Abstinence and Delay

As a young person of faith you are likely to have heard the word abstinence. It simply means self denial of something (not just sex). Many faiths teach that followers should abstain from sex until marriage and then remain faithful within marriage.


With all the media and peer pressure that young people of today are placed under to conform to society norms, they can often feel encouraged to be sexually active at an early age.  Apart from the obvious risks of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections there is the emotional side of any relationship to consider.

There seems to be two groups of people who have two very conflicting views on sexual abstinence (not having sex). Some think that it is wrong to even talk about abstinence, thinking it is an unreal aspiration. They take a body of research that suggests that ‘abstinence only’ education can leave young people that do become sexually active at risk because they are ill prepared. Religious groups often say that religion teaches that you should only have sex within marriage, therefore there is no need to teach anything but abstinence. Maybe both need to have a look at how narrow their view is and realise that if young people are to make intelligent, as well as informed choices, they need all the information including, but not exclusively, the advantages of abstinence.

‘Abstinence only’ education in the states has been shown to put young people at higher risk of STIs and unplanned pregnancy when they do become sexually active. This is the primary reason President Obama removed state funding for such education programs. However abstinence as part of truly comprehensive SRE, also has its advantages; Bearman (2001), who made a study of some of the work done with abstinence pledges, showed that these pledges can mean that young people are likely to start having sex at an older age.

Other protective factors against early teen sex were:

  • Teens living in two-parent homes are less likely to have sex earlier than teens living in single-parent or step-parent homes.

  • Perceived parental disapproval of sex has a strong delaying factor throughout adolescence.

  • Teens who are more religious are more likely to delay sex.

  • The combination of academic achievement and sports participation (for girls only) have the strongest delay effect in early and middle adolescence.

  • In late adolescence, girls with high self-esteem are less likely to engage in premarital sex than girls with low self-esteem.

  • The more religious the teen and their family, the less likely they were to start having sex early.

So it would seem that being a young person from a faith background could help you to resist the pressures from society, the media and friends to become sexually active before you want to.

The London Borough of Newham may show an example of this theory in practice, as there are huge variants in the rates of teen pregnancy. In areas where there are fewer obviously religious people the teenage pregnancy rates are high e.g. Canning Town and Royal Docks . However in areas where the religious affiliations of people are widespread and clear, the teen pregnancy rates are much lower, e.g. Green Street and parts of East Ham.

Abstinence is the most effective way to protect against STIs or unplanned pregnancy.

To choose not to have sex until you are married and then to stay mutually faithful within the marriage is not only a spiritual choice, it is also a healthy choice. Expect support from your faith community, SRE providers and any health services that you may come into contact with.

Beware of a few things though:

>Some couples don’t intend to have sex but do because they get carried away. If you think you are likely to have sex, be sensible enough to plan it. Talk about it, plan what contraceptive you are going to use and practise safer sex, by using a condom.

>Occasionally young people think that as long as they don’t have vaginal sex it is ok and so may experiment with oral and anal sex. These can easily pass on STIs and occasionally girls have become pregnant because semen can be transferred into the vagina with fingers. There are also added health risks with having anal sex, including easier transmission of STIs, also associated with haemorrhoids, anal prolapse, leakage, ano-rectal pain, ulcers and fissures.[i]

What is delay all about?

Abstinence and delay are similar although people that delay may not abstain until they are married (which is what most people take abstinence to mean). Lots of young people feel under pressure to have sex, either from a partner, peer group or media rather than actually choosing to do it for themselves. Research has shown us that many young people regret and don’t always enjoy their early sexual experiences.


Delaying sex is not abstinence but rather waiting until you are genuinely ready for a sexual relationship, having the power and the skills to say “No” until it is absolutely the right time for you.  Having a good opinion of yourself and actually liking and loving yourself is really important. The better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to make good, healthy, informed choices.  Remember,  “It’s OK to say NO” and that saying no to sex is not saying no to the person but rather it is saying “I’m not ready yet”.

As humans we all have emotional needs. Delaying sex means finding another way to meet those needs through mutually supportive friendships and exploring intimacy and sensuality in a non-sexual way (see 101 Ways to say I love you). 

Sex is not just a physical thing but has overwhelming emotions attached to it.   Being ready, means being both physically and emotionally ready to enter into a sexual relationship (see Are you ready?) having thought about contraception and unplanned pregnancy.

Click here  to read Carries story for a real life example of waiting for the right time or click here for 101 ways to say I love you without having sex.

[i] Primary Care in Obstetrics and Gynaecology: A Handbook for clinicians By Joseph S. Sanfilippo, Roger P. Smith; p408