Image by Naomi Gennery
Sexual liberation comes in different forms. For some, having an active sex life as a young adult is an expression of sexual liberty. No longer are women the passive bystanders who have no sexual desire or urges. You can have sex with who you want, when you want, and however many times you want it. It’s a revolutionary way to reject societal standards that demand women abstain from sex until marriage for the benefit of their future husband.
And then there’s celibacy. I’ve always thought of celibacy as a physical and mental exercise. It’s a deliberate choice not to be sexually and emotionally involved with another person for a particular, personal reason. While physical abstinence is a fundamental part of being celibate, there’s also a lot of emotional and mental work that happens in the process. That’s certainly the case for the women I talked to about their experiences with celibacy. They know all too well that the societies and cultures they live in dictate that they abstain from sex, but they’re not doing it for other people. For them, choosing celibacy is just as liberating and revolutionary as being sexually active.
“For them, choosing celibacy is just as liberating and revolutionary as being sexually active”
Zinhle, 21. Johannesburg. Celibate for 6 months.
Zinhle chose celibacy for two reasons. “One: I have sex when I’m drunk 80% of the time. No alcohol means I don’t touch anyone. Two: my relationships with people have become heavily dependant on what they can offer me sexually and I want to change that. A huge part of my decision to be celibate was about control and choice. I wanted to hold myself to a higher standard.”
In the beginning, it was hard. “I developed super hearing – I heard sex miles away. Okay, too dramatic but I can honestly say because I have always respected my body and given it whatever it wants, this time I felt like I was depriving myself.”
Nevertheless, Zinhle has persisted. She’s glad she didn’t give in and end her celibacy. She’s learnt more about herself, and about what she wants from sex. “I’ve discovered that the sexual act is not a big deal, acceptance is the big exchange that happens. For a moment or a night or whatever, should the act be 100% consenting, someone is allowing you to be figuratively and literally naked and accepting whatever you are offering them in that moment. Before celibacy, every month I would have to guess if I would be a baby mama or not. It’s been very peaceful not having to think about it.”
Rebecca, 23. Stellenbosch. Celibate for 23 years.
But what about the young women who haven’t had sex yet? After all, you can’t miss what you’ve never had, right? But even for virgins, celibacy can and should be a choice and exercising their sexual freedom. At least, that’s what Rebecca believes.
“It’s hard because I’ve been dumped because of it, and people don’t believe me when I say I want to abstain”
Although Rebecca’s been celibate all her life, she only consciously made the choice when she was almost done with secondary school. “As time went on, I just decided to do it [sex] when I’m 100% certain I’m emotionally and mentally ready for everything that comes with sex. It’s hard because I’ve been dumped because of it, and people don’t believe me when I say I want to abstain. It’s hard when other women find out I’m a virgin and judge me for it, thinking I’m a ‘pick me’.”
Damned if you, damned if you don’t. Women who are sexually active are labelled as “easy”. Women who are celibate are labelled as “uptight” or “prudish”. The end result is the same: women not having full ownership and acceptance when it comes to their choices around sex and their bodies.
Anna, 26, Nairobi. Celibate for 26 years.
For Anna, celibacy is the best way to avoid an unplanned pregnancy. Her fears aren’t ungrounded: single mothers are still often stigmatised for having sex outside of marriage.
“Abstinence is the only 100% method I trust. Plus I’m not ready to start thinking about fertility, contraception methods and their side effects. So far, my experiences (with celibacy) has been good. I’ve learnt how to explore different ways to be intimate with your partner without sex. And how to be assertive without physical boundaries.”
“Abstinence is the only 100% method I trust. Plus I’m not ready to start thinking about fertility, contraception methods and their side effects”
Ruva, 28. Harare. Celibate for 28 years.
“I chose it because I started to see how incredibly personal that experience is and I just wanted to share it with one person after marriage. I’m not as stressed as some of my friends who worry about hookups that never call back.”
However, dating has been difficult. Ruva’s decided to be upfront whenever a man shows interest in her, but it’s gotten mixed results. “Some ghost IMMEDIATELY! They just vanish. It sucks but it weeds out the F boys. Some think it’s only a matter of time and give themselves challenges to break down my walls. This is worse than the ghosting for me because I can’t lower my guard when I know you are just waiting to pounce on me. Thank you, next”
Difficulties aside, Ruva has learnt a thing or two about relationships and herself. “I’ve learnt to pay attention. These men will say anything to get into them drawers! I now watch to see if their words match their actions. I’ve learnt to channel my energy into other things, to have peace of mind and to love myself first. I’ve learnt to be humble. I’m not superior or purer than someone with a body count higher than mine.”
Navigating sex can be a confusing and potentially hurtful experience for young women. In a world where we still don’t have agency over sex and our preferences, there is power in choosing to be sexually active and choosing not to be. Far from puritan ideals where abstinence is tied to the worth and value of a woman, the young woman of today chooses celibacy for nobody else but themselves. Their body, their rules, their choice.