What is Abstinence?

N. Madison

Abstinence is restraining from certain indulgences. The word is often used to describe avoiding sexual activity, but can also mean refraining from other types of things, such as alcoholic beverages or even food. For example, a person may abstain from eating dessert while she’s on a diet.

Refusing to drink alcohol is a form of abstinence.
Refusing to drink alcohol is a form of abstinence.

When a person abstains, he maintains control over his actions and decides whether or not he wants to engage in a particular activity. This means he willfully decides to abstain rather than having another person withhold something from him. Abstaining typically requires a great deal of self-control, as the abstainer may have a strong desire to participate in the activity or consume the substance in question. For example, an alcoholic may abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages, even though his body craves them.

Many people advocate that sex education needs to include discussions about birth control use.
Many people advocate that sex education needs to include discussions about birth control use.

Despite the fact that there are many things from which a person may abstain, most people relate abstinence to sex. Many teenagers, and even some adults, exercise sexual abstinence. Abstaining is not an indication of virginity, however. A person may be sexually active at first and then decide to abstain later.

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Some people practice abstinence as a way of preventing an unplanned pregnancy.
Some people practice abstinence as a way of preventing an unplanned pregnancy.

There are many reasons a person might practice sexual abstinence. Some people do it for moral or religious reasons, for example. These people believe having sex outside of marriage is wrong. They choose to wait to have sex with a marital partner.

Abstinence can be hard for teens who might feel peer pressure while attending a social event.
Abstinence can be hard for teens who might feel peer pressure while attending a social event.

Some people exercise abstinence to prevent unwanted pregnancy. There are, however, many types of birth control that prevent pregnancy. Many of them are considered more than 98-percent effective, but a small percentage of women may become pregnant while using them. Besides sterilization, abstinence is the only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy.

Other people choose abstinence as a way of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Some people think a healthy, clean-looking person must be STD-free, but this is a dangerous misconception. A healthy-looking person could be harboring an STD. In fact, it’s possible for a person to be unaware that he has an STD because he doesn’t develop symptoms right away or at all. As such, many people think it's safer to avoid sex until they're in a committed relationship.

Some types of STDs cause painful or irritating symptoms, but that’s not the worst they can do. Some of them can cause a person to become sterile or lead to disease of the pelvic organs. Others can be deadly. Condoms, when used properly, help to prevent STDs, but abstinence is the only 100-percent sure way of avoiding them.

Peer pressure can make teenagers engage in sexual activity before they're ready.
Peer pressure can make teenagers engage in sexual activity before they're ready.

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Discussion Comments


@tolleranza - There may have been other people who abstained for the same reasons as you did; however, it could not have been too many - statistics show 79.5% of college students are having sex.

I think the most difficult thing to abstain from is dessert. (But that may because I am not throwing sex into the mix of things I need to abstain from.) I have heard that the sweet and salty cycle is a vicious cycle and I think it is true. It seems after every meal I need something sweet!

And it seems the sweet substitutes don't work, as if you can't cheat the sweet tooth because it knows when you are feeding it the real sugar and when you are feeding it the sugar alternatives.


I abstained from sex when I was younger and it was because I had grown up in a strict church, but as I became older and decided that although the religion no longer fit me, I kept the abstinence idea.

It no longer was a decision based on religion thing to abstain. It seemed to actually make sense to wait. No STDs, no pregnancy scares, and because I had not had sex before I was sexually satisfied!

Then there was the myth about how awful sex would be because I had waited. It wasn't. Don't get me wrong it became better, but from what I have heard - whose sex doesn't get better after you know the person?

Has anybody else decided that they would abstain from sex and it not be for religious reasons?


@OeKc05 - I find it hard to abstain from certain foods myself. I once had to go on a very strict, no sugar diet because of a medical condition. I don't even like sweets that much, but not being able to eat them was torture!

I swear, there is something in human nature that makes you want something right when you decide you aren't going to have it!


@comfyshoes - I really don't think abstinence based education is the way to go. I also don't think we need to teach kids that sex is "shameful" or "morally wrong."

