Abstinence means refraining from intercourse. It could also be interpreted as including other sexual behaviours that put people at any level of risk of sexually transmitted infection (STI) or pregnancy, including oral sex, anal sex and non-penetrative sex. An even stricter level of abstinence, called Celibacy, urges masturbation to be left off the menu too.

Few people will argue with the statement that abstinence is the safest sexual practice around. It completely guarantees zero pregnancy and STI risk (biblical examples withstanding). But, can anyone guarantee abstinence? Human nature would suggest not! 

“Just say NO” Nancy Reagan

Abstinence has recently become something of a political issue when the Republican Administration in the United States decided to increase the yearly spending on abstinence-only programmes in schools. Such purist programmes generally have a religious agenda, which promotes ideals, such as discouraging pre-marital sex, above pragmatic notions, like the reality that sex is here! Not facing it isn’t going to make it go away.

The sticky part of all this is that money and school hours given to abstinence teaching, are resources taken away from sex education programmes. Studies on the success of such initiatives show that they often use scare tactics, with misleading information such as:

  • Under-estimating the effectiveness of condoms and other contraceptives
  • Making false claims about the risks of abortion
  • Giving incorrect information on the incidence and transmission of STIs
  • Confusing medical information with religious and moral dogma

Think of what could be done with over $1 billion that was spent in the US alone in the last decade on abstinence-only programmes, when no evidence has shown that this choice of strategy is successful in reducing unwanted pregnancy and infections in teens? Experience from Europe shows that better outcomes are possible when the facts are given and the consequences of sex are discussed and not ignored.

In Ireland, the Catholic Church had traditionally been responsible for sex education. It was not until the early 1990`s that researchers even dared ask people about their sexual behaviour. In a 1992 survey, 70% of single men and 55% of single women admitted that they were sexually active (The Durex Report Ireland, 1993). I think it would be safe to say that abstinence education had failed. Within a few years Ireland initiated a national programme called Relationships and Sexuality Education.

The success of the various programmes depends on what you are hoping to gain. Avoiding unwanted pregnancies and unplanned births is one measure, but so is having a healthy attitude to sex and being able to negotiate your conditions and choices. Michel Foucault said that the silencing of sex does not make it go away; it just brings more attention and makes it more complicated.

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