Can Abstinence Be Sex-Positive?


Abstinence before marriage is decidedly unpopular these days. It’s not sex positive, people say — that is, it perpetuates negative views about sex and human sexual desire. On the flipside, just having sex is seen as sex positive because, well, it doesn’t require you to withhold your sexual desires and it allows you to express your sexuality however you want.

I think neither approaches are inherently sex positive. We’ve focused so much on can you or can’t you, should you or shouldn’t you, that we’re ignoring the real reasons people have sex and all the different parts that make sex either great or traumatic. A just-have-sex ethic fuels rape culture and exploitation of women and minors because it views the act of sex as good regardless of the different components of that sexual encounter. A just-don’t-have-sex-until-marriage ethic ignores the good things of expressing sexuality in beneficial ways even outside of marriage.

Bottom line: marriage isn’t a magical key to great, safe, consensual, meaningful sex, and merely teaching abstinence before marriage is a shell of a sexual ethic — just like having sex isn’t the magical key to great, safe, consensual, meaningful sex, and merely teaching “it’s okay to have sex” is a shell of a sexual ethic.

Instead of teaching either abstinence or participation, full stop, we need to teach sexual integrity — sexual wholeness — sexual regulation. Sexual integrity welcomes our sexuality even before marriage and understands its affects, good and bad, on both ourselves and our partners. Our sexual ethic needs to move seamlessly from before marriage into the marriage bed.

Abstinence education is notoriously incomplete. It’s goal is getting people to not have sex until marriage, and it doesn’t really care how that objective is achieved. It withholds information, spreads misinformation, and catastrophizes sex before marriage. As a result, lots of shame, ignorance, and abuse build up.

Sex before and within marriage is more complicated than that. There are many, many different components of sexual integrity, and when to have sex is only one of them. Those different components shape sexual experiences positively or negatively. They create radically different experiences.

Abstinence is incomplete when it lists “marriage” as the major component to safe, good, and holy sex. Marriage is the ideal, in my mind, but marriage ought to mean a set of specific things: a loving, committed, mutual relationship with the safeguards of supportive community pressure. Marriage at its best is the most committed, intimate, and loving of relationships, providing stability for children, individual personhood, and intimacy.

Not all marriages are like this. In fact, marriage often shelters some of the worst sexual ethics violations. Rape and consent violations occur in marriage. Domestic violence is a huge problem. Unwanted pregnancies can happen.

And conversely, committed, consensual sex can occur outside of marriage. A loving, committed couple having sex before their marriage or a lifelong cohabiting couple are radically different experiences than teens getting it on in the back seat for a one night stand.

Abstaining from what and for what? The answer to that is the answer to whether abstinence is sex positive or not. Abstaining from sex is not sex positive in and of itself, no. But abstaining from sexual relationships or experiences that compromise sexual integrity — whether that’s commitment, love, consent, health, or parental preparedness — that’s sex positive.

The problem is that many of us growing up in the sexual purity movement thought we had a sex positive understanding of abstinence. We were waiting for God’s glorious and good gift of marital sex! How much more sex positive can you get? But we didn’t know anything about sexual integrity or wholeness — about consent and our own sexual natures and truly giving a whole person instead of a girl desperate for male attention and favor. We only knew the goodness of sex in terms of “premarital sex = immoral” and “marital sex = moral.”

Without a concept of sexual integrity and wholeness, we brought a ton of brokenness into married sex — misinformation, shame, ignorance, trauma — and experience a ton of brokenness with married sex — rape, consent violations, manipulative arguments about whether to have sex that night. Shout out to everyone who’s had to Google “how to actually have sex” on their wedding night or shelled out hundreds of dollars for sex therapy or got blamed for their husband’s affair.

This is what happens when we teach abstinence from sex instead of abstinence from an unregulated sexuality.

People have sex for a host of reasons, ranging from really good, healthy ones like “I love and am committed to this person” to “I like sex” to “I only feel worth something with male sexual favor” to “I want to dominate someone.” Sexual integrity and wholeness teach us to be aware of the many reasons we desire sex and sex with this particular person and to regulate those desires in accordance with healthy, safe, loving, committed, consensual, beneficial sexuality. This could look like abstinence from sex or certain sexual acts or going for sex or certain sexual acts, depending on how the different factors line up.

It should be the same for both within and without married sex: considering the desires and needs of both parties, honoring those desires and needs, and using wisdom, love, and grace in responding to them. An unmarried couple deciding whether or not to kiss before marriage should be, in my mind, making the same sort of decision with the same sort of sexual ethic as a wife contemplating turning down her husband for sex that night or debating whether to allow porn in the relationship.

Sex is profound. It affects us and our partners deeply, both positively and negatively. It reveals much about our needs and desires, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being a sexual person is a normal, good thing. Not all the ways we express our sexuality are normal, good things either for us or for our partners. Saying no or yes to sex is a good thing only in accordance with sexual integrity and wholeness.


