How Celibate Women Became a Threat

How Celibate Women Became a Threat

Amid a number of recent pivots, including scrapping the women-message-first system it launched with 10 years ago, dating app Bumble recently unveiled a new ad campaign that seemed to take aim at its primary demographic: women. Over the weekend of May 11, a number of TikTok users in the Los Angeles area posted the dating app’s new anti-celibacy billboards, which appear to tease women who have sworn off sex and dating. One billboard reads, “You know full well that celibacy is not the answer.” The campaign comes two weeks after a commercial announcing “the new Bumble,” which shows a woman who becomes a nun because she’s fed up with dating, only to immediately relapse once she sees a hot guy. The billboards generated considerable backlash from women on TikTok, with a creator @Fleeksie posting, “LADIES! The patriarchy is SCARED!! They’re losing us and they’re panicking!!” Julia Fox, for her part, commented on one of the posts: “2.5 years of celibacy and never been better tbh.”

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The overwhelmingly negative response to the campaign pushed Bumble to issue an apology on May 13, acknowledging the many valid reasons that move someone towards celibacy: restrictions on reproductive rights, recovering from trauma or abuse, or existing as asexual. “We have heard the concerns shared about the ad’s language and understand that rather than highlighting a current sentiment towards dating, it may have had a negative impact on some of our community,” a Bumble spokesperson shared in a statement to TIME. The app has promised to remove the ads, as well as donate to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. But in attempting to make light of a social climate in which, as they worded it in their apology, “a community” (read: women) “are frustrated by modern dating,” Bumble ended up, inadvertently or not, mirroring the language many women experience when they tell men they are not interested. The sexless, “crazy cat lady” trope is a tale as old as time, but in the context of rising incel ideology—which psychologists partly attribute to women’s increased economic and social power—the sentiment still feels like a toxic, all-too-familiar neg.

Read More: Bumble Apologizes After Getting Stung for Anti-Celibacy Campaign

Desiree (all last names in this article have been kept private to preserve anonymity), for instance, is a 26-year-old woman who is no longer using dating apps because she felt people “were using physical connection to make up for the lack of emotional intimacy.” She has found that the emotional intimacy she craves—something she needs to be physical with someone—is increasingly hard to come by. “I find myself constantly setting boundaries due to the normalization of hookup culture by apps,” she told me. Too often she’d be on dates where, all of a sudden, someone would lean in for a kiss and get a bit touchy without respecting her wishes to connect on a personal level first. “For me, it’s not worth the hassle, or the risk that someone might not respect or abide by my decision.”

Even beyond the persistent pressure from individuals to participate in hookup culture, as Desiree experienced, the dating industry at large is perpetually badgering single people to redownload, buy premium subscriptions, and remain in the romantic marketplace. This begs the question: Has a celibate woman become more threatening than a sexual one?

Increasingly, women are both sexual and celibate at once, and perhaps that makes them doubly threatening: A new generation is proving that sexual empowerment doesn’t hinge on having lots of sex, or even sex at all. In 2023, I wrote about the rise of “celibate sluts,” people who consider themselves sexual but have taken big steps back from sex, usually when they realize sex isn’t serving them, and found peace. One 23-year-old woman told me she and her friends referred to themselves as sluts “to signal us being hot and in control of our bodies,” regardless of sexual activity. Furthermore, growing visibility surrounding asexuality has given many people the freedom to redefine intimacy for themselves.  

Across age groups and genders, studies suggest that people are having less sex, a phenomenon that’s been called the “sex recession” and largely cast in a negative light. In 2021, the General Social Survey found that over a quarter of Americans over 18 hadn’t had sex once in the past year, which is a 30-year high. Not to mention women, overall, are opting out of dating: 2020 Pew Research Data found 61% of single men were actively looking for dates, compared to 38% of women. Rather than examining the social, economic, and political conditions that may make sex and dating unappealing for individuals, particularly women, the impetus is put on the individuals to fix it. 

What I found when reporting my book, Laid and Confused: Why We Tolerate Bad Sex and How to Stop, is that young people are consciously opting out of sex and dating, largely due to swiping burnout, but also due to setting higher standards for romantic partners. This can be a beautiful, empowering choice—one that I can speak to from personal experience. After a nearly two-year break from dating, which included my recent year of cancer treatment, I decided to dip my toe back in the waters and almost immediately forfeited the few shreds of peace I’d been clinging to. If I, a person recovering from cancer, didn’t respond to prospective suitors fast enough, I received weirdly snarky follow-ups like “don’t be too shy” or “lol ok.” I felt overwhelmed by how many men’s profiles declared they weren’t “looking for a pen pal,” or that they wanted to meet up right away without much back-and-forth (which is actually a tool women use to vet potential partners, for their safety.) To exist on a dating app is to be constantly inundated by the pressure to meet up, regardless of your readiness. And for women, that pressure is reinforced by existing in a world that hates them for being single.

The truth is, being single is incredibly healthy for people who want or need to be, and studies show that single women without children are often happier than their married counterparts with children. Celibacy can facilitate some of this joy. “I would rather be at home on my couch hanging out with my plants,” said Sunah, a 41-year-old woman who found that when she raised her dating standards, her sex life dried up. “People are like, ‘Why aren’t you dating?’ They feel like it’s sad. Everyone acts like their shining accomplishment is being romantically partnered.” (Her guy friends, in particular, accuse her of being “too mean” and “too quick to dismiss people.”) 

Online conversations about the “male loneliness epidemic” tend to rope in women as a potential solve, particularly on incel forums. Yes, male loneliness is a real problem: A 2021 American Perspectives survey found that the number of men who reported not having a single close friend had quintupled to 15% since 1990. For unmarried men under 30, 25% say they have no close friends at all. Consistently, studies show that men have a harder time making and keeping friendships. But women don’t owe men companionship, even if those men are lonely. While all Americans are reporting fewer close friendships than they had before the pandemic, the same American Perspectives Survey found that young women are more likely than young men to lean on their friends for support. While loneliness affects all genders, women who opt out of dating are more likely to do so by choice. If men’s loneliness is stemming from a lack of sex, many women clearly benefit from that lack.

Read More: Why Gen Z Is Ditching Dating Apps

Alex, a 30-year-old woman who feels enormous “relief” to be on a dating app hiatus, told me, “I’ve recently realized how exhausted I am from the grind of it all and wanted to take a break to rebuild myself a little bit, take a pause from setting up dates all the time, save money, and reevaluate my feelings on dating in general.” 

When it comes to the business of dating apps, the most relevant principle isn’t necessarily patriarchal, but inherently capitalist: celibate, app-less women are not lucrative, an issue that the entire industry is grappling with. The business of dating, in general, is floundering: Dating app downloads are starting to fall, and a Pew Research study found that more people are dissatisfied with the apps than ever before. 

“Most of the time when I tell people I’m not dating, they immediately view it as a negative and start saying, ‘Well, you just need to put time in on the apps,’” a 30-year-old woman who is currently celibate told me. “And of course, society reminds me that I am elderly and should have ten kids right now. Thankfully, I’m on a particularly anti-dating side of TikTok though, which helps.” 

Alex, on the other hand,  says it’s been hard “to quiet the societal voice of ‘you’re in your prime time!’” Especially when she scrolls through so much content about dating online. But she’s not anti-dating, just anti-dating-in-a-way-that-doesn’t-work-for-her.  

“I’m not opposed to seeing people if I were to meet them in the wild,” she told me. “But I plan to keep my apps deleted for a while and that in itself feels really good.”

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