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. Or 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 [email protected].

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?

(Image via Shutterstock).