Social Barriers to Sexual Abstinence

Why is waiting so hard?

Abstinence until marriage continues to be the best way to prevent the spread of STDs, teen pregnancy, and emotional distress in relationships. However, in today's American culture, it can be difficult to wait until marriage to begin a sexual relationship for a number of reasons. Recognizing the social forces which run counter to the successful practice of abstinence can help young people recognize and plan for difficulties.

Did you know..?

Unmarried couples living together have the highest annual contraceptive failure rates -- 25% for ages 20-24, and 47% for under 20.

Source: H Fu, JE Darroch, T Haas, N Ranjit, Contraceptive Failure Rates: New Estimates From the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, Family Planning Perspectives, 1999, 31(2):56-63

  • Sexual interest peaks in the late teens and twenties. In our parents' generation, it was common for people to marry young. However, today couples are pressured to finish school, start a career, save money, and get their lives in order before marrying. Typically, the time interval between puberty and marriage is on the order of 15 years, making it difficult for many youth to maintain a state of virginity until marriage. For those who feel they cannot wait years, the decision to marry young must be weighed against the dangers of promiscuity.
  • The marriage process is often lengthy. Courtships usually last months until an engagement. And, unless a couple elopes, engagements typically last months while weddings are planned. Couples who are already engaged may not see a point to waiting months before having sex when they already plan to be "together forever." However, many people who plan to marry ultimately do not.
  • Living together can be cheaper than maintaining separate households. In the past, young people lived with their parents until marriage, but now it is common for young people to live on their own. Often someone in their twenties living with parents is viewed as an aberration. When love-struck couples want to spend every minute together, it seems sensible to move in together -- especially when the monthly savings can amount to hundreds of dollars in rent and utilities. However, moving in together can make it more difficult to separate if the relationship is not going well. Moving in together usually involves less forethought than marriage, so it is more likely that problems will arise, including contraceptive failure .
  • Fear of pregnancy is often not a deterrent. In the past contraceptives were far less effective, therefore couples having sex expected to be starting a family. Despite the fact that contraceptives have significant failure rates, today couples may believe they are "protected" when they have sex if they use contraceptives according to directions. Also there is now easy and cheap access to abortion as a "backup plan" for accidental pregnancy, although the emotional and relational consequences of abortion are often not realized until after the fact.
  • "Everyone is doing it." In American culture, there are few legal or social forces outside of church to prevent young people from having sex. When someone announces a new boyfriend or girlfriend, a sexual relationship is usually assumed unless otherwise specified. In the popular media, sex is a common staple of even casual romantic relationships, and few few real-life consequences result. In reality, half of all teens have not had sex.
  • Religions differ on the emphasis placed on the importance of abstinence. Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist and Pentecostal traditions emphasize sex within marriage-only as a key component of church membership. Unitarian, Buddhist, and Jewish traditions typically do not. The media has focused attention on church leaders who have been unsuccessful in practicing a doctrine of abstinence. Young people need to follow their convictions over the actions of others and seek role models with appropriate sexual boundaries.
  • "I'm not a virgin anymore, so who cares?" An unplanned sexual experience, such as date rape or sex after heavy drinking, can leave someone who planned to stay abstinent no longer a virgin. Once virginity is lost, many young people feel it's pointless to stay abstinent. But even non-virgins can still reap the emotional and health benefits of abstinence. "Secondary virginity" or Renewed Abstinence is an example of how one can start over, changing ones behavior toward a more abstinent lifestyle, as if prior sexual experiences had not occurred.

Today's culture of sex and instant gratification make long-term abstinence a struggle for many. The desire to begin a sexual relationship is normal, but the consequences can be severe. By being prepared for socal forces which make abstinence difficult, young people can hope to succeed in saving sex for marriage.

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