views updated Jun 27 2018


Historically and culturally, sexual relationships rarely have been granted a place independent of the social, emotional, familial, generational, economic, and spiritual dimensions of human experience. That may be why the idea of premarital abstinence will continue to be a feature of philosophy and practice, even though many avenues of sexual involvement seem to be expanding in contemporary Western societies. Both sexual involvement and abstinence can be expressions of religious beliefs and traditions, the meanings of marriage and family relationships, contemporary cultural philosophies, and features of one's personal identity, commitments, and beliefs. These sources of sexual practices are intertwined, and produce norms and exceptions to any given culture's stance on what is acceptable in sexual expression. Specifically, sexual involvement can be seen by religions, cultures, families and individuals as inherently wrong, as a necessary evil, as an amoral inevitability fundamental to human nature, as an act that can be engaged in morally or immorally, or as a sacred act reserved for specific contexts or persons.

Sexual expression always has been a concern in religious traditions, and has included boundaries usually concerning marriage and family relationships. Although premarital sexual abstinence is frequently central to religious practices, permanent sexual abstinence within marriage is certainly not the norm across religions or cultures. Yet, some couples practice "marital celibacy" for a variety of reasons.

One rendition of early Christian doctrine suggests a fundamental incompatibility between sexual involvement and being "good." Not only was premarital abstinence expected to be the norm, but to marry and thus participate in conjugal relationships was to choose worldliness over godliness. Sexuality was seen as basic evidence of human kind's fallen nature, while abstinence or celibacy was seen as the ultimate sign of spirituality (Elliott 1993). Such a dichotomy creates an inescapable moral conflict between the meaning of sexual participation— marital or premarital—and abstinence. This may have prompted some couples, from the time of Christ to the sixteenth century, to practice various forms of "spiritual marriage," meaning to live in a marital, but nonsexual, relationship. But there is a difference between a culture advocating abstinence as the prelude to marriage, and installing the practice of abstinence in the marriage itself.

Some religious groups, such as the "Shaking Quakers" (Shakers) in the late 1700s, also extended sexual abstinence to the marital relationship. Not surprisingly, this doctrine undermines a fundamental feature of marriage, rarely questioned in history or in general practice. In fact, with this doctrine, the Shakers "abolished . . . the very heart of orthodox society: the traditional family" (Abbott 2000, p.152). Some feminist critics point out that abstinence in marriage, especially in earlier centuries, could serve to liberate the woman from the threat of disease, death, childbirth, and the sexual demands of the male in nonegalitarian cultures.

Not all Christian or religious groups view sexuality as irrevocable evidence of being fallen or depraved, and some philosophies grant sexuality a positive or even celebrated place in human experience. Some religious groups and cultures do formally declare abstinence to be appropriate until marriage, without invoking an antisexual moral doctrine. The Islamic world and Mormon doctrine, for example, do not see marital sexual involvement as a moral compromise, but as an essential or even higher good. In such philosophies, the purposes of premarital abstinence are not grounded in the idea of sexuality as inherently evil, but as a gift not to be used whimsically. In Islamic belief, celibacy in a marital context is forbidden (see Rizvi 1994). Non-Western and religious cultures are more likely to have normative beliefs in favor of premarital abstinence, while Western and secular cultures are more likely to have specific, even pragmatic reasons for promoting premarital abstinence.

Sometimes due to, or in spite of, specific cultural, personal, or religious philosophies, sexual expression does occur outside of marital boundaries, and in Western cultures, has steadily increased in frequency among both unmarried adults and adolescents. While the premarital rate of sexual participation has expanded, a philosophy of sexual exclusivity is still the norm for married couples. Moreover, sexual expression is still defined by its relationship to marriage. For example, Western culture describes participation outside of marriage not as "nonmarital," but as "premarital" sex. Rationales for such behavior seem to have moved from "sex with commitment" (as in the case of historic betrothal practices or contemporary boundaries defined by "being engaged") to "sex with affection," where mutual, voluntary attraction seems to be the fundamental justification for sexual participation.

