Abstinence is the decision to refrain from sexual behavior. However, since the term “sexual behavior” is defined differently by various people, societies, cultures, religions, and regions, it is difficult to draw an absolute line distinguishing which acts are considered “sexual behaviors.” What is important to recognize is that there is no “right” way to define abstinence. Some people define abstinence as not engaging in any form of sexual behavior, penetrative or otherwise. Others view abstinence as simply refraining from penetrative sex, and they would still consider someone to be abstinent if they limit sexual activity to what is termed outercourse1 and does not lead to pregnancy.2 Outercourse can include sensual massage, masturbating, dry humping, or many other nonpenetrative activities.1 Although there are many ways to determine a “sexual activity” and what is considered “abstinence,” the definition that many sexual health organizations use to describe abstinence is refraining from any form of sexual play with a partner, which includes any acts that may lead to pregnancy or the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as vaginal, oral, or anal sex.3
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Types of Abstinence
Generally, there are two types of abstinence: complete and partial. Complete abstinence involves abstaining from participation in all sexual acts, both with potential partners and with oneself (masturbation). Partial abstinence involves refraining from sexual play with a partner but allows for sexual gratification through female masturbation or male masturbation. When a person chooses to partake in abstinence, it is in their authority to decide which type of abstinence they would like to practice. However, there are times when individuals choose to practice abstinence for the sake of religious reasons (such as following a religion’s teachings and preaching on abstinence), and in those cases, the type of abstinence that they practice would depend on the religion and the practices outlined by religious leaders in their community.
Reasons For Choosing Abstinence
There are many reasons a person may choose to abstain from sex. A few examples include: protection from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unwanted pregnancy, personal preferences, and religious reasons. The sub-sections below further describe some (but not all) of the most common reasons for choosing abstinence.
Many people choose to practice abstinence in order to follow the code of conduct outlined by their religion. Many religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Catholicism, and others, discourage premarital sex and advocate for abstinence until marriage. Often, this is a way for followers of the religion to reach their spiritual goals and feel more connected to their religion.4
For some, like nuns or priests, it is a part of a sacred vow they take in their specific position. In this context, abstinence is referred to as celibacy.4
Many people choose to abstain from sex because they want their first time to feel special. Many want to share their virginity with their first romantic partner or with someone whom they share a strong, emotional connection. Likewise, many people choose not to have sex until they find someone with whom they have formed mutual respect and trust, which is more related to the idea that sexual play is an intimate and special bond between two people. Since many individuals want sexual activity to feel special, they often choose to abstain from sex until they have met a partner that they feel comfortable with.
To Protect from Unwanted Pregnancy
Another common reason for the practice of abstinence is to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Abstinence is the safest, cheapest, and most effective form of birth control. It is the only form of birth control that is 100 percent effective when followed completely. It is nearly impossible to get pregnant if one does not engage in sexual play because conception requires that ejaculate (which contains sperm) enter the vaginal canal. If a person with a penis abstains from all sexual interactions, it would be unlikely (and nearly impossible) for ejaculation to occur near a person’s vulva.
If a person practices abstinence by abstaining from only vaginal sex (but not oral sex, foreplay, etc.), their chances of experiencing an unwanted pregnancy are still low. However, people with vulvas can still get pregnant without ever engaging in coitus, especially if a person with a penis ejaculates on or near their vulva because sperm can still travel into the vaginal canal and fertilize an egg without having been ejaculated directly into the vaginal canal. Nevertheless, the chances of pregnancy are much lower in this case (especially if the semen was cleaned off immediately after ejaculation) than if a person with a penis ejaculated inside the vaginal canal during penetrative intercourse.
To Protect from Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)
In addition to protecting against unwanted pregnancy, many people choose abstinence because it protects against the transmission of STIs, which are generally transmitted during unprotected vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Certain STIs could also be contracted through kissing, or close contact. To learn more about the transmission of STIs, please refer to this article “Could You Have an STI?”. If one chooses to abstain from all forms of sexual contact, the risk of contracting an STI is greatly reduced. Please note that STIs could also be spread through nonsexual means, and you can find more information on this topic by visiting the “Non-Sexual Transmission of STIs” article. Additionally, one can only contract an STI while engaging in sexual acts if the sexual partner already has an STI.
