Abstinence: What It Is, How to Do It, Risks to Consider, and More

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What is it?

In its simplest form, abstinence is the decision not to have sexual intercourse. However, it does mean different things to different people.

Some people might view abstinence as refraining from any and all sexual activity. Others might engage in outercourse, avoiding vaginal or anal penetration.

It’s important to remember there isn’t a “right” way to define abstinence.

Your personal definition is unique to you. You can choose to practice abstinence whenever you want — even if you’ve had sex before. Here’s why people do, how it works, and more.

Is it the same thing as celibacy?

While abstinence and celibacy are often used interchangeably, celibacy is usually viewed as a decision to abstain from sexual activity for religious reasons.

Someone who has taken a vow of celibacy is practicing abstinence. But in this case, it’s usually seen as a long-term decision.

The decision to be abstinent is usually limited to a certain period of time. For example, someone may decide to practice abstinence until they’ve been with a romantic partner for a given amount of time.

What about outercourse?

Just like abstinence, outercourse means different things to different people.

For some people, abstinence means refraining from penetration during sexual intercourse.

This definition leaves room for cuddling, sensual massage, and other forms of outercourse.

For others, abstinence may be the decision to abstain from any and all sexual activity — including outercourse.

Can you engage in any physical activity at all?

Honestly, it depends on your personal definition of abstinence.

If you believe sex is any act of penetration, then you can participate in other physical activities — like kissing, dry humping, and manual stimulation — while still being abstinent.

What can you do with your partner while still being abstinent?

Because the definition of abstinence depends on the individual, the things you can do with your partner while practicing abstinence vary.

It’s important to be open and honest with your partner about what you’re comfortable with so you can respect each other’s boundaries.

Depending on your personal definition of abstinence, you may be able to participate in activities like:

Kissing

Researchers in one 2013 study found that couples who kissed more reported higher satisfaction in their relationships.

Not only does kissing release those “happy hormones” that help you bond with your partner, it can have an amazing effect on your overall health.

Dirty talk or texts

One 2017 study suggests that communication (verbal or nonverbal) may be linked to sexual satisfaction. This means that engaging in a little dirty talk with your partner might be a way to explore intimacy while practicing abstinence.

However, it’s important to note that — while sexting might be sexually liberating — you should proceed with caution. Some forms of sexting can be illegal.

Dry humping

Dry humping doesn’t have to be awkward. In fact, it can be a great way to get to know your body. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with different positions, techniques, and even what you’re wearing.

Just remember that whenever you come into contact with bodily fluids, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are always a risk. Some STIs can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact.

Mutual masturbation (in some definitions)

There’s no rule that says masturbation needs to be a solo activity. It can also be a great way to connect with your partner and learn what they like.

Plus, masturbation offers some amazing benefits for your physical and mental health.

Manual stimulation (in some definitions)

Just like masturbation, manual stimulation — using your hands or fingers to pleasure your partner — can be a fantastic way to help you reach orgasm without sexual penetration.

You can also experiment with using sex toys or lubricant to stimulate each other.

Your risk for pregnancy and STIs increases when bodily fluids get involved, so be sure to take precautions.

Oral sex (in some definitions)

When it comes to pleasure, there are a lot of options for using your mouth on your partner’s genitals and other erogenous zones.

Whether you’re trying blow jobs, cunnilingus, rimming, or something else, it’s important to make sure you’re still using protection from STIs.

Anal sex (in some definitions)

Anal sex can be a great option for people of all genders. Penetration can occur with fingers, a sex toy, or penis, so use this opportunity to play around with different sensations.

How do you set boundaries with your partner?

Talking about sex or abstinence can feel awkward, but it doesn’t have to be.

If you’re worried about how to start the conversation, try to approach it from a place of affection.

Everyone wants to be happy. Your goal should be to not only tell your partner what you want, but to learn what they want, too.

Try not to wait until things get physical — or after you’re already uncomfortable — to set boundaries with your partner.

But if you’re in the heat of the moment and want to reaffirm boundaries, don’t hesitate to communicate with your partner.

Remember, consent is necessary andongoing. You’re allowed to change your mind or preferences at any given time.

You should never feel pressure — or pressure your partner — to do something one of you isn’t comfortable with.

Is pregnancy possible?

Abstinence is the only birth control method that’s 100 percent effective, but that only works if you’re actually abstinent 100 percent of the time.

It only takes having unprotected vaginal sex once — or sperm entering the vagina through another form of sexual activity — for pregnancy to occur.

If you and your partner are ready for sex, be sure to talk about condoms and other forms of birth control.

Even if you aren’t sure whether you want to have sex, taking a birth control pill or having condoms on hand will help you be prepared if you change your mind.

Are STIs possible?

Even if you’re practicing abstinence, STIs might be possible. Some STIs can be transmitted through bodily fluids. Others can transmit via skin-to-skin contact.

This means you could be at risk anytime you have unprotected oral sex, anal sex, share sex toys, or engage in other physical activities where skin-to-skin contact can transfer bodily fluids.

Using condoms and dental dams can help reduce your risk.

It’s also important to get tested for STIs at the start of a new relationship — before you’re sexually active with your partner — or if you’re thinking about not using condoms.

What’s the point?

Different people have different reasons for abstinence. There’s no “right” answer.

It’s important that you do what’s best for you, and — if your partner is the one who wishes to be abstinent — always respect set boundaries.

Here are some reasons why someone might choose abstinence:

  • You want to explore other forms of intimacy.
  • You or your partner aren’t interested in or ready for sex.
  • You’ve already had sex, but decided you aren’t ready to have it again.
  • You want to increase sexual pleasure outside of intercourse.
  • You don’t feel comfortable having sex, have pain during intercourse, or are recovering from trauma.
  • You don’t have access to other forms of birth control, such as birth control pills or condoms.

The bottom line

You’re allowed to choose abstinence at any given time and for any reason.

You don’t have to have sex to be part of a loving and intimate relationship. The most important thing is that you’re doing what makes you comfortable.

And regardless of your reasons for practicing it, abstinence can be a fun way to try new things. Exploring different pleasures can help you figure out what sensuality means for you.

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