The most true-to-life moment in the latest season of HBO’s Euphoria happened so quickly you probably don’t remember it. It was a blip in the otherwise claustrophobic, edge-of-your-seat bathroom scene in the premiere episode: Maddy casually shuts down sexual advances from a random guy at the party by saying, “You’re so sweet, but no.” Consider this the unofficial slogan of new-age celibacy.
On TikTok, users have taken the audio from this scene to reenact themselves saying no to casual sex. “When you’re not into hookup culture anymore and are waiting for a divine masculine to create generational wealth with and heal through sex with unconditional love and manifestation,” captioned one user.
Welcome to celibacy TikTok. In this emerging subsection of the app, spiritual-celibacy advocates explain sex as “energy transfers,” arguing that meaningless or casual sex doesn’t exist. (Though that’s not to say this brand of celibacy is aligned with any particular religion, such as you might traditionally associate with abstaining from sex.) Some women are turning to celibacy after realizing “guys only want to use you for your body,” as it’s put in one TikTok video. Others are practicing celibacy as a means to “reclaim sexual energy,” heal trauma, and slow their dating lives down. For many people, taking a vow of celibacy still includes dating (but taking it slower and being more intentional), giving themselves an open end date for finding the right person or falling in love before sex. Others have set a more strict end date, ranging for a few months to all of 2022.
These conversations are taking place against the backdrop of a so-called sex recession among younger millennials and Gen-Zers, who are having less casual or partnered sex than previous generations. Not exactly what you’d expect in our current hookup-focused dating climate, where casual sexual encounters (including one-night stands or pandemic one-month stands) are encouraged and long-term commitment is often not discussed until well into a sexual relationship. One viral TikTok video even describes actually having a boyfriend as cheugy or out of style.
Lisa Wade, an associate professor at Tulane University and the author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, says she has noticed most of her college students are, at best, ambivalent about hookup culture. “Our best data suggests that about one in three opt out of hook-up culture completely, and the plurality of students would like a wider range of options for pursuing sexual romantic relationships,” she explains over the phone. This, says Wade, is because of awkward hookup interactions, heartbreak, and women feeling disrespected by male sexual partners and having to constantly face the risk of sexual violence. She also says many students feel excluded or targeted because of their race, class, ability, looks, gender identity, or gender expression.
While the sexual-liberation movement — from the 1960s through the 1980s in the U.S. — portrayed sex as a means of empowerment for women, the realities of hookup culture have actually left many young people feeling disempowered. It’s easy to see why.
Hookup culture notoriously promotes a level of casualness about even the most intimate dating interactions (to the point where telling someone you’re seeing that you have feelings for them can seem “too much), while online dating gives people the illusion of choice, making commitment even less tempting. From ghosting to breadcrumbing, it seems every day there is a new word for shitty dating interactions.
“Hooking up itself isn’t harmful,” Wade says, “but students’ sexual experiences are playing out in a context of social prejudices like racism and sexism, the hypercompetitive individualism of late-stage capitalism (which breeds a toxic erotic marketplace), the commodification of sexuality (where bodies are commodities and sex is something you can have, give, or take), and ignorance and naïvete (an alarming lack of sex and relationship education).”
In other words, the forced “chillness” of hooking up is still taking place against a backdrop of very serious systemic issues that are far from chill.
New-age celibacy culture gives people a place to openly acknowledge the complicated feelings that “hooking up” gives them, rather than maintain the façade of seeming totally cool about it all (many of us have been there). Twenty-year-old Kayla Voelker says she grew up in a culture of women “giving men what they wanted while disregarding their own feelings.” Because of this, she believes casual sex (with men) for women is a “huge scam.” “America loves hypersexualizing women through porn, the media, and television, so they created this ‘empowerment’ movement of casual sex solely for the benefit of men,” she says. “After all, my sexual encounters left me extremely sad and disappointed. I’m now celibate and I am waiting for the right divine masculine man to truly make love with.”
After 22-year-old Brooklyn-based Sarah Kaba was ghosted by a person she had been seeing for two years, she arrived at a similar conclusion. “I’m personally sick and tired of hookup culture. It’s unhealthy mentally and physically, and we start to lose the true value of sex by normalizing it so much,” she says. “I’m an emotional empath, and I have to protect myself by only giving access to me to a person that stimulates me mentally and fits my standards. I’m tired of wasting my time and energy on totally meaningless connections.” This thinking is increasingly popular, a stark contrast to the era of hedonism that was expected to follow the vaccine rollout.
“What people forget about sexual liberation is that it’s also the right to say no,” says sex therapist Dr. Lexx Brown-James. “We’re starting to understand that the conversation around empowerment needs more nuances than either going out and having lots of sex as the only means of sex positivity or the typical heteronormative couple that has sex two to three times a week.” Brown-James says several of her female clients are approaching abstinence as a way to dedicate time to learning how to pleasure themselves.
So while for some people celibacy is about taking the search for deeper romantic connections more seriously, others are opting out of dating entirely. Tika Budiarachman, a 20-year-old based in Pennsylvania, is one of those people. “Energy exchanges are real, and I think the same thing with food happens when you have sex. You digest it,” she says. “Hookup culture is just a part of everyone’s journey, and it could lead to you finding the love of your life, or it could lead you to celibacy, like me.”