It can be difficult (or at times impossible) to accurately determine whether someone has an STI by just looking at them; most STIs are asymptomatic (show no symptoms) and can only be detected when a professional healthcare provider performs lab tests on a person (which is referred to as STI testing). Thus, any sexually active person could have an STI and not be aware of it until they get tested. Getting STI tested regularly is crucial for people who are not practicing abstinence or for anyone who has ever been sexually active to reduce chances of spreading STIs and to receive treatment for STI contraction as early as possible (if one is infected). STI testing is still recommended for those who practice the type of abstinence that allows for outercourse since some such activities can still permit STI transmission in the absence of effective contraceptive barriers.
Abstinence Does Not Have to Be a Permanent Decision
Any individual can choose to be abstinent at any point in their lifetime, even if they have had sex before. Abstinence does not have to be a permanent condition. One can choose to begin and end periods of abstinence whenever they desire. Abstinence merely means abstaining from sexual behavior, and a person can choose to abstain from sex for any period of time, even after experiencing a period of being sexually active.
Secondary abstinence refers to the process in which one abstains from sex for a period of time after already having sex for the first time.5 Secondary abstinence can happen by choice or by circumstance. For example, one can choose to remain abstinent after ending a long-term relationship so that they can fully heal emotionally before resuming sexual play. A person could also become abstinent as a result of certain circumstances, such as being unable to find a partner they can engage in consensual sex with. Regardless, one does not have to be new to sex to practice abstinence, and periods of abstinence do not have to be permanent.
Advantages of Abstinence (Assuming Complete Adherence to the Practice)
Practicing abstinence may be difficult at times, especially since it is natural for humans to desire and fantasize about sexual play. Know that choosing abstinence does not have to be a lifelong commitment and that one can quit practicing abstinence at any time. However, it may help to consider all the positive benefits before deciding to begin or end periods of abstinence. Below are several of the most beneficial reasons people decide to practice abstinence.
- Minimal chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- Minimal chances of pregnancy occurring
- Completely free
- No health side-effects associated with abstinence as a form of birth control, unlike other contraceptive methods, such as hormonal contraceptives
- No physically binding commitment (such as with Intrauterine Devices, the implant, or female sterilization/male sterilization), so one can change their mind about abstinence at any time
- Avoids of the emotional consequences of sex (especially among teenagers), including emotional attachment and feelings for which one may not be ready
- Teaches discipline
- May increase creativity (or creative thinking skills) by allowing one to come up with new ways to experience pleasure without engaging in sex
Disadvantages of Abstinence
Although practicing abstinence can result in many benefits, there may also be disadvantages of abstinence that could affect any individual. Before deciding whether choosing abstinence is the right choice for you, it may help to consider the disadvantages, some of which (but not all) are listed below.
- Tends to make abstainers feel like they are the only people not having sex (which is far from the truth)
- Does not permit one to experience the physical pleasures of sexual intercourse
- Straying from abstinence just once can be enough toto undermine all the benefits of abstinence ,
- Very common to experience sexual frustration.
- Because it is natural for humans to have sexual desires and sexual urges, people who are abstinent may feel extremely sexually frustrated, especially if they are practicing complete abstinence (which includes no masturbating). Feelings of sexually frustration could possibly take a toll on one’s mental health, as well as one’s happiness.
- May lead to failure in obtaining adequate sex education.
- People often end their abstinence without adequate knowledge and preparation to protect themselves against pregnancy and STIs.8 On a similar note, abstinence-only sex education tends to not be very effective. To learn more about why abstinence-only sex education programs have been shown to not be effective, visit our article “The Issue With Abstinence-Only Programs.”
Talking to Your Partner About Practicing Abstinence
When entering a committed relationship, it is common for most people to desire some sort of physical bond or sexual intimacy with their partner. Although it is generally accepted that many couples choose to engage in sexual play with one another, there are still many people who want to practice abstinence while in a committed relationship.
Regardless of the motives for choosing abstinence (some of which were discussed in the “Reasons For Choosing Abstinence Section”), it is normal to feel shy or nervous about bringing up the topic of abstinence with a partner. These feelings can be further escalated when one does not know how their partner feels about the topic. Even though it is valid to feel nervous about addressing this topic, practicing effective communication by discussing your concerns or desires with your partner can be very beneficial. Below are several tips to consider when talking to a partner about abstinence.
- Be honest when expressing the intentions and motives for choosing abstinence. If an individual effectively communicates all the genuine, underlying reasons why they wish to abstain from sexto their partner, then their partner may be more empathetic with them and understand why they are choosing abstinence. Communicating one’s motives for choosing abstinence could include explaining all the benefits of abstinence or telling a partner what practicing abstinence would mean to them (in terms of values, etc.).
