What Does Celibacy Mean, Anyway?

So here’s a great question someone sent me:

I have a question… or opinion from you please and thanks. If a person doesn’t indulge in sexual intercourse with a partner are they abstinent or celibate? And are they either if they penetrate themselves with a toy? Lastly, if they only use a bullet without penetration is that in those categories as well? Just confused after researching definitions for both words

There’s a question that’s underneath your question that needs to get unpacked first: what is sex?

That isn’t a trivial question. The issue of how we define sex is the source of a lot of confusion, disagreement, and sometimes, conflict. For some people, sex is intercourse and everything else is foreplay or messing around. For other folks, sex might be defined as any kind of pleasurable genital stimulation, or an activity that leads (or might lead) to orgasm. The difficulty is that none of these definitions always hits the mark.

For example, if someone is in a monogamous relationship and they think that sex equals intercourse, what happens if their partner gets a blowjob from someone else? Would they say that would be cheating? If so, then maybe their definition of sex is a bit bigger than just intercourse, even if they don’t realize it.

Another example: sometimes, people have sex and don’t have an orgasm. Or they have sex that doesn’t feel pleasurable. Now, we can get into a discussion of why someone might have sex that doesn’t feel good, but setting that aside, it’s easy to see that lots of people have definitions of sex that don’t require orgasm or pleasure.

When we’re talking about masturbation, it gets even more confusing. Is it sex if you masturbate with a partner over the phone or video? What about if you’re across the room from each other? What if you’re on opposite sides of the bed? What if you’re kissing each other, but not touching anywhere else? At what point does it turn into sex?

Things are just as confusing when we’re talking about virginity. I’ve heard some women say that they weren’t allowed to use tampons when they were teenagers because their parents believed that vaginal penetration by an object would “take their virginity.” And there are some teens and young adults who have anal intercourse and still identify as virgins since they aren’t “having sex.”

In her amazing post, Are We Having Sex Now, or What?, Greta Christina makes the point that we really don’t have a good definition for what sex is, which can lead to all kinds of conflict and confusion. Your question about whether someone can be celibate or abstinent if they use sex toys, either with or without penetration, highlights that. Some religious traditions that call for abstinence would claim that any erotic stimulation is against the rules. Some people would say that sex is something that happens between two people, so solo masturbation is compatible with celibacy. Some people would say that if your intention is to have an orgasm, you’re having sex, whether you’re on your own or with someone else.

With all of these different ways of looking at it, it’s no wonder we get so confused about what we mean when we talk celibacy, abstinence, and virginity. If we can’t come up with a good definition for sex, then we can’t come up with good definitions for any of those words, either. I’m guessing that that isn’t a very satisfying answer to your question. But I think that a more important question is: what does sex mean to you? Do you feel like using a toy for self-penetration is sex? If it feels like sex to you, then it is. And if it doesn’t, then it isn’t. In the end, it’s how you define these words for yourself that’s important.