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Sexual abstinence is the practice of refraining from some or all aspects of sexual activity. Common reasons for practicing sexual abstinence include:

  • religious or philosophical reasons
  • material reasons (to prevent conception - undesired pregnancy - or sexually transmitted disease transmission);
  • psycho-sociological reasons (e.g., clinical depression, social anxiety disorder, increasing testosterone in males, or negative past experiences); or,
  • legal injunctions requiring conformity.
  • circumstantial reasons such as incarceration or geographical isolation.
  • to focus on other matters - sublimation
  • inability to find a suitable sexual partner - involuntary celibacy
  • poor health - medical celibacy

Premarital chastity

Many religious and ethical systems prohibit sexual activities between a person and anyone other than a spouse of that person, including most denominational variations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as have, historically, many legal systems and societal norms. In such contexts, sexual abstinence was and is prescribed for unmarried individuals for the purpose of chastity. Chastity is sometimes used synonymously with sexual abstinence, but the mechanisms of chastity are typically largely different for persons who assume different societal roles. For example, in most cultural, ethical, and religious contexts, coitus within monogamous marriage is not considered to be opposed to chastity.

Western attitudes

Historically, there has been a swing from the sexually free end of the Industrial Revolution to the chaste values of the early Victorian period. This was then followed by a new puritanism from the late Victorian era to the mid-1900s. This important transformation often colors discussion of sexual behavior in the later 20th century. World War I began a return to sexual freedom and indulgence, but more often than not, the appearance of conforming to the earlier moral values of abstinence before marriage was retained. With the conclusion of World War II, the societal importance of abstinence declined swiftly. The advent of the first oral contraceptive pill and widely available antibiotics suppressed many consequences of wide and free sexual behavior, while social morals were also changing. By the 1970s, abandonment of premarital chastity was no longer taboo in the majority of western societies; perhaps even the reverse: that members of both sexes would have experienced a number of sexual partners before marriage was considered normal. Some cultural groups continued to place a value on the moral purity of an abstainer, but abstinence was caught up in a wider reevaluation of moral values.

In some cultures, those who infringe the rules regarding chastity may be ostracized. Social reacceptance can sometimes be regained by marriage between the two. In the West, even as late as the mid-20th century, there was a stigma attached to being a 'one-parent family,' and an illegitimate child could be legitimized by the marriage of the parents. (This latter is still the case in many Western countries, though the lifting of legal penalties and social stigma regarding illegitimacy has rendered this irrelevant to social acceptance.)

Long-term abstinence

Lifelong (or at least long-term) abstinence, often associated with religious ascetism, is distinguished from chastity before marriage. Abstinence is often viewed as an act of self-control over the natural desire to have sex. The display of the strength of character allows the abstainer to set an example for those not able to contain their "base urges." At other times, abstinence has been seen as a great social ill practiced by those who refuse to engage with the material and physical world. Some groups that propose sexual abstinence consider it an essential means to reach a particular intellectual or spiritual condition, or that chastity allows one to achieve a required self-control or self-consciousness.[1]

Abstinence as a lifestyle

Although many individuals abstain from sex for complex reasons such as religion or morality, for some individuals, sexual abstinence is simply a lifestyle choice. Those individuals who fall into this category may have a dislike of sex (antisexualism), or are simply not interested in it (asexuality). They may view sex as an unnecessary part of human life. As with other lifestyle choices, this attitude toward sex and relationships can vary greatly. Some who choose such a lifestyle still accept sex for reproduction, some engage in romantic relationships, and some engage in masturbation.

Historical views on abstinence

Throughout history, and especially prior to the 20th century, there have been those who have held that sexual abstinence confers numerous health benefits. For males, lack of abstinence was thought to cause a reduction of vitality. In modern times, the argument has been phrased in biological terms, claiming that loss of semen through ejaculation results in a depletion of vital nutrients such as lecithin and phosphorus, which are also found at high levels in the brain. Conservation of the semen allegedly allows it to be reabsorbed back into the bloodstream and aid in the healthy development of the body. Along these lines, the noted German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the positive physiological effects of abstinence: "The reabsorption of semen by the blood ... perhaps prompts the stimulus of power, the unrest of all forces towards the overcoming of resistances ... The feeling of power has so far mounted highest in abstinent priests and hermits" (quoted by Walter Kaufman in his classic, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, p. 222). Before the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, it was commonly believed by members of the medical profession that numerous mental and physical diseases in men were caused primarily by loss of nutrients through seminal discharge, and that the deliberate conservation of this substance would lead to increased health, vitality, and intellectual prowess. This also applied to masturbation, which were also thought to lead to bedwetting and hairy palms.

