Explain some steps you can take to help abstain from early sexual activity

Good Reasons for Sexual Abstinence

Many young people and adults are choosing to abstain from sex these days, for many different reasons. Even if you’ve had sex before, abstinence may make sense at certain points in your life, for both your emotional and physical health.

Abstinence means different things to different people. Many heterosexuals who choose abstinence consider it to mean not having vaginal intercourse, particularly to preserve virginity. Others say abstinence means no vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse. For some, abstinence means avoiding all sexual behavior, including kissing.

Why Do Young People Say No to Sex?

Abstinence from vaginal intercourse is the only 100 percent effective means of preventing pregnancy, and it is viewed by some as the best way for young people to avoid both pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases.

However, if you still participate in oral sex or anal sex, you do stand a chance of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Only abstinence from all forms of sex can protect you from STDs 100 percent of the time.

There are also long-term health-related reasons for young people to remain abstinent until later in life. Women who abstain from sex until past their teenage years are less likely to get STDs that can lead to cervical cancer and infertility. Likewise, young men who avoid sexual activity may be at lower risk of STDs associated with condoms and employing other safe sex practices.

Why Might Adults Decide to Say No to Sex?

Adults who are no longer virgins often choose to practice sexual abstinence for reasons other than birth control or avoiding STDs. They may be:

  • Waiting for the right person to be sexually active with
  • Mourning the loss of a significant other
  • Focusing on work or education
  • Recovering from an illness
  • Maintaining a moral or religious principle

Sticking to Your Sexual Abstinence Decision

It can be tough to remain abstinent. You might have to deal with peer pressure to become sexually active, particularly if you’re a virgin. Or you might be in an intimate relationship where sex seems like the next step.

You can more successfully maintain your abstinence if you:

  • Talk with your partner about your decision to abstain from sex, especially before things reach that level. Be open, honest, and straightforward about your limits — even if it feels embarrassing.
  • Don’t participate in physical contact that could lead to arousal.
  • Don’t reconsider your abstinence in the midst of a sexual situation. Step back from the situation and take time to reflect on the factors that influenced your decision to remain abstinent in the first place.
  • Think ahead about what you would say or do to stop physically intimate activities if you feel things are going too far. Practice actually saying the words, and think about what your partner’s response would be.
  • Don’t let anyone pressure you into sex. It is your decision alone to give up your virginity or participate in sexual activity.
  • Take part in activities that involve friends or groups, such as going on double dates.

One drawback to abstinence is that many men and women decide to end it without fully preparing themselves. If you do decide to become sexually active, be certain to guard against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by consistently using condoms and employing other safe sex practices. Take the time to learn about the various methods of birth control and make sure you have access to them if you so choose.

The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth

Correlation Between Sexual Activity and Other High-Risk Behaviors

Research from a variety of sources indicates a correlation between sexual activity among adolescents and teens and the likelihood of engaging in other high-risk behaviors, such as tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug use.

A study reported in Pediatrics magazine found that sexually active boys aged 12 through 16 are four times more likely to smoke and six times more likely to use alcohol than are those who describe themselves as virgins. Among girls in this same age cohort, those who are sexually active are seven times more likely to smoke and 10 times more likely to use marijuana than are those who are virgins. The report describes sexual activity as a “significant associate of other health-endangering behaviors” and notes an increasing recognition of the interrelation of risk behaviors. Research by the Alan Guttmacher Institute likewise finds a correlation between risk behaviors among adolescents and sexual activity; for example, teenagers who use alcohol, tobacco, and/or marijuana regularly are more likely to be sexually active.

Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing

Today, one child in three is born out of wedlock. Only 14 percent of these births occur to women under the age of 18. Most occur to women in their early twenties. Thus, giving birth control to teens in high school through safe-sex programs will have little effect on out-of-wedlock childbearing.

Nearly half of the mothers who give birth outside marriage are cohabiting with the child’s father at the time of birth. These fathers, like the mothers, are typically in their early twenties. Out-of-wedlock childbearing is, thus, not the result of teenagers’ lack of knowledge about birth control or a lack of availability of birth control. Rather, it is part of a crisis in the relationships of young adult men and women. Out-of-wedlock childbearing, in most cases, occurs because young adult men and women are unable to develop committed, loving marital relationships. Abstinence programs, therefore, which focus on developing loving and enduring relationships and preparation for successful marriages, are an essential first step in reducing future levels of out-of-wedlock births.

The Silent Scandal: Promoting Teen Sex

With millions of dollars in sex-education programs at stake, it is not surprising that the groups that have previously dominated the arena have taken action to block the growing movement to abstinence-only education. Such organizations, including the Sexuality Information and education Council of the United States (SEICUS), Planned Parenthood, and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), have been prime supporters of “safe-sex” programs for youth, which entail guidance on the use of condoms and other means of contraception while giving a condescending nod to abstinence. Clearly, the caveat that says “and if you do engage in sex, this is how you should do it” substantially weakens an admonition against early non-marital sexual activity.

