Sex vs. Abstinence

I decided to reblog this post because it brings up a perspective of the words “abstinence” and “celibacy” that I hadn’t thought much about — that they aren’t accurate ways to describe asexual people because they imply self-restraint.

While it’s true that many aces don’t feel they’re missing out on anything by not having sex, there are also aces who enjoy and want sex (re: sexual attraction is not the same thing as sexual desire) so even under that perspective, some asexuals who don’t have sex could still be said to be exercising restraint.

Ignoring the food metaphor for now, I’d like to examine this further.

Celibate is a word that I’ve always taken as a general word to mean “not having sex, on purpose”, as opposed to “not having sex due to not having formed a sexual relationship yet”. The etymology of celibacy comes from a Latin word for the “state of being unmarried”, which obviously does not preclude sex from happening, but it’s easy to see how the meaning of the word would have evolved that way (and it’s also still sometimes used to mean not being married). Neither of these definitions is dependent upon celibacy being a result of self-discipline or ignoring (existent) sexual desires. If it has that association, it’s only because of the common assumption that most people are allosexual and would enjoy sex.

However, the associations of restraint make more sense with the word abstinent, which is based on the word “abstain”, to refrain deliberately from an indulgence, as an act of self-denial. The word does not have to pertain to sexual activity, but that’s certainly one of its usages. I associate abstinence with the specific practice of remaining celibate until marriage, especially if for religious reasons. There are some aces out there who are/were abstinent, but for most aces, it seems, whether or not they are willing to have sex is not dependent on marital status.

I self-describe as both celibate and abstinent interchangeably, although these days I’m less sure about the latter. There are probably more celibate aces than abstinent aces. Even though abstinence does imply restraint, it can make sense for aces to use the term for the meaning it has accrued through a certain religious-cultural context (i.e. “no sex before marriage”). It’d be misleading to describe all non-sex-having aces as abstinent, however, because some may intend to never marry and some may intend to keep not-sex-having after marriage. Celibacy does not impose a similar timeline and does not imply the existence/experience of sexual desire, so I believe that it is an appropriate descriptor for people on the asexual spectrum who have made an intentional choice not to have sex.

I agree with the original poster, though, that asexuals should not have to “try it”, and it makes no sense to insist on as much while making no such assertion that straight people should “try” sex with members of their own gender. Regardless of a person’s degree of sexual experience, sexual attraction is the determining factor of orientation — and asexuality is just another orientation.

I'm Ace, ask me how!

I don’t know of another word for asexuality that aptly describes not desiring sex as a default without negative connotations, like impotency. “Abstinence” implies self-restraint, so that doesn’t really apply to asexuality. And I am celibate because I’m asexual, but not all asexuals are celibate and not all celibates are asexual.

“Abstinence” for asexuals is as much of a choice as not eating asparagus. It’s just not something we would think about until asked (or because of the asparagus-ladened commercialism our culture is saturated in). I’m glad the lot of you like asparagus, but it does nothing for me. If presented with a buffet, I am not going to make a beeline for the asparagus to load my plate. Even if the available asparagus has a variety of cooked methods to choose from (e.g., pan-seared, grilled, and/or drizzled in cheese), there are other options that I find more appealing.

And yes…

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6 responses to “Sex vs. Abstinence

  • ace-muslim

    The way I think about it is that, although I have no interest in sex for its own sake, I could choose to have it for other reasons. I don’t, and therefore my celibacy is a matter of choice even as an asexual. I don’t really use the term abstinent, however.

  • Calum P Cameron

    I believe “chastity” is the traditional term for an “only-within-marriage” attitude to sex, although I could be wrong. Personally I use “celibate” rather than “abstinent” to describe my own decision not to have sex because where I come from the latter tends to be used in regards to drugs and alcohol rather than sex. (I am, by that understanding, both abstinent AND celibate, but whatever).

    • acetheist

      Ohoho, chastity, now there’s something I could write a whole ‘nother blog post about.

    • ace-muslim

      My understanding is that chastity is to not have sex at all before marriage and to only have sex with the spouse within marriage. Celibacy differs from chastity in that the person never marries at all and I think that’s why some explanations of celibacy focus on not marrying.

      • Calum P Cameron

        I have certainly heard of a “celibate marriage”, which is where they ARE married but they DON’T have sex. I’ve always thought of celibacy as a choice not to have sex, and wasn’t previously aware that it had ever been linked to one’s decision (or lack thereof) to marry.

        Of course, it’s a moot point if you live in one of those countries/states where a marriage by definition can’t be considered consummated until sex has been had. But I’ve always considered that a dumb idea anyway.

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