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Sexual abstinence

Sexual abstinence is the practice of voluntarily refraining from sexual intercourse and (usually) from other sexual activity. Abstinence is an effective way to avoid venereal disease and pregnancy. There is a distinction between the terms abstinence and chastity, the latter more frequently implying the application of force or the existence of rules.

Sexual abstinence outside marriage is cherished or imposed in some cultures as part of sexual morality, and sometimes advocated in the context of sex education. Critics of culturally promoted abstinence contend that condoms, when properly used, provide sufficient protection, that abstinence is unrealistic, and that advocacy of sexual abstinence is associated with an increase of risk behaviors when abstinence is no longer maintained. Some psychological theories also hold that sexual oppression[?] leads to various behavioral problems.

In many past and some present cultures, minors (particularly women) are expected to abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage and to remain faithful to their spouse thereafter. Thus, being "chaste" in these cultures means sexual abstinence for unmarried persons or those separated from their spouses. In western societies, abstinence in relationships has traditionally been seen as the requirement solely of women as pregnancy and loss of technical virginity are frequently the only "proof" of breaking such a commitment.

Anthropologists and social historians have noted that many cultures such as Victorian England 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.

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Philosophical justifications

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 feel superior to 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.

The groups that propose it commonly consider that purity has to be part of what the consorts have to bring in their new common life, living the intimate experience of sex as a means to enforce the tie between husband and wife; sometimes this concept is part of a wider concept that allows sexual activity at the sole scope of biological reproduction, therefore limited to fertile age only.

In Christianity, sexual intercourse is described as "becoming one flesh" and is a sign 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.


The concept has not always been used in the same way for males and females, women often being more deeply conditioned than men (also due to factors of anatomical evidence, sometimes subject to formal -- and even public -- exam in the imminence of the marriage).

In some cultures, the eventual infringement of this prohibition could cause a social emargination; in some cases the "damage" could eventually be saned by a repairing marriage. As very recent cases showed, in some cultures the loss of virginity is considered a sin even in the case of a rape, therefore without consideration to the effective will of the interested victim (usually a woman).

Historically, there has been a swing from the sexually free end of the Industrial Revolution to the often degenerate 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 importance of abstinence declined swiftly. The advent of the oral contraceptive pill and widely available antibiotics removed the consequences of wide and free sexual behaviour, while social mores were also changing. By the 1960s, such restrictions were no longer expected in the majority of western societies, perhaps even the reverse; that members of both genders 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[?].

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 human cloning allows reproduction without sexual intercourse, an idea which has been explored in some science fiction fantasies.

Abstinence, sexual diseases and pregnancies

The advent of the untreatable and terminal STD 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 sex or 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. As noted above, 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.

In the United States, a number of programs for young people are designed to educate them about various methods of contraception, in order to discourage teenage pregnancies. Some of these programs only teach sexual abstinence, some only teach the conventional medical methods of contraception, and some teach both. There is considerable debate as to which approach is most effective and most appropriate - see sex education for discussion of this debate.

Pregnancy can also be avoided (although not with absolute reliability) through only periodic sexual abstinence. This method is generally known as natural family planning, and involves various methods of determining when a woman is fertile and abstaining during that time only.

The effectiveness of abstinence programs remains doubtful. 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. [1] From the abstract:

Since 1993, in response to a movement sponsored by the Southern Baptist Church[?], 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 can 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. Some studies have found that school-based abstinence programs actually increase the incidence of pregnancies (see sex education).

See also: masturbation


[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.

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