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Does Abstinence Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

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Sound studies have been done which show that abstinence-only sex education -- the kind that only says to "just say no" and doesn't provide any other information -- isn't working, something many readers here hardly need us to prove to them.

However, some of that problem may lie in the term itself, or in "abstinence" being presented for either the wrong reasons or not accounting for the myriad of reasons -- not just because of one set of religious beliefs, as a means of preventing pregnancy, or through fear and shame -- some people choose not to be sexually active. Plenty of people choose to abstain from sex or sexual partnership for periods of time even if they've been sexually active before and felt just fine about it, and even if they do know how to reduce their risks of pregnancy or STIs. Taking time away from sexual activity, or waiting to have a sexual partner can be very enjoyable, empowering and positive: it doesn't have to be about shame, sin or because sex is thought to be dangerous or scary. Choosing not to engage in sex or sex with a partner is no more or less powerful or positive than the choice to do so.

In truth, the word "abstinence" doesn't actually mean anything, and when we try and make some real sense out of it, it can get mighty confusing.

"Be abstinent." "From what?"
"Sex." "What do you mean by sex?"
"You know, sex...intercourse." "So oral sex is okay?"
"Well, no...maybe. I don't know."

You see what I mean: it's confusing.

What we really should be talking about here, when people say abstinence, is celibacy, the deliberate choice not to have a sexual partner for any period of time. There's nothing ambiguous about that.

Being celibate means sharing NO sexual acts with a partner: any kind of intercourse (vaginal or anal), oral sex, manual sex, and so forth. In other words, no physical, sexual contact with others; meaning any genital (penis or vulva) touch, with mouths, hands or anything else between you and someone else is off limits.

The real difference here, all comes down to the misnomer: "Abstinence is the only safe sex." If you are abstaining from sex, that simply isn't true, because abstinence isn't any kind of sex at all. (Plus, as someone pointed out on another site I write for recently, if we're to believe, as many pushing abstinence do, that the tale about the conception of Jesus is true, we can't really claim it's 100% effective regardless. 99.9999999% percent, maybe, but not 100%.) Masturbation is 100% safe sex. So is phone sex, so is mutual masturbation, so is non-genital partner massage. You get my drift.

Some teens trying to subscribe to abstinence -- and being confused about what that even means -- will and do end up engaging in sexual practices more risky than protected vaginal intercourse, like unprotected anal sex, and not only both pregnancy as well as disease, but then feel really lousy about themselves for no good reason. More times than not, it is because no one has defined abstinence for them, or told them what they CAN do, and how to be safe about it, instead of simply telling them what not to do. That can also happen when changing one's mind and deciding after a while that sex is something wanted isn't recognized as just as potentially good or sound as the choice to put sex on the back burner for a while.

I'm going to tell you a few things about celibacy, a term which I'll use instead of abstinence, because it actually means something and I think it is a more constructive, positive and realistic approach. Though many who advocate abstinence do so based in religious belief, I am going to sidestep that aspect of it because it is your job, not mine, to decide what is best for you spiritually, and the spiritual belief systems of our users vary widely. That aside, there are a good number of other reasons to be celibate at various times in your life.

The Problem with "Abstinence"

Celibacy is about not having a sexual partner, not usually about not being sexual. The problem with most "abstinence" approaches is that they tend to assume you can turn your sexuality -- not your choices about sexual partnership or your sexual activity -- off and on like a light switch. But what if we get sexual pleasure from kissing, eating an orange, a long hot bath, talking or doing yoga? That may seem a bit weird, or not jive with how others have defined sex for you, but when it comes down to biology and science, it is really how it works. We can try not to feel aroused or sexual all we want, but for most people, it's just not something a person can control.

For example, even when a person abstains from all forms of sex, including masturbation, your body can find sexual release on its own, during sleep, in both men and women. Bear in mind that your sexuality doesn't start in your genitals (in your penis or vulva) it starts in your brain. So, when your senses pick up anything your brain interprets or associates as being sexual, you start to get aroused. For example, let's say you got your first kiss standing by a pencil sharpener. It is entirely likely that later in your life, the smell of pencil dust could set off sexual arousal in your body, because that scent now suggests kissing to you. That is not only normal, it's part of what makes sexuality so beautiful; that it encompasses and is made of so much of our lives and experiences.

That is some of why it is so difficult for so many people to "abstain" from every aspect of sex: it usually isn't possible.