In spite of data showing public disapproval of premarital sexual involvement among adolescents, there is debate regarding why the majority of teens (typically sexually abstinent until at least age seventeen) abstain. Reasons for premarital sexual abstinence in the West seem related to four factors: (1) personal beliefs about marriage, family, and sexuality; (2) practical concerns about physical consequences, such as the avoidance of STDS, AIDS, or pregnancy; (3) specific moral or religious considerations (usually defining the meaning and value of marriage and family across generations); and (4) the desire to preserve or not jeopardize opportunities for additional education, financial wellbeing, or the future capacity for establishing stable family lives (see Davidson and Moore 1996).

These factors are expressions of personal beliefs and cultural contexts, and generally are not evidence of an extensive antisexual philosophy. Rather, individuals can articulate a philosophy of sexual involvement that takes into account the time, place, and person—all contextual factors— with whom sexual involvement would be appropriate. Western media (television, movies, pop magazines) unfold stories, plots, and advice that, at the least, presents sexual abstinence among unmarried adults as atypical. Given the data on adolescent behavior, the media seems to ignore or discount a view of abstinence or celibacy subscribed to behaviorally by the young. Personal beliefs about sexual expression may be more conservative than media philosophies, but personal practices can be more liberal than personal beliefs—given the sexual participation rates of those who express a belief in abstinence before marriage, for example (Miller and Olson 1988). Moreover, beliefs and practices about sexual involvement in any culture are not necessarily congruent, and often include a double standard by gender. Nevertheless, in cultures worldwide, there seems to be a link between one's philosophy of sexual involvement (including the options of abstinence or celibacy), and one's philosophy of marriage and family relationships.

Most studies in the United States show that, generally, the majority of adolescents (junior high and high school age) were sexually abstinent until the 1970s. In this decade, some research samples obtained self-reports from the majority of adolescent males that they had been involved in sexual intercourse. By the 1980s, more research studies obtained reports of involvement by a majority of adolescent females, although few studies indicated the frequency of participation. Clearly, premarital sexual abstinence is less a norm than prior to the 1970s (Davidson and Moore 1996).

In assessing both broad cultural beliefs and an individual's commitments, sexual abstinence or engagement is grounded in more than mere physical satisfaction. Especially in egalitarian cultures, the meaning of sexual participation is grounded in the quality of the relationship itself, and takes on the meaning of that relationship. In exploitive relationships, sexual involvement becomes an expression of that exploitation. In relationships characterized by mutuality, equality, and commitment, sexual involvement becomes an expression of these characteristics. Similarly, in cultures where sexual abstinence is recommended before or even during marriage, it is often linked to issues of mutuality, equality, and commitment. As examples, consider that sexual abstinence can become a recommended (and usually temporary) course of action when relationships are not mutual, not equal, and not in a context of commitment. Voluntary sexual abstinence, however temporary, is also dictated within marital relationships for a variety of other reasons. In a 1987 survey (Pietropinto 1987), stress and work pressures were cited as the most common reasons, but illness, marital discord, and decreased personal interest were reasons also given.

A resurgence in calls for sexual abstinence prior to marriage has taken place in Africa, where the threat of AIDS threatens to decimate whole populations. In 2002, King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu tribe in South Africa used a major tribal gathering to appeal to young people, "male and female, to abstain from sex until they get married or until they decide to raise their families." He "called for a revival of the traditions and culture of the tribe, once the most powerful in Southern Africa. . . . The spread of HIV/AIDS and other associated problems, such as drug-taking and promiscuity, reinforced the need for traditional values and unity" (Unruh 2002). His words are similar to that of Janet Museveni, the first lady of Uganda, who has issued calls to the youth of her country.

This plea from Africa integrates traditional religious beliefs, a philosophy of marriage and family relationships, cultural practices, and pragmatic concern for the physical well-being of the population into a stance in support of abstinence. It is not the only view or even a prevailing one, but it illustrates an attempt to acknowledge abstinence as a historic and contemporary foundation for sexual relationships.

Similar arguments and calls to abstinence are a feature of dialogue in the West, and often also include assumptions or research about the impact of premarital sexual involvement on the stability of later marital relationships and the cohesiveness of a pluralistic society (Gallagher 1999). Non-Western cultures that mandate or prefer premarital abstinence or marital celibacy usually match Western cultures in that they do so for religious reasons, out of culture-wide norms and beliefs, or as prevention strategies for the preservation of a generation in the face of life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases.


Abbott, E. (2000). A History of Celibacy. New York: Scribner.

