I am sex-positive-- meaning I think sex can be and often is a good thing. It's not evil, it's not dirty, and having no religion to really call my own, it's not "sinful". Many religions actually consider the human sexual experience a sort of divine blessing, a gift from the gods-- and others still maintain that any form of desire, sexual or not, is a distraction from the holy path-- but that's neither here nor there. What I'm here to talk about is abstinence.

Why am I talking about abstinence? Because I think it's relevant to discuss amongst my readers, since many of you, as young adults are sexually mature and not married.

First let's clear a few things up.

I am not abstinent. I'm not writing this as an abstinent person, I'm writing as someone outside of that group, because I think it's important for people to understand and support as a choice, even if it's not one that you've made for yourself. I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about abstinence or get pressured into things because people keep talking about abstinence like it's a dumb/crazy/unrealistic/invalid choice-- and that's not cool.

Abstinent - describes someone who has decided to not have sex until marriage. This is not the same as waiting until you're "ready" which is something I think pretty much everyone should do, whenever "ready" is for you. It's specifically about marriage. For some people this is a religious matter, for others it's a personal choice that has to do with any number of things. 

Celibate - describes someone who decides to never have sex, or to never have sex from this point forward. This is not the same as saying no on any given occasion, but is about saying no consistently over time based on a decision you've made to not have sex going forward. Some people take time to be celibate temporarily (ex. 6 months, a year, 3 years). Some people do this to heal and get in touch with themselves after damaging sexual or romantic experiences. Many clergy figures across different religions must maintain a vow of celibacy for a variety of reasons.

Asexual - describes someone who's not really into sex (sometimes called "Ace" which is a pretty snazzy name for a sexual orientation, if you ask me). It's not a decision to not have sex until marriage, nor is it really a decision to say no to sex despite a desire presumably being there (since celibacy is pretty rooted to the idea of denying yourself sex, not just passing it up). Probably the easiest analogy is when you meet someone who doesn't ever get chocolate cravings (or ice cream cravings, or pancake cravings, or whatever). At first you might be like, "wow you've never had a chocolate craving in your life??" and they'd say, "nope." And that's kind of the end of that conversation. Asexual people are not necessarily opposed to having sex. You can actually read this really great piece on how to have sex with an asexual person which I absolutely love because it's really a great piece on how consent works in all situations, with specific emphasis on asexual people. Asexual people can be in romantic relationships, and have romantic feelings. They're just not hungry for sex. Fun fact, Tim Gunn, of Project Runway, is asexual homoromantic, meaning he's asexual and into romantic relationships with other men :) 

Aromantic - describes someone who is not hungry for a romantic connection. It's not a really common word like asexual, but I think it deserves a spot at the table since I know some aromantic people and it's related to some of these other terms. An aromantic person doesn't really need or even want the romantic aspect of a relationship, but may enjoy sexual or platonic elements of a relationship. One of my aromantic friends has described her perfect partner as "a best friend, a rock, who [she] has sex with" with none of the romance in between. Think of it as one of those "No Strings Attached" Friends-with-Benefits type of deals that actually stays non-romantic (unlike in the movies) because no one needs/wants/has those feelings.

Okay! Now that the terms are out of the way, I want to talk about abstinence. This is not a "hey you, let me tell you why you need to be abstinent, or you will burn in hell / have sex and die / have your genitals gnawed off by a gorilla." Because I don't roll like that. This is me telling you that if someone is abstinent, you should support that choice. 

So how do you handle that person who tells you they are abstinent?

Recognize that it's their choice, not yours. There are a lot of very personal considerations that go into deciding if you're "ready." How you feel about your body, yourself, your relationship with the person in question (not that there needs to really be one, just that it's the relationship or lack thereof that you are okay with), your health, your ability to minimize risk (or unwanted pregnancy and STIs/STDs)-- these all play into someone's decision to go ahead and have sex. So what if someone decides they want to wait until someone puts a ring on it? So what if someone wants their first time to be on their wedding night? There are crazier wedding fantasies that I'm sure we've all seen on at least one reality TV show or pinterest. If someone told me, "I want my first time to be on a day when I ate a cheeseburger." I'd tell them, "Go for it girl, just brush your teeth before hand in case you have onion breath." And that's pretty much how you should handle someone telling you they've chosen to be abstinent. (Well, you know, more or less.)

If you are dating them, and sex is important to you, consider that you might not be right for each other. If not having sex is something you can't live with, then you probably shouldn't date someone who is abstinent. Don't put them in a position of feeling like they have to have sex with you, and don't put yourself in a position where your needs aren't getting met in a relationship. Your significant other's abstinence is not an excuse for you to pressure them, nor is it an excuse to cheat. No need to make either of yourselves miserable. It's also important to know that wanting to have sex is not a bad thing-- even if it might be seen as such in someone else's belief system. That's what they live by-- not what you do.