Raymond W. Bernard, Ph.D. in his essay entitled Science discovers the physiological value of continence (1957) states:

"[I]t is clear that there is an important internal physiological relation between the secretions of the sex glands and the central nervous system, that the loss of these secretions, voluntarily or involuntarily, exercises a detrimental effect on the nutrition and vitality of the nerves and brain, while, on the other hand, the conservation of these secretions has a vitalizing effect on the nervous system, a regenerating effect on the endocrine glands[,] and a rejuvenating effect on the organism as a whole."

Possible physical effects

Sexual abstinence diminishes the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. On the other hand, it may necessitate relinquishment of potential health benefits of sex.

Queens University in Belfast tracked the mortality of about 1,000 middle-aged men over the course of a decade. The study, published in 1997 in the British Medical Journal found that "men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm enjoyed a death rate half that of the laggards". The report also cited other studies to show that having sex even a few times a week may be associated with: improved sense of smell; reduced risk of heart disease; weight loss and overall fitness; reduced depression (in women); the relief or lessening of pain; less frequent colds and flu; better bladder control; better teeth; and improved prostate function. The report cited a study published by the British Journal of Urology International which indicated that men in their 20s can reduce by a third their chance of getting prostate cancer by ejaculating more than five times a week.[2]

Possible psychological effects

According to a paper published by US Conservative Policy Research organisation, The Heritage Foundation, sexual abstinence in teenagers decreases the risk of contracting STDs and having children outside marriage.

It also alleges that compared to sexually active teens, those who partake in sexual abstinence during high school years (e.g., at least until age 18) are:[3]

  • Approximately half as likely to be expelled from school.
  • Approximately half as likely to drop out of high school.
  • Almost twice as likely to graduate from college.
  • On average, having approximately 15 percent higher incomes.

Social background factors were also taken into account and compensated for in indications listed above. Such factors included race, parental education, family income, and family structure, as well as cases of teenage pregnancy, indicating that sexual abstinence itself may be the primary factor.[3]

On the other hand, there have been numerous studies indicating that excessive repression of the sexual instinct leads to an increase in the overall level of aggression in a given society. Societies forbidding premarital sex are plagued by acts of rage, and tend to have higher rates of crime and violence.[4] There may be a link between sexual repression and aggression, insensitivity, criminal behaviour, and a greater likelihood of killing and torturing enemies.[4]

Chastity in religions

Chastity is a virtue expected of the faithful of many religions, including Christianity and Islam. This usually includes abstinence from sex for the unmarried, and faithfulness to a marriage partner. In many religions, some groups of people are expected to practice celibacy—to abstain from sex completely, and remain unmarried. These groups include monks, nuns, and priests in various sects of Christianity. From the Roman Catholic perspective, everyone is called to chastity, be they married, single, or in a religious order. Chastity is a function of one's respect for the dignity of another, especially in a sexual context. Sex with one's spouse is not against chastity, so long as both remain open to having children; in course with this belief system, contraceptives violate "true" chastity.

In many religions, chastity is required of the respective sacerdotal orders. In some religions, including some branches of Christianity such as Catholicism, celibacy is required for priests and/or monks. The Shakers, on the other hand, impose chastity in the form of celibacy for all members.

While there have been cultures which achieved total sexual abstinence, such as castration cults, it is unlikely that any of them survived for a substantial period of time, due to their lack of reproduction.


In Christianity, sexual intercourse is meant to take place within the context of marriage; therefore, abstinence is expected of unmarried people. But for married couples, the apostle Paul wrote that they should not deprive each other, except for a short time for devotion to prayer.[5]


Orthodox Judaism forbids intercourse outside marriage (which is termed zenuth or promiscuity), but has no ideal of chastity. Similar to Islamic religion, abstinence is required during a woman's menstruation.


Islam also forbids intercourse outside of marriage; however, maintaining celibacy as an act of piety is strongly discouraged, and marriage for all who are able is strongly encouraged. Similar to Judaism, abstinence is practiced during the time of a woman's menstruation. Abstinence from sexual intercourse is also practiced during the dawn to dusk fasts of Ramadan or other fasting days.


The Hindu tradition of Brahmacharya places great emphasis on abstinence as a way of harnessing the energy of body and mind towards the goal of spiritual realization. In males, the semen (Veerya) is considered sacred, and its preservation (except when used for procreation) and conversion into higher life-energy (Ojas) is considered essential for the development of enhanced intellectual and spiritual capacities.