Davidson, J. K., Sr., and Moore, N. B. (1996). Marriage and Family: Change and Continuity. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Elliott, D. (1993). Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gallagher, M. (1999). The Age of Unwed Mothers: Is Teen Pregnancy the Problem? New York: Institute for American Values.

Miller, B. C., and Olson, T. D. (1988). "Sexual Attitudes and Behavior of High School Students in Relation to Background and Contextual Factors." The Journal of Sex Research 24:194–200.

Pietropinto, A. (1987). "Survey: Sexual Abstinence." Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality 21(7):115–118.

Rizvi, S. M. (1994). Marriage and Morals in Islam, 2nd edition. Scarborough, Ontario: Islamic Education and Information Centre.

other resources

Unruh, J. (2002). "Good News from Africa." Abstinence Clearinghouse web site. Available from http://www.abstinence.net.



views updated May 18 2018


Across times and cultures, individuals and groups of sexually mature people have been culturally defined and socially positioned as celibates on the basis of temporary or long-term abstinence from certain types of sex. This abstinence may vary in relation to volition (it can be elected or imposed) and temporality (it can be temporary or permanent), but it always is related to the sociocultural significance of the body and its sexuality (Sobo and Bell 2001).


Although people of any age or sexual orientation can be abstinent, in the United States and European culture "abstinence" typically refers to the specifically heterosexual activities of biologically mature persons. This is due partly to the relationship between sex and reproduction, which is embedded in a political economy of kinship.

Kinship systems often require absolute celibacy in certain categories of persons to preserve symbolic capital (e.g., honor and purity) that is essential for the status of the family as a whole. Requiring female virginity before marriage is an example. The relationship among the symbolic value of virginity, regulation of reproduction, and the flow of material resources explains why most societies that impose sexual abstinence on adolescent girls prescribe a dowry system. A girl is not only a potential wife but an heiress who is expected to attract a good mate. Abstinence prevents the girl from becoming pregnant with an inappropriate suitor who will be able to press claims on her, her child, her future children, and her dowry (Schlegel 2001).

Along these lines, prosperous families in medieval Europe gained if females retired to convents after being widowed. Allowing a widow to enter a convent and make a vow of abstinence entailed a "small immediate loss to her husband's lineage but a large gain in resources in the long run by preventing remarriage and the possibility of conflict of interest between her former husband's kin" (Hager 1992, p. 392).

Abstinence can benefit kin directly by allowing them to reproduce. In bio-evolutionary theory this is called "inclusive fitness." In humans, mechanisms of kin recognition can be manipulated to this end. Forms of institutionalized celibacy such as monasticism use this tactic by introducing metaphorical kin terms (e.g., brother) and using visual cues such as uniforms and hairstyles to encourage what evolutionary biologists call "false phenotypic matches," meaning they "look the same" or as if they were immediately related. This can motivate adherence to vows of abstinence (Qirko 2001).


Abstinence does not only benefit others. It assists individuals in achieving personal and culturally recommended goals and thus is a potent ingredient in identity construction. This is clear in contexts in which sexuality is associated with a discourse of purity and pollution, for example, in cases in which "each sex is a danger to the other through contact with sexual fluids" (Douglas 1966, p. 3). Avoiding such contact helps one maintain purity and thus reinforces one's social standing and sense of self.

Additionally, when people subscribe to a hydraulic model of sexual energy, in which forces not expressed in one way will be expressed in another, they may practice abstinence to save energy for other identity-related pursuits. For example, self-help literature that promotes the "biomoral" benefits of male celibacy (brahamcarya) in northern India, such as increased wisdom, stamina, and personal power, has a wide circulation (Alter 1997). Other examples connecting abstinence to identity formation include the Vatican's claim that permanent celibacy confers spiritual gifts that are important to the priestliness of the clergy.


Control of sexual energy commonly is regarded as an important technique for the generation and maintenance of socially beneficial shamanic or spiritual powers. As a result of her abstinence, a celibate spinster (celibe) in rural Mexico may ignore everyday female behavioral imperatives and occupy special ceremonial roles that provide "a link between the communal ritual of adult males and the familial ritual of adult females" (Arnold 1978, p. 53).

Interpretations of celibacy often involve speculation about its effect on the disposition of celibate persons or institutions. Celibacy often is construed as a source of charismatic authority. For example, Max Weber notes that "the permanent abstinence of charismatic priests and religious virtuosi derives primarily from the view that chastity, as a highly extraordinary type of behavior, is a symptom of charismatic qualities and a source of valuable ecstatic abilities" (Weber 1978, p. 603).

