you're reading...
Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction, Politics, Religion

Sex and Abstinence

In my last post, I approached sex-positive living from the perspective that we should not arbitrarily exclude another person from our sex life simply because their presence doesn’t conform to the cultural myth that sex is meant for long term monogamous relationships.  I’ve decided to run with the theme of sex-positive living for a while after being inspired yet again by Greta Christina’s insightful thoughts on abstinence.

In a nutshell, Greta has pointed out the illogic of discussing abstinence as the only 100% effective birth control method for the simple reason that it’s not 100% effective.  If abstinence is, as claimed, a birth control method, then its effectiveness should be measured in the same way as other methods, or any comparison is meaningless.  When we apply the same standards, namely theoretical effectiveness vs. practical effectiveness, we discover that abstinence is probably the worst possible birth control method.

But you can read more about that on Greta’s blog if you want.  I followed a link to another page and was struck by the words of a young girl who failed at abstinence only contraception.

“My parents always spoke openly about sex, but it was under the assumption that I wouldn’t do it until I’m married. They’ve always made it clear that they want me to wait,” she says.

But last spring, Sabrina found her first love.

“My boyfriend and I were just so compatible, on so many levels. We got to be so close, so fast,” she says.

Eventually, things started moving fast in a physical direction.

“After a while, sex became a reality. It’s a lot harder to abstain when you’re actually in the moment, faced with that decision,” she says.

This young sixteen year old girl, Sabrina, is illustrating clearly for us one of the things I find so distasteful and repulsive about this society’s sex-negative mythology.   I think most of us have probably experienced something like this before.  We have our reasons for not wanting to have sex, but we’re really, really into this person we’re with — voluntarily… nay, eagerly — and our hearts are racing and the juices are flowing (literally) and there’s blood flow in all the right places, and the scent and the sounds and the tingling skin all feel… perfect.  It’s incredibly difficult not to go through with it, and not at all satisfying afterwards.  Let me tell you, there’s nothing fun about taking care of business yourself when all you really want is someone else to be doing it.  Especially if they could have, and would have, except for your refusal.  Nothing fun about it at all.

Was Sabrina too young at sixteen to have sex with her boyfriend?  I don’t know.   The thing is, even if you believe you know, you don’t.  Sabrina’s body was ready.  She’s well through puberty if she’s having normal, healthy sexual reactions to being with a boy, and from her story, she clearly has those reactions.   We can rule out the excuse that she’s too young physically.

What other reasons might we have for saying that she’s too young for sex?  Because she might get pregnant?*  Any woman at any age before menopause might get pregnant when having sex, so by itself, that excuse doesn’t wash.  Because she’s too young to enter the workforce and hope to have a job which allows her to safely and responsibly raise a child?  Ok… we’re getting somewhere with that one, but we shouldn’t be two-faced.  There are women in their thirties who can’t safely and reasonably raise a child, and we don’t hear anyone telling them not to have sex.  (Well, virtually no one says that.)

Maybe Sabrina’s not emotionally ready for a sexual relationship.  That’s also fine, but what does that mean?  Does it mean she will be traumatized emotionally if she has sex?  Hardly.  Her story is one of a girl whose body and mind are yearning for sex.  Does it mean she isn’t emotionally mature enough to sustain a long-term monogamous relationship?  Maybe, but… didn’t we just chide ourselves for assuming that all sex has to lead to long term relationships?  If we say that teenagers are too young for casual sex, we’re just pushing the question around a bend.  We’re not answering it.  Why are teenagers too young for casual sex?

I could draw this out and list every possible reason a teenage girl might be “too young for sex,” but I’ll skip it and get to the point.  Most of the reasons we say teenagers shouldn’t have sex are not very good reasons at all, and the ones that are reasonable don’t apply universally to all teenagers.  Some people are ready for sex at sixteen, some at nineteen, and some at forty-three.   Let’s remember that our culture believes that there’s a magic number of “adulthood,” but that’s not the case.  My grandmother was the mother of three children by the time she was nineteen.  She married at fifteen and a half, and stayed married to the same man for over fifty years.  Society sanctioned her marriage, and because she had the marriage certificate, nobody thought of her sex as unwise or mentally damaging.

Methinks there is a double standard.  At any rate, I think my point is made well enough.  The person best equipped to determine when someone is ready to begin having sex is the person herself.   Parents will always be overprotective, and that’s just the way it is.   Society, with all its Oprah book clubs and Maury freak shows will never be a reliable indicator of anything so personal.

So let’s move on to something else I got from this girl’s story.  Let’s go back to the concept I introduced in my last blog and ask it in a different way —  rather than assume we need overwhelmingly compelling reasons to have sex, why don’t we flip things around?  If we have met someone who desires us sexually, and we desire them, why not assume that if there is no compelling reason not to have sex, that we should go right ahead with it?  We all desire sex at some level or another quite often, yet we fight against those desires as if giving in to them is inherently harmful.

