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What is Abstinence?

Abstinence can be defined in a variety of ways and can also be unique to each individual.  Some people may think that abstinence is not having vaginal intercourse. This means that they may participate in other sexual activities that do not lead to pregnancy. However, this type of behavior is better described as outercourse.1 Others have defined abstinence as not having vaginal intercourse when a woman could be fertile. This can be better described as periodic abstinence and is a form of fertility awareness based birth control.2  According to Planned Parenthood, the true definition of abstinence and the definition that will be used in this article is not engaging in any form of sex play with a partner.1

Choosing Abstinence

Abstinence is a choice individuals make for a variety of reasons, including health concerns, religious beliefs, and personal values. Some people may even choose to become abstinent after they have already been sexually active. Either way, abstinence is the only guaranteed way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. Abstinence is usually associated with “waiting until marriage,” however many individuals may choose abstinence to:

  • Prevent  pregnancy
  • Prevent STIs and HIV
  • Wait to find the right partner
  • Focus on school, career, or extracurricular activities
  • Wait until they are ready for a sexual relationship
  • Get over a breakup
  • Heal from the death of a partner
  • Follow medical advice during an illness or infection 2

Sexual relationships can have many rewards, but they can also present physical and emotional risks. A person that chooses to remain abstinent has a better chance of having a more positive experience when they decide the time is right. Studies have shown that women who wait to have sex until they are in their twenties have fewer partners in their lifetime and certain health advantages. These women are less likely to contract STIs, become infertile, or develop cervical cancer.3

One of the problems with abstinence is the difficulty to maintain it over a long period of time. There is a possibility that someone may end their abstinence without the advanced planning necessary to prevent pregnancy and STIs. For abstinence to be successful, a person must be clear about why he or she is making this choice and discuss it with potential partners.

Is abstinence right for you?

If someone decides that abstinence is right for them, it is important to be aware of situations that can jeopardize this choice. Answering the following questions can give an indication of how successful this choice may be.1

Can I avoid situations that would make staying abstinent difficult? Can I avoid drugs or excessive alcohol that may affect my judgment? Will the people in my life be supportive of my decision?

People can have a meaningful and intimate relationship even without engaging in sexual activities. An abstinent couple can have a close relationship by communicating, listening, and having a mutual respect for one another. Both partners in the relationship must respect the choice to be abstinent.

If you are in an abstinent relationship

An abstinent couple should continually talk to each other about the decision they have made and reinforce why it is important to them. Remember that abstinence is a personal decision that each individual must make for themselves and it is a choice that you make every day.  To help stay abstinent you can:

  • Remind yourself why you chose to be abstinent
  • Think about the possible consequences of being sexually active
  • Refrain from changing your decision during sexually charged situations
  • Wait to reevaluate your decision when you can think with a clear head.1


Planned Parenthood. (2011). Abstinence. Retrieved on November 16, 2011 from

Epigee Women’s Health. (2011). Sexual Abstinence.  Retrieved on November 21, 2011 from

American Pregnancy Association. (2007). Abstinence. Retrieved on November 16, 2011 from

Last Update 08/2012