Postponing Sex: Is it Right for You?

Do you think about sex -- in any way or form -- at least once a day? If you said no, you're probably kidding yourself. Sex is everywhere in our culture, and if you're not getting any, you can start to feel like you're missing out.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, two-thirds of all high school students are sexually active (non-virgins) by senior year. If you're part of the remaining third, you might use that figure as an excuse to jump into bed with any warm body (like the gang in American Pie who vowed to "lose it" by prom night).

It's human nature to want to be in a loving relationship, but having sex will not satisfy our hunger for deep intimacy. True intimacy arises from verbal and emotional communion. It's built on a commitment to honesty, love, and communication. That's a tall order, and it helps explain why it can make sense for some people to put off becoming sexually active.

Why Wait? If you practice abstinence (abstaining from sex) until marriage or until you attain other emotional, financial, or educational goals, the risks associated with premarital sex that can be minimized include:

  • Pregnancy: this is a biggie. According to the CDC, about one million teenagers become pregnant each year (the vast majority of them by accident). One-third of these pregnancies end in abortion.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV.

  • Emotional trauma, such as depression, anxiety, fear of commitment, and insecurity.

What Is Abstinence? According to Paul Okami, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles, there is no hard and fast definition of abstinence.

"In general, people take abstinence to mean not engaging in orgasmic or preorgasmic types of sexual activities," says Okami. "It depends on whether you're looking at abstinence from a religious or a family-planning point of view. In certain religions, for example, if you masturbate, you're not practicing abstinence."

Abstinence is an individual choice made for individual reasons. According to Tina Antilla, marketing director at the A.C. Green Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Phoenix, AZ, choosing abstinence is a lifestyle choice. Every day brings challenges that test one's commitment to "staying pure" until marriage.

If waiting for marriage is your primary reason for being abstinent, that's fine. But there are other, non-faith-based reasons for choosing abstinence. They include the desire to focus one's energy on education, career, or extracurricular activities. Many goal-oriented teens and young adults put off having a sex life for personal rather than religious reasons. Think it's hard to become a nationally ranked tennis player or first violinist in a school orchestra? Those goals are hard to achieve even without the added pressure of thinking about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and the emotional demands of a sexual relationship.

According to Okami, most people choose abstinence for moral and psychological reasons, rather than practical ones. "You've got people who are unmarried and have a moral prohibition against nonmarital intercourse. Frequently that comes from religion, but not always," he notes. "You have others who possibly have had experiences that were unfortunate or unpleasant with sexuality so they're just giving themselves a period of abstaining from sex in order to sort out those issues," Okami adds.

These "born-again virgins," as they sometimes call themselves, cite the following benefits of practicing abstinence prior to marriage:

  • Creates more self-respect and more respect for one's partner
  • Fosters trust in the partner's ability to control him- or herself with other people
  • Gives partners a chance to develop a deeper relationship
  • Minimizes concern about pregnancies, birth control, STDs, and emotional betrayal

For Katie Schulz, a 19-year-old student at Glendale Community College in Glendale, CA, there's more to sex than just the physical act. "When I was in high school, I saw all of my friends dealing with the effects of sex -- everything from babies to broken hearts and of the feeling that many guys were just out for having sex," she explains.

"I saw all of the problems that sex brought and decided that it was not for me," Schulz says. How does she manage to practice abstinence in an environment where it is not the norm?

"Setting boundaries takes care of the temptation," she explains.

It takes courage, strength, and determination to choose an abstinent lifestyle, particularly if you're in an environment when it seems like everyone else is getting off twice a day. Even if you decide that abstinence is not for you, it's smart to evaluate your reasons for having sex from time to time, if only to reinforce that your choice is the right one for you at this time. After all, only you can take charge of your body.