On the consequences of sexual abstinence

unheld-hand.JPG“Brady, am I going crazy? My wife, maybe ex, I don’t know what to call her, us, right now, but we don’t have sex. We haven’t really since our wedding night and we waited until our wedding night. I respected her choice, mine too, but… it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Why is it bad?”

Admittedly, I was unpleasantly surprised when I started to see more and more persons, and couples, in my practice struggling with the consequences of abstinence on their marriage, their dating life, and their self-esteem. Maybe if I intermittently saw one person, or one couple, struggling with abstinence and waiting for marriage to have sex, then it would be a pleasant surprise. Pleasant in its affirmation that abstinence provides for more secure and stable relationships.

But not.

I see quite a number of individuals and couples that are struggle with the difficult consequences of abstinence, most after they have been married, and a few, before they have even become engaged to another person. I’ve seen abstaining from sex used as an out from addressing emotional problems of self-worth and loneliness, as a smokescreen for demoralizing ideas about sex, and as a way of gaining the approval of one’s parents or one’s community. I’ve seen, in many ways, how the tidy idea of waiting to have sex until after marriage supposedly makes things better, and yet it precariously places a whole new set of problems on the top of the problems that inherently arise in having any sexual relationship.

Pedagogically speaking, sexual abstinence rests on the teachable notion that waiting, delaying, or not-having sexual activity before marriage is ideal for marriage, which is also conflated to being beneficial for life in general. Abstinence only education, as set in Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act: has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity; … teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects; … teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.

There it is, an education on the benefits of abstaining from sex before marriage and the dire consequences of premarital sex.

I’ve seen, in many ways, how the tidy idea of waiting to have sex until after marriage supposedly makes things better, and yet it precariously places a whole new set of problems on the top of the problems that inherently arise in having any sexual relationship.
Psychologically speaking, encouraging someone to agree to something without fully informing them of the benefits, limits, and consequences is manipulative at best, unethical, at a minimum. I write this because sexual abstinence is presented without a discussion of the problems that arise from abstinence.

I’m not entirely certain where the idea comes from that when sex occurs after marriage, it’ll simply happen, with no attendant problems or complications, because waiting until after committing to a relationship to start a whole new aspect of relating makes it more beneficial. I don’t see where that jump happens. Logistical, mechanical, anatomical, emotional, and relational factors come into play to make sex work, and those factors don’t simply happen, premarital or postmarital. Focusing on those is beneficial for having a long and vibrant sex life, but is not part of an abstinence discourse. Why is it not? Regretfully, I have no idea why not.

Logistically, the when’s, the where’s, the desired frequency, the desired duration of sex are all negotiable and in flux over a person’s life, and they are for each person. Getting two people, logistically, to have sex together is a bit of a shuffle, in dating for sure, and especially for lifelong marital sex. The logistics of sex are a large part of one’s sexual identity, potential sexual problems, and an incredibly large part of making a relationship healthy and stable. Rewording it: prioritizing sex happens in logistical conversations. Without having sex prior to a marriage, it means figuring out the logistics and logistical problems that could occur prior to any form of contact occurring, and each party owning the responsibility of addressing logistical problems. There’s a lot to work out, logistically, in having a satisfying sexual relationship, short-term or long-term, which requires sex occurring and to the amount that satisfies all parties; harder if neither party has experience with taking responsibility for sex occurring.

Mechanically, sex has a lot of moving parts. Understanding the intimate choreography of sex, like eye contact whilst synchronizing thrusts, and how to navigate your and your partners bodies, like positioning oneself to avoid leg cramps but not make your partner’s legs fall asleep, is its own unique education. With both parties waiting to have sex, that means there will be a long learning process of awkward, anxiety inducing, fumbling, and uncomfortable sexual encounters to go through with a partner, and neither knowing what could be better and what better actually looks or feels like. Rarely do I hear of persons, who are waiting until marriage for sex, discussing the beginning of their marriage as including or expecting lots of awkward, uncomfortable, if painful, sexual activity.

If you add a level of perfectionism to either party, any semblance of a hint of imperfection about the first or the fiftieth sexual encounter may sound the alarms of sexual incompatibility. To assuage some anxiety, expect incompatible sex; compatibility is a long process of discovery, not some reward for delayed gratification. The idea that perfect sex will happen simply because it is delayed until marriage, well, undermines how sex is also a process of learning about how you and your partner can fit together. Mechanically, abstinence increases the problems of how sex operates, because no one in that moment knows how sex can operate differently, thus increasing the problematic nature of initial sexual experiences.