Not only do such programs, by their very nature, minimize the abstinence component of sex education, but many of these programs also implicitly encourage sexual activity among the youths they teach. Guidelines developed by SEICUS, for example, include teaching children aged five through eight about masturbation and teaching youths aged 9 through 12 about alternative sexual activities such as mutual masturbation, “outercourse,” and oral sex. In addition, the SEICUS guidelines suggest informing youths aged 16 through 18 that sexual activity can include bathing or showering together as well as oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse, and that they can use erotic photographs, movies, or literature to enhance their sexual fantasies when alone or with a partner. Not only do such activities carry their own risks for youth, but they are also likely to increase the incidence of sexual intercourse.

In recent years, parental support for real abstinence education has grown. Because of this, many traditional safe-sex programs now take to calling themselves “abstinence plus” or “abstinence-based” education. In reality, there is little abstinence training in “abstinence-based” education. Instead, these programs are thinly disguised efforts to promote condom use. The actual content of most “abstinence plus” curricula would be alarming to most parents. For example, such programs typically have condom use exercises in which middle school students practice unrolling condoms on cucumbers or dildoes.

Effective Abstinence Programs

Critics of abstinence education often assert that while abstinence education that exclusively promotes abstaining from premarital sex is a good idea in theory, there is no evidence that such education can actually reduce sexual activity among young people. Such criticism is erroneous. There are currently 10 scientific evaluations (described below) that demonstrate the effectiveness of abstinence programs in altering sexual behavior. Each of the programs evaluated is a real abstinence (or what is conventionally termed an “abstinence only”) program; that is, the program does not provide contraceptives or encourage their use.

The abstinence programs and their evaluations are as follows:

  1. Virginity Pledge Programs. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Michael Resnick and others entitled “Protecting Adolescents From Harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health” shows that “abstinence pledge” programs are dramatically effective in reducing sexual activity among teenagers in grades 7 through 12. Based on a large national sample of adolescents, the study concludes that “Adolescents who reported having taken a pledge to remain a virgin were at significantly lower risk of early age of sexual debut.”

    In fact, the study found that participating in an abstinence program and taking a formal pledge of virginity were by far the most significant factors in a youth’s delaying early sexual activity. The study compared students who had taken a formal pledge of virginity with students who had not taken a pledge but were otherwise identical in terms of race, income, school performance, degree of religiousness, and other social and demographic factors. Based on this analysis, the authors discovered that the level of sexual activity among students who had taken a formal pledge of virginity was one-fourth the level of that of their counterparts who had not taken a pledge. Overall, nearly 16 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys were found to have taken a virginity pledge.

  2. Not Me, Not Now. Not Me, Not Now is a community-wide abstinence intervention targeted to 9- to 14-year-olds in Monroe County, New York, which includes the city of Rochester. The Not Me, Not Now program devised a mass communications strategy to promote the abstinence message through paid TV and radio advertising, billboards, posters distributed in schools, educational materials for parents, an interactive Web site, and educational sessions in school and community settings. The program sought to communicate five themes: raising awareness of the problem of teen pregnancy, increasing an understanding of the negative consequences of teen pregnancy, developing resistance to peer pressure, promoting parent-child communication, and promoting abstinence among teens.

    Not Me, Not Now was effective in reaching early teen listeners, with some 95 percent of the target audience within the county reporting that they had seen a Not Me, Not Now ad. During the intervention period, the program achieved a statistically significant positive shift in attitudes among pre-teens and early teens in the county. The sexual activity rate of 15-year-olds across the county (as reported in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey ) dropped by a statistically significant amount from 46.6 percent to 31.6 percent during the intervention period. Finally, the pregnancy rate for girls aged 15 through 17 in Monroe County fell by a statistically significant amount, from 63.4 pregnancies per 1,000 girls to 49.5 pregnancies per 1,000. The teen pregnancy rate fell more rapidly in Monroe County than in comparison counties and in upstate New York in general, and the difference in the rate of decrease was statistically significant.

