Male ‘volcels’: Why are more young men choosing voluntary celibacy?

9 Mins read

Young men talk about their voluntary celibacy journey, discussing how they practise it, the reasons behind it, and the ways in which society and culture affected their conscious choice of singlehood

“I spent the last ten years in committed, long-term relationships, and none of them worked. Since I was twenty years old, the longest I’ve been single was for five or six months,” says Freddy. 

I called him on his forty-third day of being voluntarily celibate. His TikTok account, in which the 30 year-old business owner from Toronto documents his journey in sobriety and celibacy, has more than 16,000 subscribers.

Freddy started his celibacy after realising that he is addicted to romantic relationships. He admits that because of the modern dating scene that pressures young men to engage in sexual activity and cultural expectations around masculinity and sexuality, he used to often have sex with his partners soon after beginning to date.

As a result, he formed strong emotional bonds with his previous girlfriends. Becoming sexually intimate with someone inevitably leads to a strong emotional attachment for Freddy. Consequently, even if the partner does not turn out to be a good match, he tends to “fall into these relationships.”

Recently, Freddy started to recognise that he has been in denial about his co-dependency on being in a relationship: “I could do it with anyone, even if it made no sense. If we were not compatible, if we had different lifestyles and different goals in life. None of that mattered to me in the past. What mattered is that I would just get attached because I’m co-dependent.”

He chose voluntary singlehood because he realised that he was dependent on the validation he got from his partners in an unhealthy way: “I was dependent on them for some degree of fulfilling my base desires. My lack of self-esteem and wholeness.”

Voluntary celibacy for him means no dating as well: “If I allowed myself to date but cut out the sex, then that’s kind of pointless for me. I’m not a sex addict. I’m addicted to intimacy; I’m addicted to having a romantic partner.”

The goal of his celibacy is to prove to himself that he doesn’t constantly have to seek acceptance and love from others and that he can do that for himself in order to break the cycle.

The world of male ‘volcels’ becomes more popular as more young men embrace voluntary celibacy. This term refers to voluntarily choosing to abstain from sexual activities. Voluntary celibacy can be an empowering decision when made consciously. However, there is another group of men who call themselves “incels” (involuntarily celibate).

Incels are individuals who hold misogynistic beliefs and often blame women for their lack of sexual activity or romantic relationships. They claim to be the good and nice guys that nobody wants. Men who identify as involuntarily single consider themselves not good at flirting, socially awkward, and not attractive to the opposite sex.

According to recent research, it is possible to assume that those who view their single status as a choice may have more autonomy in making decisions and taking steps towards their single lifestyle compared to those who view their singlehood as an uncontrollable circumstance.

The recent TikTok trend, which currently has 200 million views, where young people speak about going through their celibacy journey, shows that the majority of creators are female, which leaves the males’ point of view undiscovered.

Men are often excluded from the voluntary celibacy discussion because, as Dazed notes, “in our society, men are socially conditioned to prioritise sex in order to reaffirm their masculinity.”

And it’s understandable. Kimberly Vered Shashoua, LCSW, a therapist who works with young people, notes that in our culture, cisgender, straight men are bombarded with the message that having sex is an accomplishment. Many men are beginning to realise that sex alone will not provide a stable, supportive relationship. Becoming voluntarily celibate can help men assert that they have made a conscious choice that benefits them.

Shashoua says that cis-gender, straight women get the message that their sexuality should be policed and protected. This is a very different message than cis-gender, straight men get. When women decide to be celibate, they assert that this is a decision made not out of shame but of self-realisation.

Many women decide to be voluntarily celibate in order to free up time and attention to focus on other aspects of their lives. These goals can include healing from trauma, focusing on their career, or taking time to reflect on what they want to get out of a relationship. However, many men decide to be voluntary celibate for a different reason. Men don’t necessarily want to stay away from dating altogether, but they want to make a deeper connection with prospective partners.

The widespread cultural expectation is that men should be sexually aggressive and dominant. This expectation is reinforced through media representations of men as sexually adventurous and women as passive objects of male desire, research shows.

