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Disillusioned by the hook-up culture and pushed by the need for self-care many Gen Z women are shutting the door to sex
About a year ago Beryl Karimi quit having sex.
A few months back she had broken up with her boyfriend, and she had thought it wise to take some time to heal and then get back to the game.
But the 22-year-old writer and journalist who goes by the name La Patrona on Facebook loved her new state of being: CELIBACY. There was no looking back as she embarked on an abstinence journey.
“Sexual relationships come with a lot of emotional upheavals. I am at peace and have time to dedicate to myself,” Beryl says. “When I go out with a guy now, it’s not about getting physical but knowing that person,” she adds.
Beryl says apart from relationships demanding a lot of attention, exposing one to risks of STIs and unplanned pregnancies or forcing one to take contraceptives which expose women to ‘certain consequences’, the fact that modern relationships often fail or end up in misery was a determiner in her choice to shut down shop.
“I feel it’s the easier way out,” she declares.
Through her Facebook page, La Patrona, Beryl preaches the virtues of celibacy to her 34k followers and gets mixed reactions. “Most women see my point and cheer me on, but many men are sceptical as they can’t imagine a world of no sex,” she quips.
In an age, where the hook-up culture is in full mode, Beryl sees herself as a sexually liberated woman. “I am self-aware. Having sex is a choice. At the moment I’m exercising my right to keep off intimacy,” she says.
Though she has not set a time limit to the end of her celibate life, as ‘she lives one day at a time’, Beryl is already reaping benefits from her quest. “This year I went back to school for a degree, I also work as a communications manager, and I have time to run my social media page. I want to grow my career. These are the things that matter to me at the moment,” Beryl who sees celibacy as all about self-control, discipline and being intentional about what one wants, says.
Among Gen Z the world over, celibacy is a culture that is gaining ground against a backdrop of a no-frills-attached lifestyle. They are slamming the brakes on Friends with Benefits (FWDs), One-night-stands, situationships and bootycalls kind of arrangements in favour of self-love. Many of the adoptees are young women.
For some, it's a statement against casual sex — a middle finger to men whom they feel value them only for their bodies. To others, it's a means to recover from bad hookups or bad relationships, especially if they've been layered on top of previous sexual traumas.
Rita Onyango, 25, for instance, made the decision to abstain from sexual activity after landing her first job about a year ago. She took a hiatus from dating and eventually chose to put her sex life on hold. “Casual sex isn’t really my thing,” she explains. “I believe this is true for most, if not all, women. There is simply no comparison between a brief session of physical pleasure and the emotional intimacy that comes from being with someone you truly love.”
Indeed, while there are multiple smartphone apps and websites today built purposely for casual hook-ups, they don’t hold the same appeal for young women as they did a decade ago.
Scholars say that while older women might be looking for casual dates on these platforms, younger women use them to hunt for long-term partners and not just casual flings. Across the globe, studies show that the sexual behaviours of younger women are turning out to be different from those of the older generations. Today, women report having fewer sexual partners, are less sexually active, and have their sexual debuts much later than earlier generations.
Last year’s Kenya Demographic and Health Survey paints a similar picture. Women aged 15 to 24 reported having just about two sexual partners in their lifetime on average, while older women have about three. Compared to their male counterparts, who have roughly five sexual partners in a lifetime, it is possible that younger women are increasingly becoming disillusioned with the idea of sexual liberalism.
"Celibacy is kind of like a return to femininity and tenderness and care and softness that they did not feel safe enough or comfortable enough to feel in their past relationships," Sabrina Flores, a trauma-informed relationship coach. "It's not only a total reclamation of bodily autonomy, but also sexual autonomy."
For Rita, it is the distaste for casual sex. She has been in a number of relationships that didn’t lead down the path she had hoped, but she hasn’t stopped believing that her ideal man will show up somewhere, someday. Until then, she has chosen to abstain from sex and has disavowed the idea that one can casually hook up with a man without any emotional connection and walk away feeling satisfied and rejuvenated. For her, love is an essential ingredient in intercourse without which it serves absolutely no purpose and it isn’t at all pleasurable.
“I have tried hook-ups before and I can’t lie, I never liked them,” she says. “I have come to the finality that as a lady, unless you’re in love, you can and you should avoid sex at all costs because it has no meaning then, and might not turn out how you expect it to.”
According to Rita, women have multiple ways of going around the several obstacles that might stand between them and having sex. “I know how to avoid these and they can’t stop me from having sex if and when I want to. But how can I fake feelings just for a few minutes of physical pleasure?” she poses.
Already, a movement has taken off on TikTok, where #celibacyjourney has nearly 40 million views, and videos of women discussing celibacy have garnered hundreds of thousands of views and hundreds of comments. While some men have posted about it, the majority of posts appear to be from young, heterosexual women.
