Sexual Abstinence

Sexual abstinence is when one chooses to refrain from engaging in sexual behaviors.

Defining Sexual Abstinence Although popularly defined as refraining from any kind of sexual activity until marriage, the definition of abstinence can vary widely between individuals.  Abstinence is a choice that can be made at any time, even if one has already engaged in sexual behavior.  Note: An underlying component for abstinence is that one makes a conscious choice to refrain.  If one is forced or coerced into refraining, that falls under the realm of abuse.

Components for Defining Sexual Abstinence Four common components for defining abstinence are types of activities, periods of time, life-events, and situations.  Individuals may define abstinence using one component, or they may define abstinence using a combination of components.  Explanations for, and some examples of, the different components are listed below:

Types of Activities: Some definitions include specific activities one is choosing not to do.

  • Abstaining only from sexual activities that could spread an STI and/or cause a pregnancy (i.e. anus-penis sex, vagina-penis sex, oral sex, genital-genital/genital-anal rubbing, or any other fluid transmitting activity).
  • Abstaining from any sexual activities that do no align with one’s religious or spiritual beliefs.
  • Abstaining from any activity that is sexual in nature (also known as ‘chastity’).


Periods of Time:  Some definitions revolve around certain time periods

  • Abstaining until one has been in a relationship for a certain number of months.
  • Abstaining until one is a certain age.
  • Abstaining for any pre-determined time period (3 months, 2 years, 1 week, etc.)


Life-Events:  Some definitions revolve around certain life experiences.

  • Abstaining until marriage.
  • Abstaining until one has gone on a certain number of dates.
  • Abstaining until one has fallen in love or feels an emotional connection.


Situations: Sometimes abstinence is defined by certain situations.

  • Abstaining while a partner is experiencing symptoms of an STI.
  • Abstaining when apart from a partner when engaged in a long distance relationship.
  • Abstaining due to illness or injury.


One example of a definition of abstinence that uses multiple components:  Abstaining from penile-vaginal intercourse until after high school AND until one has fallen in love.

A Controversial Term Because the term ‘abstinence’ is commonly used in reference to refraining from activities that are harmful (i.e. heavy drug use), there are those that feel using abstinence in reference to sex sends a negative message that sex is always harmful.  For those that wish to send a more sex-positive message, phrases like ‘choosing to wait’ or ‘waiting until’ can be utilized.