Sexual abstinence or chastity is the practice of voluntarily refraining from sexual intercourse and (usually) other sexual activity. The term chastity more frequently implies the application of force or the existence of rules. Sexual abstinence is typically advocated in the categories of religious/moral concerns and health/social concerns, with a significant overlap between the two.
Abstinence in history and society
In many past and some present cultures, minors (particularly females) are expected to abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage and to remain faithful to their spouse thereafter. Thus, being "chaste" in these cultures means sexual abstinence for unmarried persons or those separated from their spouses. In western societies, abstinence in relationships has been idealized more consistently for women than for men. Some theorize this derives from the risk of pregnancy, which poses a threat to patrilineal inheritance. In some cultures, proof of virginity, often in the form of a bloodied sheet from the conjugal bed, is demanded as part of the marriage contract.
Anthropologists and social historians have noted that many cultures such as Victorian Britain or the rural areas in the modern United States, which formally place a high value on abstinence until marriage, actually have a large amount of pre-marital sexual activity in which there is no actual sexual intercourse and which preserve a state known as technical virginity.
The concept has not always been used in the same way for males and females, women often being more deeply conditioned than men — also due to factors of anatomical evidence, sometimes subject to formal, and even public, examination in the imminence of the marriage.
In some cultures, those who infringe the rules regarding chastity may be ostracized. Social reacceptance can sometimes be regained by marriage between the two. In the West, even as late as the mid-20th century, there was a stigma attached to being a 'one-parent family' and an illegitimate child could be legitimized by the marriage of the parents. (This latter is still the case in many Western countries, though the lifting of legal penalties and social stigma regarding illegitimacy has rendered this irrelevant to social acceptance.) Some cultures take the infringement of rules of chastity so literally that ostracism may result from cases of rape.
Historically, there has been a swing from the sexually free end of the Industrial Revolution to the often degenerate values of the early Victorian period. This was then followed by a new puritanism from the late Victorian era to the early 1900s. This important transformation often colours discussion of sexual behaviour in the later 20th century period. The First World War began a return to sexual freedom and indulgence, but more often than not the appearance of conforming to the earlier moral values of abstinence before marriage was retained. With the conclusion of the Second World War, the importance of abstinence declined swiftly. The advent of the oral contraceptive pill and widely available antibiotics removed the consequences of wide and free sexual behaviour, while social mores were also changing. By the 1960s, such restrictions were no longer expected in the majority of western societies; perhaps even the reverse: that members of both sexes would have experienced a number of sexual partners before marriage. Some cultural groups continued to place a value on the moral purity of an abstainer, but abstinence was caught up in a wider re-evaluation of moral values .
While there have been cultures which achieved total sexual abstinence, such as castration cults, it is unlikely that any of them survived for a substantial period of time due to their lack of reproduction. Regardless, the arrival of technology like in vitro fertilisation allows reproduction without sexual intercourse.
Abstinence and morality
Moral or religious advocates want people to refrain from unmarried sex, because they believe exercising such restraint is a good thing to do. So they urge children, teens, young adults and other unmarried people to abstain from premarital sex and to prepare for marriage and a life of fidelity to one's spouse.
Abstinence is often viewed as an admirable act of self-control over the "natural" desire to have sex. The display of the strength of character allows the abstainer to feel superior to those not able to contain their "base urges." At other times abstinence has been seen as a great social ill practiced by those who refuse to engage with the material and physical world.
The groups that propose it commonly consider that purity has to be part of what the consorts have to bring in their new common life, living the intimate experience of sex as a means to enforce the tie between husband and wife. Sometimes this concept is part of a wider concept allowing sexual activity for the sole purpose of biological reproduction, therefore limited to fertile age only.
Some groups that propose sexual abstinence consider it an essential means to reach a particular intellectual or spiritual condition, or that chastity allows one to achieve a required self-control or a self-consciousness.
Critics of abstinence on moral or religious grounds generally say that restrictions on sexual activity are emotionally or spiritually harmful. Some psychological theories hold that sexual oppression leads to various behavioral problems. Additionally, as sexual skill and compatibility are learned over time, there may be long term consequences to a practice that deprives people of experience they may need in order to form an understanding of their own feelings and their compatibility with others.
Abstinence and religion
In Christianity, sexual intercourse is described as "becoming one flesh" and is a sign of marriage; abstinence is therefore expected of unmarried people. But for married couples, the apostle Paul wrote that they should not deprive each other except for a time for devotion to prayer.
Chastity is a virtue expected of the faithful of many religions, including Christians and Muslims. This usually includes abstinence from sex for the unmarried, and faithfulness to a marriage partner. In many religions some groups of people are expected to practice absolute chastity — to abstain from sex completely, and remain unmarried. These groups include most monks and nuns in Christianity, and priests in the Roman Catholic church.
In many religions chastity is imposed to the respective sacerdotal orders.