Many young men may feel pressure to conform to a certain ideal of masculinity that is defined by sexual conquests and experiences. In some cases, men may feel that their worth is tied to their ability to attract sexual partners. Additionally, the normalised and even glorified hookup culture only adds fuel to the fire

More young men are choosing celibacy as a way to avoid the toxic culture and expectations surrounding sexuality. Toxic masculinity refers to the socially constructed expectations placed on men to be dominant, aggressive, and sexual.

These expectations can damage men’s mental health and cause them to experience anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. In response, more young men are choosing celibacy as a way to avoid toxic masculinity and find a sense of peace and self-discovery.

Apart from the rise of conversations about toxic masculinity, young men choose singlehood for various reasons. With a great number of therapists and relationship coaches broadly sharing their knowledge on social media platforms, men (who are often expected to suppress emotions and not show vulnerability, leading to a culture of hypermasculinity that can be alienating and isolating) are starting to evaluate themselves and their interactions with others more.

An increased emphasis on self-awareness and emotional intelligence in recent generations may be the cause of people choosing singlehood voluntarily. Millennials are often perceived as the generation of emotional intelligence, with an increased understanding of mental illnesses and a focus on self-care. In many cases, celibacy allows men to focus on their mental and spiritual well-being.

The rise of male “volcels” is a response to the toxic culture and expectations surrounding masculinity and sexuality. More young men are choosing celibacy as a way to embrace mindfulness and spirituality, support feminist values, and find a sense of clarity and self-discovery. While celibacy is not for everyone, it can offer a way to challenge harmful gender roles and expectations and lead to a more fulfilling and authentic life.

In our society, which still exhibits toxic masculinity, it is perceived as normal for women to voluntarily choose celibacy, but for men, it is the opposite. There are stereotypes about young men who engage in sexual activities being respected by the public. This stigma impacts men’s lives negatively, as they feel pressured to conform to societal expectations. Men often feel compelled to conform to societal norms to engage in sexual activity, even if it goes against their personal values.

Freddy believes that in our society and culture, men are encouraged to be promiscuous. “It’s seen as sort of heroic or badass, and it’s seen as a good thing to be able to sleep with as many women as possible,” he says.

It was idolised in the culture he grew up in: “It was seen as the best route you could go, and it was the way of proving your worth.” Freddy admits that engaging in sexual activity with someone he didn’t care for felt disgusting and was damaging to him.

The reasons for young men staying voluntary celibate vary. 23-year-old Ethan grew up in a Christian household. For most of his childhood, his parents followed Christian beliefs and wanted Ethan to follow them as well. As he states, he “had a lot of respect for my parents, so I didn’t want to neglect their beliefs or not follow them and make them disappointed.”

Later on, Ethan realised how important these teachings are, and he tried to adhere to them. Now, his developing faith is playing a big role in his choice to be celibate.

Andrew*, who is 26, stopped indulging in sexual activities in order to prioritise other parts of his life. “For me, it was just a case of not having the interest; I’ve been apathetic around it; I can’t really be bothered.”

For 23-year-old Ivan, the reason is as simple as laziness. After having three serious relationships that ended with Ivan breaking up with his partners, he lost interest in “letting a complete stranger from the street into his personal life.” He says that for him, it’s more convenient to be alone rather than waste effort and energy on talking, dating, and long-term commitment.

Religion has played, and continues to play, a significant role in the decision to remain celibate since the dawn of time. Most men who choose to stay voluntarily celibate because of their religious beliefs can be found on Reddit.

The subreddit r/Celibacy, created in 2010 “for discussing the state of abstaining from sexual relations”, has 5,000 members. Even though both men and women post on the subreddit, it’s mostly male-dominated. Users address each other as brothers and sisters in celibacy.

The subreddit’s main picture is a painting of Saint Francis of Assisi, who lived a life of ascetic poverty, depicted by the Spanish painter Jusepe de. The community is very much alive. New posts appear every day (there have been more than 4,000 visits to r/Celibacy in the past week), with members discussing their journeys, sharing their reasons to pursue voluntary celibacy, and seeking advice from mature celibatists. 