6 thoughts on “Can Abstinence Be Sex-Positive?

  1. villemezbrown

    I think this is a very brave and insightful post. Both “sex education” in public schools in the US and “purity culture” or the equivalent in many religious communities are doing a grave disservice to our youth. Way back when, my religion, Unitarian Universalism, worked with United Church of Christ / Congregational and developed a sexual education curriculum that is now called Our Whole Lives. There are many components to it, but the basic approach or perspective as I understand it, is that we are human beings with physical, spiritual, emotional aspects, and our sexuality is part of that whole. We can’t ignore it or try to prevent it, but we also shouldn’t say all sex is good all the time, because clearly that is wrong. Our Whole Lives teaches young people to make decisions about sex in a context of respect for themselves and their partners, and with an awareness of their spiritual and ethical values. I am so grateful that this program was available for my daughter. Obviously the program is not perfect and has flaws and weaknesses, but I think it helps guide young people to a perspective similar to the one you had to get to on your own, almost through trial and error.


  2. Esther

    This was a hard post for me to read. It feels almost impossible to be sex-positive right now, two months into marriage and diagnosed with vaginismus without any explicable cause.

    Weirdly, I feel like the Christians who trumpet abstinence only (with little explanation behind it) *turn into* just-have-sex fanatics when it comes to marriage. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or read this advice for newlyweds: “Be sure to have lots of sex! If you don’t, he’ll be unhappy, he’ll resent you, and your marriage will suffer.”

    It’s created so much frustration and grief in the last months. It kills to hear that sex is a wonderful, positive, irreplaceable part of marriage when I literally can’t have intercourse and am in crippling pain when I even try. It kills to hear that I’m less than a real wife and that my husband probably resents me for a physical condition over which I have no control. It kills to hear that I’m missing out on the best thing a human can experience– or at least, the most essential part of marriage. Because what’s the difference between being engaged and married except sex?

    We’ll be ok. There’s so much more to marriage that we love, love, love– so much laughter, so many memories, so much physical affection. And we’re working with a physical therapist– I’m confident we’ll be able to have sex in the near future.

    But in the meantime, it’s a major, major struggle. It feels incredibly unfair.

    (This isn’t directly relevant to your point in the post, but I’ve been thinking about your post about newlywed sex a lot recently. This seemed as good a place as any to vent/grieve.)


    • Bailey Steger

      I agree with absolutely everything you’ve written here. Your struggles and your fears — I spent over TWO YEARS living them. Just recently got treated on the physical side of things, but I still have two years of baggage and bad habits to unpack on top of deconstructing from purity culture.

      I don’t know if this will help you, but it helped me: I read somewhere that when there aren’t any problems with sex, sex actually doesn’t play a huge role in marital satisfaction — not the gargantuan, MOST IMPORTANT thing keeping your husband from straying or whatever, like some Christians almost make it out to be. But when there are problems with sex, those problems affect marital happiness a lot. Which I took to mean — I can focus on all the other awesome things about marriage that don’t rely on relaxed pelvic floor muscles, because those are the most important things for my marriage, anyway. It relieved a lot of guilt and fear.


    • Ella

      Esther, I’d like to add to the awesome discussion you’ve started, pointing out that sex doesn’t equal intercourse. I think so many people have a variety of difficulties with intercourse and, because of that, believe they can’t or don’t have a sex life. Female orgasm isn’t even primarily related to intercourse — thank God for clitoris! And male orgasm is not depended on intercourse either. Sex must be redefined on that aspect. There’s a lot of pressure from society and church to limit our experience to a single act, restricting something that is multiform to some specific type of sexual expression. There’s SO MUCH more to be explored, starting from the skin itself. Enough of that limited vision!


  3. Jasmine Ruigrok

    Gosh, this article just makes me sad. I believe my parents did an incredible job teaching me abstinence that was still heartily sex positive. I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with you that the “why” is DESPERATELY important when it comes to teaching anything about sex, and not merely a “thou shalt not” with no answers. Married sex should never be glorified to the pinnacle of human existence because it creates too higher expectations only for them to be dashed by the reality. I remember my Mum telling me about a guy who, after getting married, had the attitude of “Uh, yeah? Okay? So we did that.” In short, big deal. When we make sex a be-all, end-all issue, it will drive people into either fear, or folly.

    The thing that makes me sad is that this article had to be written. Talking about and teaching sex should be like talking to your kids about getting a driver’s license. For your own health and safety, you shouldn’t drive a car before you get your license, but you can look forward to the experience of learning to drive. It mightn’t be easy—perhaps even stressful!—but if you work on it, it can be an amazing gift in the end. This is the kind of attitude my parents have had towards sex, and even though I’m not married yet, I believe the way I’ve been taught is a great blessing. I only wish I could share it with those who need it most.


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