Real Sex Ed

Abstinence Needs a Makeover, Don't You Think?

This article discusses a mature topic. Our 17-year-old and younger readers are encouraged to read this with an adult.

Abstinence needs a makeover.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that abstinence is the only 100% effective way of preventing STDs or pregnancy – but it’s also become shorthand in a war of words and ideologies. What does it actually mean? Some people use “abstinence” to mean not having vaginal sex; for others, it means no sex until marriage, and some see it as no sexual contact of any kind. Removing it from a sexual context, according to the dictionary “abstinence” means:

forbearance from any indulgence of appetite, especially from the use of alcoholic beverages.
the state of being without a drug, as alcohol or heroin, on which one is dependent.

Yikes! Suppressing an appetite when you’re addicted to something?! This means that even before we begin a conversation, we’re already framing sex as something negative that’s to be avoided (assuming we’re not depraved, soulless creatures of the night). How can we then fight our way back to a conversation about when is the right time to have sex and with whom?

Here’s the thing: Overall, a lot of people are waiting longer to have sex, and they’re more likely to use protection the first time they have sex. That’s great news–but I don’t think that it’s because of the word “abstinence.”

So today I’m going to settle an argument between friends and suggest a re-branding campaign (kind of like how Target transformed into Targé–although only my grandmother still pronounces it with that French accent). As always, if you have questions you can send them to me at

My friend says that having oral sex means that I’m not a virgin anymore, but I say that it’s only if I have regular sex. Who’s right?

Both of you could be right since the term virgin means different things to different people, and there’s no medical definition of the term. It’s not a word that I use in my classrooms because of the confusion it can cause. I do use the word abstinence, but I’m always very careful to  define it as not having vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or contact with sexual fluids. Since oral sex can put you at risk for certain STDs, it’s important for me to be specific, especially in light of new research suggesting that people are just as likely to have oral sex as they are to have vaginal sex.

I had sex with my first boyfriend, but we broke up. Now I’m starting to date another guy. Do I have to have sex with him, too?

You don’t have to have sex with anyone that you don’t want to have sex with.

Periodic abstinence, which means taking a break from sex, is something that lots of people do. It’s different than when someone wants to have sex, but can’t find anyone who would want to have sex with them (that would be called high school). It’s more about intentionally deciding not to do something.

Which is what abstinence is all about. Because most people at different points in their lives are abstinent, it’s important for each person to figure out what their reasons are for not having sex, and what their reasons are for having sex.

Now I just wish we had another word to use instead–one that didn’t cause eyebrows to raise, eyes to roll or tempers to flair. Any ideas?

  • Kimberly Block

    Well said. But my favorite way of putting it comes from the movie She’s the Man, when the dean says “Abstinence is …. the best way to not …. is to NOT.” lol

  • Laura Johnson

    We could always throw together a “war on teen/pre-marital sex!” The slogan could be “Just say NO to the playas and the hoes!” As for another word instead of “abstainence”….hmm…well here are the Thesauras synonyms for it: avoid, avert, bypass, circumlocute, circumvent, deflect, desist, ditch, divert, dodge, duck, elude, escape, eschew, evade, fake out, fend off, flee, give the slip, hide, hold off, jump, keep clear, lay low, obviate, recoil, run for cover, shake, shake and bake, shake off, shirk, shrink from, shuffle off, shun, shy, sidestep, skip out on, skip town, skip*, skirt, stay away, stay out, steer clear of, step aside, turn aside, ward off, weave, withdraw. I think I like “skirt” the best…we should try to skirt sex until we are ready!

  • Katy McDonald

    Personally, I think one of the big reasons why “abstinence” has such a negative connotation is that it is often framed around those things that are being given up and hardly ever on the things that are gained. Yes, you are not having sex (however you define that), but you are also gaining time to learn what you really want in a relationship without the cloudiness that can come from getting too physically intimate too soon. You are also gaining an assuredness that your sexual health is being maintained both for you and your future partner. The other day, I had a frank discussion with a Registered Nurse who told me that pap smears are only really necessary to screen for cervical cancer and cervical cancer is primarily only caused by the HPV virus and you can ONLY get the HPV virus from having sex. Therefore, abstaining means that you may not even need to have certain medical procedures done too soon in life (obviously, you should consult your doctor on this…). You are also gaining a sense of self respect. As the writer of this blog said, you NEVER are obligated to have sexual contact with anyone that you do not want to. Abstinence means you decide when to have sex, on your personal time table, not because of someone else’s pressure. And lastly, you can gain a lot of personal freedom. Having a baby is a real possibility when you start becoming sexually active. While babies are cute, precious, valuable little beings, they also come with an enormous, irreversible amount of responsibility and financial commitment. So be proud to be abstinent! It’s awesome. :)

  • Kaitlin McDuffie

    I recently read a blog-post entitled “Why I Believe in Pre-Marital Virginity.” The author, a young man, took the time to logically explain and defend his position in a way I thought everyone, not just evangelicals, could relate to. For instance: “Sex isn’t the central dimension of human identity, and by treating it as such we risk diminishing ourselves… Dethroning the idol [of sex] also provides you with a form of sex that has to carry considerably less baggage. Sex isn’t the source of personal fulfilment. Sex isn’t the only or perhaps even primary means of personal intimacy. Sexuality is peripheral to one’s core identity. Sexual satisfaction isn’t the goal of your existence. Sex isn’t the way that you must prove your gender. One’s sexual appeal or prowess or lack thereof isn’t the measure of your personal worth. Once one has absorbed these lessons, one is free to be a lot less hung up about sex. Sex is at its very best when it is integrated in with all of the other good ends in life, when it draws its strength from and injects life into a host of other intimacies.”

    • Nikolina Serdar

      The only thing I don’t like about this is that I personally think that marriages are overrated. I do not believe that you need an old institution to live together happily and raise children. I’ve been in a relationship for 9 years now and we don’t plan to ever get married just because we both don’t consider marriage something special. On the other hand, so many people get married after just a few months of dating I don’t think that they really know each other better than my boyfriend and I do. So maybe it should be rephrased into “Why I don’t believe in Sex outside of long-term relationships.”

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