Is it Viable?

By Carlyle Jansen

Abstinence is about not having sex with oneself and/ or partner(s). Of course what that means depends on one’s definition of sex and where the line is drawn for the individual. Can abstinence include watching erotic films (and when does a film cross the line from mainstream to erotica/porn)? Does sex include texting a love interest, “outercourse” (pleasure on the outside of genitals) such as oral pleasure, or hand stimulation? What about using sex toys or breast/nipple stimulation or “dry humping”? Some count anal sex as abstinence from vaginal sex. If one’s definition of abstinence does not include these preceding activities, then does kissing cross the sexual line? Some might argue that sex begins when any activity is undertaken with the intention to arouse. So it is not what one does but rather one’s intentions behind any actions including texting, kissing, and touching.

How is it Related to Celibacy or Incels?

Abstinence is a choice for a period of time, short or long. Celibacy is usually a commitment or a vow to not have sex with oneself or others. It is a type of abstinence usually for religious reasons, often “for life” such as in the case of Catholic priests and nuns.

Short for “involuntary celibacy”, incels desire sexual connection with others but are unable to create it in their lives. They usually blame others for their predicament, leading to anger and behaviours that can further turn off potential partners. Incels do not choose abstinence, but rather feel that they are forced into or resigned to it.

Why Practice Abstinence?

There are as many reasons for choosing abstinence as there are people. For example, it is always a great option for single folks: to take a break from relationships, to focus on oneself or work or school, to recover from a breakup and/or the relationship that led to the breakup. Some abstain from sex as a harm reduction approach: keeping isolated from others during covid-19, or minimizing the risk of catching or transmitting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or pregnancy for a period of time monthly or irregularly. Those who have an STI (especially recent diagnosis or flare-up) might want to be abstinent from partnersex in order to not have to deal with difficult conversations or risk infecting a partner. Some folks are abstinent from sex with partners while practicing orgasm withdrawal or ejaculation delay solo or learning how to pleasure oneself. A choice for abstinence can also take the pressure off of decision-making around sex while getting over an illness.

Abstinence is also a practical option for someone who is not ready for a relationship, does not want the potential drama of relationships, or for healing from trauma and/or an unhealthy relationship(s). Some folks like to abstain from sex as a way to take time to get to know a partner before sex becomes part of the discussion.  And abstinence is a well-known choice for those who wish to wait until marriage or formal commitment before engaging in sexual activities.

Sometimes people choose abstinence when experiencing sexual challenges. If intercourse is painful or erections/ orgasms do not happen as desired, abstaining might be a positive choice until one is ready to address their sexual challenges. Some folks have a lack of access to safer sex barriers, meaning that abstinence is the only option to preventing pregnancy and/ or STIs. Some folks choose to be abstinent because they identify as asexual – although some asexuals will still have sex with a romantic partner to meet their needs.

Is It a Viable Option?

Choosing abstinence for a period of time can be a positive choice and even healing. It can be a good choice for folks who have a hard time holding boundaries. It is a healthy option for a time period e.g. during covid-19. It can also be good for folks who have not been single/ abstinent for a long time to reflect on their relationship with themselves and their life desires.

Abstinence is relatively hard to do within a relationship, although it often happens by circumstance when at least one partner does not desire sexual interactions, However the choice of abstinence is definitely a conversation that needs to happen if you do not intend to have sex with your partner. In this instance, some couples negotiate that the partner who is not abstinent has other sexual connections to satisfy their needs (with particular rules and boundaries agreed by all parties).

One unfortunate reason that some choose abstinence is that they think that they have lost their libido. Many people do not know about responsive desire, where desire for sex arises through arousal, not before it. This revelation for many folks is a game-changer. Rather than remaining uninterested in sex, one can learn how to stimulate desire for themselves. Without this knowledge, sometimes both partners then resign themselves to a life of abstinence. Confusion sets in when the partner with the low libido meets someone new who sparks excitement: was it low libido or just the need for both partners to understand how to spark excitement in the relationship?

Another unfortunate drawback of abstinence is that many have been told that they (women especially) must “save themselves” and their “purity” for a husband. This idea perpetuates the belief that sex is dirty, “done to” women, that women are the gatekeepers of sex, and that the value of a woman who has had sex is somehow reduced, and for some reason lower than the value of a man who has done the same. In this instance, the choice of abstinence may or may not be of free will.

Finally, some people think that abstinence will fix their “masturbation problem” or sex “addiction” without looking at what discomfort or triggers drive their compulsion. They believe that abstinence will solve their challenge whereas usually sex is a coping mechanism for some emotional discomfort. Addressing the discomfort will more likely lead to a healthier relationship with sex rather than abstinence itself.

The Bottom Line

Make choices about sexual activity for yourself based on your values and priorities. Don’t allow anyone to pressure you to do anything or not do anything. In the same way, do not pressure others into sex nor blame them for not choosing sex with you. There is nothing like feeling that one deserves sex to turn off a partner from joining you in the adventure. And feel confident that a choice for abstinence is a valid one. People who are abstinent are neither “losers” nor less whole people. We are free to make our own choices for our own reasons.

Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email carlyle@goodforher.com or go online to www.goodforher.com