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What is it?

Clinical abstinence is defined by not having sexual intercourse. This includes vaginal, anal and/or oral sex on a man or woman.

Many people choose to define abstinence in different ways, but these other definitions may not be clinically sound. To some, abstinence may mean no sexual contact at all, to others it may mean no vaginal intercourse but may include oral sex. Because of this, it is important to discuss with your partner clear definitions of what abstinence means to each other. Decide in advance what sexual activities you will say "yes" to and discuss these with your partner. Do this before getting in "the heat of the moment". Communication is key in practicing abstinence. And keep in mind, if you are 'abstinent' in one behavior (such as vaginal intercourse) but not others (such as oral sex), you are still at increased risk for sexually transmitted infections.

Clinical abstinence is the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence can last as long or as short as you want.  You might choose not to have sex:

  • with a particular person just yet
  • at a particular time - such as when you're more focused on academics or when you're dealing with the end of a recent relationship
  • in particular circumstances

There are as many reasons to be abstinent as there are people.  Only you can decide what's right for you.  If you don't feel it's the right time for you to be in a sexual relationship, that's reason enough. 

Isn't abstinence boring?

Choosing to abstain doesn't mean that intimacy or close contact with your partner is jeopardized. There are many ways to show your partner how much you care for them without having sexual intercourse. "Outercourse" is one way to do this. This refers to any activity that can be shared between two people that does not involve the exchange of 3 main bodily fluids - semen, vaginal secretions, and/or blood. This can include kissing, touching, massage, dancing, etc. Outercourse can keep intimacy alive in your relationship without putting yourself or your partner at risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections or getting pregnant.

When is abstinence right for me?

Talking about these kind of issues with a friend or a potential partner can help you figure out what you want to do.

Consider your values

  • Why am I considering abstinence?
  • What do I mean by abstinence? What are my limits?
  • What did I learn about sex growing up? How important are these values to me now?

Considering your future

  • What are my goals - current and long term? Will being abstinent help me reach them?
  • Am I ready for this kind of commitment right now? Does having sex fit into my life currently?

Considering your relationships

  • What do I want from a relationship? Romance? Closeness? Physical pleasure? Security? How does sex fit or not?
  • Can I talk to my partner about sex? If I don't feel comfortable talking about sex, am I ready to have sex?
  • Can I and will I do what it takes to protect myself and my partner from sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy?
  • What would I do if I was faced with a sexually transmitted infection or an unplanned pregnancy?
  • How will I feel if I have sex with someone and it changes the relationship or the relationship doesn't last?

Challenges of abstinence

  • It may be difficult for some to stay abstinent for long periods of time.
    • Long-term abstinent relationships require ongoing communication and other approaches to sustain intimacy separate from physical connection. 
    • The campus culture often places students in situations where they may feel pressured to have sex, even if they don't feel ready to do so. 
  • If semen spills on or near the vagina, pregnancy is still a possibility, even without penetration.
  • Some sexually transmitted infections, such as herpes and HPV are contracted through skin-to-skin contact and therefore may be passed on through close intimate contact, even through there is no vaginal, oral or anal sex.

If I've decided to abstain, how can I keep from being pressured into having sex?

It's best to think about how you will stick to your decision before you get physically involved.  Some specific tips:

  • Be clear about your decision. Make your words and your actions express your limits clearly and consistently.
  • Plan ahead. Consider how the setting may influence what behaviors you consider. Communicate expectations with a partner up front.
  • Speak up. Make your feelings known if you are feeling pressured. Ask your partner to respect your decision.
  • Stay in control. Drugs and alcohol impair judgment. Make decisions about your plans around using such substances before hand, so you don't do something you'll regret later.

What if I've already had sex?  Can I still choose abstinence?

Just because you've had sexual relationships in the past doesn't mean that every new relationship has to become sexual.  Also, a current relationship doesn't have to remain sexually intimate if you've changed your mind.  Successful relationships are all about communication and negotiation.  We often reevaluate our choices along the way. 

Whatever the circumstances, you can approach each opportunity for sex as a new decision.  Learn from your experiences.  What seemed right for you at one stage in your life may not be right for your current situation.  Sex can affect your feelings in powerful ways.  Make sure you feel ready to have sex before you do, regardless of your past experiences.


Page content reviewed: 06/04/2018 fwg