Sexual abstinence

Sexual abstinence

Sexual abstinence is the practice of voluntarily refraining from some or all aspects of sexual activity. Common reasons to deliberately abstain from the physical expression of sexual desire include religious or philosophical reasons (e.g., chastity), material reasons (to prevent conception [undesired pregnancy] or Sexually Transmitted Disease [STD] transmission), psycho-sociological reasons (e.g., clinical depression, social anxiety disorder), negative past experiences, or to conform to legal injunctions.

Sexual abstinence has been debated since antiquity, both in terms of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships.

Premarital chastity

Many religious and ethical systems proscribe sexual activities between a person and anyone other than a spouse of that person, including most denominational variations of Hinduism, 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 is 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 a self-consciousness. [ [ SSRN-The Hermeneutics of Sexual Order by L. Khan ] ]

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.

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 (asexualism). 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. 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."

Modern research on abstinence

Since 1957, no ill effects have been shown to be associated with frequent sexual activity, and indeed many studies have demonstrated that it facilitates substantial health benefits. One study suggests that frequent ejaculation may lead to a lower risk of prostate cancer. [ 1] 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. For example, psychologist J.M. Prescott, in a cross-cultural investigation published in "The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists" (1975), found that societies forbidding premarital sex are plagued by acts of rage, and tend to have higher rates of crime and violence. Prescott also found a link between sexual repression and aggression, insensitivity, criminal behaviour, and a greater likelihood of killing and torturing enemies.

In 1997, Forbes Magazine reported on "one of the most credible studies correlating overall health with sexual frequency". 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"; that is to say, those that engaged in sex more frequently enjoyed longer lives. 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. [cite news | first=Alex | last=Farnham | coauthors= | title=Is Sex Necessary | date=2003-10-08 | publisher= | url = | work =Forbes Magazine |pages=|accessdate=2008-02-21 |language=]

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 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 time for devotion to prayer.


Orthodox Judaism forbids intercourse outside marriage (which is termed "zenuth" or promiscuity), but has no ideal of abstinence for particular clerical groups. In fact, it is practically expected of men in religious functions (e.g., rabbis) to be married. Abstinence is practiced while a woman is menstruating, and during the week after cessation of flow (the law of "niddah"), as well as a set period after childbirth.


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.

In the Vedanta tradition of Hinduism, the Brahman (Infinite Being) is regarded as the true Self of all, and the ego-personality is a lesser self. The belief that one is the ego rather than the Self is regarded as the root of ignorance, which leads to the problems in the world and in one's own life. All desires which center around the satisfaction of the ego are considered to have their basis in ignorance, because the true Self is all-pervading, and therefore, without desire for anything outside itself.

Most spiritual traditions share the view that humans are essentially spiritual beings, and that excessive indulgence in physical sense-pleasure takes one away from spiritual self-knowledge.


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. Therefore, in Buddhism, celibacy has been regarded as essential to obtaining Nirvana (liberation from suffering).

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.

cite web
title=Understanding 'Abstinence': Implications for Individuals, Programs and Policies


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 supporters claim that abstinence is the only 100 percent successful birth control method, detractors point out that abstinence is 100 percent effective only with perfect use. Detractors further claim that human nature leads to a high failure rate in practice.

cite web
title=Abstinence Is Foolproof? Think Again!


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 periodcitation
author-link = Christopher Mims
title=Modified Rhythm Method Shown to Be as Effective as the Pill—But Who Has That Kind of Self-Control?
newspaper = Scientific American
] (According to the WHO, this method has an estimated 25% failure rate under ordinary use).citation
author-link = Christopher Mims
title=Modified Rhythm Method Shown to Be as Effective as the Pill—But Who Has That Kind of Self-Control?
newspaper = Scientific American
] 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." [ [ 6-SHA2_Interior ] ] 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. [ [ Congress changed its mind on abstinence] ]

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. [New Bush Administration Policy Promotes Abstinence Until Marriage Among People in their 20s, Guttmacher Policy Review 2006, Volume 9, Number 4. Available online at] Family-planning advocates and researchers denounced the program as unrealistic, due to the rising age of first-time marriage in the United States. [Boerner, Heather. Questioning Abstinence Until Marriage. Available online at ]

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 found that they do not stop risky sexual behavior, or help in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy [ [ BBC NEWS | Health | No-sex programmes 'not working' ] ] . 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. [cite journal
author=Lisa Remez
month = Nov.–Dec
title=Oral Sex among Adolescents: Is It Sex or Is It Abstinence?
journal = Family Planning Perspectives
volume = 32
issue = 6
doi = 10.2307/2648199

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: [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.]

: 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 [ [ Columbia Spectator - Abstinence Study Finds Pledges Fail To Protect ] ] 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. DiCenso A. "et al.": [ Interventions to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies Among Adolescents] : Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. "British Medical Journal" 2002;324:1426. ]

See also

* Asexuality
* Abstinence, be faithful, use a condom
* Abstinence-only sex education
* Antisexualism
* 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
* Masturbation
* Promiscuity
* Purity Ball
* Religious aspects of marriage
* Refusal skills
* Spiritual marriage
* Straight edge
* Teenage pregnancy
* Virginity pledge


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