The case for abstinence: 4 unexpected things to consider if you want to abstain from sex

Let’s be honest: We live in a sex-crazed culture. We’re told sex sells (and it does) and various online publications tell us how to do it, where to do it, and when to do it. But what if you don’t want to have sex

“There is without a doubt an emphasis on having sex in our current society. If you’re not having sex, this is typically something you can be shamed for by your peers,” sex therapist Angela Watson tells HelloGiggles. “You’re either getting laid/having sex or you’re not—and if you’re not, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a real shame in my opinion, because this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that many people willingly choose not to partake in sexual activities and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.”

While abstinence is traditionally connected to religion, abstaining from sex for a period of time, whether single or in a relationship, is actually more common than you might think.

“You might choose to abstain from sex for a wide range of reasons,” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD, Toronto-based sexologist and host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast. “Some people abstain from certain types of sex for health reasons (e.g. healing after surgery) and others abstain while they’re busy focusing on other areas of their lives (e.g. work, spiritual growth, parenting). Others might stop having sex while they’re working on another area of their relationship and some abstain for the fun of it. Some people find that sex helps them to focus and others abstain because they find they focus better when they’re not distracted by sex.”

Which is why it’s important to examine your sexual values. While you may want to take a break from having sex, it’s vital to understand what sex means to you. “How important is frequency? What does fulfilling sex feel and look like? What are your sexual desires and boundaries? What holds you back when it comes to sex?” says O’Reilly. “We all have different physical, affectional, relational and sexual needs. Determine what works for you and be upfront from the onset. You won’t match with everyone and that’s okay. And when people judge you, they’re really judging themselves.”

If you’re abstaining from sex, or curious about whether taking a break from sex, either long-term or temporary, is right for you, here are some things to consider:

How to bring up abstinence with a partner?

If you’re choosing abstinence, O’Reilly recommends that you share your sexual hiatus with your current or any potential partners. “This is a part of your sexual value system and though it may evolve over time, you want to be clear from the beginning to make sure you’re a good match,” she says. “Don’t be shy about bringing up your sexual needs and boundaries—whether you’re abstaining from sex or practicing ethical non-monogamy, you’ll have happier relationships if you’re upfront from the get-go.”

What’s the difference between celibacy and abstinence?

“The difference between abstinence and celibacy is that abstinence means avoiding all forms of sexual activity whilst celibacy is the choice to abstain from all forms of sexual activities to usually fulfill religious vows,” says Watson. “While many people associate abstinence with religion, this is not the case at all. It has absolutely nothing to do with religion. It’s a conscious choice one makes to abstain from sex and all sexual activities.”

Says O’Reilly: “I want to emphasize that sex means different things to different people and it follows that abstinence and celibacy also have a wide range of definitions. Some people opt to abstain from partnered sex and others opt to abstain from only certain types of sex (e.g. intercourse). It’s up to you to choose a language that suits your needs and identity.”

Does abstaining from sex mean I can’t masturbate?

“While some people who abstain prefer not to masturbate, others do,” says O’Reilly. “For some folks, abstaining from sex means not having sex with a partner and others define sex more specifically (e.g. we can have oral sex, but not intercourse). Do what works for you and don’t get hung up on ensuring that your version of abstinence matches anyone else’s.” 

If the above clarified a few questions you might’ve had, check below for what may happen if you abstain from sex.

1It has the potential to create a deeper connection while dating.

“Taking the time to properly get to know someone before being intimate with them can be a great way to form a relationship that lasts,” says Watson, who waited for almost six months to have sex with her current husband. “This allowed [my partner and I] to form a close relationship with one another before we became intimate. I personally believe this is one of the biggest reasons why we’re still together over 20 years later. We were able to form a close friendship that later became the best intimate relationship I could ask for.” 

Watson suggests having a minimum five-date rule before being intimate with a new match if this is something you may be interested in doing. “When sex is off the table, you [may be] able to connect on a much deeper personal level with potential mates, without your judgment being interfered with by sexual urges,” she says.

2Abstinence can offer sexual transmutation.

When you’ve have all that pent-up sexual energy, it’s got to go somewhere, right? Well, that’s where sexual transmutation comes in. It’s the process of converting sexual energy into some other drive, motivation, or energy that could benefit other areas of your life. Many people, including Watson, first learned of the concept from Napoleon Hill’s self-help classic, Think and Grow Rich, in which it’s defined as “the switching of the mind from thoughts of physical expression to thoughts of some other nature.”

While having sex and the desire for sex is not a bad thing, abstinence, or a sex fast, is something that we should also consider as part of our sexuality. However, as O’Reilly points out, whether or not you should do anything regarding your sex life isn’t anyone’s business but your own. “If something works for us, we assume that it’s ideal for everyone,” she says. “Perhaps you’re happier abstaining from sex and that works for you, but it might not work for others. Or perhaps you’re happiest having sex with multiple partners.” 

3It could boost your libido.

“Science suggests that a sex fast [has the ability to] enhance sexual desire. When the brain and body lack specific stimuli, we tend to seek new sources of stimulation,” says O’Reilly. “The sexually specific sensory deprivation experienced during a sex hiatus can help fuel spontaneous sexual desire, which doesn’t tend to exist in abundance for many of us in long-term relationships. [Some of us] tend to experience desire after we’re aroused as opposed to spontaneously.” This applies to people who are in long-term relationships or are dating. While it’s normal if you don’t experience spontaneous sexual desire, O’Reilly says you can cultivate this experience via a nonpermanent break from sex.

4It can increase a deeper connection with a partner.

If you’re in a long-distance relationship, then chances are you’re abstaining from sex whether or not you actually like the break from bumping uglies. Yet there’s something to learn from couples in LDRs. In a 2013 study, researchers found that romantic pairs who communicated long-distance built stronger bonds and higher levels of intimacy. “As you move away from your predictable routine, it not only injects novelty into the relationship, but provides an opportunity to share your specific desires, interests, and boundaries and learn more about your partner’s desires,” says O’Reilly. Communicating and understanding each other’s needs and desires can deepen the connection of your relationship, which can improve your sex life. 

No matter what your reason for abstinence, it’s important to remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for why you’re doing it. While it’s important to address these reasons with your partner(s), no one should be making you feel guilty for choosing this path. At the end of the day, your sexual wellness journey is to be respected–and if anyone is giving you a hard time, it might be best to let them go.

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