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Abstinence vs. Celibacy – What’s the Difference?

Abstinence and celibacy are two of the most personal decisions you can make. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, they in fact have different connotations.

Abstinence is a broad term used to mean voluntarily abstaining or staying away from certain pleasures like alcohol, drugs, certain foods, and sex. Celibacy, on the other hand, is specific to sex and marriage. In this article, we will address sexual abstinence and celibacy.

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Why Abstain or Remain Sexually Celibate?

The subject of controlling sexual desires is one that’s usually addressed with care and hesitation because of the many conflicting ideologies and research on the advantages and disadvantages attached to it. Wh Abstain or Celibiate?

While some psychologists swear that frequent sex is vital to brain productivity, immunity, and mood improvement, others believe that refraining from sexual activities over time enhances positive thoughts and memory power. The latter advises that refraining from sexual activity is a therapeutic process that serves to improve your self–esteem and attain control over your emotions. Attaining control over emotions consequently increases your mental power, gives you the energy and capability to control desires, and brings to rise your noble self.

There are several reasons why you may choose to abstain or to be celibate. These are all deeply personal reasons. It’s also important to note that you can choose to abstain or to be celibate even when you have engaged in sexual activities before.

What is Abstinence?

Abstinence is the decision not to engage in sexual activities for a designated period of time. For some people, abstinence is restricted only to penetration. For this group, other sexual activities like kissing, touching, and masturbation are permissive.

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However, for others, abstinence means completely keeping off all sexual activity for a certain period of time.

Below are some of the reasons people choose abstinence:

  • Psychological Reasons

Sexual intercourse comes with strings attached. It’s a deep intimacy that arouses strong emotions and the release of oxytocin and dopamine, both of which can be addictive. Abstinence is thus a good way to curb psychological issues like sex addiction, and addiction to masturbation and pornography.

Moreover, refraining from sexual activities will help you deal with the negative aspects of sexual relations like anxiety, rejection, and feelings of emptiness. Abstinence is particularly healing if practiced after a sexual assault.

  • Medical Reasons

Abstinence is the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. In some cases, people abstain following doctor’s orders during an illness.

  • Social Reasons

Some cultures strictly forbid premarital and extramarital sex. In fact, it wasn’t until the sexual revolution of the 1960s that the Western world became accepting of premarital sex.

In some cultures, however, sex before and outside of marriage is still viewed as immorality. This is why some people choose to abstain.

  • Financial Reasons

Believe it or not, there is a connection between abstinence and financial freedom. Some people choose to abstain because of the costs associated with condoms and other family planning methods.

Tied to this reason, is the fact that others choose to abstain because they aren’t ready to incur the costs that come with raising children. 

  • Religious reasons

Religions like Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity frown upon premarital sex. As such, the faithful may choose to abstain from sex until they are married.

People in marriages may also choose to abstain from sex when they are fasting in prayer. Religiously speaking, abstinence is seen as a way to elevate the believer above the constraints of desire and empower them to choose a more ideal path.

What is Celibacy?

Celibacy is a vow made to refrain from all sexual activities and sexual scenes, including staying away from marriage for life.

The main point of celibacy is to maintain a clean body and mind, a feat that can be easily threatened by sexual activity. Celibacy is mainly practiced for religious reasons and especially religious leaders who devote their lives to the service of God and people.

In this case, it’s believed that abstaining from sex and family life allows you the freedom and mental space required for divine service. When practiced for religious reasons, celibacy is a great way to avoid the sin of lust, which is believed to have the potential to cause great chaos.

Religion is not the only reason behind celibacy. Sometimes people chose to completely refrain from sexual activities so as to focus their time, effort, and energy on other areas of their lives such as career, mission, friendship, a family member in need of care, or just to constantly nurse their wellbeing.

There are different religions that enforce celibacy as a requirement but the most prevalent one is the Roman Catholic Church which is also known as the first Christian church from which other churches branched.

The question that arises is when and how did celibacy become a requirement when the teachings of Jesus did not enforce it and the disciples were known to be married? The following three perspectives and traditions played a  major role in the fostering of celibacy in religions.

  • The Jewish Purification Rituals

Priests and Levites, who were the traditional Jewish leaders, were required to be highly pure before performing temple duties. This purity was believed to be polluted by things like diseases, menstrual blood, bodily excretions, and…you guessed it, sex. For this reason, they were required to refrain from sexual activities.

  • The Gentile Culture

The Gentile culture, which was also largely incorporated into religion, viewed sexual intercourse as a big carnal corruption. Gentiles believed that virginity was the greatest form of purity. Priests from this culture had a deep hatred for women and the human body and some even castrated themselves so as to completely avoid temptations of the flesh.

  • The Philosophical Problem of Evil

Highly borrowed from the Manichean culture, this worldview saw women and sex as the root course of all evil.

Bishop Augustine of Hippo who was originally from the Manichean culture introduced the concept that the original sin of the Garden of Eden was a sexual sin. According to his teachings, sexual pleasure equaled women who in turn equaled evil.

These three perspectives found their way into religions and while the origin of the concept was forgotten, celibacy was embraced by different religions and is still in use today.

Final Thoughts on Abstinence and Celibacy

The benefits of practicing abstinence and celibacy can’t be denied. However, there are also disadvantages attached to the concept, such as feelings of loneliness and isolation, and the disregard of important aspects of life such as marriage and family.

As already stated, abstinence and celibacy are highly personal choices. As long as you have done your research and thought it through, then you are free to enjoy a break or an infinite relief from the pleasures of the flesh.

Of importance is to ensure that you set your boundaries right from the beginning so that you don’t find yourself backsliding. Unless you want to.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.