  3. Operation Keepsake. Operation Keepsake is an abstinence program for 12- and 13-year-old children in Cleveland, Ohio. Some 77 percent of the children in the program were black or Hispanic. An evaluation of the program in 2001, involving a sample of over 800 students, found that “Operation Keepsake had a clear and sustainable impact on…abstinence beliefs.” The evaluation showed that the program reduced the rate of onset of sexual activity (loss of virginity) by roughly two-thirds relative to comparable students in control schools who did not participate in the program. In addition, the program reduced by about one-fifth the rate of current sexual activity among those with prior sexual experience.
  4. Abstinence by Choice. Abstinence by Choice operates in 20 schools in the Little Rock area of Arkansas. The program targets 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students and reaches about 4,000 youths each year. A recent evaluation, involving a sample of nearly 1,000 students, shows that the program has been highly effective in changing the attitudes that are directly linked to early sexual activity. Moreover, the program reduced the sexual activity rates of girls by approximately 40 percent (from 10.2 percent to 5.9 percent) and the rate for boys by approximately 30 percent (from 22.8 percent to 15.8 percent) when compared with similar students who had not been exposed to the program. (The sexual activity rate of students in the program was compared with the rate of sexual activity among control students in the same grade in the same schools prior to the commencement of the program.)
  5. Virginity Pledge Movement. A 2001 evaluation of the effectiveness of the virginity pledge movement using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health finds that virginity pledge programs are highly effective in helping adolescents to delay sexual activity. According to the authors of the study: Adolescents who pledge, controlling for all of the usual characteristics of adolescents and their social contexts that are associated with the transition to sex, are much less likely than adolescents who do not pledge, to have intercourse. The delay effect is substantial and robust. Pledging delays intercourse for a long time. The study, based on a sample of more than 5,000 students, concludes that taking a virginity pledge reduces by one-third the probability that an adolescent will begin sexual activity compared with other adolescents of the same gender and age, after controlling for a host of other factors linked to sexual activity rates such as physical maturity, parental disapproval of sexual activity, school achievement, and race. When taking a virginity pledge is combined with strong parental disapproval of sexual activity, the probability of initiation of sexual activity is reduced by 75 percent or more.
  6. Teen Aid and Sex Respect. An evaluation of the Teen Aid and Sex Respect abstinence programs in three school districts in Utah showed that both programs were effective among the students who were at the greatest risk of initiating sexual activity. Approximately 7,000 high school and middle school students participated in the evaluation. To determine the effects of the programs, students in schools with the abstinence programs were compared with students in similar control schools within the same school district. Statistical adjustments were applied to further control for any initial differences between program participants and control students. The programs together were shown to reduce the rate of initiation of sexual activity among at-risk high school students by over a third when compared with a control group of similar students who were not exposed to the program. Statistically significant changes in behavior were not found among junior high students.
    When high school and junior high school students were examined together, Sex Respect was shown to reduce the rate of initiation of sexual activity among at-risk students by 25 percent when compared with a control group of similar students who were not exposed to the program. Teen Aid was found to reduce the initiation of sex activity by some 17 percent. A third non-abstinence program, Values and Choices, which offered non-directive or value-free instruction in sex education and decision-making, was found to have no impact on sexual behavior.
  7. Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS). An evaluation performed for the national Title XX abstinence program examined the effectiveness of the Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality abstinence program in reducing teen sexual activity. The evaluation assessed the FACTS program by comparing a sample of students who participated in the program with a group of comparable students in separate control schools who did not participate in the program. The experimental and control students together comprised a sample of 308 students. The evaluation found the FACTS program to be highly effective in delaying the onset of sexual activity. Students who participated in the program were 30 percent to 50 percent less likely to commence sexual activity than were those who did not participate.
  8. Postponing Sexual Involvement (PSI). Postponing Sexual Involvement was an abstinence program developed by Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and provided to low-income 8th grade students. A study published in Family Planning Perspectives, based on a sample of 536 low-income students, showed that the PSI program was effective in altering sexual behavior. A comparison of the program participants with a control population of comparable low-income minority students who did not participate showed that PSI reduced the rate of initiation of sexual activity during the 8th grade by some 60 percent for boys and over 95 percent for girls. As the study explained: The program had a pronounced effect on the behavior of both boys and girls who had not been sexually involved before the program…. By the end of eighth grade, boys who had not had the program were more than three times as likely to have begun having sex as were boys who had the program…. Girls who had not had the program were as much as 15 times more likely to have begun having sex as were girls who had had the program. The effects of the program lasted into the next school year even though no additional sessions were provided. By the end of the 9th grade, boys and girls who had participated in PSI were still some 35 percent less likely to have commenced sexual activity than were those who had not participated in the abstinence program.
  9. Project Taking Charge. Project Taking Charge is a six-week abstinence curriculum delivered in home economics classes during the school year. It was designed for use in low-income communities with high rates of teen pregnancy. The curriculum contains these elements: self-development; basic information about sexual biology (anatomy, physiology, and pregnancy); vocational goal-setting; Family communication; and values instruction on the importance of delaying sexual activity until marriage. The effect of the program has been evaluated in two sites: Wilmington, Delaware, and West Point, Mississippi. The evaluation was based on a small sample of 91 adolescents. Control and experimental groups were created by randomly assigning classrooms to either receive or not receive the program. The students were assessed immediately before and after the program and through a six-month follow-up.
    In the six-month follow-up, Project Taking Charge was shown to have had a statistically significant effect in increasing adolescents’ knowledge of the problems associated with teen pregnancy, the problems of sexually transmitted diseases, and reproductive biology. The program was also shown to reduce the rate of onset of sexual activity by 50 percent relative to the students in the control group, although the authors urge caution in the interpretation of these numbers due to the small size of the evaluation sample.
  10. Teen Aid Family Life education Project. The Teen Aid Family Life education Project is a widely used abstinence education program for high school and junior high students. An evaluation of the effectiveness of Teen Aid, involving a sample of over 1,300 students, was performed in 21 schools in California, Idaho, Oregon, Mississippi, Utah, and Washington. The Teen Aid program was shown to have a statistically significant effect in reducing the rate of initiation of sexual activity (loss of virginity) among high-risk high school students, compared with similar students in control schools. Among at-risk high school students who participated in the program, the rate of initiation of sexual activity was cut by more than one-fourth, from 37 percent to 27 percent. A similar pattern of reduction was found among at-risk junior high school students, but the effects did not achieve statistical significance. The program did not have statistically significant effects among lower-risk students.