The blending of sexual and spiritual is portrayed in Hindu iconography, as seen in ubiquitous phallic and vaginal iconography in Hindu temples and for instance in the Kharjuraho and Konarak medieval temples, where thousands of couples having sex in endless positions, and with the gods, are carved in deep bass relief. However, these depictions of sex are not generally understood to be a license for free sexual practices, but are instead meant to celebrate procreation as an integral part of existence in the universe. In actual practice, there is a strong societal taboo against pre-marital sex for both males and females, which still exists today in Hindu societies.


In Buddhism, attachment to impermanent things is regarded as one of the major causes of suffering. Sex is arguably the strongest attachment to impermanent things which human beings have. The majority of Buddhist monastic traditions require celibacy.

Modern abstinence movements

Abstinence is recommended as a way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Without sexual contact, it is virtually impossible to conceive a child (other than through artificial insemination). By avoiding exposure of the sexual organs to other people, one will also avoid the sexual transmission of many diseases (STDs). Note, however, that many STDs can also be transmitted non-sexually. Some STDs (including genital warts due to human papillomavirus) are passed through skin-to-skin contact, and are either not prevented by using a condom, or such prevention is only partially effective. Further, some have noted that many do not consider oral sex or similar acts to violate abstinence. One study states that 55 percent of college students claiming abstinence had, indeed, performed oral sex. Many of these acts can transmit STDs.[6]

However, critics note that many abstinence education programs include information that although true, is misleading. For example, many programs exaggerate the risks of oral sex; the risk of exposure to HIV through saliva is significantly less than through exposure to semen. Furthermore, HIV is far more likely to be transmitted through saliva when the recipient is already infected with another sexually transmitted infection, such as syphilis. Epidemiological studies from sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and North America have suggested that the risk of becoming infected with HIV in the presence of a genital ulcer, such as those caused by syphilis and/or chancroid, is approximately four times higher.

Advocates also claim other benefits, such as the freedom from teenage pregnancy, and the resulting ability to focus on education and preparing for one's future.

Many critics of abstinence-promotion programs claim that these programs are not an effective way to decrease the occurrence of diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

While some claim that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective birth control method, that only applies to perfect use. In typical use abstinence is less effective; those intending to be abstinent may not do so, either voluntarily or through nonconsensual sex.[7][8] As a public health measure, it is estimated that the protection provided by abstinence may be similar to that of condoms.[9] Detractors claim that human nature leads to a high failure rate in practice.

Pregnancy can also be avoided through selective sexual abstinence. This method is generally known as fertility awareness, or natural family planning. In order to be effective, the partners must abstain from sex for a time sufficient to ensure that no spermatozoa (which have a lifespan of up to 5–6 days) are able to fertilize an ovum (which has a lifespan of up to 48 hours). There are a variety of types of fertility awareness. Observational systems, such as the sympto-thermo method, can have correct-use failure rates as low as one percent per year under perfect use, with a two-week abstinence period[10] (According to the WHO, this method has an estimated 25% failure rate under ordinary use).[10] Statistical methods such as the Standard Days Method have higher correct-use failure rates.

Organizations such as SIECUS have called abstinence-only programs "fear-based," and "designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame, and guilt." [11] Author Judith Levine has argued that there might be a natural tendency of abstinence educators to escalate their messages: "Like advertising, which must continually jack up its seduction just to stay visible as other advertising proliferates, abstinence education had to make sex scarier and scarier and, at the same time, chastity sweeter." (Harmful to Minors, p. 108)

In spite of these criticisms, federal government support has made abstinence the de facto focus of sex education in the United States, so that opponents frequently adopt the line that abstinence education is acceptable only if it is combined with other methods, such as instruction in the use of condoms, and easy availability thereof. Most nations of Western Europe use more comprehensive measures, and in sharp contrast to the heated discussion in the U.S., abstinence is hardly discussed as an educational measure.

A U.S. federal government-promoted abstinence-only program was aimed at teens in 1981 in order to discourage premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies. However, recent studies showed ineffectiveness of this program. The Responsible Education About Life Act was introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Christopher Shays (R-CT) to support age-appropriate sexual education. This program is focused to provide teenagers with science-based information on sexual health, so that they can make a sound decision regarding their sex-life.[12]

In 2006, the George W. Bush administration expanded abstinence programs from teens to adults, by introducing programs to encourage unmarried adults to remain abstinent until marriage.[13] Family-planning advocates and researchers denounced the program as unrealistic, due to the rising age of first-time marriage in the United States.[14]

Popularity and effectiveness

The advent of AIDS helped restore the momentum of the favorable view of abstinence. However, a review of 13 U.S. sex-abstinence programs involving over 15,000 people by Oxford University found that they do not stop risky sexual behavior, or help in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy.[15] Recently, the United States Congress also found similar results in a study done on abstinence. Currently, there are also issues as to what abstinence means: is it an abstinence from sexual intercourse, or from sexual behavior? Movements such as True Love Waits in America, which ask teenagers to refrain from sex before marriage, are heavily subscribed, but surveys of sexual behavior indicate an increase in the popularity of oral sex.[16]

