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Sexual Development

About Abstinence

Talking to your kids about sex can be daunting, no matter how close you are. But discussing issues like abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and birth control can help lower teens’ risk of an unintended pregnancy or contracting an STD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports sex education that includes information about both abstinence and birth control. Research has shown that this information doesn’t increase kids’ level of sexual activity, but actually promotes and increases the proper use of birth control methods among sexually active teens.

How and when you discuss sex and birth control is up to you. Providing the facts is vital, but it’s also wise to tell your kids where you stand. Remember, by approaching these issues like any other health topics, not as something dirty or embarrassing, you increase the odds that your kids will feel comfortable coming to you with any questions and problems. As awkward as it might feel, answer questions honestly. And if you don’t know the answers, it’s OK to say so, then find out and get back to your kids.

If you have questions about how to talk with your son or daughter about sex, consider consulting your doctor. Lots of parents find this tough to tackle, and a doctor may offer some helpful perspective.

What Is Abstinence?

Abstinence is not having sex. A person who decides to practice abstinence has chosen not to be sexually active.

How Does Abstinence Work?

Abstinence is the simplest form of birth control. If two people don’t have sex, then sperm can’t fertilize an egg and there’s no possibility of pregnancy. Other forms of birth control depend on barriers that prevent the sperm from reaching the egg (such as condoms or diaphragms) or they interfere with the menstrual cycle (as birth control pills do). With abstinence, no barriers or pills are necessary.

Does your son or daughter have to be a virgin to practice abstinence? No. Sometimes, someone who has been having sex decides to stop doing so. Even a person who has been having sex can still choose abstinence to prevent pregnancy and STDs in the future.

How Well Does Abstinence Work?

Abstinence is the only form of birth control that is 100% effective in preventing pregnancy. Although many other methods can have high rates of success if used properly, they can fail occasionally. The rate of success of other birth control methods varies depending on the type of birth control. Practicing abstinence, however, ensures that a girl will not become pregnant because there is no opportunity for sperm to fertilize an egg.

Protection Against STDs

Abstinence protects people against STDs. Some STDs can be spread through oral-genital sex, anal sex, or even intimate skin-to-skin contact without actual penetration (for example, genital warts and herpes can be spread this way).

Avoiding all types of intimate genital contact — called complete abstinence — is the only way to guarantee complete protection against STDs. Because someone practicing complete abstinence does not have any type of intimate sexual contact, including oral sex, there is no risk of passing on an STD.

Abstinence does not prevent HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C infections that come from nonsexual activities like using contaminated needles for doing drugs, tattooing, or injecting steroids.

Who Practices Abstinence?

Not having sex may seem easy because it’s not doing anything. But peer pressure and things teens see on TV and in the movies can make the decision to practice abstinence more difficult. If it seems like everybody else is having sex, some teens may feel they have to do it, too, just to be accepted. Help your kids understand that kidding or pressure from friends, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, or even the media shouldn’t push them into something that’s not right for them.

Choosing to practice abstinence is an important decision — and kids might not realize it, but most teens are not having sex.

Teens may have questions about making this choice or about other methods of birth control. Make sure yours has an adult he or she can trust — you, a teacher, a counselor, a doctor, or a school nurse — who can provide some answers.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013