Real abstinence education is essential to reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing, preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and improving emotional and physical well-being among the nation’s youth. True abstinence education programs help young people to develop an understanding of commitment, fidelity, and intimacy that will serve them well as the foundations of healthy marital life in the future.

abstinence education programs have repeatedly been shown to be effective in reducing sexual activity among their participants. However, funding for the evaluation of abstinence education programs until very recently has ranged from meager to nonexistent. Currently, the number of adequately funded evaluations of abstinence education is increasing. At present, there are several promising new evaluations nearing completion. As each year passes, it can be expected that the number of evaluations showing that abstinence education does significantly reduce sexual activity will grow steadily.

abstinence education is a nascent and developing field. Substantial funding for abstinence education became available only within the past few years. As abstinence programs develop and become more broadly available, future evaluations will enable the programs to hone and increase their effectiveness.

Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic and Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


What is abstinence?

Abstinence simply means not having sex, and refraining from sexual intercourse. For most people, abstinence is the absence of sexual contact altogether. It is the healthiest way to avoid teen pregnancy and more importantly, the best way to avoid contracting an STI.

How does abstinence work?

Abstinence prevents pregnancy because sexual intercourse does not take place. It involves refraining from any activity that leads to an exchange of body fluids. Periodic abstinence is often used by couples who are practicing the fertility awareness method of birth control as a means of preventing pregnancy during the fertile period of a woman’s cycle.

How effective is abstinence?

Abstinence prevents pregnancy 100% of the time when practiced consistently. It is the most effective form of birth control.

What are the side effects or health risks?

There are no side effects or health risks related to abstinence.

What about sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?

Abstinence prevents the transmission of sexually transmitted infections 100% of the time when practiced appropriately and consistently.

Frequently Asked Questions About Abstinence:

How can I be successful at abstinence?

Abstinence is most successful when you are diligent and use planning within your relationships.

To make it easier, try some of the following ideas:

  • Do things with friends or in groups
  • Go on double dates
  • Minimize physical affection that could lead to passion and desire, making it harder to abstain from sexual intercourse
  • Avoid situations where you are alone

What about teenagers and abstinence?

Relationships that involve sexual intercourse are filled with physical, emotional, and psychological risks. Abstinence provides teenagers the opportunity to avoid those risks. Individuals who abstain from sexual intercourse during their teenage years tend to have fewer sexual partners in their future.

Remaining abstinent as a teenager means that you will be less likely to:

  • Contract a sexually transmitted disease, which may also lead to infertility
  • Develop cancer of the cervix
  • Experience an unplanned pregnancy

How can my partner get to know me?

Sexual intercourse is not the only way two people can get to know each other. Too often, people open this door for drawing closer to one another only to regret the decision later, because they did not really know each other at all.

Intimacy can be developed through a variety of means such as:

  • Talking and listening
  • Sharing joys, hurts, dreams, goals, wishes and other aspects of life
  • Honesty and respect for one another
  • Having fun and playing together

Why should someone choose abstinence?

Abstinence is chosen by women and men for a number of reasons. If you are a teenager, it is the best way to avoid being a pregnant teen or getting an STD.

Some of the reasons people choose abstinence are noted below:

  • The honor of personal, moral, or religious beliefs
  • Wait until they are married and in a monogamous and committed relationship
  • Pursue school, career, and other activities
  • To avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases

How can I express my affection? Intimacy and affection can be expressed in a number of ways other than sexual intercourse. Kissing, hugging, massaging, and holding hands are some of the ways that couples express their affection in a physical manner.
Intimacy and affection can also be expressed in other ways such as:

  • Conversations
  • Cards, letters, and love notes
  • Support in your partner’s activities
  • Creative and fun dating
  • The caution with any physical affection is that it can lead to passion and a desire for something more.

What are the pros and cons of abstinence?

  • The Pros of Abstinence include:
    • Has no side effects or health risks
    • Prevents pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases
    • Free
    • Reduces emotional and psychological challenges related to relationships that involve sexual activity
  • The Cons of Abstinence:
    • Requires willpower and discipline

Sometimes we stop having sex, but we didn’t do it on purpose: We go through a breakup; we’re traveling; our partner is sick; or a busy schedule puts our sex life at a standstill. A few days of no sex turns into weeks, and weeks turn into months, and before we realize it, we’ve involuntarily taken a temporary vow of abstinence. Sexual ruts happen from time to time, but a lack of sex can have significant effects on our body.

