluntary celibacy is still a taboo topic for many straight men. The historic association between sexual prowess and manliness still persists in some circles. The anxiety going through men’s heads might come down to the fear of people wondering: is it really voluntary, or can he just not get laid?
In an attempt to confront the stigma, both Bobby and Jeremie talk about the experience on TikTok, and have been overwhelmed by the positive responses. “A lot of men connect to my experience of not wanting to pursue romantic relationships, instead desiring to form a more intimate relationship with themselves and their bodies, and to create more meaningful connections,” says Jeremie.
Still, it’s important to choose celibacy for the right reasons argues clinical psychologist Rob O’Flaherty. “Not because it’s the newest TikTok discussion, nor as a response to sexual dysfunction, difficulties with sexual intimacy, or to try and solve sexual compulsions or ‘addictions’,” he says. “For these issues, seeking the appropriate support would be more beneficial, and celibacy might be counterproductive.”
At a time when masculinity is being scrutinised and reexamined, self-reflection that challenges traditional ideas about what it means to be a man feels increasingly important. For those yearning for time to focus totally on themselves, though, the experience of celibacy can prove invaluable, and isn’t a vow that has to last forever. Bobby and Jeremie are no longer celibate, but have learned a great deal. For Jeremie, withdrawing from sex taught him to reevaluate his ideas about sex and masculinity, as well as focusing on who he was and what he really wanted from life.
Since Bobby ended his celibacy, he’s felt more emboldened to talk about it with friends. “Now when I tell people about this period of my life, they seem kind of taken aback by it,” he says. “There are past friends of mine who would judge, [but] I’ve intentionally surrounded myself with men who are extremely open when I share this aspect of my life.”