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Celibacy may refer either to being unmarried or to sexual abstinence. An oath of celibacy is a promise not to enter into marriage. Some writers prefer this usage of "celibacy", while others use it interchangeably as a synonym for abstinence.

Some writers on sexuality draw a distinction between abstinence and celibacy, stating that celibacy means refraining from any sexual activity with a partner. They argue that this can be empowering, as it still allows that person to be "sexual" (through, for example, masturbation).

The term involuntary celibacy refers to lack of sexual intercourse for reasons other than (voluntary) abstinence, e.g. shyness / love-shyness.

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