From erectile dysfunction to a weaker immune system, below are six surprising ways sexual abstinence influences our mental, emotional, and physical health.

Lower Sex Drive

If we haven’t had sex in a while, there’s a greater likelihood we’ll start to want sex less. During sex, the body is inundated with endorphins that make us feel good, and help us associate sex with positive feelings. Abstaining from sex will lessen this connection, and therefore, reduce the need to have sex.

Psychologically speaking, all of our libido or sex drive will go somewhere else.

“Your libido can increase your career drive and manifest more successful ambitions or, if you choose, you may direct your sexual energy into your children versus intercourse,” Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and co-star, Sex Box on WE TV, told Medical Daily.

However, no matter how long we’re abstinent, Walfish says we can resume the same sexual drive, energy, and appetite we enjoyed before. She does warn, “don’t expect a sudden rise in libido if you never had a high sex drive.”

More Stress

A lack of regular sex can lead to an elevation of stress levels. A 2005 study in Biological Psychology found penile-vagnal intercourse, but not other sexual behavior, was associated with better mental and physical performance, and lower stress levels. People who hadn’t had regular sex showed higher blood pressure spikes in response to stress than those who recently had intercourse. Here, sex serves as a coping mechanism to deal with stressful moments.

Six surprising body changes that happen when you stop having sex, from more stress to a weaker immune system. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

Poor Self-Esteem

A halt in our sex life can make us feel both less desired and sad. Researchers believe semen has antidepressant qualities that can counteract feelings of depression. Semen contains several hormones, including testosterone, estrogen, FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone), luteinising hormone, prolactin, and several different prostaglandins. These have been detected in women’s blood within hours of being exposed to semen.

In a 2002 study in Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers found condom use, an indirect measure of the presence of semen in women, was linked to scores on the Beck Depression Inventory. Women who were having sex without condoms were less depressed, while depressive symptoms and suicide attempts among those who used condoms were proportional to the consistency of condom use. It’s possible that semen may lessen depressive symptoms as the vagina absorbs the components of semen.

Less Intelligent

Less sex can translate to less intelligence. A 2013 study in Hippocampus found sex boosts neurogenesis — the creation of new neurons in the brain — and also improved cognitive function. This is because sexual experiences leads to cell growth in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that’s vital to long-term memory. Sex could potentially help prevent deterioration that leads to memory loss, and dementia.

Weaker Immune System

We may be more prone to colds and other illness with less sex. Regular sex, in moderation, could help boost our immune systems, according to a 2004 study in Psychological Reports. Researchers evaluated how strong participants’ immune systems were by measuring levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antigen found in saliva and mucosal linings. IgA is the first line of defense against colds and flus, as it binds to bacteria that invade the body, and then activates the immune system to destroy them. Those who had sex more frequently showed significantly higher levels of IgA than their counterparts.

Erectile Dysfunction

Abstinence can increase the likelihood of erectile dysfunction (ED) for men. A 2008 study in the American Journal of Medicine found men who reported having sexual intercourse once a week were half as likely to develop ED as men who had sex less frequently. Researchers tracked over 900 men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s for five years, and showed regular sexual activity preserved potency in the same fashion as exercise preserved the body’s aerobic capacity.

Regular sex can reduce the risk of ED, even at old age.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

It is the middle of the night and my phone is ringing, or I’m hurriedly pushing clothes into my closet and shoving shoes under my bed. I’m frantically shaving the bottom half my legs or searching for socks to hide my fading pedicure, or, my least favorite, stuffing my face under my pillow to drown out snoring so loud that it would rival the infomercials blaring on my television.

I’m not sure what sex is like for other single women, but my experience reminded me of an on-call job. There was a lot of hurrying up — just to wait.

If there’s any sure sign of aging, it’s not single gray hairs or little creases that form around your eyes, or even looking at a college student and thinking he or she looks like a middle schooler. It’s the moment you decide you’d rather forgo sex than a full eight hours of sleep.

I wish I could say I started my journey of abstinence for the purpose of self-exploration, but honestly it began because I was tired. Sex without commitment was quickly becoming a waste of my time. No matter how often I was taken to dinner, sent flowers or driven to work, I knew it didn’t mean anything. I lived in the gray area of friend with benefits, somewhere between acquaintance and girlfriend.

For a while, I liked it there. I enjoyed talking freely about dating other people, never needing to sugarcoat my words for fear of hurting my partner or making him jealous. I never had to worry if we had a future because, by definition, we wouldn’t have one. At times, I had all the things I wanted out of a relationship without actually having a relationship. It was wonderful. That is, until I wanted a relationship. At that point, the reactions were so awkward I might as well have said I wanted to visit the moon to lick the ground and check if it was made of cheese.

Then it became exhausting — not just physically exhausting, from being up in the middle of the night or sprint-cleaning my bathroom — but emotionally draining, because there’s nothing worse than feeling something that you’ve already explicitly or inexplicitly agreed you wouldn’t feel.