Weber describes two fundamental positions that promote celibacy as an instrument of salvation. The first is "mystical flight from the world" (p. 603). The other is asceticism, which represents sex as inimical to "rational, ascetic alertness, self control and the planning of life" (p. 604). The two perspectives often are combined, operating simultaneously to generate hostility towards sexual conduct and related social intermingling.


Abstinent individuals and groups often comment on the nature of social life and what it means to be human. For example, celibacy (and concomitant communal living) in Shaker communities indicated a complex critique of asymmetrical property relations and related gender inequalities in the surrounding context of emergent capitalism (Collins 2001).

Those who propagate the biomoral value of brahamcarya in northern India also engage in a critique of modernity. They believe that "postcolonial India is enslaved by its 'freedom' to develop and Westernize; enslaved not so much to sex itself—although certainly that—as to the idea that power is a function of potency, and virility the coefficient of modernization" (Alter 1994, p. 57). Modern brahamcarya represents an attempt to diffuse the celibate ideal throughout the body politic, whereas Shaker and other forms of celibacy in the United States in the nineteenth century were practiced more often by people who opted out of the body politic.


Celibacy always is enacted as part of a complex configuration of ongoing negotiations regarding socio-cultural values, in which stakes are claimed and positions recalculated as events unfold. Out of those negotiations come patterned gains and losses. The religious celibate forswears sex but gains sacred status and/or economic support while helping his or her community. The Balkan "sworn virgin" relinquishes her female gender to become a man, gaining access to resources for her family and access to traditionally male occupations with higher social status (Gremaux 1994). In these ways sexual abstinence can be managed and even manipulated as a channel for cultural creativity and innovation as well as self-advancement.

Those who are abstinent often attempt to remove themselves from the larger social world, alter that world in an active fashion, or critique it passively. Thus, abstinence entails much more than personal sexual inaction. It can improve or alter one's personal status and perpetuate or change one's society. It also can further one's own and one's family's social, material, symbolic, spiritual, and genetic fortunes.

see also Celibacy; Chastity; Virginity.


Alter, Joseph S. 1994. "Celibacy, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Gender into Nationalism in North India." Journal of Asian Studies 54(1): 45-66.

Alter, Joseph S. 1997. "Seminal Truth: A Modern Science of Male Celibacy in North India." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 11(3): 275-298.

Arnold, Marigene. 1978. "Celibes, Mothers and Church Cockroaches." In Women in Ritual and Symbolic Roles, ed. Judith Hoch Smith and Anita Spring. New York: Plenum.

Collins, Peter. 2001. "Virgins in the Spirit: The Celibacy of Shakers." In Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence, ed. Elisa J. Sobo and Sandra Bell. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gremaux, René. 1994. "Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans." In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt. New York: Zone Books.

Hager, Barbara. 1992. "Get Thee to a Nunnery: Female Religious Claustration in Medieval Europe." Ethnology and Sociobiology 13: 385-407.

Qirko, Hector N. 2001. "The Maintenance and Reinforcement of Celibacy in Institutional Settings." In Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence, ed. Elisa J. Sobo and Sandra Bell. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Schlegel, Alice. 2001. "The Chaste Adolescent." In Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence, ed. Elisa J. Sobo and Sandra Bell. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Sobo, Elisa J., and Sandra Bell, eds. 2001. Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Orig. pub. 1914.)

                                                  Elisa J. Sobo

                                                  Sandra Bell


views updated May 18 2018


Abstinence is a state of nonengagement in sexual relations, whether voluntary or involuntary. It applies to a situation prevailing for months or years, or to a recurring situation, as in periodic abstinence. Abstinence can serve to regulate sexual activity per se, or to regulate one of the outcomes of sexual activity: fertility and transmission of disease. Abstinence is typically a function of age, sex, marital status, fecundity status, and fecundability status. Sociocultural factors influence the prevalence of abstinence, either through these characteristics or by direct influence on sexual activity (e.g., observance of celibacy, virginity, cessation of childbearing at grand-motherhood).

Abstinence prevails before sexual maturity. Where sexual maturity precedes regular exposure to intercourse, abstinence depends on customs regulating age at marriage and tolerance of sexual intercourse before marriage. Abstinence before and outside marriage is often related to gender. Women abstain more than men, most often to reduce the risk of pregnancy outside marriage, which is not tolerated in many societies.

