Asexuality and Celibacy: What’s the difference, anyway?

I have a friend that hasn’t had sex in a while. Does that mean they’re asexual?

No. Not having sex makes that person celibate. It doesn’t make them asexual.

But isn’t “Asexuality” just a fancy-sounding word for “Celibacy”?

No, not at all. Celibacy and asexuality are two different concepts. Celibacy means someone doesn’t have sex. Asexuality means someone doesn’t have sexual attraction.

I still don’t see how those are any different. They both mean that person isn’t getting any.

Not necessarily. Asexuality describes an orientation, not behavior. Heterosexuals are attracted to the opposite sex, homosexuals are attracted to the same sex, and asexuals aren’t attracted to any sex. However, it’s possible for someone to have sex with someone they’re not sexually attracted to. Someone can be asexual and still have sex. It’s not like we’re going to kick them out of the club or anything.

So… What is the difference, then?

Here’s a handy-dandy cheat sheet for you:

  • Celibacy: Not having sex for some reason. (“I don’t have sex because __________.”)
  • Abstinence: Choosing not to have sex for some reason. (“I don’t have sex because I choose not to.”)
  • Asexuality: Not having sexual attraction. May or may not have sex. (“Sex? What’s that? Please pass the cake.”)

A lot of people try to explain the difference between asexuality and celibacy by saying something like “Celibacy is a choice. Asexuality is not.” I don’t agree with that characterization.

First of all, it implies that celibacy and asexuality are nearly equivalent concepts, where one is voluntary and the other is involuntary. This is not correct. Asexuality describes an orientation, not a behavior, while celibacy is only talking about behavior. Someone who is celibate is not having sex by definition, while someone who is asexual doesn’t experience sexual attraction, but they may or may not be having sex. It is possible for a person to have sex multiple times a day, yet still be asexual.

Secondly, the claim that celibacy is a choice is not always correct. A celibate person is a person who is not having sex, but the reason for them not having sex could be beyond their control. For example, someone could be in a situation where there are no partners available, such as being locked up in prison or on the International Space Station for a few months. In that case, it’s not a choice to be celibate, it’s a product of their environment. Likewise, someone could be celibate because they simply don’t have a partner at the moment for whatever reason. Those people may want sex and would have sex if it were available, but circumstances have forced them to be celibate. Abstinence is the choice not to have sex.

Now I’m confused. Does that mean that an asexual cannot be celibate or abstinent?

No. Asexuality and celibacy are separate concepts, however, they may overlap in an individual. Many asexuals are celibate and some are also abstinent. Filling in the blank from the definition of celibacy above, a celibate asexual is likely to say “I don’t have sex because I’m asexual and do not experience sexual attraction, therefore sex isn’t all that interesting for me.” An asexual person may or may not be celibate. An asexual person may or may not be abstinent. A person who is abstinent is also celibate by definition, but a person who is celibate may not be abstinent, because they may not have made a deliberate choice to not have sex. Someone who is celibate or abstinent is not necessarily asexual, in fact, most people who are celibate or abstinent are not asexual.

It is important to note that while a person may have religious or social reasons for being abstinent, a person does not have religious or social reasons for being asexual. It can be considered offensive to assume that an asexual is “planning to wait until marriage” or wishes to “remain pure”. Asexuality is not a choice, so there is no motive there. An asexual is asexual because they’re asexual, not because they want to be and not because they’re striving for a higher purpose. Of course, it is possible for an asexual to be practicing abstinence because of a religious or social reason, but it is the abstinence that is for the religious or social reason, not the asexuality.

In my case, I am a celibate asexual. I have not had sex in nearly nine years. I do not consider myself to be practicing abstinence because I have not made a deliberate choice to not have sex. I also do not identify as involuntarily celibate, because I’m perfectly fine not having sex. I just don’t have sex because I don’t have a partner and I’m not terribly interested in finding a partner. If I were to end up in a relationship with someone and they wanted to have sex, then I imagine that I would be willing to do so. (After all, that happened before.)

9 thoughts on “Asexuality and Celibacy: What’s the difference, anyway?

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  4. Thanks for trying to clarify all that. I’m still very confused about the difference between them even after reading that and having listened to a lot of things related to asexuality vs celibacy.

    Are you familiar with hard determinism? Since everything that a person does is ultimately out of their control, it erases the meaning of choosing to be abstinent. Many people agree that asexuality isn’t something chosen, but then they use the word choice to describe celibacy or abstinence as different concepts.

    I know there are differences, but it’s really hard to explain it without believing in choice.

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  6. What if a person has had such experiences in life that the thought of sex would want to make them die rather. They would never find anyone sexually attractive nor would they want to hear the word sex. And this is going to be like this for life. What is this person called? An asexual? Or a celibate? Or an abstinent?

    • That person would be an abstinent asexual, some asexual people might feel repulsion against the idea of having sex themselves or against sex as a whole, some might even masturbate in the regular or watch porn. There are many ways to be asexual, its only about not feeling sexual attraction.
      At the end of the day, these tags are best used not to describe yourself, but to describe yourself to others, so dont take them as solid definitions.

  7. I’m giving up on knowing what I am, and just resting with what I do, feel, and think. I have a vivid fantasy life, but when I think of actualizing any of that, I get very uncomfortable, rather like attraction to women made me feel when I realized that I was supposed to sexualize them when I did not do so. Sex is fun to think about for me, but in the real world, I’d rather read. I just know that real sex seems to be somewhat repugnant.

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