- Be clear about what abstinence means. As mentioned earlier, there are different ways to distinguish between sexual behavior and abstinence. One should explicitly state the boundaries between which acts they are comfortable with and which acts they would like to abstain from (for example, one might be okay with oral sex, but would like to abstain from sexual intercourse, etc.). Make sure the definition is concise, so that the person listening knows exactly what their partner is referring to when saying “abstinence.”
- Reassure that an emotional connection can still be built while abstaining from sex. An individual may feel very inquisitive as to why their partner does not want to engage in sexual play with them, which could lead them to fear that perhaps their partner does not like them anymore or that they are not deserving of a sexual relationship with their partner. These inaccurate assumptions may make that person feel sad, worried, or upset and could take a negative toll on their relationship if effective communication is not being exercised. Again, we would like to stress the importance of utilizing effective communication when explaining one’s reasoning for choosing abstinence and reassuring them that the choice to practice abstinence is not due to loss of emotional feelings for them.
- Emphasize that there are other ways to build connection and intimacy aside from sexual intercourse. Intimacy and love may come in many different forms, including kind gestures, emotional closeness, trust, communication, laughter, and much more. Physical connection can also come in various forms that do not involve sexual intercourse. Express that there are many ways two people can still celebrate love and intimacy without having to engage in sexual intercourse.
Previously Being Abstinent Does Not Guarantee That a Person is STI-free
Be extra cautious when trusting a new partner’s claims about their sexual history. Since participation in sexual activity is viewed differently throughout various places and age groups, inaccurate claims about abstinence can arise due to miscommunication or misunderstandings. Some people may even purposefully withhold specific information to avoid judgment or bias. There is no way for a person to know for sure if their new sexual partner is STI-free unless their new partner gets an STI test at a clinic and provides valid documentation that verifies they are STI-free. In addition, it is possible for a person to have an STI and not be aware they have one since many STIs can be asymptomatic (express no symptoms). It is always safer to request STI testing before engaging in sexual play, even if a person claims to be previously abstinent. To build trust and respect, one can suggest getting tested with their partner so that both participants know they are STI-free before engaging in a sexual relationship.
Other Forms of Intimacy
Many people feel as though sex is the only way to experience physical pleasure. However, there are many alternatives to sex that can be both emotionally and physically fulfilling, not to mention highly enjoyable. These alternatives are also appropriate because they have virtually no chance of leading to pregnancy and are unlikely to result in the transmission of an STI. The following is a list of other romantic behaviors people may engage in:
- Exchanging massages
- Creating special dates (such as going to a movie, amusement park, etc.)
- Taking long walks
- Creating sexual or romantic fantasies
- Holding hands
Any other sexual act that is not penetrative intercourse could also be grouped into this category depending on one’s definition of abstinence. However, many non-penetrative sexual activities (such as oral sex and anal sex) still carry a risk of STIs, unlike the activities listed above. Anal sex is particularly notorious for the transmission of STIs (including HIV) because it can cause minor tears in the rectum, which increase the chances of getting an STI from an infected partner. Extra care and additional contraception (preferably the use of a condom) are recommended if participating in these “outercourse” sexual activities. A new condom should be used for every new sexual encounter to help prevent the transmission of STIs.
In conclusion, there are both positive and negative aspects to practicing abstinence, and there are a variety of reasons why a person might want to choose abstinence. Regardless of the motives, one has for abstaining from sex, abstinence does not have to be a permanent condition or decision, and a person can choose to go through periods of being abstinent and being sexually active. At the end of the day, personal choice and decision-making skills are the most valuable elements for deciding if abstinence is the right choice, along with practicing effective communication with one’s partner to clearly express the motives one has behind wanting to abstain from sex while in a relationship.
- Sutton, J. “9 facts about abstinence.” Healthline. 26 March 2019.
2. “Abstinence.” Planned Parenthood, 17 April 2017.
3. “Not right now.” The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 17 April 2017.
4. Encyclopedia Britannica, inc. “Celibacy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. n.d.
5. “Is ‘secondary abstinence’ a thing?” New York Times – Women in the World, 17 April 2017.
6. “Abstinence.” University of California Santa Cruz – Student Health Outreach & Promotion, 17 April 2017.
Last updated: 9 November 2021