Sexual abstinence in the modern context refers to the decision to refrain from sexual activity prior to marriage. The traditional religious virtue of chastity combines abstinence before marriage with sexual fidelity to one's spouse within marriage. Reasons for unmarrieds to abstain from sexual activity include religious convictions, to conform to legal injunctions, to prevent undesired pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and to "save oneself" for marriage with the hope of better marital outcomes.
The world's major religions concur in viewing sexual intimacy as proper only within marriage; otherwise it can be destructive to human flourishing. Sexual abstinence prior to marriage and fidelity within marriage are time-honored norms for maintaining strong families. Traditional societies made virginity the norm for unmarrieds; backed by strong community sanctions and even by force of law. However, in the modern West particularly since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, this norm fell by the wayside, replaced by widespread acceptance of casual sex before marriage and even cohabitation in place of marriage. In the current cultural climate, many see sexual abstinence as unnatural, even unhealthy.
In attempting to combat the current climate, social conservatives in the United States have been advocating for abstinence-based sex education, which attempts to uphold the traditional norm. These educators also advocate "secondary virginity," a recommitment to abstinence by teens who previously were sexually active. Some churches promote a "virginity pledge," a commitment to remain sexually abstinent prior to marriage. When supported by medical, psychological, social, and spiritual understanding, such educational efforts have positive impact on the lives of young people.
Throughout history and in most nations throughout the world, religious teachings have informed social and legal standards. Since adultery has generally been regarded as a sin, and marriage was considered the legitimizer of sexual relations, maintaining virginity prior to marriage, which in early times often took place soon after puberty, was the norm. Yet for many men, prostitution has been tolerated as a sexual outlet, whether openly practiced or conducted discreetly. The Victorian period saw a tightening of sexual mores. The First World War began an upsurge in sexual freedom and indulgence, even as large portions of society retained the traditional moral values of abstinence before marriage.
In the 1960s, the advent of the first oral contraceptive pill and widely available antibiotics suppressed many consequences of promiscuous behavior. This coincided with the "sexual revolution" which celebrated blatant sexuality as an expression of adolescent freedom and self-expression. By the 1970s, abandonment of premarital chastity was no longer taboo in the majority of western societies. Perhaps even the reverse: it became expected, or recommended, 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.
A contributing social trend in industrialized countries has been the delay of marriage to the late twenties and early thirties, as more young people put off marriage to attend college and begin careers. Where traditionally the onset of sexual relations in the teenage years was a cause for early marriage, today early marriage is discouraged. Yet the sexual urges of youth are not as easily delayed, and to keep abstinent until one's thirties is a herculean challenge. Yet studies are questioning the conventional wisdom that early marriages are less stable and of lesser quality than marriages that begin later in life. The early twenties, when romantic feelings are at their peak and the body is most fecund, may be the best time for marriage. The keeping abstinent until then can be a realistic goal.
Today most of the stigmas that discouraged premarital sex have been removed. Even as late as the mid-twentieth century, there was a stigma attached to being a "one-parent family" or producing an illegitimate child—but no longer. The lifting of legal penalties and social stigma regarding illegitimacy has made cohabitation and single motherhood socially acceptable options. Society has not yet reckoned with the social costs of these options, particularly to the children.
With the increasing problems of unwanted teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, socially conscious educators began to promote abstinence for teenagers and recommending virginity prior to marriage. Without sexual contact, it is virtually impossible to conceive an unwanted child. By avoiding exposure of the sexual organs to other people, one may also avoid the sexual transmission of many diseases (STDs).
Organizations on the Left such as SIECUS have called abstinence-only programs "fear-based," "designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame, and guilt." Advocates for sexual abstinence dispute this, and claim numerous positive benefits, such as the freedom from teenage pregnancy and the resulting ability to focus on education and preparing for their future. They note that, contrary to the promiscuity norm following the "sexual revolution," preparation for a lifetime of happiness with a single, faithful marriage partner is well served by practicing self-restraint in situations of sexual temptation.
The effectiveness of abstinence programs for sex education remains a topic of much controversy in the United States. Opponents frequently adopt the line that abstinence education is acceptable only if it is combined with other methods, such as instruction in the use and easy availability of condoms. Proponents reply that to teach about condoms and promote their availability effectively undermines the abstinence norm.
In the fight against HIV/AIDS, Uganda is cited as a model for its "ABC" program that mobilized local clergy with its abstinence message. The initials ABC actually signified a mixed approach—"Abstain, Be faithful, use a Condom"—but with each of the three messages addressed to different audiences. Young people were advised to be abstinent; married people to be faithful to their spouse, and high-risk groups such as sex workers and promiscuous men to use condoms. With this separately-targeted approach, the government could utilize clergy to get out the word to the villages (which they were uniquely positioned to penetrate) with the abstinence and fidelity message, while other health workers dealt with the high-risk groups. Such a mixed approach is a sensible alternative to the polarization between advocates and opponents of abstinence that characterizes the issue in the United States.
