Contraception Behavioral Methods Sexual Abstinence

Sexual abstinence is the act of willingly refraining from sexual activity. However, people may interpret sexual abstinence differently. For some, abstinence means not engaging in sexual activity–even masturbation–at all. Others take it to mean not engaging with any sexual activity with a partner, while still others define abstinence as any sexual activity without vaginal penetration.

Abstaining from all sexual activity with a partner of the opposite sex (including “outercourse”) is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

About Periodic Abstinence

Some people choose to practice periodic abstinence, or using abstinence only when there is a good chance the woman is fertile, near the time she is ovulating.

It can be a moderately effective way of preventing pregnancy if used consistently as part of a natural family planning (NFP) or fertility awareness method (FAM). However, periodic sexual abstinence won’t prevent sexually transmitted diseases. To learn about periodic sexual abstinence, consult a health care provider or a trained counselor.

The Benefits of Abstinence

Continuous sexual abstinence is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It costs no money, can be used by anyone, and has no side effects. You can begin using sexual abstinence at any time, even if you’ve had sexual intercourse or engaged in sexual activities in the past. If you should decide to become pregnant, you can stop using abstinence at any time you and your partner choose to.

Because of these benefits, abstinence is often taught in schools. If these courses encourage abstinence only and no other forms of contraception, they’re called “abstinence programs” or “abstinence-only education.” Opponents of these programs argue abstinence-only programs are unrealistic and prevent teenagers from accessing the information they need about healthy sexual practices and contraception.

The Risks and Drawbacks of Abstinence

There is no health risk associated with continuous sexual abstinence. It is the safest form of contraception. However, some couples find it very difficult to refrain from all sexual activities and may not consider a backup contraception plan if they’re attempting abstinence.

If you’re considering abstinence as a birth control method, you may want to get some abstinence education from your doctor, and obtain emergency contraception or other contraceptive methods should you decide to have unplanned sex.

Is Abstinence Only Right for Me?

Those who are uncomfortable with any sort of pregnancy or STD risk should use consider continuous abstinence programs. These may be a good choice for teenagers who aren’t sure they’re ready to be sexually active, or for anyone who isn’t able or willing to handle to responsibilities of an unintended pregnancy if another method of contraception should fail. Sexual abstinence also may be the right choice for you for religious reasons.

You should consider other forms of contraception if you find it difficult to maintain abstinence programs. Use of alcohol and drugs may affect your decision-making, so if you think you might be in a situation where you’ll consider engaging in sexual activities under the influence of alcohol or drugs, consider being prepared with a back-up method of contraception.


Epigee staff. (2009). Sexual abstinence. Retrieved February 8, 2010, from the Epigee Web site:

Planned Parenthood Staff. (2009). Birth control: Abstinence. Retrieved February 8, 2010, from the Planned Parenthood Web site: