Young African Women and the Prioritization of Self-Care through Celibacy

Written by Melony Akpoghene

There is a growing subculture of mostly African Gen Z women who are making the choice to become celibate for a period of time. These women are intentionally abstaining from sex with men. They are “saving themselves for… well, themselves. Not their future husband, not out of respect for their beliefs or out of fear of disappointing their parents.” 

Currently, many African Gen Z women are quickly embracing celibacy as a counterpoint to casual hookup culture. This generation is hitting pause on “friends with benefits,” one-night stands, and undefined relationships, prioritizing self-love and self-care instead. Motivations vary. Some see it as a way to push back against the feeling of being valued solely for their bodies. “While celibacy is, for many, a positive personal choice, it can also be viewed as the result of, or a reaction against, a messed-up sexual culture,” an article in The Guardian agrees. 

Others seek healing from negative experiences. Nigerian data analyst Abidat, for instance, chose celibacy to handle a rough breakup with a cheating ex. “I’ve been celibate for 188 days,” she reveals. “On my 24th birthday, I found out that my boyfriend, who I thought was the love of my life, had been cheating on me. It was very devastating. Although I was generally handling the breakup well, one aspect that was difficult was the physical aspect so I went celibate to help me stay away from him. Over time, celibacy became a symbol of self-control. I realized that the only thing in my life I wasn’t in control of was my relationship with sex. I felt if my body wants it, it wants.” While her initial goal is a year, its duration remains contingent upon the quality of future relationships.

This movement tallies with the broader rise of TikTok trends like #boysober, #celibacyjourney among women globally and movements like “sex-negative feminism” specifically among young Black women. As journalist Hannah Uguru points out, young Black women are forming a “sex-negative feminist” movement to criticize aspects of modern society they see as driven by male dominance and hyper-sexuality, like porn and casual sex culture. This clashes with the earlier “sex-positive feminism” of the 2010s, which embraced sexual liberation and exploration. 

Globally, research indicates a divergence in the sexual behaviors of younger women compared to previous generations. Younger women report fewer sexual partners, lower levels of sexual activity, and delayed sexual debuts in contrast to earlier cohorts. Findings from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey reveal that women aged 15 to 24 reported an average of merely two lifetime partners. A 2022 survey by dating app Bumble reported 34 per cent of respondents were not having sex. Among 18 to 25-year-olds, 80 per cent say that their own self-care is a top priority when dating and 79 per cent want their partners to feel the same, according to Tinder’s Future of Dating Report 2023

Tshegofatso, a South African 25-year-old small business owner, chose celibacy to figure out what intimacy feels to her, outside of a sexual relationship with a man. She wasn’t sure if she was always saying yes to sex because she truly wanted to, or if it “was just… there.” Now, she is not interested in having sex with men or being in a relationship with one. She’s calling the shots on her own life. “It’s also a challenge to the idea that women need men to be complete. In a way, I’m proving to everyone that women can have fulfilling lives without heterosexual relationships,” she adds.

Efya*, a Ghanaian writer, decided to stop having sex three years ago when she was 21. She felt that casual sex wasn’t helping her self-esteem, especially when the men didn’t even show basic courtesy. Efya* explains, “I used to dislike my body a lot. So I thought having sex would help me love my body. But the sex I was having felt empty and meaningless, and it actually made me feel worse about myself. Many of these men didn’t even make me cum. Since I stopped having sex, I’ve learned that I relied on men’s approval to feel good about myself. When that validation wasn’t there, my relationship with myself and my body became even more strained.”

The rise of celibacy among young African women is susceptible to misinterpretation as a retreat from social progress. This perception often echoes the principles of purity culture, which mandates the avoidance of sexual activity by women and prescribes the regulation of their sexual desires. But Tara, a 23-year-old Kenyan  student, objects to this. “I’m very sex-positive,” she explains, “and that hasn’t changed. When I told my friends I was going celibate because casual sex wasn’t enough, they thought I was regressing. Like we’d all collectively unlearned retrograde ideas, and I was going back. But eventually, they understood. Being sex-positive doesn’t mean having sex to prove something. It means having the freedom to choose when and if it’s right for you. Right now, it’s not for me.”

Some women clarify that celibacy to them is not about shutting down the idea of sex entirely or only having sex with someone they genuinely love. Instead, it signifies a growing desire for more intentional and fulfilling relationships. Sex, when it does occur, should be a conscious choice based on trust, mutual respect and a sense of safety. But as they strive for relationships built on trust and mutual respect, African Gen Z women are increasingly realizing that such decency is a rare commodity in a society shaped by patriarchal norms. One Nigerian woman, Sola*, shares her experience: “I stopped casual hookups when a guy I’d been seeing for six weeks was accused of rape by three women on Twitter. I felt dirty and complicit, even though I barely knew him. We met at a mixer and hooked up occasionally. Twitter blew up with those accusations; that’s when I decided to only sleep with guys I’ve actually spent some time getting to know and trust, to an extent. But, man, it’s been almost two years now, and every guy I’ve tried to know has turned out to be sexist, homophobic, or just plain dull. You think you’re actually getting somewhere then the misogyny pops up.” 

Despite the temptation to settle for less, Sola* refuses to compromise on her standards. She explains, “I won’t budge on what I deserve. So, yeah, I’ve been celibate ever since. It’s not easy, especially when society constantly pushes this narrative that women should ‘manage’ whatever they can get. But I refuse to settle for anything less than respect and decency in a relationship, even one solely sexual.”

As more young women choose celibacy as a way to take care of themselves, they’re also becoming aware of the risks. Some guys might try to take advantage of this shift by using tactics like love bombing. That’s when they try to overwhelm you with affection and pretend to share your desire for emotional closeness. It feels nice, but it is often just a trick to get you into bed. In Mali, 22-year-old Fatou encountered a similar situation. She met a guy who seemed genuinely interested in her, making her feel valued and understood. Believing she had found a true emotional connection, Fatou eventually became intimate with him. However, as time passed, Fatou realized that his affection was dishonest. Though the betrayal stung, Fatou emphasized a crucial distinction: “While the lies hurt, I don’t regret having sex. It was something I wanted for myself, based on my desires.”

Even with a strong foundation built on trust and respect, sex can be imperfect. There might be miscommunication, differing needs, or simply a learning curve. But for these women, the choice to have sex is necessarily for themselves and how safe they feel, not as a gift to the most well-behaved man.

*Some names have been changed to maintain anonymity.

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