According to Caroline Mbae, a counselling psychologist, women can completely withdraw from sex due to difficult experiences they might have encountered in their relationships or while growing up. “Withdrawal from sex is real; it’s becoming common and the reasons differ from one person to another, but they mostly have to do with mental health issues,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s not just by choice, but they get mentally disillusioned with the idea of sex and completely lack the urge to engage in it.”
Emma Ndege, 24, also recently turned celibate after taking a break from dating. For her, sex has always been an integral part of her love life, and since she’s no longer dating, celibacy is her obvious path. After several failed attempts at finding true love, she has decided that no love will ever be as true as her own self-love and has decided to focus on that, and sex, casual or otherwise, “will be an unnecessary distraction,” she says.
“I have discovered that I could actually just be on my own and still be perfectly happy. I was scared of ending up alone and that’s why I always wanted to be with someone. But since I found self-love, I do only the things that make me truly happy and sex is definitely not one of them,” she says.
Emma says that all the times she’s had sex in the past, although it was consensual, she always did it for her partners and not for her own enjoyment or satisfaction because she felt “sex was the only thing I could offer.” She always considered it a necessary compromise to keep the ‘love’ alive, but all her past relationships only scarred her and left sore spots and memories that she’d give anything to forget.
“Many women know that sex doesn’t keep a man, but I had to learn it the hard way. I have realised that sex doesn’t mean the same thing to men as it does to the majority of women. For us, it is more than the physical release,” Emma argues.
Like Rita, Emma resents casual sex and believes the emotional aspect is utterly important for her satisfaction. But her past experiences have also left her with hard feelings about sex altogether and she isn’t sure she’ll ever get over her newfound phobia for love and sex. For now, she is focusing on loving herself, and to her, nothing matters more.
This growing favour for celibacy among young women appears to be disrupting the hook-up culture, not only because they’re taking a path less trodden, but also because many of them are being unusually vocal about it. Sex lives are traditionally a private matter in Africa.
Celibacy has become a common term on social platforms today. Some people argue that the term itself might be associated with charisma that makes a woman more attractive to men. But what really is it? According to experts, there’s no single definition that would be agreeable to all those who use this term, as most mean different things when they say they are ‘celibate’. As such, not everyone who says they’re celibate actually is in reality, experts argue.
“Sometimes when people say they’re ‘celibate,’ it doesn’t mean they’re not having sex. They could be having solo sex – which still is a form of sexual activity – and I know the sale of sex toys has been going up recently,” says Joachim Osur, a sexual and reproductive expert at the Amref International University in Nairobi and a sex columnist for the Saturday Magazine. “I know a lot of people are buying sex toys and it is mostly women who are using them.”
Prof Osur argues that while it is indeed very possible to completely abstain from any sexual activity, there are many reasons that shape people’s sexual behaviour and at some point, everyone will have the desire for sex. “At some age, you get this biological pressure to have sex. Your hormones push you towards it. It’s a natural feeling and if you don’t have a partner, you discover that touching yourself can also be pleasurable.”.
Nonetheless, Prof Osur says, it wouldn’t be surprising that young women today would choose celibacy or solo sex over partner sex since relationships have become particularly difficult and challenging.
“If the relationships they’re in are not fulfilling, they might decide to withdraw; they might feel disappointed, and confused and wonder whether it is really worth it engaging with someone sexually,” he says.
Besides disappointment with love and relationships, religion also plays a critical role in shaping young women’s sexual choices. According to Prof Osur, the religious values that people hold determine their sexual habits. “The issue is normally your values. If you feel guilty after doing anything sexual, whether it’s masturbation or otherwise, then you get psychological effects.”
Emma agrees that besides the experiences from her past relationships, her faith has also played a central role in her choice of celibacy. “The church teaches a lot about abstinence. Although they make it look like a threat, as in if you don’t, there are consequences, but it shapes many people’s views on sex and celibacy.”
And although disappointing relationships might push some people into a preference for casual sex over a deeper emotional connection with someone, Prof Osur says if it becomes a habit, then it becomes a “disease” that needs to be treated. “The physical act of sex can be pleasurable, but if it is not also emotionally satisfying, then you don’t feel fully fulfilled or satisfied,” he says.
“To be emotionally satisfied, there’s an intimate connection that comes with it. There are diseases where people are emotionally disconnected and they just have sex. It’s like masturbating. In other words, you’re viewing the other person as an object of sex with no emotional attachment. And that’s not normal. It needs to be treated.”
But just like a tangled knot, love, sex, and sexuality remain a controversial topic on this side of the world, difficult to unravel and make sense of. For instance, not everyone agrees that women have fewer sexual partners in their lifetime than men as most surveys say. According to some people, there’s just no incentive for women to tell the truth about it because society regards having fewer sexual partners as a virtue.
Pundits argue that celibacy could just be the magic word thrown around to enchant prospective suitors, hence the growing public talk on practising celibacy, when in reality, some may just be turning to solo sex. According to Prof Osur, it is one’s values that decide what’s right for them, and not what other people think or do.