Using Sexual Abstinence as a Birth Control Method

Sexual abstinence means not having sexual intercourse. Abstinence works as an effective form of birth control by eliminating all chances of sperm fertilizing an egg. Unlike other forms of birth control that work to prevent pregnancy regardless of the exchange of sexual fluids, abstinence prevents semen from coming into contact with the vagina.

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Abstinence is the only birth control method that is 100% effective in preventing pregnancy as well as sexually transmitted infections (STIs, formerly called sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Differing Definitions

Abstinence can mean different things to different people. Full sexual abstinence includes not engaging in sexual intercourse of any kind, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

Sometimes, people may refer to being abstinent as not having vaginal intercourse, but engaging in other sexual activities. However, sexual activity that cannot lead to pregnancy is best defined as "outercourse." Examples of outercourse include:

  • Oral sex
  • Anal sex
  • Dry humping (clothes on)
  • Masturbation
  • Massage
  • Kissing

Like abstinence, outercourse is 100% effective at preventing pregnancy. However, if semen accidentally touch the vulva during outercourse activities, it is possible for sperm to reach the vagina and fertilize an egg, resulting in pregnancy. Unlike abstinence, it is still possible to contract STIs through nonvaginal intercourse, including anal sex and oral sex.

To other people, abstinence means not having sexual intercourse during the time of the month that they may be most fertile. The best description of this practice is "periodic abstinence," which is considered a method of natural family planning.

Unlike total sexual abstinence, this method is not 100% effective at preventing pregnancy.

Pros and Cons of Abstinence

There are many reasons people may choose to be abstinent, including the desire to prevent pregnancy and STIs, religious beliefs, medical considerations, waiting for the right partner, and waiting until marriage.

Regardless of the reason, there are some advantages and disadvantages to choosing sexual abstinence.

  • It is 100% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

  • There are no medical or hormonal side effects.

  • It doesn't cost anything.

  • It may be difficult to practice abstinence for long periods of time.

  • It can be difficult to follow through with if your partner is not on board.

  • If you have not had sexual education or been given information about contraception, you may not be prepared to protect yourself from pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections if/when you choose to have sex.

Talking to Your Partner

If you have decided to remain abstinent, it is important that you have a conversation about your choice with your romantic partner. Without your perspective, a partner who is unaware of your reasons may take your choice personally. In addition, sex is an important part of many relationships, and maintaining abstinence for any duration is easier when both partners agree to it.

Planned Parenthood offers several tips for having this talk, such as:

  • Feeling confident in your decision
  • Being upfront and clear about your reasons for choosing abstinence
  • Talking to your partner before a potential sexual encounter, rather than in the moment
  • Remembering, and reminding your partner, that your decision could change with time

A Word From Verywell

Sexual abstinence is an effective mode of birth control, but it is one that requires a mutual decision from both partners. It is one choice among many possible effective birth control options. Keep in mind that unless you are engaging in complete sexual abstinence, it is still possible to contract STIs through outercourse.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Dawn Stacey, PhD, LMHC
Dawn Stacey, PhD, LMHC, is a published author, college professor, and mental health consultant with over 15 years of counseling experience.