Our cultural mythology is very deep rooted, and very strong.   Even many of the most socially liberal people I’ve met have had rather puritanical views on when it’s ok to have sex and when it’s not.  The assumption from the beginning is that sex is only worth having when the stars are aligned, the moment is perfect, everyone’s clear on the fact that it’s not “just casual sex,” and there’s no risk of the morning walk of shame or the dreaded “slut” label.

Only… there’s no evidence I’m aware of from either psychology, sociology, or evolutionary biology that it should be this way.  Instead, I find that when I reduce people’s reasons for avoiding sex down to their essentials, they fall into one of three categories:

1) Physical consequences:  STDs, pregnancy.

These consequences, of course, can be minimized and corrected, for the most part, if they do happen.   Pregnancy is only  really a problem if you believe you shouldn’t have an abortion when you don’t want a baby.  I think that’s daft.

2) Emotional consequences

Again, there’s a lot of hype about the “damage” done by having the wrong kind of sex.  In all the reliable literature I can find, I notice that the only time sex is emotionally damaging is when it is unwanted (as in rape) or when the participant believes they shouldn’t be doing it! Duh.  If you are following my train of thought here, it should be relatively obvious that I’m trying to talk you into reevaluating when you should and shouldn’t have sex.  If you succeed, and learn to enjoy sex for its own sake in its own context, well… there you have it.

3) Social consequences.

Some of these, of course, are quite relevant.  If you really want to have sex with your neighbor’s wife behind his back, you should probably temper that desire until you can be relatively certain you won’t be causing her husband enough consternation to drive him to violence.

In all seriousness, this is the most relevant reason not to have sex in most cases, but we need to be careful not to automatically take social disapproval as a good reason.  Since most people believe in monogamous long term sex, you’re not going to get a lot of approval if you want to have a threesome with your two best friends.  Your mother probably won’t approve either.  In the end, I believe the best way to evaluate things is to ask two questions:

1) Are the people who will disapprove forming their attitudes because they believe the myths?

2) Are the likely social consequences so damaging to my life that they supercede my desire to have sex in this way with this person (these people)?

If you can answer “yes” and “no” respectively, I can’t think of  a reason to take social disapproval seriously.

Finally, I want to make one more observation about healthy sex.   Going back yet again to the quote from Sabrina, let’s ask ourselves about the normal, socially unfettered consequences of two people having sex when they’re feeling very horny and really want each other.  Of course, the normal reaction is a rush of healthy endorphins, a feeling of tranquility, and all the other health and emotional benefits I’ve blogged about before.

Why, if sex is so healthy, and the reasons for avoiding it so shaky, do we still discourage people from it so strongly?  I’m not talking just about teens here.  I’m talking about everybody.   Why isn’t our first reaction to Sabrina’s story of lust and excitement at her first sex something more akin to warm nostalgia as we remember our first time?  Why do we immediately jump to thoughts of the harried parents, anti-abortion demonstrations, and movies with Natalie Portman living in Walmart?

The fact is, we humans create self-fulfilling prophecies when we live out the myths.  We are afraid of self-honesty when it contradicts popular wisdom.  We are afraid of being stigmatized, or of being called abnormal.  My opinion is that Sabrina should have been taught all the facts about sex — the real facts — before she hit puberty.  She should have been told that when she was ready for sex, she should be honest with herself and her first partner about birth control, pregnancy, disease, and what the first sex would mean for each of them.  She should have been told that even though our first sex is a big deal when it happens, it doesn’t have to be perfect or magical, and it doesn’t have to be with “the one.”  In short, she should have been prepared for reality.

Abstinence is silly.  There’s no reason for it in principle.  Sex is good, fun, and healthy.  In a way, healthy atheist sex is a lot like healthy atheism itself.  At some point, you just have to be ok with looking people in the eye and saying, “I’m an atheist,” or perhaps, “I’m in a relationship with a bisexual, and we like to have threesomes with our friends,” or “I’m into swinging,” or “I really like getting the first sex with a new person out of the way at the beginning to see if we’re compatible,” or “All I really want from you is friendship and occasional sex, and I’ll never want marriage or children.”  The list could go on and on, but the bottom line is that with self-honesty comes the freedom to be honest with others, and from that freedom comes the possibility for real self-actualized happiness.






* It pains me that I have to do this, but I need to point out that if it’s ok for an eighteen year old to make an informed decision to have an abortion because she’s not ready or doesn’t want to be a mother, then it’s ok for a sixteen year old.  Morality police fuck off, please.



