What is abstinence?
To abstain means to withhold from or go without something. Therefore, practicing abstinence in a sexual context means to withhold from some kind (or kinds) of sexual activity.
Practicing abstinence means different things to different people, and definitions of abstinence can change over time. For some people abstinence involves avoiding oral, anal and vaginal sex, but being comfortable with mutual masturbation or kissing. For others, abstinence may involve avoiding vaginal sex but participating in anal and oral sex. For some, abstinence may mean avoiding all types of sexual activity with someone else. There are many different possibilities and it’s up to you to decide what’s right for you.
Because there are many definitions of abstinence, it is important for people who practice abstinence to be able to define it for themselves first so that they can communicate it effectively with their partners.
Certain types of abstinence can be used as a method of contraception and can protect against sexually transmitted infections. Where abstinence involves avoiding vaginal sex with a penis as well as avoiding having the vagina come into contact with semen through any other means, it is 100% effective in preventing pregnancy. However, this definition of abstinence does not necessarily protect against sexually transmitted infections. There are many ways to contract STIs (e.g. through oral sex, through anal sex, etc.), so the only way to completely protect against them is to abstain from any sort of sexual activity that can transmit them.
How does abstinence work?
Abstinence works differently for different people. If two people are in a relationship and have decided to practice abstinence, it is important for them to know how each other defines the term. This way both partners understand the expectations and comfort level of their partner.
Knowing your personal comfort level sexually will help you to communicate effectively with your partner. Remember that you are always in control. If someone is pressures or forces you into having any kind of sexual activity that you have not consented to, it is sexual assault and is a criminal offence.
How effective is abstinence?
The effectiveness of abstinence at preventing pregnancy and STI transmission will depend on which sexual activities you choose to practice and which you choose to abstain from. If your definition of abstinence involves withholding from all forms of sexual activity that can transmit STIs or cause a pregnancy it can be 100% effective; however the range for typical use is vast because everyone’s definition is different.
How do I use abstinence?
If you decide to practice abstinence, discuss with your partner how each of you defines it. Answering the following questions might help you to engage in safer sexual activity:
• What kinds of sexual activities am I comfortable engaging in right now?
• Have I communicated with my partner about how we will use abstinence in our relationship?
• How does my partner define abstinence?
• How long do I plan to practice abstinence for?
• Does my definition of abstinence fully protect me against sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy? If not, how will I go about protecting myself?
• Am I likely to be in many situations where I choose to use alcohol and/or drugs? If so, will I have plan in place to ensure that I stay abstinent? Will I bring condoms with me just in case?
• Do I know what contraceptive options are available if I one day decide to have vaginal sex?
*You can also decide to practice abstinence in specific situations where you want to engage in sexual activity with someone but you are not adequately protected against STIs and/or pregnancy, e.g. if you are at a party but you and the person you want to engage in sexual activity with do not have any condoms
What are the advantages of abstinence?
• Can be very effective in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), depending on your definition of abstinence and if you practice abstinence consistently
• It’s free
• It encourages communication between you and your sexual partners
• It can allow you to get to know your partner intimately before engaging in sexual activity with them
• For some people, it can allow them to have a relationships with a partner while still respecting their religious or moral values
• Abstinence can involve engaging in other enjoyable activities together without having sexual intercourse (although this depends on your definition)
• It can be great for people who feel that they are not yet ready to have sex.
What are the disadvantages of abstinence?
• Depending on your definition of abstinence you may still be at risk of pregnancy or STIs
• It can take a lot of willpower to abstain from sexual activities. Partners may decide to practice abstinence but then get caught up in a sexual moment and have unprotected sex. To avoid this situation, it may be helpful to carry condoms with you even if you don’t intend on using them.
• If you and your partners have different definitions of abstinence it may be difficult to have a mutually-satisfying relationship. Communication and understanding can go a long way in a relationship. It is important to respect your partner’s decision. There are many ways people can be intimate together.
• If you use drugs or alcohol you may have different levels of judgment when you’re using and when you’re sober. This could lead to engaging in sexual activity you wouldn’t otherwise engage in.