Sex is a natural biological urge. Many teenagers are going to have sex, whether we try to teach abstinence or not. However, making them feel ashamed of sex and their bodies is going to make them even less likely to seek out birth control.

Imagine a 17 year old that has been brainwashed to think sex is morally wrong. Do you think they will feel comfortable enough to go to a grocery store and buy a pack of condoms? Doubtful. Then if they do have sex they risk pregnancy and STD's! Not good.


Overeating is to me the hardest thing to abstain from, but I managed to do it after I stepped on the scales and saw that I weighed more than I ever had. I was thirteen pounds overweight, and I determined to do something about it.

In order to abstain from an excess of food, I developed a new way of thinking. I would eat about half the amount that I usually did, and then I would tell myself that I was full.

I felt hunger pangs at first, but after awhile, the brainwashing worked. I couldn’t eat as much as I used to, because my stomach didn’t seem to have room for it.

Around the holidays, it was harder to abstain, especially from all the pumpkin and pecan pies. I let myself have a small slice, and this kept me on the path of abstinence from overeating.


@cloudel - The patches will only work if he is totally serious about abstaining. I have tried to quit several times before, and I used patches a couple of times. However, I didn’t have enough motivation the first few times, and I caved. The third time it worked, but I had a reason.

I worked as a nutritionist in a health care center. When my boss found out about my smoking habit, she said she would have to fire me unless I quit. It was just wrong to have someone with such an unhealthy habit giving health advice to others.

I know that the patches helped me when I was ready. It would have been harder to quit cold turkey. The little bit of nicotine that they delivered to my system helped me learn to abstain from smoking for good.


My husband will soon be abstaining from smoking. His health insurance will go up a significant amount within a month if he doesn’t quit, and we can’t afford for him to continue smoking.

He’s wanted to quit for awhile, and he even made it through a whole day without cigarettes once. However, the craving overcomes him every time.

It will be interesting to see whether or not the nicotine patches will help him abstain. I know this time, he’s really motivated, so it just might work.

Has anyone else out there ever been able to abstain from smoking with the help of patches? I’m just curious about how well they work.


I practiced abstinence until I was married for spiritual reasons. I’m glad that I did, even though it brought me heartache along the way.

Several guys broke up with me because of it, and unfortunately, I had already fallen for them. I even questioned my decision a time or two, because it hurt so much to be left.

I finally met the man for me. He personally had not been practicing abstinence, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he respected my decision and waited for me.

We fell in love within a couple of weeks, and we got married seven months later. So, I’m glad I did not give in to those other guys.


@Comfyshoes - That is the way that I was raised and I did not have a problem with abstinence. It was what was expected of me. The problem with some of the abstinence programs is that many hit a moral tone which on some level may be right but may also turn off a lot of teens.

Teens really need to hear the dangers of having sex at such a young age and take the moral argument off the table because if not they will discount the message because they feel that they are being preached to.

There is a thin line between educating and preaching to young children. I think that if parents plant the abstinence idea in their kids before they actually become teenagers they will be more receptive to parental advice, and they will probably be more willing to abstain from sex.

You really have to have good communication with your kids in order to pull that off. Too many parents are afraid of having “The talk” with their kids but this very experience can really protect your child from engaging in sex before they should. The more information that a child has the better equipped they are to make the right decisions about sex.


I was reading an abstinence article the other day that stated that 65% of teenagers that engaged in sex wish they had waited. In the same article, the same percentage thought that it was embarrassing for someone to call them a virgin. I know that there is a lot of peer pressure particularly in this age group, but we should offer abstinence programs as part of the student’s sex education in order to make abstinence more acceptable among teenagers.

At this age, kids don’t understand that when they make adult decisions they will be faced with adult consequences and many of these teenagers are in a hurry to group up. We should have guest speakers to speak at various schools that have had a teen pregnancy so that the group can see that sex is a big deal and not without major consequences.

I really do believe that abstinence education should be more widespread. Instead we are having our children learn how to use a condom in middle school. We really have to teach kids that there is a lot more to sex than they realize and dealing with sexually transmitted diseases that could be life threatening as well as unwanted pregnancies is not the way they want to enter adulthood.

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