You shouldn't probe them about their sexuality/choice to be abstinent. When discussing someone's sexual choices, it is really important to be aware of when you are asking in a way that is respectful of your relationship with them and their comfort level, and when you're just being a nosy piece of crap. Hey, it happens-- we grew up in a tabloid filled, twitter-fed world that taught us to expect information-- even when we absolutely don't have a right to it. Be mindful and respectful. Sure, people might decide to talk to you about how they came to their decision etc. but if they don't, it's not your job to "get it out of them."

You shouldn't tell someone it's stupid or unrealistic. Telling someone abstinence is unrealistic is like telling someone being an engineer is unrealistic. Sure, it might be for some people, but that doesn't mean it is unrealistic for everyone. By telling someone that their choice to be abstinent is any less valid than someone's choice to be sexually active, you're reinforcing the idea that they do not have a right to make decisions about their bodies and their sexual activities. You're making it seem more acceptable for them to be pressured into having sex they don't want. Don't be the kind of person who says, implicitly, other people can decide when you have sex-- that's rape culture, my friends. Don't be a part of that problem. 

Now you have had a basic primer in not being a butthead to people who have decided to stay abstinent. Maybe you are abstinent! Well then, I have some advice for you too, as a sex positive person who thinks that your experiences with sex, whenever they come, should be safe and on your terms.

Learn about consent. Consent is a "yes"! It's not the absence of a no. It's not an outfit. It's not a"yes" given under duress or coercion. It's not a ring. It's a "yes, I'm so totally down, let's do this!" Do not let anyone convince you otherwise. Sexual assault happens way more often than we'd like to think (yes, even marital rape) so it's important that you know that your "yes" matters, and if anyone makes you feel like it doesn't, you need to get out of that situation. Your "no" matters, too. You can revoke consent. You can say "yes" to some things like kissing and "no" to others. Once again, if anyone ever makes you feel like your decisions regarding your sexual activities don't matter, you are not safe around them

Learn about sex. Now I'm not saying you need to go read the Kuma Sutra and memorize it, but it is important to understand sexual health. Who wants to get to their wedding night and suddenly feel like they are in 8th grade health class again, being quizzed on how to put on a condom? Even if you're ready for sex (and in this case, that means you're married), you might not be ready for a baby yet-- and who can blame you, given that the average wedding in the US is $22,000, and the average American college grad today will come out with $30,000 in student loans and other debt? Babies are hard to raise when swimming in other heavy financial burdens! You should also be aware of what things are like when things are running smoothly, and how to know when they are not. It might be really embarrassing to have to ask people questions about something right when you need to know it-- and if it's embarrassing, you might not ask a really important question. Or worse, end up doing some hasty googling and believe you have a terrible medical condition and buy leeches to help solve the problem. Scarleteen is a really great resource on sexual health, gender, relationships, etc. that will give you the real facts, and not just propaganda. I have literally met people who think that women can't pee during their pregnancies because they will pee out the baby. Which sounds silly, but you'd be surprised what perfectly intelligent people will believe if they were told it at a young enough age and never dug into it anymore. These kinds of situations are why I think abstinence-only sex-ed is a really bad idea.

And lastly, respect other people's choices, just like you want them to respect yours. Especially if you grew up in an environment where your abstinence was a key part in your identity as a good person, you might really want to tell others that having sex is bad. Having sex is not bad in a lot of other belief systems, and you should respect that. You may have your own ideas about sex, but don't try to govern other people's lifestyles. There are many more important things in this world than sex-- integrity, honesty, loyalty, compassion, etc. Those are the things you should judge someone by-- not how many people they've slept with. :)

photo credit: galilas17 via photopin cc
photo credit: Mira (on the wall) via photopin cc

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  1. What influenced your thoughts/beliefs on abstinence? Parents? Friends? Books? Life experience? I'm very curious. I felt like your overall message was do what you want with your sexuality. 2nd question: how do you feel about having multiple sexual partners? (over the course of the time, not multiple at once). I get that you want people to make their own choices, but don't you think abstinence should be encouraged...at least a little? Sex is a serious thing and there are lots of consequences if people compared deciding to have sex to deciding to eat a hamburger. (you mentioned some of them: STDs, pregnancy, broken hearts). I do appreciate that overall you had an appreciation for abstinence and you weren't bringing down people who want to be abstinent.

  2. Very interesting post. I love your more serious ones like this. I personally can't see an advantage to abstinence and would never date someone who was. Then again, I don't ever necessarily plan on getting married. It's not something that's important to me at all, so I'm not going to limit myself and my life experiences based on some future possibility.

  3. I was pro abstinence back in middle and high school, but over the years my views have changed on it. I still think it's a really good option to take especially since it's the only sure fire way to avoid pregnancies and STDS. And I know a few people that are living this lifestyle today. With that being said, I agree that this is not the only type of sex ed that needs to be taught in school. Too many people are being misinformed about sex, pregnancy, STDs and their own bodies because the facts aren't being told in class. And they should also talk about consent too, since for some odd reason that's confusing to some people. Great article Harper!

