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Author: Kristin Aune
Editor: Jodi O'Brien
Date: 2009
Encyclopedia of Gender and Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 118


Celibacy is abstinence from marriage and sexual relations. Most common in religion, celibacy is the gateway to sacred roles in Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. In a religious context, a person embracing celibacy often takes a vow.

Understandings and experiences of celibacy are evolving. Until relatively recently in Western societies, celibacy was equated with the unmarried state. But with sexual activity no longer confined solely to marriage, unmarried people are often sexually active. Perhaps viewing celibacy as less interesting than the widening range of sexual activities available for study, social scientists have rarely examined the topic.

In the ancient world, celibacy was often advocated or sex recommended only sparingly because loss of seminal fluids was thought detrimental to (men's) health. For many today, celibacy requires total abstention from genital pleasure, but others see masturbation as acceptable. Although many consider celibacy synonymous with sexual abstinence and chastity, there are differences. Celibacy has more-positive, volitional, and long-term connotations than abstinence.

Contemporary sexual abstinence movements, like True Love Waits, persuade young people to save sex for marriage. Some young people who pledge to abstain embrace celibacy as a positive stage in their lives. Others struggle to adhere to their celibate ideal: Researchers studying abstinence movements have found that although pledging abstinence delays the age of first sex, pledges are frequently broken. Celibacy as an ideal and celibacy as a practice are often different.

In institutions like prisons and hospitals, where there is limited contact with outsiders and limited opportunities to engage in a sexual relationship, celibacy is often enforced. Even in contexts that are integrated with general social life, there are people who wish to find sexual partners but cannot. They are sometimes called “involuntary celibates.”

Chastity, another term associated with celibacy, does not necessarily mean sexual abstinence. Its original meaning was “moral purity,” and this was interpreted as conserving sexual activity to monogamous heterosexual marriage. A married, sexually active person could thus be chaste but could not be celibate or abstinent. Virginity is not required for celibacy, although some celibates have never engaged in sex. Celibacy is normally a subcategory of singleness. However, married or partnered people sometimes become celibate while remaining with their partners, perhaps for a defined period.

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Motivations for Celibacy

People choose celibacy for different reasons. The religious dimension is uppermost. Altruism is another motivation: Celibacy enables people to devote themselves to caring for others. In the absence of adequate state welfare provision, an adult may remain celibate to look after aging parents. The Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi thought procreation a distraction from the needs of the community and recommended celibacy to aid self-discovery and public service. Some, like those with anorexia, rarely desire sex. Celibacy can also improve employment opportunities, for example, for religious professionals economically supported by their communities. The (female) Albanian “sworn virgins” who adopt male attire are able to access better-paid male occupations. People may espouse celibacy to enhance autonomy or personal growth or foster non-kin communities. Ideological commitments are another motivating reason for celibacy. Some feminists have rejected sexual activity to promote female friendship; as will be argued, the gender dimension of celibacy is, along with religion, its other most significant feature.


Celibacy is a feature of Buddhism, Christianity, and to a lesser extent Hinduism but is disdained by Jews and Muslims, for whom marriage and family life are central. Celibacy is practiced in some of the smaller religious groups, most of them newer offshoots from the major religions. These include the Jains and the neo-Hindu movement, the Brahma Kumaris. The Brahma Kumaris advocate celibacy within marriage, with sexual activity engaged in only for procreation and without undue pleasure.

Within Buddhism, sexual self-control through celibacy is normally required only of clergy (generally men), not of laity. Celibacy is adopted by a minority of Buddhists in the East and West, although in certain strands (notably Theravada Buddhism), most adherents are advised to take vows for short periods. Some commit to becoming nuns and monks. The code Buddhist monks and nuns follow, the Vinaya, prohibits sexual activity, including masturbation, and Page 119  |  Top of Articlesexual desire is seen as an obstacle to liberation. Celibacy has always been valued more highly for monks, for it is seen as being more compatible with masculinity, and monks have a higher status than their female counterparts.

The Roman Catholic branch of Christianity continues the tradition of celibacy first expressed in the New Testament. Jesus remained single and advocated that those who are called by God to do so renounce marriage for the kingdom of heaven, while St. Paul regarded singleness as a divine gift to be accepted if possible. Celibacy would enable believers to serve God with undivided attention and would act as a symbol of the life to come, where marriage would not exist, Paul argued. Celibacy grew in popularity through the early Christian centuries. By the third century, groups like the Syrians saw celibacy as a precondition for baptism. Theologians including Augustine, Jerome, and Benedict advocated communal celibacy. Monasteries and convents developed. By the 4th century, celibacy was increasingly required of priests and bishops, even those already married, particularly in the Western church, whose strict views on clerical celibacy were at odds with the Eastern churches. From the 8th to the 10th centuries, attempts to Christianize marriage largely replaced efforts to impose celibacy on priests, until the reform movement in the 11th century revived the call for clerical celibacy. Roman Catholicism has continued to require celibacy of its priests.

During the 16th-century Reformation, the celibate tradition was fiercely challenged. Protestants instead advocated marriage and childbearing, and celibate communities were closed, with many former inhabitants marrying. Academic theologian and former celibate monk Martin Luther married a former nun. Luther estimated that the sexual desire of women was so intense that only 1 in 1,000 (later revised to 1 in a 100,000) would be able to lead a pure celibate life; for him, celibacy was unnatural, threatening, and impure. While women gained affirmation as wives and mothers in the transition from woman-as-nun to woman-as-wife, many lost the status the convent had given them as spiritual leaders, workers, and members of a sisterhood. Today, Protestants usually favor marriage but have begun to accept celibate singleness as a viable alternative.