While some religions believe that sexuality only exists for the purposes of procreation, the way our bodies and brains really work stand counter to that belief. While we can choose not to engage in sex with a partner or with ourselves (masturbation), we cannot choose not to be sexual, and that touches upon far more than our genitals, or creating children. It is as much of who and what we are as breathing and eating, and it is a part of our chemical makeup as far back as when we were still in our mother's wombs. So, we have no choice in that it is there, but what we can choose is how best to manage it for ourselves, and make it work with our other life choices.


Why choose celibacy?

There are any number of good reasons for choosing to be celibate for a period of time, be it a week a few years, before you've become sexually active or long after.

  • Because you absolutely cannot get pregnant right now (or cause a pregnancy in someone else's body), or do not want to. No form -- not one -- of birth control save having your tubes tied, or your partner getting a vasectomy (and even then, believe it or not, things can get botched) is 100% effective. So, unless you have solutions in place and are ready to handle an accidental pregnancy -- or are having sex with a same-sex partner where pregnancy isn't a risk -- celibacy may be the best choice for you.
  • Because it protects you better than even safer sex from most sexually transmitted infections. I say most because a couple STIs can still be caught from normal, daily body contact. There's no need to get paranoid, it's rare; but it does still happen. However, you cut the risk astronomically when you do not have a sexual partner of any kind.
  • Because you are not able, due to your age, financial status, relationships dynamics or another factor to practice birth control or safer sex responsibly or wholly, or because other aspects of sex put your health, well-being, or that of your family or partner, at risk of negative or unwanted consequences or results.
  • Because the religion or belief system that you subscribe to and feel strongly about does not encourage or permit either premarital/nonmarital sex, or sex for any purpose other than procreation. Again, this gets murky, as some people believe that masturbation is included in these beliefs, and others do not, and those beliefs leave out what we understand about biology and human sexual physiology. Only you can really decide how you feel about your beliefs and investigate them. However, if having a sexual partner will make you feel guilty, or that you are defying your religion or family, it may be best to abstain from it, simply because sex that makes you feel bad about yourself just isn't worth having. Ideally, your sex life should feel harmonious with the rest of your life and your own personal beliefs and ethics.
  • Because you aren't ready for, or just don't want a sexual partner right now. There could be any number of reasons for this. Perhaps you were raped, sexually traumatized, or your last sexual experience left you feeling bad or confused. Perhaps you just don't want to deal with all of the hassles of sex with a partner. Perhaps you feel you should wait until you're with a person you have known and trusted a very long time. Maybe you're just to darn busy and have too many other parts of your life to manage, or maybe you're just plain not interested in sexual partnership.
  • Because you suspect you or your partner may currently have a sexually transmitted disease or infection, or you know you do. If you think or know one of you may be sick, waiting until you have test results and answers to your concerns is a very sound thing to do, even if you usually use condoms.
  • Because you just don't want any sexual activity right now, have other priorities, are evaluating your relationship, or are feeling "sick of sex." At various times in our lives, we all will go through these stages at least once or twice, and in order to work through them, may need to separate ourselves to see thing the most clearly.
  • Because you want to take some time away from partnered sex to explore other forms of your own sexuality, other ways of having sex with partners, or to invest more time and energy in other priorities in your life.

All of those reasons -- and others -- are excellent, valid and common reasons to be celibate for a while.

So, You Want to be Celibate?

Like any major life choices, it's best to think about them, about how you're going to stick to them, how they work with what you want, and how you're going to manage them with others. Because sex is such a heavy topic for so many, and something so few people really have a handle on, it's a good idea to take some time to figure out how to manage your celibacy so that it empowers you, rather than being a burden.

1. Consider choosing a timeframe. How long are you going to be celibate for? A month, a year, five years? Rather than choosing an event which will determine when you stop (which can take your own power away from you, especially when it involves a certain status) -- like yes, marriage -- pick a manageable time period that you can work with. Your sexual choices and sexual identity are your own, and are about you -- not some magical, mystical gift someone else gives you with a ring and a minivan. Write it down somewhere. For instance, instead of saying, "I'll wait until I'm married," if that's what you want to do, which puts a little undue pressure on yourself and your psyche, start in month-long blocks. At the end of each year, you can renew your self-contract if you wish, or reevaluate it as need be, based on you, and not someone else.

You absolutely don't have to have a timeframe, but it helps a lot of people who choose to be celibate to manage it. However, if a timeframe feels like pressure to you, and seems like something that will do the opposite of helping you, then by all means, make clear to yourself that you only have to do this for as long as it feels best for you.

