What does abstinence really mean? This is a question many researchers have tried to answer. Some would argue that to be abstinent means to abstain from sex. Does this mean that a person who is abstinent doesn’t engage in any type of sex? Or does this mean he or she refrains from penile-vaginal intercourse but can engage in all other types of sexual behavior? The answer depends on the person. Some people who decide to become abstinent choose to refrain from all sexual behaviors, whereas others may engage in a variety of sexual behaviors but choose not to engage in penile-vaginal intercourse.
The majority of people believe that to be abstinent means to maintain virginity. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) encourages adolescents to delay sexual intercourse until they are physically, cognitively, and emotionally ready for mature sexual relationships and their consequences. Today, groups advocating abstaining from sex until marriage are cropping up across the country, with mottos like “Save Sex, Not Safe Sex” and “Trust Me, I’m a Virgin.” In Chapter 9, we will take a look at athletes, like A. C. Green, who support abstinence before marriage. Later in this chapter we will review sexuality education and abstinence-based programs.
Some heterosexual teens do, in fact, decide to delay sexual activity, or at least intercourse, until marriage. About 20% of people never have sex while in their teens (Darroch & Singh, 1999). Even those who have had intercourse may have long periods during which they don’t engage in sexual intercourse. When asked why they thought they should delay intercourse, teens cited the dangers of disease and of pregnancy most often, followed by what their parents would do and what their peers would think (Blinn – Pike, 1999). One study found that nearly half of nonvirgin students wished they had waited longer to initiate intercourse (deGaston et al., 1995). Adolescents with positive self-images are more likely to delay sexual experience than those with poor self-images (Carvajal et al., 1999).
Adolescents often think about many factors when making this important decision. Some decide they are not ready because they haven’t met the “right” person, while others delay intercourse because of fears of STIs or pregnancy. There are a few factors that have been found to be related to waiting to have sexual intercourse. Those who tend to wait live with both biological parents (Upchurch et al., 2001), feel a personal connection to their family (Meschke et al., 2000; Resnick et al., 1997), have discussed sex and abstinence with their parents (Sprecher & Regan, 1996), believe that their mother disapproves of premarital sex and have higher intelligence levels (C. J. Halpern et al., 2000a). Those who tend to engage in early sexual intercourse have sexually active friends and siblings, have no religious affiliation (Meschke et al., 2000; Davis & Lay-Yee,
1999) , grow up in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods (Baumer & South, 2001), live with only one parent (Meschke et al., 2000), have overcontrolling parents (Upchurch et al., 1999), and have experienced depression (Whitbeck et al., 1999). All of these factors were also identified as important in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Dailard, 2001a).
Girls who decide to remain virgins often feel more positive about this decision than do boys who make the same decision (Sprecher & Regan, 1996). Overall, boys feel more embarrassment and guilt about their virginity than do girls. This may be due to societal standards that support the idea that sex is an important part of masculinity. Differences in levels of adolescent sexual activity across developed countries are quite small.