Eventually, I had to ask myself what the fuck I was really doing. And when I couldn’t answer that question, I decided not to do it anymore. I decided to be abstinent.

Although it felt like the right decision, I was a little conflicted. As a 29-year-old womanist who is sex-positive, the fact that I might attract men who wanted a “good girl” almost put me off the whole thing. I don’t believe that women should be judged based on standards of purity.

I wondered how I could choose to do something that had been imposed on women by a patriarchal society for so long and still be the progressive, liberal woman I am. I half-expected a little referee to jump out of my closet and strip me of my feminist title for even thinking abstinence might yield positive results.

Still, I stuck with it.

Nine months into my year (and counting) of abstinence, I met someone I really liked. There was just one little issue: He wanted to have sex. In fact, he felt entitled to it and tried to persuade me by questioning my maturity and encouraging me to reject societal standards. It was a blessing in disguise. I couldn’t explain why (yet), but I knew he was wrong. Sex couldn’t make me a feminist and abstinence didn’t make me a traditionalist. Through this experience, I started to understand my decision to be abstinent a lot better.

After it ended, I decided to ask some people I know to help me put my feelings into words.

“I have abstained from sex for long periods of my adult life, for nine and ten months at different times,” said Jillian Anthony, who is 29 and the editor of Time Out New York magazine. “It is feminist to recognize when and how sex will fulfill you not only physically, but mentally as well, and I think I’ve spared myself many confusing and painful situations.”

In the beginning, my abstinence was all about ending relationships that weren’t fulfilling. When I started, I’d been seeing someone off-and-on for over a year. I knew he was never going to commit to me and as soon as I realized that was what I wanted, I ended things. Even though we weren’t in a bona fide relationship, it felt like a breakup.

In those first few months of abstinence, I announced to anyone and everyone who made the mistake of communicating with me that I was NOT having sex. Even though I wasn’t dating any of these guys, being open about my abstinence was like waving a magic wand over my social life — everyone who didn’t value my platonic friendship vanished.

Obviously some relationships ended, but others got way better. I went out for drinks with a friend I’d had for years; we met after work one day and meditated. I sat with an ex-boyfriend and talked, for the first time in a while.

One of the most important things I gained was clarity. Like Jillian said, abstinence became a way of avoiding confusion and, in turn, pain.

“I think before abstinence I was so numb to misogyny that I was accepting behavior in my life that wasn’t in tune or aligned with my value system,” said Ghislaine Leon, 29, of fearlessleon.com. I’ve always believed that I have the right to reject any advances and to dictate exactly what types of relationships I want to engage in. But, as a young woman who was often shy, confused or focused on being gentle with other people’s emotions, the reality of my dating life often fell short. Just like Ghislaine, I often normalized misogyny and the pressure to have sex. Abstinence gave me an excuse to find and use my own voice again, something I should’ve been doing all along.

Over and over, I talked to women who told me that they considered themselves to be feminists but had made the choice to be abstinent. What I realized is, though feminism is something we’re talking about, thinking about and marching about, the world, in the words of some of the people I interviewed, is still as “misogynistic,” “macho” and “patriarchal” as it has always been. Chastity, abstinence and notions of purity are measures of protection in a world like that. So many women I spoke to — heterosexual ones, at least — chose abstinence because they didn’t want to be used or disrespected. And, as I believed when I started this, it’s ridiculous that they should still have to make those trade-offs.

But there’s something new. None of the women I spoke to found abstinence constricting. I heard repeatedly that it was another empowering choice that they were each making about their bodies, as empowering as the decision to have sex, despite the possibility of judgment.

They’ve helped me see that feminism isn’t another set of rules to live by. At its core, feminism is personal agency. It’s my right to make my own choices, regardless of what those choices are.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his girlfriend, the singer Ciara, recently announced plans to remain sexually abstinent until marriage.

It was a vow that came as a surprise to many. After all, sexual purity is a commitment that is historically expected of, associated with – even demanded of – women. However, sexual abstinence is not something assumed of men, especially men like Russell Wilson.

Wilson, an accomplished, attractive athlete, embodies contemporary ideals of masculinity, which include style, wealth and, yes, sexual prowess.

So how does a man like Russell Wilson navigate a commitment to abstinence while upholding ideals of masculinity? Wilson’s status as an athlete and heartthrob is likely giving him what sociologist CJ Pascoe calls “jock insurance.” In other words, due to his celebrity status, he can make traditionally nonmasculine choices without having his masculinity questioned.

But what does it mean for a man who isn’t in the limelight, who makes a similar type of commitment to abstinence? And what does it mean for the women they date, and might eventually marry?

I’ve been researching men who pledge sexual abstinence since 2008, work that comes out of a larger scholarly interest in masculinities, religion and sex education.

While men make this commitment with the good intentions for a fulfilling marriage and sex life, my research indicates that the beliefs about sexuality and gender that come hand in hand with these pledges of abstinence do not necessarily make for an easy transition to a married sexual life.

