In Defense of Abstinence (As opposed to abstinence-only education)

Elizabeth Smart’s criticism of abstinence-only sex education has set off a firestorm of commentary about purity culture, and how Catholics in particular should think about sex-ed.

Calah Alexander has written an impassioned plea to do away with metaphors that imply someone is used up once they’ve had sex:

“If you had sex before marriage, it was like someone took a huge drink of your water, swished it around in their mouths, and then spat it back into the glass. The more sex you had, the dirtier your glass of water got. “So think of that before you have premarital sex,” we were admonished. “Think of the gift you’re going to give your husband on your wedding night. Do you want to give him a pure, untouched glass of delicious water, or a dirty cup of everyone else’s backwash?””

Alexander raises the point that this IS Abstinence-only education as it is currently practiced. And I couldn’t agree more that such metaphors are problematic.

When else do we suggest to our kids that they should think of themselves as objects but when we’re talking about sex? It’s very confusing imagery, especially when the ultimate message we are trying to convey is that no one should use others as an object, nor should they allow themselves to be used. The very core of Christian teaching is that every person has dignity by virtue of his or her humanity, so that no one can be used up or beyond the reach of grace.

It can be very tempting to suggest to our kids that their lives will be ruined by unfortunate sexual decisions, because there really are dangers to a promiscuous life, and we want to protect them from disease, bad love, and teen pregnancy, etc.

But suggesting that they will lose their ability to stick to their spouse like a post-it note if they’ve already adhered to too many other people, for instance, sends the subliminal message that redemption is not possible after a point.

Anecdotally, not only do such metaphors extinguish hope, they also just don’t stand up to scrutiny in our current culture. I know formerly promiscuous people who have gone on to have happy marriages, and virgins who have married poorly.

As Catholics, we believe that premarital sex is a sin. The antidote is repentance and grace. The effects of sin are often not felt until purgatory. Many sinners are not unhappy with their lives, I’ve observed, and maybe that’s what troubles parents most–the idea that the children we’ve raised with hopes of passing on the faith will reject Christianity and live comfortably without God in a state of sin.

But scaring them out of sin is not an option, especially since the ironic turn of such efforts is often our children’s flight from the religion in which they believe there is no longer hope of reconciliation.

Neither can we throw out the concept of abstinence.

There can be no authentic Christian life without abstinence of various stripes. Abstinence has always been valued in the Church, whether we are abstaining from meat on Fridays, or from sexual relationships that are illicit due to our married status, or from sex within marriage, for a time, for the health and well-being of the family.

Abstinence is not just “The absence of something” as I’ve seen it termed lately. It cannot be reduced simply to “not doing.” It’s the practice of self-mastery over one’s physical urges, the abnegation of the body for the good of the soul.

Regarding the fourth precept of the Catholic Church, “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” the Catechism says:

“The fourth precept ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.”

Abstinence also protects the freedom of others. There are actions from which I ask all of my children to abstain for the good of our communal life. I tell the boys to please abstain from walking around with their hands in their shorts–for the good of the Kingdom, and everyone who must share a room with them. Abstain from hitting others even though that is a natural response in some circumstances. Abstain from acting on the sexual instinct until you leave this family and cleave to your espoused.

It takes practice to build good habits and at home is the proper place for such habits to be defined and honed. In the home we can also help develop in our children the maturity of repentance. We teach them tenacity in so many things, picking themselves up after they fall on the playground, continuing with sports after a loss. Developing self-mastery over sexual urges also requires tenacity, and the maturity and humility to return to the Sacraments again and again over the course of a lifetime.

And of course, one cannot talk about abstinence independently of the virtue of chastity. As New Advent defines Chastity:

“Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, which controls according to right reason the desire for and use of those things which afford the greatest sensual pleasures. The sources of such delectation are food and drink, by means of which the life of the individual is conserved, and the union of the sexes, by means of which the permanence of the species is secured. Chastity, therefore, is allied to abstinence and sobriety; for, as by these latter the pleasures of the nutritive functions are rightly regulated, so by chastity the procreative appetite is duly restricted.”

A life of chastity includes some abstinence. One cannot get around it.  And we need to move our children towards an understanding of this virtue of chastity. But for kids, especially young ones, it’s often easier to understand why not to do something than it is to comprehend the virtues one might obtain through a variety of life choices that include some do’s and some dont’s.

While it’s fun to think about all the wonderful philosophical concepts that informed JPII’s Theology of the Body and how we might impart this positive message to our kids, the very first instructions God gave to humanity was a list of “thou shalt not’s” because most of us, and especially our kids, don’t have advanced degrees in theology and philosophy, and yet we still need easily identifiable boundaries. A parent has a right and responsibility to tell his children no.

The important thing is that we define these boundaries in a loving way and make clear the way home when the boundaries have been crossed.




