Q&A: Is It Too Late For Abstinence?

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QUESTION: If I’ve already had sex can I still be abstinent or is it too late?

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Under the Table

Photo: Missa Coffman

Abstinence may have different meanings for different people

Just as people have different definitions of what it means to “have sex” – in other words, whether “sex” is defined as oral, vaginal or anal sex, there are also varied definitions of abstinence. That said, a common understanding of abstinence suggests that one can absolutely be abstinent even if they have had sex in the past.

How is this so? Well, technically the word “abstinence” comes from the word “abstain” which means to refrain or hold oneself back from something.

Different Definitions For Different People

Sometimes people say that they plan to abstain from sex until they fall in love, become engaged or get married – or that they want to abstain from sex for other reasons, such as until they graduate high school or meet the right person.

People who are making conscious choices to abstain from sex may have had oral, vaginal or anal sex in the past, or they may not have had any of these types of sex.

If you have already had sex, you can still choose to abstain from whatever types of sex you want to abstain from and for however long you wish to abstain from them. It is never too late to choose to refrain from sexual activities that you don’t feel comfortable, ready or interested in being involved in. You can still date or have meaningful romantic relationships if you would like to, and you can still engage in the types of physical intimacy that feel right to you.

Keep in mind, though, that sexually transmissible infections (or STIs) can be passed through oral sex, vaginal sex and anal sex whether or not you consider these types of sex to be “sex”.

Communicate Your Choices

Also, if you worry that someone will try to pressure you into having sex, talk to a parent, friend or trusted adult for ideas about how you can best communicate your choices to someone you’re hanging out with or dating. Some people find that talking to others about their choice to be abstinence early in a relationship is helpful so that the person they are interested in knows what they should or shouldn’t expect from them in terms of sex.

Recommended Reading

To learn more about abstinence, virginity and sexual choices, check out S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna.

Dr. Debby Herbenick (M.P.H., Ph.D.)

is a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and author of several books including Sex Made Easy and Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
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