Who’s pledging “purity?”

Comedian Joy Behar recently joked that abstinence is what you do after you’ve been married for a long time. Here, Behar makes two assumptions. One is that sexual activity declines both with age and the time spent in a relationship. This is true.

The second is that abstinence is not something you do before marriage. For the most part, this is true as well: by age 21, 85% of men and 81% of women in the United States have engaged in sexual intercourse.

A purity ring.Bibleknowledge/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

If we compare these numbers to the average age of first marriage in the United States – 27 for women, and 29 for men – we get the picture: most people are having sex before marriage.

Still, some in the United States are making “virginity pledges,” and commit to abstinence until marriage. Most of the data that exist on this practice show that those who make the pledges will do so in high school, often by either signing a pledge card or donning a purity ring.

Research on this population tells us a few things: that those who pledge are more likely to be young women, and that – regardless of gender – an abstinence pledge delays the onset of sexual activity by only 18 months. Furthermore, taking a virginity pledge will often encourage other types of sexual behavior.

Virgins in Guyland

But little is known about men who pledge and navigate this commitment to abstinence.

I was curious about how men maintain pledges in light of these statistics, and also balance them with expectations about masculinity. So in 2008, I began researching a support group of 15 men at an Evangelical church in the Southwest. All members were white, in their early to mid-20’s, single or casually dating – and supporting each other in their decisions to remain abstinent until marriage.

The group, called The River, met once a week, where, sitting on couches, eating pizza or talking about video games, they’d eventually gravitate toward the topic that brought them all together in the first place: sex.

On the surface, it would seem impossible for these men to participate in what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “Guyland” – a developmental and social stage driven by a “guy code” that demands, among other things, sexual conquest and detached intimacy.

Rather, the men of The River approach sex as something sacred, a gift from God meant to be enjoyed in the confines of the marriage bed. At the same time, these men struggle with what they describe as the “beastly elements” – or temptations – of sexuality. And it is precisely because of these so-called beastly elements that these men find each other in the same space every week.

The men of The River grappled with pornography use, masturbation, lust and same-sex desire, all of which can potentially derail these men from their pledge.

It raises an interesting dilemma: to these men, sex is both sacred and beastly. Yet the way they navigate this seeming contradiction actually allows them to exert their masculinity in line with the demands of Guyland.

Group members had an elaborate network of accountability partners to help them resist temptations. For example, one had an accountability partner who viewed his weekly online browsing history to make sure he wasn’t looking at pornography. Another accountability partner texted him each night to make sure that he and his girlfriend were “behaving.”

While these behaviors may seem unusual, they work in ways that allow men to actually assert their masculinity. Through what sociologist Amy Wilkins calls “collective performances of temptation,” these men are able to discuss just how difficult it is to refrain from the beastly urges; in this way, they reinforce the norm that they are highly sexual men, even in the absence of sexual activity.

The River, as a support group, works largely in the same way. These men are able to confirm their sexual desires in a homosocial space – similar to Kimmel’s research in Guyland – from which Kimmel notes that the “actual experience of sex pales in comparison to the experience of talking about sex.”

A ‘sacred gift’ – with mixed returns

The men of The River believed that the time and work required to maintain these pledges would pay off in the form of a happy and healthy marriage.

Ciara, in discussing her commitment to abstinence with Russell Wilson, similarly added that she believes such a promise is important for creating a foundation of love and friendship. She stated that, “if we have that that strong, we can conquer anything with our love.”

So what happened once after the men of The River got married? In 2011, I followed up with them.

All but one had gotten married. But while the transition to married life brought promises of enjoying their “sacred gift from God,” this gift was fraught.

Respondents reported that they still struggled with the beastly elements of sexuality. They also had the added concern of extramarital affairs. Furthermore – and perhaps most importantly – men no longer had the support to work through these temptations.

There were two reasons behind this development.

First, respondents had been told, since they were young, that women were nonsexual. At the same time, these men had also been taught that their wives would be available for their pleasure.

It’s a double standard that’s in line with longstanding cultural ideals of the relationship between femininity and purity. But it’s a contradiction that leaves men unwilling to open up to the very women they’re having sex with.

These married men and women were not talking to each other about sex. Rather than freely discussing sex or temptation with their wives (as they had done with their accountability partners), the men simply tried to suppress temptation by imagining the devastation any sexual deviations might cause their wives.

After marriage, the men felt left to their own devices. ‘Couple’ via www..com

Second, these men could no longer reach out to their support networks due to their own ideals of masculinity. They had been promised a sacred gift: a sexually active, happy marriage. Yet many weren’t fully satisfied, as evidenced by the continued tension between the sacred and beastly. However, to open up about these continued struggles would be to admit failure as masculine, Christian man.

In the end, the research indicates that a pledge of sexual abstinence works to uphold an ideal of masculinity that disadvantages both men and women.

After 25 years of being told that sex is something dangerous that needs to be controlled, the transition to married (and sexual) life is difficult, at best, while leaving men without the support they need. Women, meanwhile, are often left out of the conversation entirely.

