‘A special place of safety’: Why some students choose to be celibate on campus

Trigger warning: This piece contains mentions of sexual assault.

“The very, very first commandment in the Hebrew Bible is to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’” said Rabbi Philip Bregman, UBC’s Jewish chaplain. “It isn’t a commandment about believing in God — it isn’t a commandment about not murdering. It’s a commandment about procreation because without it, nothing goes forward.

“Sexuality is an incredibly wonderful, important gift from God and without it, we don’t exist.”

Many of us are told that university is a time to explore this “gift from God”: to experiment, to discover our tastes and preferences, to have some fun. Yet there are plenty of students on campus who, to various extents and for various reasons, choose not to have sex at all. They are celibate.

Speaking to some of these students, there seems to be a lot of confusion over why people choose to be celibate. Many of us attribute the decision to ‘archaic’ religious thinking that deems sex sinful — especially when it is performed for purposes other than procreation — but most who abstain do so for secular reasons that are varied and complex. Even in religious doctrines that are stricter than Bregman’s understanding of Judaism, justifications for celibacy are more often grounded in a reverence for eroticism rather than a fear of it.

Take Justin Mosca, a fourth-year psychology student who grew up in New Jersey. Mosca has never had sex and he doesn’t intend to any time soon. When you ask him why, a number of reasons unfold like pages of a thick book.

Mosca grew up attending a Catholic church, and he admitted that he internalized messaging about the immorality of sex at a young age. Yet the first explanation he provided for his abstinence has nothing to do with religion.

“In some of the experiences I’ve had — kissing and touching — I found that I got emotional really quickly,” said Mosca. As a result, he has resolved not to have sex until he is in a very “secure” relationship or even engaged.

Father Robert Allore, UBC’s Roman Catholic chaplain and pastor at St. Mark’s Parish, believes that the prohibition of premarital intercourse in Abrahamic religions is based on similar concerns.

“We know that full expression of our sexual powers is such an intimate activity that when it’s not done in the context of a committed relationship, people can really be burned,” said Allore. “I think people feeling able to be vulnerable to give and receive love from one another — that requires a special place of safety. That’s a hard space to come up with outside of full commitment.”

When asked whether he had ever reached out to religious groups on campus in order to find people with similar views, Mosca said that he felt such communities could be so “indoctrinated” that he had trouble relating because his reasons are not primarily religious.

Allore admitted that he understands why some religious groups resort to such drastic messaging, but he hopes that people’s relationship with celibacy gets more sophisticated as they grow older.

“You hope people, as they grow, develop a solid worldview that’s adequate for the challenges that they’re going to face,” said Allore.

Yet Mosca highlighted another factor in his decision to be celibate: he had been sexually assaulted. Since the incident, Mosca has found that certain situations and images will put him on edge. Many survivors of sexual assault find it difficult to be intimate after being assaulted due to negative flashbacks and memories that close physical contact may trigger.

“It’s gotten to the point where a girl may brush my hand as she walks by, and I’ll get really uncomfortable,” said Mosca.

Allore also noted that celibate students have confided in him about being sexually assaulted, in which case he always refers them to sexual health resources on campus, such as the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre or the UBC Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO). It can take a long time for a survivor of assault to recover mentally and emotionally before they are ready to become intimate again.

Other students choose not to have sex because they never had the urge in the first place. Miles Justice, for instance, is a 20-year-old engineering student who is a member of the UBC Pride Collective and identifies as asexual. He explained that while many people are celibate despite their carnal desires, asexual people are celibate because they lack such desires altogether.

“Celibacy is a choice. Asexuality is an identity,” explained Justice.

While he has abstained thus far, Justice would consider having sex in a romantic relationship for his partner’s pleasure, distinguishing him from most celibate students.

Ultimately, Mosca thinks that more people should experiment with celibacy because he feels from personal experience that the detached nature of hookup culture can have an adverse effect on mental health. He also explained that not worrying about sex gives him more time to “work on himself” instead of focusing on finding a sexual partner.

“I think some people might be happier if they were celibate,” said Mosca. “It’s made me happier, anyway.”