This article was originally published on April 13, 2022.

This story is part of Re:’s Belief Week. From young people who are celibate, to New Zealand’s first Wicca church, we take a look at what belief, religion and spirituality mean today. Check out the rest of the stories here.

“Oh my God, is something wrong with you?” 

That’s the response Jess sometimes gets when she tells people she’s celibate.

After spending her twenties exploring her sexuality with both men and women, the now 33-year-old has been celibate for the last two years. 

Celibacy is when people abstaining from sex or sexual activities - it’s often tied to religion but people are choosing to be celibate for different reasons. 

For Jess, celibacy is self-care

Jess, who asked Re: not to include her real name because of the stigma that surrounds celibacy, says at first, her celibacy started as a knee-jerk reaction to the tiresome admin of dating apps.

It didn’t matter who she was talking to - the conversations would often feel like work and quickly die off. 

Or, she would get ghosted. 


Jess says she is surprised how easy it has been to be celibate for two years. Illustration by Pounamu Wharekawa

Another big part of why Jess is celibate is not wanting to settle for “crappy, average sex”. 

“My last partner was the best sex I have had pleasure wise and so part of it is not wanting to have anything less than that,” she says. 

“I don’t want some rando in my space, wasting my time. I would rather spend that time and energy focusing on myself and my career and seeing my friends.”

That’s when celibacy became a conscious decision in her life. 

“What surprises me is how content I feel, it’s been so easy,” Jess says.

“There’s been zero temptation - if anything it’s more repulsion. Like ‘oh God, I don’t want you anywhere near me,’” she laughs.

Jess says some people have made jokes and questioned if she just labels herself celibate because she can’t get laid. 

“But honestly, I could probably walk up to the nearest coffee shop and stand in the doorway and ask ‘does somebody want to have sex with me?’ and I am sure there would be someone who would say ‘yes’”.

“It’s not about not getting sex. It’s about not wanting sex, like at all right now.”

Celibacy beyond religion

While celibacy is often connected to religion, Dr Sue Bagshaw, a youth sexual health expert, says more young people are abstaining from sex for different reasons. 

She says growing dialogue around consent has made young people more empowered to say ‘no’ to sex.

More awareness about asexuality has also meant people who have no desire to have sex now have more freedom to say so. 

“There are loads of people throughout history that don't want to have sex or don't enjoy it for whatever reason, but they haven't been allowed to say so because it was seen as shameful,” Bagshaw says. 

“But now there is more acceptance or permission, particularly for women, to say they don’t want to without them being labeled lesbian or frigid like in the past, although this can still happen.”

Bragshaw says sexual abuse and seeing parents divorce can also influence young people to view sex as harmful, which can mean they avoid it.

Celibacy as a form of protection

Amelia says she never understood when girls in her high school would brag about how many guys they slept with. 


Brought up Christian, Amelia has been celibate her whole life. Illustration by Pounamu Wharekawa

“I just thought these are guys you barely know, why would you want to go and do something like that with them?” 

“Especially when it comes to teenage pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and things. It didn’t sound like a good time to me, it didn’t sound fun,” the 23-year-old says.

Amelia, who asked Re: not to include her full name, was raised Christian, but mainly found her faith when she was a teenager. 

She says growing up in a Christian household, there were always morals about celibacy. But it wasn’t until high school that she really thought about it.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more about sex and how it can be a very beautiful and sacred thing to share with somebody.

“So for me, I don’t want to have sex until marriage. I want to keep it for that one person I know I want to spend the rest of my life with. And I won’t know that until I marry them,” she says.

Fear around sex

When Amelia was in school, learning about sex education made her fearful of having sex.

From warnings about STIs to teenage pregnancies - she says the risks around sex put her off the whole thing. 

So deciding to become celibate never felt like the intense sacrifice it might be for others.

“Now that I am older, there is less fear but when I was younger the biggest thing I was scared of was letting my parents down if they ever found out,” she says.

“I knew someone who was a teenager who was pregnant. It scared me - not being able to be a kid for as long as I could.”

If Amelia were to accidentally get pregnant, she says she would feel uncomfortable having an abortion so she would most likely have the child and organise an adoption. So the emotional stress of this does weigh on her mind. 

She is yet to be in a relationship or in a position where she needs to explain to someone she is celibate, but she says when that time comes, it will provide protection. 

“I know that if I do need to say it, if a guy is pushing the boundaries, saying ‘I’m celibate’ is my way of not giving someone consent. 

“There are still things you can do to physically connect with someone. For me, celibacy includes sex and oral sex, so I’m happy with cuddling and kissing without stepping over that boundary.”

More young people are delaying or abstaining from sex

Hera Cook, a social historian who specialises in sexuality at the University of Otago, says sex can be "more terrifying" for young people now - which could help explain the drop in sexual activity for school students. 

The Youth19 national health survey led by Dr Terryann Clark found 20.6 percent of secondary school students said they had had sex in 2019. But in 2001, this was 31.7 percent.

Clark says Covid-19, increased mental health issues and parent supervision, as well as the reliance on online activity among young people, has impacted relationships and limited “opportunities” for having sex early. 

However, Cooks says this delay could also be linked to the fears some young people have around sex.

“Consent education is a really important thing and something we are becoming much better at, but it can make sex seem threatening,” Cook says.

“Teaching students about rape, STIs, and pregnancy more than about pleasure and sexuality can mean sex can be seen as something that can really damage you.

“So in my experience of people who I’ve met who are choosing to be celibate, it's normally a phase that keeps them safe. It gives them some clear boundaries and parameters that protect them.”

Although trouble can arise with celibacy when abstinence completely overrides education on how to have safe sex, Cook says.

Other surveys part of the Youth2000 series showed people who have religious or spiritual beliefs were less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours like alcohol and substance use. 

However, when it came to early pregnancy and STIs, the rate was high among people with beliefs because they were less informed on how to look after themselves. 

Cook says if someone’s definition of celibacy also includes masturbation, feeling ashamed or forbidden to explore your own body can make it hard for a young person to understand how their body works.

“This self-exploration stage before or during the first stages of being sexually active is really important for young people,” Cook says. 

“Self-pleasure is empowering and can help improve body image, or at the very least reduce stress.”

Jess says her celibacy won’t be forever 

She is still dating people but hasn’t gone far enough with someone to explain why she won’t be having sex with them.

She says, for now, only someone who she can see a future with will have a shot at breaking her abstinence. 

“I’m looking forward to that, whenever that may be,” she laughs. 

Illustrations by Pounamu Wharekawa


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Welcome to Belief Week

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Meet the witches of NZ’s first wicca church

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I painted a church pink in Greymouth: 'A house of queer worship'

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