The majority of members of the subreddit follow certain religious rules (the most popular ones are Christianity and Islam) or other forms of teaching and spiritual practices that help and motivate them to stay voluntarily celibate.

One of them is Brahmacharya, a concept in Indian religions involving living a life of sexual continence or abstinence and staying true to oneself. Monks in these religions practise brahmacharya, which includes mandatory renunciation of sex and marriage to advance their spiritual practice.

Sofia Sundari, a modern tantra expert, says that spiritual practices that include celibacy are healthy because they can help to “come into the integrity of your own body.”

Sundari also notes that celibacy can be a choice made in response to pain and hurt, allowing individuals to disconnect from other energies and reflect on their own healing. It helps them understand the reasons behind their suffering and make choices that align with their true desires, rather than acting out of pain and disregarding their own hearts.

Conscious celibacy is particularly valuable for those who use sex as a source of comfort, as it prevents them from settling for less than they truly desire in terms of intimacy. Engaging in casual sex without a deep connection can be an illusion, as it lacks fulfilment and prevents individuals from honouring their authentic desires. It’s important to recognise the power of sexual connections, as they involve an exchange of cells and can deeply impact individuals on multiple levels.

The ideal concept of celibacy, which the male members of the forum try to pursue — as written by user u/Bartolomeu_Dias_ — “a celibate life includes the complete renunciation of sexual intercourse, masturbation, and ejaculation of sperm, as well as the avoidance of lustful thoughts and fantasies.”

However, there are multiple ways to be celibate. It is possible for someone to practise celibacy for a defined period of time, such as one year, and then cease doing so if they feel ready to engage in sexual activity again.

Not everyone who practises celibacy refrains from activities such as hand-holding, kissing, or dating. For many, as long as they are abstaining from sexual intercourse, they consider themselves to be practising celibacy (as Paul does).

Many people prefer to have clear rules to follow, as it makes them feel safer and more committed. However, abstinence is different for everyone, with most people allowing themselves more or less freedom in celibacy. 

Paul*, a 20-year-old student from Singapore, is a member of the celibacy community on Reddit. He started his journey after his mother became seriously ill during COVID-19. At the time, Paul sought divine interference from God: he promised God that he would become celibate if God would help his mom get well.

Paul has been celibate for about a year, starting since his mom came out of the hospital. Paul chooses not to break celibacy because there was a huge series of coincidences with his mom at the hospital that he can’t deny to be “a work from God.”

Paul adheres to strict rules about being celibate. “Celibacy for me means no masturbation and no sex. Another crucial thing about this is also that there should be no sexual thoughts, because it’s not truly celibacy if we don’t get rid of them. Because if not, I feel that they (the thoughts) are going to haunt me,” says Paul.

Even though Paul’s celibacy rules are strict enough, including no thoughts about sex, he still continues to date. He says that it’s a bit scary for him to ask women out because he grew up in an all-boys school, so talking to girls is a bit socially awkward for him.

However, when things become more serious and may lead to sexual intercourse, he evaluates the person to be completely sure if he has found “the right one.” Paul also notes that toxic masculinity affected him in a bad way. “But it’s not just toxic masculinity; it’s also what I thought women expected of me. I thought that I needed to have a six-pack, to be muscular, have a deep voice, and be rich.”

As societal attitudes towards relationships, sexuality, and individual choice continue to evolve, voluntary celibacy in men may gain further visibility and acceptance as a lifestyle choice.

Despite the presence of pressure, both external and internal, Kimberly Vered Shashoua notes that “your choices should make you feel empowered. If you start to feel shame or anxiety about your choice to be voluntarily celibate, perhaps think about whether this is right for you.”

She also warns that “on the internet, voluntary celibacy may share the same spaces as some toxic ideologies. If you’re finding content that talks negatively about a certain gender or group of people, it might be worthwhile to question if these spaces are going to uplift, rather than hinder, your emotional development.”

*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees

Featured image by Varvara Ivanova via Instagram

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