Abstinence is a confusing word. Adults have been throwing it at teens for years, having teens sign pledges, and teaching abstinence-only education. I’ve found when I ask people to define what they mean by abstinence, they get a puzzled look on their face. Responses are far ranging and varied. Most people equate abstinence with not having sex, right? But how do you define sex? From a medical point of view sex is oral, anal or vaginal intercourse. But what about everything else? During classes I’ll ask participants to complete the following statement: “If someone is abstinent they can still _________.” Answers will range from do nothing (as in no physical contact) to kiss, have oral sex, have anal sex, masturbate, or do anything but put-a-penis-in-the-vagina sex.
Picture this scenario: You’re getting to know a new person and you feel the sexual tension building. You look them in the eyes and say, “I think you should know right from the start that I’m abstinent.” Their response could be, “Cool, so you can still give me a blow job, right?”
Another statement I often hear repeated is that abstinence is the only 100% sure way to avoid pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection. Yes, but again, what do you mean by abstinence? If you mean no physical contact of a sexual nature, that would be true. But, you can cause a pregnancy or pass a sexually transmitted infection by having seminal fluid from a person’s fingers or the tip of a penis spread to a vulva or inside the vagina. HPV (human papilloma virus) and HSV (herpes simplex virus) can be spread by genital skin-to-skin contact – no intercourse or exchange of fluid is necessary.
When discussing abstinence with a teen or if abstinence is your personal choice, make sure you are very clear of your own definition. Be very clear what are you willing to do and are absolutely sure of the risks involved in any sexual activity within your definition. Then you must be able to convey this information to a potential partner so there is no doubt as to what your limits are. Finally, you have to stay within your parameters. Not doing so is the main reason abstinence fails. We’ve all heard so many times that sex “just happened.”
If being abstinent is important to you, then the power is in your hands – but education is key. For more information about abstinence visit our Planned Parenthood website.