We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.
Discover the social media movement where women are going cold turkey on hookup culture
Destiny’s Child plays as a young woman dances around her bedroom, dressed in green flares and a white bralet. She looks happy. “Me after choosing celibacy and not allowing a man to invade my peace and body for 8+ months,” reads the text set over the video. These kind of posts are some of the most liked within Celibacy TikTok (aka CelibacyTok), where women riff on how celibacy is tricky when you’re ovulating or your crush hits you up.
You might imagine that this corner of the internet have a religious ideological bent, and while there are videos that fall into this, the tag is dominated by feminist-leaning women who are reclaiming celibacy to oppose the norms of heterosexual ‘hook up’ culture and centre spiritual growth or wellbeing. Currently, that hashtag has 39 million views, with some of the most followed creators being ebonie_qt, Dopesoulmani, and Victoriadeval – all creators whose videos spread a message of empowerment and choosing yourself first.
We all know that celibacy is a norm within some traditional Christian teachings. But the much less familiar concept of non-religious abstinence was first introduced in 1980, when writer Gabrielle Brown argued it can lead to personal growth and empowerment. Four decades later, that sentiment is being repackaged on TikTok by young women who we might well have seen subscribing to the sex positivity movement a few years ago. But why?
Well, the last two years forced many of us into celibate reflection as we made our way through lockdown after lockdown when casual sex was basically illegal. With all this time to think, many women realised that casual sex isn’t serving them. The orgasm gap is real, and they are tired of dating men who don’t treat them right. Sure, many young women like non-monogamous, no-strings sex, but they want to feel respected – and don’t find this comes without labels. So, if the views expressed on CelibacyTok are to be believed, they’re choosing a third option: to opt out of it all and embrace the peace of solitude instead.
And the trend extends offline: research shows that Gen Zers are having less casual sex than the generations that came before them. One study found that in 2017, just 24% of people aged between 18 and 23 said they were having casual sex, compared to 38% in 2007.
Celibacy and self-esteem
Cindy Noir, a motivational speaker who posts under ebonie_qt on TikTok, hasn’t been intimate with a man in over four years. Since then, she’s realised she had been using sex to convince guys to “give her a chance.” She’s not alone: many TikTokers talk about how they used sex for approval and how choosing celibacy is even helping them to break that pattern.
Lauren Russell, a 22-year-old social media marketer who regularly makes TikToks about spirituality, also admits to using sex as a stand-in for emotional intimacy. “I was afraid that if I shared my feelings, I’d be rejected. I thought, ‘Well, I know that I can connect with people physically so I’ll do that instead,’” she recalls. Unfortunately, Lauren kept connecting with controlling men until her therapist suggested abstaining from sex in the first place. “I thought it was a good idea, because I would always entertain people on dating apps who I was never going to meet or go on a second date with. I wanted to know why I needed validation.”
Having a string of unsatisfying casual encounters with men left Cindy with a similar sobering realisation. “The last guy I was intimate with treated me so poorly that I started to question what I was getting out of it,” she reflects. “I knew I deserved better, so celibacy was a way to slow down and figure out why I wasn’t choosing better.” Lauren and Cindy are both queer, and while they abstain sex with any person regardless gender or sexuality, it’s their relationships with cis-het men that they most wanted to heal through celibacy.
Outside of the gender dynamics at play, love and relationship coach Sabrina Flores sees abstinence as a catalyst for healing. It’s why people with addictions often choose to go cold turkey. “It can be hard to look at the ways that you’re codependent with men if you’re still engaging in those practices,” Sabrina adds. “There’s so much deep conditioning within hetro sex that, for some people, stepping away entirely is the only way to ‘feasibly envision an alternative’.”
It’s working for Lauren. After five months, she feels like a fog has cleared. “I’m now able to see what I want and don’t want in a partner and outside of relationships,” she claims.
‘Soul ties’ and spirituality
We can all empathise with and relate to the idea of taking time away from sex and dating to focus on yourself, but there’s an argument for spiritual benefits that may not be immediately obvious while watching entry-level videos. TikTok’s spiritual celibacy advocates believe that we transfer energy through sex, with some arguing that casual sex doesn’t exist. Some users even believe that you unconsciously knit your souls together during sex, in a concept called ‘soul ties’.
The concept of soul ties isn’t new and has been used by conservative, Christian evangelical churches to preach the importance of abstinence to avoid sinning with ‘ungodly’ sex. Which begs the question: is the soul ties discourse on CelibacyTok really so different from telling women you give part of your soul away to every person you are intimate with?
According to the community, it’s a resounding “no”. Lauren, for example, argues that believing in soul ties is not about shaming people for casual sex but about acknowledging the power in the Divine Feminine. She continues: “You are opening this portal through sex. And if you fill that with negative energies, you’re going to feel bad. It’s just like, if you only eat junk food all day, you’re going to feel horrible.”
Unlike evangelical Christians, the TikTok celibacy community doesn’t view celibacy as a way to be a ‘better’ woman. In fact, this is seen as an expression of internalised misogyny. Instead, Cindy argues that we are witnessing a “beautiful transition of women no longer putting up with being treated less than.”
Exaggerated health claims
Celibacy, it seems, may be empowering for some women who aren’t finding joy in sex and dating – it can help them heal trauma while focusing solely on themselves. When you trawl the comment section of celibacy TikTok, however, the suggested benefits get wilder. Women claim that abstaining from sex helped their hair grow, skin clear and balanced their PH levels and hormones. It sounds too good to be true, and that’s because – medically – it is.
“There are no medical benefits [to celibacy] other than the 100% guarantee that you will not get pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection,” says Dr Jennifer Lincoln, an OBGYN and medical advisor to The Body Agency. Not having sex won’t make your vagina healthier, and, no, it won’t make your vagina tighter either.
On TikTok, some users even claim that celibacy can heal your yoni. Jennifer counters that there’s just no “biological plausibility” that what you put into your vagina can change your womb. While celibacy has no medical benefits, she doesn’t downplay how taking charge of our bodies can be impactful.
There could, Jennifer continues, also be a case of psychosomatic changes. When you feel better, it shows. “I glow different,” says Cindy. “As challenging as it may be to say no, every time that I’ve turned a guy down a part of me is so proud. It’s so empowering to walk away from people who don’t serve you.”
Cindy broke her celibacy last year with a woman. That didn’t work out and now she feels like she’s in limbo. “I don’t want the work of a relationship. I also don’t want the shallowness of casual. I’m too great of a person to settle for someone who only sees me as a physical outlet. So what does a woman do?”
It’s this sense of disillusionment that leads many women into choosing celibacy in the first place. But it’s even bigger than this, with Cindy emphasising the importance of celibacy as a tool for self-accountability. “I began asking ‘Okay, if he ain’t shit, why am I still here?’ Accountability means not blaming yourself for someone else’s actions, but asking why I allow people to remain in my space who have shown they don’t deserve to be.”
Whether or not you agree with the spiritual element being explored on TikTok, for some, celibacy can be a fantastic tool for growth. When you find yourself drained by fleeting casual encounters, abstaining can give you some time to work on yourself without distractions. It’s a chance to reflect on the conditioning which teaches men to be distant, independent and hyper-masculine, while women may forgo their needs to fill a maternal role. We all deserve more pleasurable, connected sex and healthy dating lives.