The effectiveness of abstinence programs and movements remains debated. The study "Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse" by Peter Bearman and Hanna Brückner examined the relationship between virginity pledges and first sexual intercourse. From the abstract:[17]

Since 1993, in response to a movement sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, over 2.5 million adolescents have taken public virginity pledges, in which they promise to abstain from sex until marriage. This paper explores the effect of those pledges on the transition to first intercourse. Adolescents who pledge are much less likely to have intercourse than adolescents who do not pledge. The delay effect is substantial. On the other hand, the pledge does not work for adolescents at all ages. Second, pledging delays intercourse only in contexts where there are some, but not too many, pledgers. The pledge works because it is embedded in an identity movement. Consequently, the pledge identity is meaningful only in contexts where it is at least partially nonnormative. Consequences of pledging are explored for those who break their promise. Promise-breakers are less likely than others to use contraception at first intercourse.

The effects observed in this study (and a follow-up[18] study) could be explained as mere correlations: Adolescents who feel the desire to take part in the virginity movement are more likely to remain abstinent for a variety of reasons, and less likely to have knowledge about contraception. Critics of abstinence-only education point to studies that show that teens who take virginity pledges are just as likely to have sex, but are more likely to do it without protection. However, they do show that they engage in sexual behavior later in life than their peers. Some studies have found that school-based abstinence programs actually increase the incidence of pregnancies.

See also

  • Asexuality
  • Abstinence, be faithful, use a condom
  • Abstinence-only sex education
  • Antisexualism
  • Celibacy
  • Chastity belt
  • Chastity ring
  • Harmful to Minors, a book by Judith Levine which deals with sexual morality in the United States, and also discusses the issue of abstinence education
  • Making sense of abstinence
  • Masturbation
  • Purity Ball
  • Religious aspects of marriage
  • Refusal skills
  • Spiritual marriage
  • Virginity pledge

External links


  1. SSRN-The Hermeneutics of Sexual Order by L. Khan
  2. Farnham, Alex (2003-10-08). "Is Sex Necessary". Forbes Magazine. Retrieved 2008-02-21. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Teenage Sexual Abstinence and Academic Achievement. by Robert Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D. October 2005
  4. 4.0 4.1 psychologist J.M. Prescott, in a cross-cultural investigation published in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1975)
  5. 1 Corinthians 7.3-5
  6. "Understanding 'Abstinence': Implications for Individuals, Programs and Policies". 2003. Retrieved 2006-10-09. 
  7. Fortenberry, J. Dennis (April 2005). "The limits of abstinence-only in preventing sexually transmitted infections". Journal of Adolescent Health 36 (4): 269–270. PMID 15780781. Retrieved 2009-09-09. , which cites:
    Brückner, H; Bearman, P (April 2005). "After the promise: the STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges". Journal of Adolescent Health 36 (4): 271-8. PMID 15780782. 
  8. Kim Best (2005). "Nonconsensual Sex Undermines Sexual Health". Network 23 (4). 
  9. Fortenberry, J. Dennis (April 2005). "The limits of abstinence-only in preventing sexually transmitted infections". Journal of Adolescent Health 36 (4): 269–270. PMID 15780781. Retrieved 2009-09-09. , which cites:
    Pinkerton, SD (February 2001). "A relative risk-based, disease-specific definition of sexual abstinence failure rates". Health education & behavior 28 (1): 10–20. PMID 11213138. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Mims, Christopher (2007-03-23), "Modified Rhythm Method Shown to Be as Effective as the Pill—But Who Has That Kind of Self-Control?", Scientific American,, retrieved 2007-10-03 
  11. 6-SHA2_Interior
  12. Congress changed its mind on abstinence
  13. New Bush Administration Policy Promotes Abstinence Until Marriage Among People in their 20s, Guttmacher Policy Review 2006, Volume 9, Number 4. Available online at
  14. Boerner, Heather. Questioning Abstinence Until Marriage. Available online at
  15. "No-sex programmes 'not working'". BBC News. 2007-08-02. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  16. Lisa Remez (Nov.–Dec 2000). "Oral Sex among Adolescents: Is It Sex or Is It Abstinence?". Family Planning Perspectives 32 (6): 298–304. doi:10.2307/2648199. 
  17. Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner: Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse. American Journal of Sociology, Volume 106, Number 4 (January 2001), pp. 859-912.
  18. Columbia Spectator - Abstinence Study Finds Pledges Fail To Protect

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