5 thoughts on “Sex and Abstinence

  1. After reading your article I sat down and considered for a while
    As a mother of twins at 16, I considered whether I was any less wise regarding the ‘sex aspect’ now than what I was then
    Perhaps if there was no associated guilt and taboo, we would enjoy the act of sex simply for…well…sex.
    I agree with you….and this has definitely surprised me : )

    Posted by Carol | May 17, 2009, 8:15 pm
  2. There are many valid studies demonstrating that there are frequently emotional consequences that women suffer after hooking up casually. (Please see About page at Damage is not the correct word, but a vast majority of young women who hook up experience regret afterwards. Because they experience the flood of oxytocin (the “bonding hormone”) during sex, they wind up feeling a connection, whether they actually like the guy or not. The regular readers at my blog are desperate for support and validation as they acknowledge that they prefer relationship sex to casual sex. Some women do enjoy casual sex, and for them it’s all good. But there are many, many women who prefer not to share their bodies with a stranger, and they shouldn’t feel pressured to do so. We’re essentially engaging in shaming women who don’t want to hook up!

    Posted by susanawalsh | May 18, 2009, 8:48 am
  3. There are many valid studies demonstrating that there are frequently emotional consequences that women suffer after hooking up casually. (Please see About page at

    I skimmed through the site. I didn’t see any scientific studies. Can you point me to the ones you mean? Unless it’s something different than what I’ve seen, though, I addressed this concern in this very article. You said it yourself. It’s not psychological damage. It’s regret. Regret is an emotion we feel when we think we ought not have done something, and American women are taught that they ought not hook up.

    The difficulty with studying the effect of casual hookups is that it’s very difficult to find a sample of women who have not been indoctrinated into the culture of sex-negativity. The thing I’ve noticed is that women who genuinely understand their own emotions and sexuality is that they tend not to feel guilty afterwards about sex they wanted to have beforehand. Now if only we could find more than a dozen of them in America…

    In any case, I want you to re-read this article and notice that I’m not advocating casual hookups in particular. It appears that most women, most of the time, would rather have sex with someone they know than a stranger. I’m advocating that women and men both extract themselves from the sex-negative enforced long-term monogamy myth and learn to be comfortable with whatever it is they happen to want. (Yes, men could benefit, too. Many men hook up casually and then don’t want to talk to the woman again because “she’s a slut.” How much more sex-negative could you be?)

    Because they experience the flood of oxytocin (the “bonding hormone”) during sex, they wind up feeling a connection, whether they actually like the guy or not.

    Men have a similar hormone that creates feelings of bonding with their partners. I’m always a little shocked at the bizarre logic used by people who insist that casual sex is a bad thing:

    1) Sex releases oxytocin.
    2) Oxytocin is involved in forming bonds.
    3) Therefore: NO CASUAL SEX!!!

    It’s a non-sequitur. Instead, we should note that some women have a stronger bonding experience through sex than others. Some women’s chemistry is such that they are fine with casual sex. Furthermore, it sounds to me as if you’re saying women are slaves to their hormones. Once that oxytocin starts flowing, they have no choice but to humbly come back to the man that made it flow and do it again. Horse-hockey. Women with high self-esteem and a sex-positive outlook are perfectly capable of deciding what they want to be permanent and what is better left as a fling.

    But there are many, many women who prefer not to share their bodies with a stranger, and they shouldn’t feel pressured to do so. We’re essentially engaging in shaming women who don’t want to hook up!

    I know you’re trying to help, and I appreciate it, but I could do without the implication that giving women permission to have any kind of sexual relationship they want is the same as shaming women who don’t want a particular kind. Maybe that’s how you feel about it, but if so, it’s not from something I said. My article was about switching the paradigm. Instead of overcoming all the reasons not to have sex, many of which are shaky to begin with, we should give everyone — men and women alike — the knowledge of their own sexuality so that they can determine what they really want.

    I suspect if we did that, the number of one night stands would actually decrease.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 18, 2009, 12:44 pm
  4. Susan, pardon me. I just saw that I was supposed to go to the About page.

    I’m familiar with those stats, and they bear out what I’m saying. Women who play the shame sex game suffer consequences for it. The “walk of shame” is a result of feeling like what happened last night was wrong or shouldn’t have happened — just by its very nature. In a lot of cases, it probably was a bad idea, but not because casual sex is wrong or harmful. It’s bad for women who have been indoctrinated into a culture where sex is bad inherently, and the only way to have “permission” to do it is to be too drunk to say no.

    Instead of the “hookup game” you detail on your “about” page, I recommend comprehensive sex education including “alternative” relationships, safe, consensual nonmonogamy, masturbation, and most importantly… self honesty. I doubt many people would have less sex or significantly less partners as a consequence, but I think they would have smarter sex, more orgasms, and less diseases.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 18, 2009, 12:49 pm
  5. Yeah, I am thinking the same “After a while, sex became a reality. It’s a lot harder to abstain when you’re actually in the moment, faced with that decision” . thanks a lot.

    Posted by lola luna | May 19, 2009, 2:52 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Me On Twitter!

%d bloggers like this: