Back to January Issue

Choosing Abstinence

What Does It Mean to Students Today?

By Haley Shapley, graduate, University of Pennsylvania

Since Lydia Brubaker was 13, she’s been wearing a purity ring, indicating her choice to abstain from sexual activity until she’s married. Now a senior at the University of Idaho in Moscow, she’s kept to that promise.

“A lot of the reason why I choose it is because it’s a spiritual thing for me,” Brubaker says. “I believe morally it’s the right thing to do, and aside from that, it’s a great way to prevent yourself from getting hurt in relationships.”

A Reasoned Choice
For myriad reasons, some students choose not to engage in sexual activity while in college, and abstinence clubs have popped up on campuses in recent years, like the True Love Revolution at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and The Anscombe Society at Princeton University in New Jersey.

For Tameka Anderson, a junior at Georgia State University in Atlanta, abstaining has helped her focus her attention on school instead of on all-consuming relationships. “One definite advantage is not being entangled in unhealthy emotions,” she says. “I’ve been in situations before where I’ve been in unhealthy relationships simply because those emotions were there based on having a sexual relationship with someone.”

Brian Freedman, a junior at California State University, East Bay, finds a sex-free college existence to be simpler in a good way. “I abstain because I don’t like wasting my time or making life complicated,” he says. “I’m waiting for that one woman who’s worth it and with whom I plan to spend the rest of my life.”

What Is Abstinence, Anyway?
That depends on whom you ask. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, college students were polled on what activities they count as sex. Everyone sets his or her own definitions when it comes to abstinence, but it’s important to remember that some activities that may fall into your definition of abstinence—like oral sex, which more than 13% of students in the poll said they don’t consider sex—can result in sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

“If people define sex in different ways, it’s really not anyone’s place to tell someone whether or not their version of abstinence is real abstinence,” says Lena Chen, a recent Harvard graduate whose senior thesis was on the topic of virginity. “No matter what your definition of sex or [abstinent] behavior is, the important thing is that people are engaging in their version in a safe way.”

Peer Perception
On most college campuses, abstinence is the road less traveled—and for students who are taking that path, there can be plenty of roadblocks and potholes along the way.

Brubaker has found people are curious about her purity ring, and most are supportive when she explains its purpose. “I’ve never had people put me down for it,” she says. With the boyfriends she’s had in college, she’s been clear about her beliefs, having discussions up front to make sure they’re on the same page about what will (and won’t) happen. Fortunately, “they’ve always just really respected me for it,” she says.

Formerly married, Anderson hasn’t always found her choice to be abstinent easy. “More often than not, guys don’t understand it,” she says. “I’m a very direct person. The first time we meet and go out, I tell them automatically that I am celibate.” Anderson’s found that reaction to her celibacy is about 50% supportive, while the other half thinks she’s crazy.

Worth the Wait
Crazy or not, abstinence provides its share of benefits. “I have only gotten stronger and more powerful mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually by learning to control myself,” Freedman says. Plus, he adds, there are “no worries of waking up in the daylight after a one-night stand and thinking, ‘What was I thinking?’”

In addition to not regretting your decision, not having to worry about pregnancy is a big plus, as is being spared from some of the physical and emotional ailments that can sometimes be tied with sex. “There’s a huge attachment that you have with people when you have sex, and it prevents that attachment from happening until marriage,” Brubaker says. “It lowers heartache and protects you from STDs or things you might regret later.”

While some are wary of abstinence for the effect it could have on a dating relationship, Anderson has found that intimacy can be enhanced by waiting. “If you spend more time communicating, that actually helps you in your relationship as well—it helps you learn more intimate details about that person instead of camouflaging them with sex,” she says.

For Anderson, the pros outweigh the cons, and staying abstinent for now is a choice she has no regrets about. “This has been the happiest period of my life, absolutely,” she says. “I’m actually able to think more clearly.”

Haley Shapley is a Seattle-based freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

What Counts as Sex?
Percentage of students answering a Student Health 101 poll who say you wouldn’t be able to consider yourself sexually abstinent if you…
Have vaginal intercourse: 99.0%
Have anal intercourse: 98.7%
Receive oral sex: 86.6%
Give oral sex: 85.9%
Touch someone’s genitals: 71.7%
Touch someone’s breasts: 62.6%
Shower with someone: 56.8%
French kiss: 48.5%
Kiss: 41.1%
Have phone sex: 32.8%
Sext with someone (exchange explicit text messages): 27.0%
Have sexual thoughts about someone: 7.5%

Emily Hipsher at Nebraska Methodist College talks about her decision to remain abstinent.
"My name's Emily and I'm going to talk a little bit about sexual abstinence. My boyfriend and I have been abstinent for about a year now, and we completely abstain from it, we don't do it at all. We made this decision based on religious reasons, which may not apply to all students, but what I think students need to think about before making the decision to have sex is if that is what your relationship is going to be based on. If you don't think you can have a relationship with someone without having sex with them, then the relationship with them is probably based on the wrong thing. My boyfriend and I want to make sure we have an underlying relationship without sex before moving on, because that's what really matters down the road.

I would encourage students to take a month or even just a week off from having sex and see if you notice your relationship is taking a turn for the worse; if you're fighting more and realizing that you don't really have that much in common. Then, maybe just look and see what is holding your relationship together. Is it the way you connect with each other, or is it the sex that’s holding your relationship together."

Miltiade Delille at Binghamton University sharse her thoughts on sexual abstinence in college.
"Hi, my name is Miltiade Delille, and I'm currently a freshman here and Binghamton University. Today, I'm here to talk to you about sexual abstinence in college--who's doing it, why, and why not. I myself happen to be sexually abstinent because I've only been here for a short period of time, about four months--about less than four months, and I just...I chose not to be having sex because I haven't come across someone who I feel that fits the standards for me to lay down in bed with them.

I feel like about 75 percent of people on this campus are having sex. Some of my friends, or you know, I could say associates, are having sex, that I know for a fact, and half of the time they don't even know who they're sleeping with. Students should consider before sleeping with someone, they should know their past, their medical records, they should know if that person has a condom or something on hand because you don't want to catch any STDs, you don't want to have a child.

Someone needs to know each time they're sleeping with someone they are sleeping with their past, and they're at risk for something. And that is all, thank you."

  • Click to Enter2Win $1,000!