In marriage, voluntary abstinence by women tends to occur during menstruation and pregnancy, and after delivery. Otherwise abstinence occurs principally among women for contraceptive reasons, taking three forms: periodic abstinence methodically timed to coincide with ovulation; postpartum abstinence to delay a subsequent pregnancy; and terminal abstinence to cease childbearing. Involuntary abstinence occurs also among women, influenced by their marital status (single, divorced, widowed) and duration of marriage (frequency of sexual relations declines with marriage duration).

Historically, abstinence was practiced in order to confine fertility to marital unions and to regulate marital fertility, often in conjunction with other traditional methods of fertility regulation such as withdrawal (coitus interruptus), abortion, or even infanticide. It occurs less for these purposes today, except in Africa. In the 1980s and 1990s, abstinence was recommended, particularly to young persons, as a means of reducing HIV/AIDS transmission, but the extent to which this advocacy has altered behavior is not clear.

Historically, long durations of postpartum abstinence were practiced in Africa. Regardless of reported reasons, abstinence improved survival chances of newborns by protecting breastfeeding from curtailment by a subsequent pregnancy. Long durations of abstinence are still found in West Africa; they have shortened substantially in East Africa, and are intermediate in length in Central and Southern Africa.

Postpartum abstinence makes a contribution to nonsusceptibility to the risk of pregnancy and thus lowers fertility, complementing the effect of lactational amenorrhea (suppression of menstruation). In 22 comparative country surveys in sub-Saharan Africa around 2000, abstinence duration exceeded lactational amenorrhea in only six cases. However, the nonsusceptible period was lengthened by abstinence in all cases, because many women who abstain are not protected by amenorrhea (the reverse also holds). In the surveys, amenorrhea ranged from 8 to 19 months, postpartum abstinence from 2 to 22 months. On average in the 22 countries, an abstinence duration of eight months extended amenorrhea by four months.

Four of ten women reporting current abstinence in African surveys are not practicing abstinence to prevent a subsequent pregnancy: An unknown proportion of this nonspecific abstinence may be involuntary. Similarly, in six national surveys in Europe, among all women 20 years and older, from one in four to three in four women who practice abstinence do so for nonspecific reasons that may be largely involuntary.

See also: Birth Control, History of; Fertility, Proximate Determinants of.


Bongaarts, John, Odile Frank, and Ron Lesthaeghe. 1984. "The Proximate Determinants of Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa." Population and Development Review 10: 511–537.

Demographic and Health Surveys. 2000. Country Reports. Calverton: Opinion Research Corporation Company (ORC Macro).

Fertility and Family Surveys in Countries of the ECE Region. 2000. Standard Country Reports (Economic Studies No. 10). New York and Geneva: United Nations.

Odile Frank


views updated May 21 2018


Abstinence is the act of refraining from engaging in a positively reinforced, or pleasurable, behavior. It is typically a voluntary act, but it can also be imposed, and it typically occurs when an individual experiences a sense of decreased personal control over a behavior (e.g., consumption of alcohol). Not engaging in the problematic behavior connotes increased self-controland the hope of improved social interactions and personal health as a consequence. For example, decreased heart disease and lung cancer prevalence has occurred in the United States as a result of more smokers quitting and then maintaining abstinence from tobacco. Similarly, abstinence from alcohol reduces the risk of developing cirrhosis of the liver.

Scott J. Leischow

(see also: Addiction and Habituation; Alcohol Use and Abuse; Behavior, Health-Related; Contraception; Counseling; Drug Abuse Resistance Education [DARE]; Predisposing Factors; Smoking Cessation; Substance Abuse, Definition of )


views updated May 23 2018

ab·sti·nence / ˈabstənəns/ • n. the fact or practice of restraining oneself from indulging in something, typically alcohol.DERIVATIVES: ab·sti·nent adj.ab·sti·nent·ly adv.


views updated May 11 2018

Abstinence. The practice of not eating certain foods: see also ASCETICISM; CELIBACY. As a Christian technical term it is distinguished from fasting (eating little or nothing).


views updated May 23 2018

abstinence XIII. — (O)F. abstinence — L. abstinentia, f. abstinēre ABSTAIN; see -ENCE.