What does it mean to be abstinent?

For some people, abstinence means having no sexual contact at all with a partner. For others, abstinence means having no genital contact with a partner. While abstinence may have different meanings for different people, abstinence is most commonly understood to mean not having sexual intercourse. People may define sexual intercourse as including vaginal, anal, and/or oral sex. When abstinence is discussed as a strategy to prevent pregnancy or the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), it means abstaining from activities which put you at risk for STIs and/or pregnancy. Abstinence from intercourse does not have to mean lack of sexual expression and satisfaction, because there are so many other pleasurable things you can do.

Why do people choose to be abstinent?

Being intimate without intercourse is a satisfying way to explore and learn about your body and about your partner's body without any sense of pressure to go further. People choose to be abstinent for many reasons:

  • Not being ready for sexual involvement
  • Waiting for the right person
  • Supporting personal or religious beliefs
  • Focusing on school or career activities
  • Avoiding the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

It is normal and natural to go through periods in your life when you choose to be abstinent, whether you are in between relationships or you are currently in a relationship. The decision to have sex is your decision, each and every time, regardless of whether or not you've been sexually active in the past.

back to top

How effective is abstinence in preventing pregnancy and STIs?

Abstinence from vaginal, anal and oral sex is the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and STIs, but this method does require self-control and commitment. You need to be aware that how you define abstinence, meaning the behaviors you include and exclude, will raise or lower your risk for pregnancy and STIs. Pregnancy could occur if ejaculatory fluid is deposited near the opening of the vagina. STIs such as human papilloma virus (HPV) and herpes can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. Oral-genital contact comes with the risk of STIs including HPV, herpes, gonorrhea and hepatitis.

How do I choose to be abstinent?

You might begin by considering what types of sexual intimacy you are comfortable with. It can be important to make these decisions before you are in the heat of the moment because it can be more difficult to talk about your sexual limits when you and/or your partner are aroused. Consider your values and reasons for choosing abstinence, think about situations where it might be difficult to maintain abstinence, and consider how other people or substances like alcohol or other drugs might influence your decision. Use the following questions to help you make your decision about abstinence:

  • Do you feel comfortable with your present level of involvement with your partner?
  • What are your reasons for choosing abstinence?
  • Do you feel pressured to have sex?
  • What do you imagine as a possible result of having sex? How will you feel about yourself? How will you feel about your partner?
  • Are you comfortable talking to your partner about your decisions?
  • Can you discuss prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
  • Do you feel comfortable taking the responsibility to prevent pregnancy and STIs?
  • What might tempt you to have sex? Are you willing to avoid these situations to stick with your decision?
  • What other ways will you find to be sexual (alone or with a partner)?

Adapted from: Princeton University's Sexuality Education, Counseling and Health website.

Once you are sure of your own sexual boundaries, talk with your partner(s) about your decision and ask about their boundaries. Abstinence works best when all involved agree to it and maintain open communication.

back to top

Links you can use

For more information about abstinence, you can visit:

Planned Parenthood

back to top

Disclaimer: BWell Health Promotion is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Promotion maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Promotion offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.