What Is Abstinence?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 07, 2023
3 min read

People who are abstinent choose not to have sex. The official definition of abstinence includes not taking part in vaginal, anal, and oral sex. However, some people practice abstinence by only skipping one or two of those types of sexual activity. 

Anyone can practice abstinence at any time. You can become abstinent even if you’ve had sex in the past. The period of abstinence can last for as long as you like and end whenever you and a partner decide the time is right. 

There are many reasons why you might practice abstinence, including:

  • Not feeling ready to have sex yet
  • No birth control available
  • Don’t want to use available birth control methods
  • Waiting for marriage or a special partner
  • Recent breakup
  • Focusing on work or school
  • Personal or religious beliefs
  • Medically necessary following an illness

If you practice abstinence, it’s important to let a partner know. Together, you can come up with different ways to be intimate with each other.

You might have your own ideas of abstinence based on myths or misconceptions. Some common myths related to abstinence are:

Abstinence is a 100% foolproof birth-control method 

It’s true that abstinence, when practiced for sexual activity that involves penetration, is the only form of birth control that has a 100% success rate. You can’t get pregnant if you don’t have sex.

But keep in mind that even if you are abstinent, there’s a small chance you can get pregnant if you take part in activities that place a penis near a vagina. Examples include rubbing genitals without insertion and anal sex.

Additionally, some who choose abstinence end it abruptly without preparation for birth control. This can lead to pregnancy.

It prevents all sexually transmitted infections

Abstinence is also successful in preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you don’t have sex, it’s hard to get an STI. However, if you abstain only from one type of sex, like vaginal, but still have others, like anal or oral, you can still get an STI. 

You can't receive sexual pleasure when abstinent

There are many ways to incorporate eroticism and pleasure into your life even when you abstain from sex with penetration. This is known as outercourse.

Outercourse is any type of sexual activity that doesn’t include penetration. It can include:

  • Phone sex or sexting
  • Masturbating alone or with a partner
  • Dry humping a partner
  • Talking about a fantasy or roleplay
  • Taking a shower with a partner
  • Using sex toys for penetration instead of genitals
  • Kissing or making out
  • Giving or receiving a massage

You don't need birth control or STI prevention

Even if you practice abstinence, you should still learn about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. You may change your decision about abstinence at some point, and you want to be knowledgeable about these topics if you do. It’s a good idea to have condoms or other forms of birth control on hand in case the decision to stop being abstinent happens quickly. 

If you choose abstinence and enter a new relationship, it’s important to make your choices known. It may be best to talk about your sexual choices and preferences before the relationship becomes intimate. Let your partner know what you want. Be clear about which sexual activities you’re comfortable with, and which ones you’re abstaining from.

A partner should respect your choice to be abstinent. They shouldn’t try to pressure you into having sex or doing something sexual you don’t want to do, ever, but especially if you’re abstinent. The decision to have sex is one you should make for yourself.

Some people find it difficult to remain abstinent from sex, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved. Think about how you’ll handle situations that may affect your ability to make decisions about your sexual choices.