A series of sex abuse scandals has rocked contemporary Catholicism, leading onlookers to ask whether celibacy inclines priests to abuse children. Although some in the church were reluctant to take the issue seriously, the church dismissed some priests for misconduct. Defense of celibacy has continued. Many Catholics argue that celibacy does not cause abuse, since most priests do not abuse, but the celibate priesthood's hierarchies, rituals, and lack of openness about sex may provide a hiding place for men harboring desires toward children.

In Hinduism, brahmacharya, often translated as “celibacy,” is practiced alongside diet and meditation by ascetics seeking spiritual liberation. Celibacy is less prominent in Hinduism than in Christianity and Buddhism. Although it has been more common among (higher-caste) men, brahmacharya is also practiced by women. The meanings of celibacy can differ between the sexes. While men fear that losing semen risks polluting them and impairing their spiritual capabilities, for women, celibacy is more a temporary and involuntary abstinence before and after marriage. While the ideal, the four-stage life cycle for high-caste men, as traditionally understood, has a significant place for celibacy (abstinence is necessary in three out of the four stages), celibacy is considered powerful in only one of women's (less-codified) three life stages, her premarital girlhood. A minority of women, however, take a vow to become a sannyasini (female renouncer). Those who do, concentrate on developing emotional detachment through brahmacharya.

Celibacy and Gender

Celibacy is a gendered phenomenon and does not always benefit women. Some feminists think it signifies rejection of the female sexual body; celibacy, they argue, is a front for misogyny. Most scholarly attention goes to male celibates, who have attained higher status roles than females. Celibate women are often subject to patriarchy. Buddhist nuns are subordinate to Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns to male priests. Religious donors tend to give more to male celibate communities than female communities, so celibate women are more likely to face poverty. While financial security enables monks to travel to study holy texts, nuns often forego study for menial labor to sustain themselves. The notion prevalent in religion that celibate communities must be single sex has been criticized, especially by feminists. They point out that the single-sex requirement often comes from fear that women's sexuality will lead men astray and that women would gain from sharing opportunities for study and conversation with monks.

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On balance, celibacy aids more than hinders gender equality. In enabling women to step outside roles as wives and mothers, celibacy challenges gender norms. Early Christian teachings on celibacy contrasted with the Jewish preference for family and with prevailing household structures that saw women only through their relationships to male family members, and enabled women to join the traveling company of disciples. Contemporary Asian Buddhist nuns testify that celibacy brings relief from looking after husbands, pleasureless sex, and bearing many children. South Asian female renouncers can sidestep cultural hierarchies of gender and caste that often disadvantage them. Those who live as wandering ascetics visiting holy places of pilgrimage have more mobility in public than most women. For the female-majority movement the Brahma Kumaris, there is a connection between sex, the fall of humanity, and the oppression of women, and one purpose of celibacy is to promote the equality of women.

Perhaps because of its positive effects on gender equality, some regard celibacy as a feminist position. Unmarried women formed the backbone of the feminist movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Feminist Sally Cline argues that women are pressurized into feeling that they must engage in sexual activity. Celibacy enables them to reject this myth and brings a new freedom and autonomy.

In destabilizing gender roles, celibacy undermines the gendered, partnered, and childbearing foundation of most societies. This is a key argument advanced by Sally Kitch, whose study of three religious celibate communities in late-19th-century America (the Shakers, the Koreshans, and the Sanctificationists) demonstrates how celibacy promotes the unity and spiritual equality of men and women. She argues that celibacy eliminates the need for opposition of the sexes. The opposition of the sexual bond is replaced by a brother-sister relationship and shared, ungendered characteristics. Instead of the pattern of male worker and female domestic, the sexes work together in the household. The blood family and religious community no longer conflict, as the celibate community becomes a spiritual family. These findings are consistent with those of other anthropologists who have noted that societies who support celibacy tend to be more egalitarian than those that do not.


In sum, celibacy involves abstaining from sexual relations. In its prototypical form, it is voluntarily chosen, often for spiritual reasons, and lasts for a significant length of time. It may also be involuntary, and it is not always possible to differentiate between voluntary and involuntary celibacy. Celibacy has important gendered dimensions. While female celibates often endure more difficulties than males, celibacy remains key to the promotion of gender equality and women's freedom. Thus, it is worthy of further scholarly examination.

Kristin Aune

Further Readings

Cline, S. (1993). Women, celibacy, and passion. London: André Deutsch.

Khandelwal, M., Hausner, S. L., & Grodzins Gold, A. (Eds.). (2006). Women's renunciation in South Asia: Nuns, yoginis, saints, and singers. NewYork: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kitch, S. (1989). Chaste liberation: Celibacy and female cultural status. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Schneiders, S. M. (2001). Selling all: Commitment, consecrated celibacy, and community in Catholic religious life. New York: Paulist Press.

Sipe, A. W. R. (2003). Celibacy in crisis: A secret world revisited. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Sobo, E., & Bell, S. (Eds.). (2001). Celibacy, culture, and society: The anthropology of sexual abstinence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3073900077