So when we urge abstinence in place of healthy conversations about sex and sexuality, we may be undermining the relationships that are the driving goal of these commitments in the first place.

Is Abstinence for Me?

People are abstinent for many reasons, including preventing pregnancy. Whether you’re thinking about being abstinent, you are abstinent, or you’re just someone who’s curious about it, you may have many questions.

  • What Is Abstinence?
  • How Does Abstinence Prevent Pregnancy?
  • How Effective Is Abstinence?
  • How Safe Is Abstinence?
  • What Are the Benefits of Abstinence?
  • What Are the Disadvantages of Abstinence?
  • How Do I Talk with My Partner About Being Abstinent?
  • How Can I Stay Abstinent?

What Is Abstinence?

You may have heard people talk about abstinence in different ways.

Some people think of abstinence as not having vaginal intercourse. They may enjoy other kinds of sex play that don’t lead to pregnancy. This is better described as outercourse.

Some people define abstinence as not having vaginal intercourse when a woman might get pregnant. This is better described as period abstinence, which is one of the fertility awareness-based methods of birth control.

And some people define abstinence as not having any kind of sex play with a partner. This is the definition we use on these pages.

Being continuously abstinent is the only way to be absolutely sure that you won’t have an unintended pregnancy or get a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

How Does Abstinence Prevent Pregnancy?

Abstinence prevents pregnancy by keeping sperm out of the vagina.

How Effective Is Abstinence?

Used continuously, abstinence is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. It also prevents STIs.

How Safe Is Abstinence?

Abstinence is one of the safest ways to prevent pregnancy — there are no side effects.

What Are the Benefits of Abstinence?

  • has no medical or hormonal side effects
  • is free

Women and men abstain from sex play for many reasons — even after they’ve been sexually active. A couple may even choose to be abstinent after having had sex play with each other. The reasons people choose to be abstinent may change throughout life.

People choose abstinence to

  • prevent pregnancy
  • prevent STDs
  • wait until they’re ready for a sexual relationship
  • wait to find the “right” partner
  • have fun with romantic partners without sexual involvement
  • focus on school, career, or extracurricular activities
  • support personal, moral, or religious beliefs and values
  • get over a breakup
  • heal from the death of a partner
  • follow medical advice during an illness or infection

Any woman or man can abstain from sex play. Many do so at various times in their lives. Some choose to abstain from sex play for a great part of their lives.

What Are the Disadvantages of Abstinence?

There are few disadvantages to abstinence.

  • People may find it difficult to abstain for long periods of time.
  • Women and men often end their abstinence without being prepared to protect themselves against pregnancy or infection.

How Do I Talk with My Partner About Being Abstinent?

Talking with your partner about your decision to abstain from sex play is important — whether or not you’ve had sex play before. Partners need to be honest with each other and make sexual decisions together. These are some of the best ways to keep a relationship happy. Even so, it may not be easy to do. You may feel awkward or embarrassed.

  • It’s best to talk about your feelings before things get sexual. For many people it’s hard to be clear about what they want if they get aroused. It is helpful to think — ahead of time — about how you can say “no” to sex play. What behavior will be clear? What words will be best? You can practice saying the words out loud. Then think about how someone might respond to you.
  • Take the time to consider fully what being abstinent will mean for you. It is important to know what you are thinking and feeling and what you need. Then you can tell your partner about it.
  • Be straightforward about the limits you want to set.

Keep in mind that having sex is not the only way two people can get to know each other. Sex play is also not the only way couples can be close. People get closer as they build trust by:

  • talking
  • listening
  • sharing
  • being honest
  • respecting each other’s thoughts and feelings
  • enjoying one another’s company

Abstinence can only work when both partners agree to it. So it is also helpful to keep talking with each other about why you’ve agreed to abstain from sex play. Your relationship may change. And your decision to be abstinent may change, too.

How Can I Stay Abstinent?

Staying abstinent is a choice you make every day. There are ways to help yourself with that choice.

  • Remind yourself why you chose to be abstinent.
  • Think about the consequences.
  • Don’t reevaluate your decision to stay abstinent during sexually charged situations — stick with your decision until you can think about it with a clear head.

Abstinence can be difficult for some people. Women and men need to be clear about their reasons to stay abstinent. If you are tempted to have sex play, it helps to remember why you made the decision to be abstinent in the first place. How can you stay abstinent? Think about your answers to these questions:

  • Am I clear about why I want to be abstinent?
  • Am I aware of situations that could make staying abstinent difficult for me? Can I avoid them?
  • Alcohol and other drugs can affect my judgment and decision-making ability. How do I feel about not using them?
  • Are there people in my life I can talk to about my decision to be abstinent? Will they be supportive?

Most people stop being abstinent at some point in their lives. When you decide not to be abstinent, ask yourself

  • Do I have information about other methods of birth control and do I have access to them?
  • Do I know how to protect myself from STDs?

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