Is Abstinence Realistic?

The Complexity of Remaining Abstinent

Abstinence Realistic?. Letizia McCall/Getty Images

It seems that sometimes even merely discussing the notion of abstinence is met with reactions suggesting that you are living in the dark ages! The FACT of the matter is that abstinence is the only form of birth control that is 100% effective (both in preventing pregnancies and most sexually transmitted infections).

It is also a fact that practicing abstinence takes self-control and responsibility. Yet, ultimately, it is your decision to choose abstinence -- you are the one in control, and you always have the choice to decide to hold off from having a sexual relationship.

Abstinence is not unrealistic, yet it is also not as simple as just proclaiming that you will not have sex. This is partly because abstinence means different things to different people.

Adding to the complexity is the argument that vows of abstinence send the wrong message to girls and young women. Abstinence is ensuring that "young women's perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. ...So while young women are subject to overt sexual messages every day, they're simultaneously being taught that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain 'pure.'" So, by talking about how you're being abstinent, some would argue that you're positioning yourself as a sex object because you are still putting the focus on your sexual life (by emphasizing abstinence and that you’re not having sex).

The complexity of exercising abstinence can be seen in the following excerpt from an email that I received from Katie, begging for my help and some direction:

"Ugh, I feel like I am the last virgin left on Earth! I am 19 and don't want to have sex until I am married. Why does this seem so wrong to people? I swear, people look at me like I am an alien! I made my abstinence/purity vow at the age of 16 and have successfully maintained it. Now that I am in college, I feel it is being challenged for the first time. I don't know how to manage this. I don't want to be "that girl" (the one who doesn't put out), but I also want to remain abstinent until I know I have found the right guy. Can you give me any suggestions of how to overcome some of the temptations I am experiencing - feeling like I need to compromise to be excepted in this new college culture, yet wanting to hold on to my values and convictions. I can't find much support for those of us who practice abstinence!"

Katie is in a difficult spot. Her change of environment and age has helped to thrust her abstinence decision front and foremost. When it comes to abstinence, it is helpful to look at yourself and your lifestyle realistically. If you find yourself grappling with what to do, it may be helpful to examine why you made the abstinence decision to begin with -- was it due to moral/religious reasons or perhaps because you did not feel ready for the responsibilities that go along with sexual activity? Sometimes, with time, a love relationship may change, your life situation becomes different, and so your decision to remain abstinent could potentially change as well.

Maintaining abstinence can be realistic as there are definitely benefits to this practice. We know:

  • Teenagers who practice abstinence and are in a romantic relationship have the security of knowing that their partners are not interested in them purely for sex.
  • Couples report greater relationship satisfaction when they delay having sex until they are seriously dating, engaged or married.
  • Because some young adults and teens use sex as an artificial way to achieve intimacy and closeness with someone, those who exercise abstinence build stronger and more authentic love relationships based on mutual likes and dislikes and shared interests.

If you are a parent, it may be helpful to know that teenagers who receive clear messages from their parents about the value of abstinence are more likely to delay their first sexual experience. Parents who talk about contraception are also more likely to have teens who use birth control when they finally decide to have sex. So, although abstinence is not unrealistic, teens need to receive more than abstinence-only messages. Teenagers who break their abstinence vows are more likely to engage in unreliable and erratic contraception use if they have parents who completely stressed abstinence, while offering no information about birth control.

Thus, when it comes to remaining abstinent, you need to ultimately decide what you are okay with. It all comes down to the same premise -- the choice is always yours. Keep in mind, although many people have pure intentions with respect to maintaining their abstinence, it is also wise to have a back-up contraception and an emergency birth control plan (just incase) -- experiences and stories that I have heard over the years suggest that vows of abstinence tend to break more often than condoms do!


Valenti J. (2009) "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women." Avalon Publishing Group, New York.

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