Abstinence, sexual diseases and pregnancies
Abstinence advocates recommend it as a way to avoid pregnancy and venereal disease. Without sexual contact, it is virtually impossible to conceive a child other than through artificial insemination. By avoiding exposure of the sexual organs to other people, one will also avoid the sexual transmission of diseases (STDs). Note, however, that many STDs, including AIDS, can also be transmitted non-sexually.
Pregnancy can also be avoided (though with low reliability) through only periodic sexual abstinence. This method is generally known as natural family planning, and involves various methods of determining when a woman is fertile and abstaining during that time only.
Many critics of abstinence say that it is not an effective way to avoid disease or pregnancy. While some teens may have weak sexual desire or few sexual opportunities and thus be able to maintain it successfully, others will have stronger desires, more opportunities or act under the influence of drugs, and will in these situations not be prepared to take precautions (using condoms or other contraceptives). Worse, they may consider the independent acquisition of information about precautionary measures shameful and avoid it altogether.
Critics also contend that abstinence education is short-sighted, and that sexual life does not automatically normalize with adulthood. Even if teens make it into adulthood without having sex or getting pregnant, they may not know how to prevent having babies, or how to become pregnant when they want to, and they may suffer from lifelong sexual immaturity and shame.
In spite of these criticisms, abstinence has become the de facto focus of sex education in the United States, so that opponents frequently adopt the line that abstinence education is acceptable only if it is combined with other methods, such as instruction in the use of condoms and easy availability thereof. Most nations of Western Europe use more comprehensive measures, and in sharp contrast to the heated discussion in the US, abstinence is hardly discussed as an educational measure.
Abstinence as a lifestyle
Although many individuals abstain from sex for complex reasons such as religion or morality, for some individuals sexual abstinence is simply a lifestyle choice. Those individuals who fall into this category may have a dislike of sex, or are simply not interested in it. They may view sex as an unnecessary part of human life. As with other lifestyle choices, this attitude toward sex and relationships can vary greatly. Some who choose such a lifestyle still accept sex for reproduction, some engage in romantic relationships, and some engage in masturbation.
Chastity play as a sexual exploration
Chastity, known more commonly as orgasm denial or part of total power exchange is an established part of BDSM, in which a partner gives over their access to orgasm to another person. Thus modern devices exist whose purpose is not safety, so much as denial of stimulation. The psychological power of this act can be extremely intense. Common side-effects cited by couples who have tried this extension to their lifestyle, include a revitalising and enhancing of relationships, increased mutual focus on the relationship and the "other", and intensifying of sexuality.
Modern abstinence movements
The advent of AIDS helped restore the momentum of the favourable view of abstinence. But currently there are issues as to what abstinence means: is it an abstinence from sexual intercourse or from sexual behaviour? Movements such as True Love Waits in America which asks teenagers to refrain from sex before marriage are heavily subscribed but surveys of sexual behaviour indicate an increase in the popularity of oral sex. Oral sex is not perceived as being "real sex." Teenage girls are able to indulge in sexual practices while claiming the traditional virtues of the virgin in cultures that admire it.
The effectiveness of abstinence programs and movements remains doubtful. The study "Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse" by Peter Bearman and Hanna Brückner examined the relationship between virginity pledges and first sexual intercourse. From the abstract :
- Since 1993, in response to a movement sponsored by the Southern Baptist Church , over 2.5 million adolescents have taken public virginity pledges, in which they promise to abstain from sex until marriage. This paper explores the effect of those pledges on the transition to first intercourse. Adolescents who pledge are much less likely to have intercourse than adolescents who do not pledge. The delay effect is substantial. On the other hand, the pledge does not work for adolescents at all ages. Second, pledging delays intercourse only in contexts where there are some, but not too many, pledgers. The pledge works because it is embedded in an identity movement. Consequently, the pledge identity is meaningful only in contexts where it is at least partially nonnormative. Consequences of pledging are explored for those who break their promise. Promise breakers are less likely than others to use contraception at first intercourse.
The effects observed in this study could be explained as mere correlations: Adolescents who feel the desire to take part in the virginity movement are more likely to remain abstinent for a variety of reasons, and less likely to have knowledge about contraception. Some studies have found that school-based abstinence programs actually increase the incidence of pregnancies (see sex education).
- Platonic love
- Harmful to Minors, a book by Judith Levine which deals with sexual morality in the United States and also discusses the issue of abstinence education
- Religious aspects of marriage
- chastity belt
- Refusal skills
- Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner: Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse. American Journal of Sociology, Volume 106, Number 4 (January 2001), pp. 859-912.
- No New Money for Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs advocacy website
- United States poll shows parents favoring abstinence-based education (Focus on the Family press release)
- Sexual Abstinence Behind Uganda's AIDS Success Story
- James W. Prescott, "Body pleasure and the origins of violence", The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, November 1975, pp. 10-20 online copy. Claims that somatosensory (including sexual) deprivation as minors causes violent behaviour of grown-ups.