This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
When was the last time you had sex? A delicate question, yes, but one you’ll likely be able to answer in seconds. This morning, was it? Friday night? Perhaps a long and mournful two weeks? What if your last fuck was buried so far back in the tides of time that you couldn’t remember a thing about it? And what if the decision to forgo sex was entirely voluntary?
Welcome to the world of the celibate millennial.
And, more pertinently, welcome to my world: I'm a 29-year-old man who has voluntarily decided to accept celibacy. I'm also aware that for you, the word ‘celibacy’ probably conjures up images of shy monks, gun-toting childhood sweethearts from Texas, gun-toting virgins from Reddit or that very specific breed of sad, suburban sandal fanatic you tend to see mall cafeterias, staring strangely at the fish and flicking through back issues of Reader’s Digest. The idea of being a voluntarily celibate millennial—especially an agnostic one—is, for many incomprehensibly dismaying. But I would argue that it’s a reality you’re not as far away from as you might think.
Years ago now, my last romantic relationship fizzled out in the way these things tend to. Two sad, stressed people can only make each other content for so long and the sorry fact of the matter is that unless you are both equipped with enough libidinal juice to keep the San Fernando Valley groaning morning, noon, and night, sex is often one of the first things to go.
At night, in front of the milky glare of the laptop’s dimmed screen, you both quietly disengage from one another, turning silently to face separate walls. In the morning, one of you showers while the other looks at emails, starting the day on edge, turning life into something that feels unstoppable, uncontrollable. And then you swap.
Eventually, we broke up. She moved out, then I moved out and then we both tried to move on.
For a long time afterward, I wondered when desire—a word I’d never applied to myself with any degree of seriousness before—would knock on my door again. At first, it filled me with a gnawing sense of doubt and worry. But then I could feel myself starting to embrace it. I realized, after a few months of what felt like externally imposed abstinence, that outside of the context of a relationship, sex really wasn’t an important part of my life.
However much you’re getting laid, you surely can’t have failed to notice that we're living through a seismic shift in how love, sex, and relationships function. Dating—which should be fun, remember—increasingly isn’t. The ever-present apps we prod at on buses and in public bathrooms coerce us into a grim back and forth, constantly urging us to create ever-more appealing versions of ourselves to offer up in the romantic marketplace. Dating has become like work and our Tinder, Grindr, and Hinge profiles have become our resumes, the snapshots of us we publish online as we seek to digitally negotiate our way to a closed deal that only vaguely resembles real human intimacy. There are productivity quotas to hit, meetings to be arranged, never-ending paperwork and reports-back to be filed in the gossip-hungry group chat.
When dating—which, after all, is how most people arrive at sex—ceases to be fun, and in fact becomes a source of extreme anxiety, then desire itself is suffused with a similar sense of paralyzing tension. As desire becomes a source of anxiety, so, gradually, does the mere idea of desire, or of being desired. In no time at all, sex itself stops being an attractive option.
We all know that millennials allegedly have less sex than any other generation in history—even your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandad, the ancient dude who lived in a hut, got more action than you, you feckless, fuckless, box-set obsessed wreck. And we all know that anxiety, the scourge of the modern condition, plays an increasingly large role in this.
Anxiety is, I think, the main reason why I find myself at 29 happily abandoning the fight to desire and be desired. Because lust and love no longer feel like solace and escapism to me. Instead, they seem to be yielding, just like everything else, to the surge of transactional neuroses that constitutes life in the digital age.
Jack is a 26-year-old model currently living in London. Just after Christmas last year, he too took a vow of voluntary celibacy, though his motives weren’t totally aligned with my own. “I’d recently suffered a series of heartbreaks and was absolutely devastated over a man with whom I'd had amazing sex—having mediocre or even adequate sex with other people was just making the pain of that loss even more apparent,” he tells me. “I felt like I was desperately grasping for something, so I decided to delete all the apps and not have sex for at least a month.”
What began as an experiment gradually became something that continued indefinitely. When I ask whether he considers it a success, Jack nods and says, “Very well—I learned that rather than trying to satisfy this terrible need for sex or intimacy, I could diminish it, reduce it to a tolerable, even pleasant, level of yearning.” The result, Jack says, is that he has more time to spend with friends, or on solo sessions in the gym. Not that voluntarily entering into a period of abstinence automatically results in a total—or even partial—diminution of desire. “I just got back into watching porn and masturbating a lot,” he admits. “Which was fine! It was enough.”
Another friend, Monica, a marketing executive who lives and works in Manchester, is currently in a 12-step recovery program. Part of this program involves a decision to abstain from intimate relationships of both a sexual and romantic kind. I ask if she feels that the concept of ‘voluntary celibacy’ is a valid one—both as a linguistic device used to describe a sex-free dry spell, as Jack applied it, and as a lifestyle choice, as I employ the term. “There are definitely people who identify as voluntarily celibate and definitely benefits to choosing not to engage in sexual activity,” she says. “But I often find myself wondering if sometimes it’s a way to avoid intimacy and all the anxiety-inducing thoughts, scenarios, and vulnerability that come with that.” This is something that I, and no doubt other young celibates, ponder a lot. Friends will often, with good reason, question how much I actually want to be celibate, and how much I’ve decided to parlay an assemblage of fears (fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of simply not being very good at sex and not knowing how to cope with that) into an easily-adoptable role to play down the pub, perfect for excusing the fact that my efforts to integrate back into the romantic and sexual community are pretty much non-existent.
Is it not, friends ask, an excuse? A means of masking anxieties around sex and what it means to like sex, to want sex, to think about sex, to be thought about by others in the context of sex?
Well, yes, and no. There are, of course, nights (or mornings more usually, to be truthful, mornings when I am hungover and realize that last night I was surrounded by couples and now I am rigidly alone, with only a book and a phone next to me; the mornings when I drag myself to the gym down the road and sit in the steam room with other sad and lost men, men who do not like the facts of their lives nor life's texture, men who sit with clenched fists and necks craned deep into their chest) when I am forced to consider just how voluntary my decision to abscond from the world of sex is.
I miss intimacy, that’s undeniable, and I miss an essential closeness that only sex with someone you love truly seems capable of offering. But I do not miss those things enough to force myself to renegotiate my relationship to how things work here in the present. Fundamentally, and perhaps oddly for some, I do not miss sex in itself more than I’d miss the chance to deny life another way to flood my neural networks with anxiety and the sense of failure.
So, here right before Valentine’s Day, as you’re all happily getting laid, allow me both my cake and a chance to eat it.
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