A couple of caveats:

1.) Several of my kids have been through sex-ed programs both at Church and at public school. The church program was aimed more at detecting sexual predators and protecting what they termed the “circle of grace” that surrounds the individual. The school program was more of a health class that discussed changes during puberty and the reproductive system. I’ve found it to be very helpful to a) preview these programs and b) have discussions with my children to clear up ideas that do not cohere with our Catholic faith. These have been some of the most precious and useful conversations I’ve had with my kids to prepare them for a world that does things a little differently than we do. Of course I think that the role of sex educator belongs properly to the parents, and both of these programs (from which we could have opted out) have been one more step in a long and ongoing education.

I don’t have a prescription for what public schools should be teaching regarding sex ed.



2.) I have not seen any statistical evidence that the practice of abstinence before marriage makes enjoying sex after more difficult, though I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence for such an argument, often (though not always) by people who have an axe to grind with purity culture or abstinence-only education. I’ve also heard a lot of anecdotal (though not statistical) evidence from people who were promiscuous and have their own corresponding sexual baggage in marriage. Since we’ve already established that the stupid metaphors should go, and that purity culture as it exists in some religious circles is sort of creepy, but that abstinence is a sometimes good in Christian life, I think we also need to accept that difficulties with sex in married life are often due to a complex and nuanced stew of factors.

Rough patches in the married sex life happen to almost every couple for a period of time. This should not be a cause for panic. Marriage should last a long time, and it, too, is an apprenticeship during which both spouses learn the skills that make sex enjoyable for both spouses. But having good sex is not the primary end of marriage, nor is having a less than stellar sex life for a time an irredeemable feature of a relationship.



3.) See also Sam Rocha’s interesting take on this conversation:  Sex Miseducation: Abstinence Doesn’t Make Sense. While I agree with this statement:

“Teen pregnancy can have a whole range of serious and devastating negative consequences, but it does not follow to say that it MUST have those results. In Mary’s case the result was the Incarnation. Perhaps the real issue is not about prevention: maybe it is about putting into place viable exits and alternatives and ways to imagine life outside the hegemony of schooling, psychology, and economics.”


I don’t agree with this one:

“Teaching fertile females and virile males to abstain from having sex is crazy. It is almost as crazy as instructing trees to abstain from growing leaves in the spring”


4.) Darwin Catholic weighs in on the problem of teaching abstinence without morality in public schools:

“Since abstinence programs aren’t allowed to say that sex outside of marriage is wrong, they instead try to come up with way to say that it’s icky — which most people will go and mentally convert to “wrong”.

So while all these suggestions about how the topic should be addressed are great, none of them would pass muster for what’s taught in public schools. They can’t talk about the moral meaning of sex. They can’t talk about how the end of sex is procreation and the proper context for it is marriage. Theology of the Body is verboten.”

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  • Petro

    The quote that you cite from the Catechism is the only time the word abstinence is used in the entire work.

    Abstinence is not valued as a way of life, but as a singular act of prescribed denial. Chastity is the vocation to which we are called as a way of life. Chastity is about proper use rather than outright avoidance. Chastity involves correct choices while abstinence implies total denial. Rocha, as quoted, is right that seeking to deny sexuality is illogical. We must instead seek to teach how to use sexual energies for their intended creative and life-giving purposes. Teaching of denial has failed.

    I understand that you cognitively approve of this idea, but feel that kids and adults without theological degrees are unable to comprehend this. This is a mistake. The first instructions to humanity were not “thou shalt nots” they were:

    “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth. God also said: See, I give you every seed-bearing plant on all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the wild animals, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the earth, I give all the green plants for food.” (Genesis 1:28–30)

    After this, God sets up some boundaries. He says:

    “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.”

    We know what happened after that. It is our nature to break boundaries, to assert our perceived independence from God. This is what Genesis shows us. When parents set boundaries for sexual energies, the most God-like energies in man, instead of explaining proper use and providing suitable outlets for being creative and life-giving which do not involve casual sexual relationships, then the children have a good chance of becoming Adam and Eve amid the the many serpents in our contemporary garden.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      “Abstinence is not valued as a way of life, but as a singular act of prescribed denial. Chastity is the vocation to which we are called as a way of life.”

      –I don’t think anyone is arguing for abstinence as a way of life. We agree that chastity is the vocation to which we are all called, but abstinence goes hand in hand with the virtue of chastity. The practice of abstinence aids the formation of habits that make chastity possible.

      “We must instead seek to teach how to use sexual energies for their intended creative and life-giving purposes.”

      –I like what you’re saying here, but what exactly would the practical application be for the unmarried?

      In reference to the Garden of Eden, I perhaps should have qualified that “some of the earliest” communication God had with man was a list of shall-nots. I was referring to the Ten commandments. But even using the Garden of Eden as an example, are you saying that God failed since he gave a prescription for self-denial which Adam and Eve disobeyed?

      Let’s flesh this out a little.

      • Elizabeth Duffy

        Also, even though abstinence gets only one mention in the catechism, it is by no means an afterthought or a peripheral Catholic teaching. it is a precept of the faith, something Catholics are asked to do at regular intervals in the liturgical year, and at one time it was a weekly mandate.