2. Set some goals. Donna Marie Williams, in her book, Sensual Celibacy, advises that those choosing to be celibate make the choice a positive one by setting goals, and reminding yourself daily that you made this choice for you to make you feel good. Why are you choosing to be celibate, or abstinent: what are the positives of that choice, rather than the negatives of another? What do you intend to accomplish? For instance, if you just don't feel you're ready for a partner, how are you going to use the time otherwise? If you're choosing to be celibate until something, make that something your goal, like until you have birth control and safer sex really nailed down, until you have developed more assertiveness, until you're in the kind of relationship you really want when it comes to sex feeling like the right thing for you.

Instead of making a choice NOT to do something, make it a choice TO do something: make celibacy about being active, not about being passive. Write it down. Feel good about it, since that's why you made the choice in the first place.

3. Honor your sexuality. Being celibate, as I said before, doesn't mean your sexuality is gone from you. You can still do lots of things to enjoy and satiate it if you'd like, like masturbation, massage, long hot baths, and other creative and sensory activities (like exercise, phone sex, even a great meal). Recognize it when you're feeling sexually dissatisfied or "horny," and help yourself out during those times by doing something that alleviates or acknowledges that positively, not with shame.

4. Don't be stupid: you're smarter than that. I mean it.

As any of us know from dieting or trying to change a habit, we all renege on our pledges, promises and choices sometimes, even when we don't plan to. Keep condoms with you on dates where there is any chance you might choose to be sexual, just in case you do change your mind about celibacy. Even having them around may help to remind you of the choice you've made. Make your choice to others clear. If you're going to go out with someone, make sure your expectations are clear that that date is a platonic one from the beginning, and if things start to get mushy, tell the person you're with that you're celibate right now to avoid undue pressure on you (and them) later.

Celibacy in a World Saturated with Sex

A lot of teens and adults find it very hard to maintain celibacy in a culture where they feel pressured to have sex, or feel that sex is at every corner they turn. For starters, on some level, sex is.

As I said before, you can't shut your sexuality off, and no one should expect you to. It's part of being human. However, choosing not to have a sexual partner doesn't make you a prude, a eunuch or a nonsexual person; it simply makes you a person who purposefully doesn't have a partner right now.

Like any choice we make, we can't expect the whole world to make it, too, as it may be the right choice for one person, but not right for another. Instead of blaming others, or feeling attacked, it is more productive and empowering to work with ourselves and be proud of our own choices, not because of what choice -- like abstinence, or abortion, or getting married -- we made, but because we chose what was best for ourselves. A choice is never right or wrong outside of who we are; it can only be right or wrong for us as individuals. Many people who really should choose celibacy for a while often do not because they perceive that those preaching abstinence are putting down those who do not, and sadly, that happens all too often. Make sure your choice empowers you, but doesn't disempower others at the same time.

People around you, like friends, family or romantic partners, should support the choices you are making, even if they don't agree with them, or wouldn't make that choice for themselves. That is what it truly is to be someone's friend or partner.

If you're choosing to abstain from sex with a partner because it is what is best for you, you are making a powerful choice that shows you care about yourself and are doing what feels the most right. Anyone who uses that choice to mock you, or tease you, is ultimately someone who is intimidated because you have the strength to empower yourself despite what others think. Even when it isn't about sex, a lot of people are intimidated by strong people, and can't admit it, so they react by trying to make you feel small. Let it go, and remind yourself why you're doing what you are, and remember that the only person who have to really live with is yourself. While doing things to please others or gain acceptance may work in the short-term, ultimately, the consequences of what choices you make will always lie with you, and you're the one you have to own up to forever.

What can Celibacy or Abstinence Do for You?

Ultimately, when we choose to have sexual partners, we should be doing so because it is what we -- and not others -- want, because we're prepared for and want the intimacy and responsibility it entails, and because it makes us feel good, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well.

Too many people have sexual relations because someone else wants them to, before they're ready, or for the wrong reasons (like simply wanting to get off, wanting to make a partner stay, or wanting people to like you). When we choose to have sex -- or abstain from it -- for our own reasons, fully aware and alert to what we are doing, we can discover what is so wonderful about sex, and how we can experience it in ways that ONLY make us, and those around us, feel good.

Being celibate for a while can give us the time to learn to trust, understand and learn to communicate with our partners and ourselves, sexually and otherwise. It can help us to learn about our own bodies, rather than be told by others how they function. It can allow us to achieve other things which may have a higher priority for us than sex at any given time.

Above and beyond all else, it can serve to let us know that when we have sex, we are choosing to have it of our own volition, because we want to, and we can come to it prepared and ready for all of its responsibilities, as well as all of its pleasures.

written 06 Mar 2000 . updated 24 Jan 2014

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