You have probably heard this phrase ad nauseum in physical education classes, at health centers, or perhaps from partners, friends or family members:
“Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections”.
As sexual health counselors, we talk a lot about sexual abstinence being at the low-risk side of the STI/pregnancy risk spectrum, but we don’t always talk enough about what it is, or how to be abstinent. We recognize that many college students choose to be abstinent, and also recognize that healthy sexual expression isn’t just about, nor does it necessarily include, having sex. So, in this blog post, we’ll give abstinence our full attention and go beyond the basics.
What is abstinence?
In general, most people would agree that abstinence is just abstaining from sex. Simple, right? Well, people have very different definitions of “sex” to begin with, and therefore different definitions for “abstinence”. Some definitions of abstinence that we’ve heard before include:
- Abstaining only from vaginal sex
- Abstaining from anal, vaginal or oral sex
- Abstaining from any sexual touching, including masturbation
- Abstaining from romantic relationships altogether
Abstinence is different to different people: it may include one type of sex, but not another; it may be abstaining from all types of sex; or, it could be abstaining from any sexual contact or touching. The definition of abstinence may also vary depending on the partners involved. For example, two males in a partnership may have a different working definition for abstinence than two females in a partnership, or a male and female in a partnership. The definition of abstinence may also vary by time. For example, some people may say they are abstinent if they have no sexual relationships currently, while others might define abstinence as never having had a sexual relationship, or waiting until a certain time to have a sexual relationship (graduation, meeting a lifetime partner, etc.).
This is not to say that there’s a right or wrong way to be abstinent, but it is important to understand that abstinence does differ from person to person, and partnership to partnership.
How “low-risk” is abstinence?
Generally speaking, abstaining from sexual activity translates to a much lower risk for most STI and/or pregnancy. However, how one defines abstinence influences that level of risk. For example, if one’s definition of abstinence is abstaining from vaginal sex but still having oral or anal sex, there is still a risk for STI because oral and anal sex can transmit infections like herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. In another example, if one defines abstinence as abstaining from oral, anal or vaginal sex, but still includes sexual touching, there still may be an STI risk because skin-to-skin contact can still transmit STI like herpes or HPV.
Therefore, abstinence is only no-risk for STI and/or pregnancy when one is abstaining from all the potential ways that STI transmission or pregnancy may occur. However, there are many ways to make abstinence as low-risk as possible, for example, by using condoms or other barriers during oral or anal sex.
Just like choosing to have sex, choosing to be abstinent is a big decision. It’s important to make sure you have a clear definition of what abstinence is and means to you, and to communicate this to potential partners. Answering the following questions can help you start conceptualizing what sex and abstinence mean to you:
- Why are you choosing to be abstinent?
- What does “sex” mean to you, and to a partnership?
- Which activities, specifically, will you be abstaining from?
- For how long is it important for you to be abstinent?
The following are some great resources for abstinence: