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The Skinny on Abstinence

May 31, 2009

I am a big fan of abstinence.  In fact, I am practicing it at the moment, and it’s working out excellently for me.  And I will happily advocate abstinence, especially to individuals under the age of sixteen.

But I am sick to death of pro-abstinence educational groups and the way they promote it on their websites.  They tout abstinence as “the only 100%-effective protection”, and further rave about its amazing abilities like it’s some kind of miracle drug, concluding that its effectiveness can only be flouted by peer/media pressure.

So I thought I’d take a few minutes and explain exactly what is wrong with many of their claims.

Myth #1: Abstinence is a form of protection.

Abstinence is a form of protection like bald is a hair color, atheism is a religion, and not getting in a car is a safe driving practice.

In other words, abstinence is not a form of sexual protection.  It is a form of sexual behavior, just like oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation.  (Though unlike the first two, masturbation can be used in conjunction with abstinence.)

Myth #2: Abstinence is 100% effective.

Against conception, yes.  But again, so are oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation (all of which are more entertaining than abstinence).  And abstinence is certainly not 100% effective against STIs.  Many diseases that can be contracted through intercourse can be contracted through other means – such as AIDS, which can be obtained through the use of a contaminated needle.

Also, no protection method or sexual practice can protect you from oral herpes.

Myth #3: The greatest causes of abstinence failure are peer pressure (your friends are doing it/everyone is doing it), partner pressure (you don’t want it, but your partner does) and media pressure (the guys on TV are doing it).

It is true that teenagers are impressionable people, and they are eager to please their peers.  It is likewise true that, due to this impressionability and enthusiasm, they are more likely to imitate their peers or do things that they think will garner them respect – sex included.

But this method of thinking – that abstinence only fails because someone or something was pressuring you to have sex – is inherently flawed.  Firstly, it insinuates that sex is just another “teenage problem”, like drugs or alcohol – and that it can only happen if your willpower to abstain fails.  Secondly, it fails to acknowledge that most normal teenagers have very strong sexual desires of their own, and do not require any pressure from anyone to decide to have sex.

Myth #4: Sex = bad, abstinence = good.

This last claim has, fortunately, been relegated to the back burner, even on most pro-abstinence sites.  However, the idea is still prevelant that sex is bad or abnormal, and that abstinence is the best or “default” position.

Let’s take this from the top.

Name four things that nearly all animal species need to survive.  Food, water, air… and sex.  Without sex to create new individuals, a species will die out.  Humans are no exception to this.

But sex’s benefits don’t end with the production of offspring.  Since sex is necessary for survival, it also happens to be intensely enjoyable for many species.  It triggers the releases feel-good hormones, lowering stress and causing general happiness.  Assuming that the act of having sex is not inducing more stress than is relieved by these hormones, sex can improve an individual’s general well-being – and, being an inherently intimate act, can help to forge close bonds between two individuals.

Humans are not the only species to take advantage of this fact.  Other animals, including apes and dolphins, have disexclusivized sex from its original reproductive capacity and now use it for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes for dominance, sometimes to promote good social interaction, and sometimes just for a bit of fun.

Yes, sex can be dangerous.  Unwanted pregnancy can lead to taxation of the mother’s resources and contribute to overpopulation.  STIs can also be contracted (they, like humans, require sex to survive – though for a different reason).

Like a long walk on the beach or an evening cuddling in front of  a movie, sex is good for people.  And, like the examples above, it is something special – something that most people would rather save for someone they care about.  And it is also dangerous.  Like driving or exercise, one should learn how to do it in well-informed and responsible manner before taking it up.  But I see no reason why an individual, taking conscientious steps to protect both themselves and their partner, should not partake in sex.

But only if they want to.

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