Beginning with Florida and Oklahoma in 1999, numerous states have begun mandating marriage education classes in high schools. This is in response to the growing rate of divorce and the perceived lack of relationship skills among young people to succeed in making lasting marriages. In cities that have instituted a "Community Marriage Policy" in which judges and clergy agree to conduct marriages only for couples who have received premarital education and counseling, divorce rates have dropped considerably.
In this context, the practice of sexual abstinence creates an excellent foundation for marriage preparation. It allows for the strengthening of character free from the moral compromises of sexual involvements; it allows for personal development free from sexual distractions; and it allows for friendship building free from sexual complications. These in turn tend to reinforce postponing sexual activity. Individuals with integrity, a close relationship with their parents, many good friendships and cultivated talents and interests find abstinence less of a challenge.
At the same time, those who practice abstinence tend to have a more positive view of marriage. Research found that virgins have more favorable attitudes toward marriage than do nonvirgins who had multiple sex partners. Both abstinence and pro-marriage attitudes reinforce each other. Boston University’s The Art of Loving Well is a literature-based course that is used for both purposes. Marriage education sustains the hope of a happy committed relationship, making the choice of saving sexual activity until marriage more viable and attractive. Even where marriage preparation courses do not have an explicit abstinence message, educators report that the very discussion of the demands and rewards of committed relationships reinforces the concept of abstinence before such relationships.
Lethal sexually transmitted diseases and unwed parenthood garner attention from parents, teachers, legislatures and public health officials. Lost in this focus is the reality that even if disease and pregnancy are avoided, every sexual encounter outside of a mature and lifelong commitment—marriage—carries the risk of negative psychological, relational and social consequences. This risk is inherent to the nature of sexuality and therefore unavoidable. Yet because the prevailing permissive ethic is grounded in a certain non-judgmental tolerance, the deeper, non-physical levels of harm and therefore the more subtle forms of abuse within sexual relations receive little acknowledgement.
As first explored by educators Thomas Lickona and Josh McDowell, the emotional and psychological harm of sex in insecure relationships may be perceived only semi-consciously at the time, eclipsed by the pleasures and supposed benefits of expanded experience. Too often the real price paid is discovered after much of the damage is done. One woman psychiatrist recounts the impact of her promiscuous teenage years: “That sick, used feeling of having given a precious part of myself…to so many and for nothing, still aches. I never imagined I’d pay so dearly and for so long.” The effects of sex outside of marriage on psychological health, especially among adolescents are many:
Adolescent girls becoming pregnant and bearing children has always been commonplace; until the recent past they were typically married. Though there are some health risks, the greatest hazards of pregnancy to an unwed teenager are less physical than psychological, relational and economic—mainly due to her being unmarried. Unwed pregnancy generates a great deal of emotional distress, especially between the partners themselves. Nine out of ten American adolescent boys abandon their pregnant girlfriends, even if reluctantly. Suicide is seven times more likely for the pregnant girl.
Economically, girls who choose to bear their child are far less likely to complete higher education, less likely to marry, or to escape poverty. Mothers who are unmarried, under 20 years old, and without a high school diploma are ten times more likely to raise their child in poverty in America than those who are not. Aborting the pregnancy carries other risks, including chronic grief and guilt.
The massive epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is largely a result of premarital sex with multiple partners. Of the total population infected with any STD, two thirds of these cases are youth under the age of 25. It is estimated that half of nonvirginal Americans can expect to be infected during their lifetime. (There are 300 new STD cases for every new HIV case in the United States.) More than one in five teenagers and adults currently has an incurable viral STD, apart from AIDS. Condoms are largely ineffective with common infections like genital herpes, gonorrhea, human papilloma virus and chlamydia.
Many people are even unaware that they have an STD. Like HIV/AIDS, these diseases can present no symptoms for quite a while. The potential consequences of STDs include chronic pain and psychological distress. In one study over half of herpes victims reported fear of rejection and depression during their most recent outbreak. More serious consequences include infertility, a greater susceptibility to cancer and HIV, and difficulty in getting married.
Young women's bodies are more vulnerable to infection than those of adult women. Their cervical mucosa is more conducive to microorganisms. Teenagers are ten times more vulnerable to pelvic inflammatory disease, an affliction accompanying chlamydia and gonorrhea that threatens fertility. Most of those with the chlamydial form of the disease will face pelvic surgery of some kind, whether to remove organs or to help conceive a child. Sexually active girls under 17 years of age have double the rate of cervical cancer of grown women. Cervical cancer is also linked to having many sexual partners. It does not occur in girls who remain virgins.
Youth are at greatest risk also because those who begin sex early will likely have more sexual partners over a lifetime. It is this—not whether each of those relationships was mutually exclusive at the time—that increases the probability of contracting an STD. Medical realities affirm that people, especially the young, are not suited for sex outside of a lifelong monogamous relationship.
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