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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 (eg chastity), material reasons (to prevent conception or STD transmission), lack of suitable partners, or to conform to legal injunctions.

Sexual abstinence has been debated since antiquity, and has been discussed both within the heterosexual and the homosexual spheres. See Platonic love

Premarital chastity

Main article: 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 Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and, historically, many legal systems and societal norms. In such contexts, sexual abstinence is (was) prescribed for unmarried persons 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 early 1900s. This important transformation often colours discussion of sexual behaviour in the later 20th century period. The First World War 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 the Second World War, the societal importance of abstinence declined swiftly. The advent of the oral contraceptive pill and widely available antibiotics suppressed many earthly consequences of wide and free sexual behaviour, while social mores 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. Some cultural groups continued to place a value on the moral purity of an abstainer, but abstinence was caught up in a wider re-evaluation of moral values.

Anthropologists and social historians have noted that many cultures such as Victorian Britain or the rural areas in the modern United States, which formally place a high value on abstinence until marriage, actually have a large amount of pre-marital sexual activity in which there is no actual sexual intercourse and which preserve a state known as technical virginity.

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.)


Lifelong (or at least long-term) abstinence, often associated with religious ascetism, is distinguished from chastity before marriage. Abstinence is often viewed as an admirable 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.

In many religions chastity is imposed to the respective sacerdotal orders. In some religions, including some branches of Christianity such as Roman 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.

Critics of abstinence on moral or religious grounds generally say that restrictions on sexual activity are emotionally or spiritually harmful. Some psychological theories hold that sexual oppression leads to various behavioral problems. Additionally, as sexual skills are learned over time, there may be long term consequences to a practice that deprives people of experience they may need in order to form an understanding of their own feelings and their compatibility with others.

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. Regardless, the arrival of technology like in vitro fertilisation allows reproduction without sexual intercourse.

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, or are simply not interested in it. 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.

Medical aspects of 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 phosphorous which are also found at high levels in the brain. Conservation of the semen allegedly allows it to be resorbed 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 auto-erotic practices which were also thought to lead to bedwetting and hairy palms.

Dr. R. W. Bernard in his essay entitled "Science discovers the physiological value of continence" 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."

This is no longer considered scientifically valid. Ill effects have not found to be associated with frequent ejaculation, and one study suggests that frequent ejaculation may lead to a lower risk of prostate cancer. Indeed, 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 behavior, and a greater likelihood of killing and torturing enemies.

Proponents of abstinence often reply to this claim by stating that there is a difference between repression and transformation of the sex urge. They agree that repression, especially when involuntary, is not effective and may indeed lead to numerous psychological problems. They say that the sex energy should not be repressed but slowly transformed and purified. This must be a voluntary process and in order for it to be truly effective, must include abstinence from sexual thoughts as well as actions. Otherwise, the organism faces the stress of being excited by desire and at the same time prevented from fulfilling that desire. This is what may lead to an increase in aggression.

Religious views

Chastity is a virtue expected of the faithful of many religions, including Christians and Muslims. 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 most monks and nuns in Christianity, and priests in the Roman Catholic church. 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 the gift of children — contraceptives violate true chastity.

In Christianity, sexual intercourse is described as "becoming one flesh" (Ephesians 5:31, Genesis 2:23-24) and is meant to take place within the context of marriage; abstinence is therefore 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. However, it should be borne in mind that historically (until the 17th century) the Christian ideal was not marriage, but celibacy. In fact, many Christian anarchists (such as Leo Tolstoy) were and are pro-celibacy.

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 (in Islam also) and the week after cessation of flow (the law of niddah), as well as a set period after childbirth.

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 realisation. In males, the semen (Veerja) 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 centre 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 advocates recommend it as a way to avoid pregnancy and venereal disease. 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, including AIDS, can also be transmitted non-sexually. Some STDs (including genital warts due to human papillomavirus) are passed through skin-to-skin contact and are not prevented by using a condom. Advocates also claim other benefits, such as the freedom from teenage pregnancy and resulting ability to focus on education and preparing for their future.

Pregnancy can also be avoided through selective sexual abstinence. This method is generally known as natural family planning. In order to be effective, the partners must abstain from coitus for a time sufficient to ensure that no spermatazoa are able to fertilize an ovum. Various methods are used to determine the fertility of the woman. In older times, abstinence was observed for a time based on calendar days within a woman's menstrual cycle; this method is termed the rhythm method, and has a high rate of resulting pregnancies due to irregularities present in each woman's cycles. Modern methods of natural family planning have much lower rates of unplanned pregnancy, resulting from various mechanisms which are now used to pinpoint the day of ovulation in each cycle.

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 teens may have weak sexual desire or few sexual opportunities and thus be able to maintain it successfully, others will have stronger desires, more opportunities or act under the influence of drugs, and will in these situations not be prepared to take precautions (using condoms or other contraceptives). Worse, they may consider the independent acquisition of information about precautionary measures shameful and avoid it altogether.

Organizations such as SIECUS have called abstinence-only programs "fear-based", "designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame, and guilt." [1] 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) Humor sites such as have been published to satirize the possibilities through abstinence.

In spite of these criticisms, abstinence has become 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 US, abstinence is hardly discussed as an educational measure.

Popularity and effectiveness

The advent of AIDS helped restore the momentum of the favourable view of abstinence. But currently there are issues as to what abstinence means: is it an abstinence from sexual intercourse or from sexual behaviour? Movements such as True Love Waits in America which asks teenagers to refrain from sex before marriage are heavily subscribed but surveys of sexual behaviour indicate an increase in the popularity of oral sex.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Oral sex is not perceived as being "real sex." Teenage girls are able to indulge in sexual practices while claiming the traditional virtues of the virgin in cultures that admire it.

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 [1]:

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 [2] 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 disputed studies have found that school-based abstinence programs actually increase the incidence of pregnancies (see sex education).

See also


  1. 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.

External links

Effectiveness of abstinence

Study finds abstinence programs haven't influenced TX teens

Psychosexual behavior

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