  4. My answer to the first question is all of the above. I grew up a Christian Protestant, but my parents were actually never about waiting until marriage-- they always told me to wait until you found someone you loved whom you could trust with sex. But a lot of my beliefs on the matter aren't directly from my parents, of course.
    My general opinion is, do what you want, as long as you're safe, and everyone is on the same page. If you and your partner(s) are all okay with you having sex with multiple people, then why not? Personally, that's not a thing I would be comfortable with, but other people have different boundaries, and as long as everyone is getting tested, etc. I certainly can't find a reason to object.
    I think abstinence should be encouraged in that it is really the only way to ensure you are not at risk for STDs or pregnancy. Abstinence does not protect against broken hearts-- although sex certainly does complicate things. But I don't think it should be encouraged on a moralistic level or on any level outside of science-- at least not by schools. I also object to things like "purity" and linking that to being a "good" or "worthy" person, because people who survive sexual assault have that taken away from them, and I think it sets up a bad values system for them as they try to move past it-- but that's just how I feel about it.

  5. I know that outside religious traditions, some people decide to stay abstinent because they think that their sexual experiences will just be better with the kind of person they have made a life-long commitment to.

  6. I totally agree! As much as it might suck having to learn about all this awkward stuff in middle and high school, it's a lot worse to embarrassingly have to ask about it when you get married at 30!

  7. Womp, sorry, I misread part of your question! (namely, I missed the part about multiple partners not at the same time) Here's my answer to that:
    You can have meaningful sex and deep relationships with many people, even if they are not the person you're supposed to be with forever. Some relationships are good for years, and then you grow apart-- even marriages. That doesn't make the good parts of that relationship mean any less, or the sex involved "meaningless." I think you should work to have all your sexual experiences mean something (although others may not prefer that) but having meaningful sex is not exclusive to only having sex with one person ever.

  8. I hear what you're saying. I just disagree with everything, but I guess it comes down to personal choices and beliefs-- which you mentioned. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Abstinence can be a taboo subject, but I love hearing people's perspectives.

  9. Love this article! I love how you approached the topic of abstinence even though you are not abstinent yourself. So many people don't seem to know how to understand one's moral point of view if it isn't theirs, so I applaud you for that. I definitely am for abstinence, although, let's be real, it's such a difficult thing to maintain if that is your personal choice. I also believe that if you do have sex, at least make it with someone you love and trust. That's just my personal, opinion, however. I liked this entire post and the thought that went into it!

  10. What a great article, Harper! You're so articulate and eloquent. All of my roommates are abstinent Christians and one is actually engaged. While I'm not abstinent, it's a topic that's frequently discussed in my apartment, but always with curiosity, never with judgment. Coming from someone who's in a minority for NOT being abstinent, these same ideas can definitely be applied to how abstinent people can accept others' views. Thanks for sharing this!
    xoxo Chloe | Wanderlust in the Midwest

  11. Thanks for reading! Yeah, there's also a big difference between what I think is okay for other people, and what's right for me personally. I think everyone, abstinent or not, needs to remember that there's a difference between the two. Things that aren't right for you or me might be a good thing for someone else!

  12. I'm a big post-modernist so I make it a point to understand and accept other points of view as valid, and I think sometimes people cause each other a lot of heart ache trying to push square pegs into triangle holes, and saying there's something wrong with the square peg or the triangle hole when the only problem is that they don't fit!
    I feel the same way about being with a person you really love and trust, but I know for some people, their preferences are different. I knew one girl who dealt with a sexually traumatic past by having lots of fun, casual encounters, because the forces in her life that were telling her sex was a big deal and a "defining" thing in her life really hurt her. That's not something I'd be comfortable doing, but hey, as long as everyone is safe, minimizes risk, and is consenting, I don't really mind what other people do.
    Thanks for reading!

  13. lol I'm glad you can call me eloquent after I used the phrase "have your genitals gnawed off by a gorilla" That's so interesting to me that you're in a minority as someone who isn't abstinent, because I've always been in an environment where abstinent people were the minority. It's really good that you and your roommates have a relationship where things like that can be discussed without being rude or making people feel judged. I think a lot of people are either afraid to tell people they're abstinent because they don't want to deal with all the questions, or they feel like they need to impose or defend it very vehemently, and I think if everyone was a little more respectful and understanding, neither of those things would happen as much.

  14. Absolutely. My mom has always been a big Planned Parenthood/women's-health-rights advocate, so from an early age she's kept me educated about sexual health, which in turn has led me to be comfortable sharing with her. My roommates understand this--they always learned about abstinence, whereas I learned about sexual safety, both physically AND emotionally. It definitely is interesting being a minority, but it's also so nice to see such pure love. My one roommate just got engaged to her boyfriend of five years, and they don't even make out anymore, just kiss. Sure, sometimes the cuddliness and romanticism can be gross (in a mushy, romantic PDA way), but the way they look at each other...! Wow!