Celibate for a year

“I swore off sex for a year – here’s what I’ve learned about myself and my relationships so far” 

How a self-imposed sex ban helped one young woman begin to figure out what she really wants and needs. 

In the middle of the pandemic, Maria Hassan, 24, from Belfast, made a decision to abstain from sex and instead work on herself. Over a year into her oath, she tells Annie Lord what she’s learned. 

I didn’t plan to stop having sex. Pre-pandemic, I’d enjoyed casual sex, leaving most nights out with someone on my arm and going on multiple dates a week. I was the friend who filled the WhatsApp group with juicy stories, like the time I was seeing a guy whose attic bedroom was only accessible by a ladder located in his mum’s bedroom, or getting caught having sex on the balcony of a ski chalet by a shocked guy driving a ski plough past while on holiday. As you can imagine, when lockdown rules outlawed sex I initially had no idea how I was going to cope.

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But being stuck inside for such long periods also gave me time to think. Slowly, I began to realise that I wasn’t really mentally present during many of my sexual encounters and a lot of the time it felt performative, too. I wasn’t focusing on how I felt at that moment but rather on what would feel good to the guy. I relied on these encounters for my self-worth, too, only feeling valued if people wanted to have sex with me. I’d rush into things without considering the implications. Was this someone I trusted, for example? And was I going to have to run into this person all the time? There were so many times I woke up the next morning with fear and dread washing over me. I’d get with people who would lose interest in me as soon as we’d have sex. It had started to feel so transactional. 

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Despite these realisations, I was still keen to find someone as soon as the lockdown lifted last spring. I met a guy through my friend’s boyfriend. He was exactly my usual type – overconfident and flirtatious, so we went on a couple of dates. While the sex was good, it also felt anticlimactic somehow. When I meet a new partner I usually experience this rush of attraction and validation, but then things quickly cool off – I get bored or they lose interest. This would leave me wondering what I’d done wrong. Before lockdown I was able to push these feelings aside, but they were now suddenly too difficult to ignore. Walking home from his place one night – because he hadn’t offered to walk with me or order me a taxi – I called my friend and said: “This is the last time I’m going to have an unfulfilling sexual experience.” And just like that, I took my vow of indefinite celibacy. I wanted to take time out to discover what I really wanted, however long that might take.

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Nearly a year later, I haven’t budged in my stance. And I’m not the only one: celibacy is on the rise. In 2020, a study of 10,000 Americans by the Karolinska Institute revealed that the proportion of men aged 25 to 34 who had not had sex in 12 months has doubled from 7% in 2002 to 14.1% in 2018 – and  I imagine the results would be similar on this side of the pond. For women, celibacy has also increased, now affecting 12.6% of 25- to 34-year-olds, up from 7% in 2002. 

In recent years, more celebrities from Justin Bieber to Lady Gaga have been open about their celibacy journeys, with Nick Cannon declaring in February that celibacy allowed him to regain a feeling of “control” over his life. There’s even such a thing as “celibacy TikTok” – an emerging subsection of the app where users explain that they’re practising celibacy because “guys only want to use you for your body” and as a means to “reclaim sexual energy”, heal trauma and slow down their love lives.

My friends were really surprised by my decision. Some of them didn’t understand, but now that they’ve seen the improvement in my self-confidence, they know it’s the right choice for me and they’re very supportive. 

Interestingly, I don’t second guess myself as much now that I’m not trying to attract a potential partner’s attention – I wear what I want to wear, not what men might notice. I’ve also learned to take pride in my hobbies, such as cooking a fancy meal for myself and actually appreciate my own company now. I enjoy going to the cinema or seeing an exhibition on my own, something I would never have done before. It hasn’t been easy, though – there have been a couple of near misses. A man I was besotted with a few years ago tried to get with me the other night and while it brought up old feelings and I was tempted, I decided that it wasn’t worth breaking that promise with myself. Some men have also viewed it as a bit of a challenge, which says a lot about their attitude towards consent. No means no, not ‘convince me’.

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I think there’s a misconception that being celibate means you’re not a sexual person. Ironically, since embarking on my journey I’d say I have a more fulfilling sex life than ever before, albeit one that’s just with myself. It’s led to greater awareness and interest in my own pleasure. I’ve even joined a women’s sexuality circle at my local yoga studio, where we talk through issues that are affecting our physicality. It’s helped me to take accountability for some of my behaviours, too, namely needing validation from men. I’m asking myself questions I never did before. What makes me feel good? Do I feel supported by this potential partner (when there one day is one)? Am I happy with the dynamic between us? 

I don’t plan to be celibate forever. Moving forward, I want to find someone I feel safe and comfortable with first and foremost. But I’ll also be coming from a place of being much more knowledgeable about myself, my desires and my body. I can direct them to what I actually enjoy now. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have casual sex again, because there were times in the past when it has been pure, no-strings-attached fun. But it’s also important to check in with yourself and ask what your expectations are. What do you want out of the interaction? Do you care about ‘aftercare’, for instance? This could be something as simple as cooking a meal together, having a cup of tea or a text the next day to make sure that everything’s all right. Are those things important to you? It’s helpful to know this up front. 

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There are times when I do miss sex. Sharing an orgasm with a partner and all of the humour that comes with sex is special. Even just being physically close to another person is something that’s easy to neglect when you’re being intimate with another person – I’m trying to focus on getting more of this from platonic relationships now. I’m consciously more tactile with my friends, we hug and hold hands more than before. People tend to have this misconception that intimacy is only reserved for a sexual partner, but it’s not true. A hug from a best friend or spending an evening snuggled under a blanket watching a movie with someone you love is intimacy too, and it’s just as important. 

It’s easy to look at my single friends going on dates or the couples in my life and feel like I’m missing out or wasting my youth, but I try not to compare myself. I know that I am on my own path and that there’s so much time for sex ahead of me – I’ve got my whole life. I think one day in the future when I am in a relationship, I’ll look back at this time with fondness. When the only person I had to focus on was me.

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Illustration: Irina Selaru