      • Petro

        For the first part, I quoted Rolheiser both in Alexander’s and Rocha’s posts in which he defines sexuality as something beyond the exchange of bodily fluids. You might refer to those posts. With the Disqus system, you can just click on my name. That will save me from posting the same thoughts three different ways on three different blogs.

        My additional personal reflection would be that sexual energies are not solely about, to be crude, getting off. Most youth do not have sex because they are looking for a good orgasm. They have sex because they feel that it is going to fill a real or perceived emptiness in their lives. Setting boundaries around sex through abstinence is not an effective way of combatting this emptiness. Filling the emptiness with suitable outlets for creative, life-giving expression in relationships and daily life is critical.

        What does this look like for the unmarried? For Catholics, we need look no further to those who have taken a vow of celibacy. These men and women are not nonsexual. They too have a functioning sexuality, but they channel that sexuality—those creative and life-giving energies—into their service, their community and their spirituality. Those who do such things with joy will be fulfilled in a way which begins to lessen the longing for a consummation that is filled with the false consummation of casual sex.

        For the second point, I was using your words to lead into my point about the problem of setting boundaries in the context of the power of sexual energy. Again, in the context of my previous posts, sexuality is the on aspect of humanity that brings us closest to God the Father. I was attempting to lead you to look at sexuality through this lens rather than the lens that you had chosen. Youth and adults can often follow the path of Adam and Eve when they are confronted with the power of sexuality. Boundaries seem like artificial constructs put in place by some controlling, patriarchal figure rather than guidelines for a loving, joy-filled existence. These boundaries are crossed too often.

        Certainly all children need boundaries. Nevertheless, how they are presented are extremely important to how the lessons learned from them are applied in later life. The concern is that abstinence suggests a temporary denial of an energy that cannot be denied, while chastity is a way of life for all to live. The former can foster a frustrating, fruitless battle that many will stop fighting. The latter is an outline for a way to live.

        I realize that much of this argument is semantic. But the way that the word abstinence is currently used makes a semantical argument a valid one. I think that we are not very far apart, but trying to win back the word abstinence is a more difficult fight than using the concept of chastity, which our faith supports whole-heartedly.

        • Elizabeth Duffy

          I get what you’re saying about one’s sexuality being expressed in more than just intercourse. Agree.

          I’m not sure I agree with this statement: “They have sex because they feel that it is going to fill a real or perceived emptiness in their lives.” Sometimes that may be the case, but often, with teenagers, they’re just horny–to put it bluntly. You can talk about channeling the sexual urge into other creative activities and make it sound very sex positive, but at some point, self-denial is necessary to achieving this end, and it’s not something we should be afraid to say.

          “Trying to win back the word abstinence is a more difficult fight than using the concept of chastity, which our faith supports whole-heartedly.”–THIS is the heart of the discussion we’re having. The thing is, the church also supports abstinence whole-heartedly–it just has a slightly different but still totally worthy function. It’s a concept that is worth winning back because it’s a necessary good in the spiritual life.

          • Petro

            “Sometimes that may be the case, but often, with teenagers, they’re just horny–to put it bluntly. ”

            This is correct in the context of masturbation, perhaps. It is much less so in the context of intercourse.

            Self-denial is important. But calling it self-denial is better than calling it abstinence because abstinence in the context of sexual mores has been hijacked. And, as noted, self-denial is only a part and not, in my opinion, the core meaning of Christian sexuality.

            I would ask that you think about chastity in relation to poverty, which is something we are far less concerned about teaching our children. How is self-denial taught in the context of poverty? How is this different from how we approach the idea of abstinence in the context of sexuality? I think there are some answers there as to why the current use of abstinence in the discussion of sexuality is confusing, misleading and self-defeating.

            I really appreciated this discussion. Thank you.

  • tedseeber

    The best answer to teenage pregnancy is unskilled labor jobs that pay a living wage for 10 year old boys.

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  • James

    “I know formerly promiscuous people who have gone on to have happy marriages, and virgins who have married poorly.”

    My own experience is that self-control, like any virtue, can be perverted and taken to extremes.

    Successful abstinence may not be a virtue, but a sign of an intimacy issue, a general negative view of sex, or a pathological level of self-repression/sexual anorexia. These will, of course, cause problems in marriage.

    Conversely, those who were promiscuous may have a healthy desire for sex that simply needs to be properly controlled and directed.

    The problem with an undue focus on abstinence is it focuses on the result and not the viture. It fails to separate the virtuous abstinence from the unvirtuous and give little hope to those who struggle with this virtue.

  • fats

    I wonder how many men and women regret vs. appreciate having sex with the first person they had sex with, and how many of those relationships flourished. My point is , even if you move on to another relationship, the memory of, and effect of that first relationship still lingers within you, for good or bad. I dont have any answers, but the Church is on the mark when it echos the Teachings that two become one, for good or bad.

  • tedseeber

    The ideal answer to teenage sexuality, is providing living wage low skill apprenticeships for 10 year old boys.