To assuage some anxiety, expect incompatible sex; compatibility is a long process of discovery, not some reward for delayed gratification.
Anatomically, how well you know your body, and how you know your own body and your partner’s body, is an evolving process. Your physicality, athleticism, and imagination are all important to sex, and so is your understanding of your and your partner’s anatomy. There are body parts, all worthy of considerable learning time, and there is also your experience of, and experience with, each other’s bodies. Yes, you can look at textbook diagrams of genitalia, very technical, very important, but that isn’t the same as knowing your partners reaction to your experiencing of their body and all its personal peculiarities. The experience of being touched so personally, if anatomically, is also an emotional and sexual touch.

Consequentially, and skipping ahead a bit to the emotional domain, the feeling of vulnerability when naked and touched, is heightened, and how you feel about your own body, your weight, your musculature, your sizes, your smells, your self-worth, your physically naked self, becomes its own delicate territory that both you and your partner are now navigating without ever having navigated before; without knowing better, you are at greater odds for emotionally and physically hurting each other. Being that it’ll also be your first time having sex, the impression that your first partner leaves on your body and how you feel your own body from their touch will be even greater and will have more of an impact on your sexual identity. It is hard to feel confident and capable in one’s own body, especially without the thoughts or ideas of others being imposed on your body; harder still when no one in the room has experienced being naked or engaged in sexual activity with another body, and distinguishing your thoughts (of your body and their body and sex in general and sex specifically with them) from their thoughts (of your body and their body and sex in general and sex specifically with them). Doing so makes sex, your sexual identity, and your sexual experiences, all the more nuanced; to not miss the person for the parts, but to see the person and all the parts.

The idea that perfect sex will happen simply because it is delayed until marriage, well, undermines how sex is also a process of learning about how you and your partner can fit together.
Emotionally there are many feelings and moods that can occur during sex itself, and many ways to have sex. I’m not referring to positions or technique here, because that is mechanical; I’m referring to feelings. Having sex to explore what feels right for you, what feels right for your partner, to be nurtured, to take care of your partner, to give up control, to take control, to comfort, to console, to reconnect, to lose yourself, feel powerful, feel held, feel wanted, feel important, and so much more are all distinct and to be distinguished. It is difficult to discuss emotions that are involved in sex, generally, because most people have a hard time identifying their feelings and moods, and problematic too when emotions are restricted to either love or lust, and only one is somehow deemed appropriate. From my side of the couch, emotional maturity means growing beyond idyllic notions of love as good and lust as bad. Sexual problems routinely arise when only one emotion, one mood, becomes the habitual norm, and there is an inability to desire, or discern, any other kind of encounter. With an abstinence only frame, where one emotion is the goal of sex and the focus of sex, consequentially, the breadth of emotion that can be experienced in sex is lost because of the restriction to love. A consequence of abstinence, then, is a more restricted starting place for sex, emotionally.

Relationally, how you navigate decisions about sex, together, is also a huge learning curve in sexual relationships. You may be in the mood and your partner may not be in the exact mood, or you may want a tender kind of sex and your partner a more animalistic encounter, or you may want to get your pregnancy on whereas your partner doesn’t. What then? Relationally, how you navigate and decide together what you want sex to be, for you and for your partner, is an evolving process, and one that is not concurrent nor simultaneous, as two people will naturally be in two different places emotionally and relationally throughout the course of a relationship. Being able to know and to assert your wants without minimizing or negating your partner’s wants is more easily said than done, and harder still when never done before and with raised stakes. Sex in marriage is also high stakes because you are choosing to do this for the rest of your foreseeable future. It’s raised stakes when you add the abstinence option like: jumping into the deep end of the pool, without ever having a swim lesson, or thought of drowning; not training for the marathon, but simply doing the marathon, and expecting to finish first; purchasing a car without even a license, demonstrating responsibility as a driver, or a test ride, and not even imagining what another might car might be like; buying a house without even seeing it, knowing its location, and never making any repairs because it had to be perfect as is. I could give more examples of stakes, even some nuanced ones that allude to sexual problems arising from abstinence, but I’ll hold back.

Relationally, how you address the consequences of having sex together, while not blaming each other for these consequences, is incredibly difficult. Harder still with no prior ability, heightened expectations of being committed to each other for the rest of your lives, and without any experience of solving sexual problems so far in your life.

Being able to know and to assert your wants without minimizing or negating your partner’s wants is more easily said than done, and harder still when never done before with added raised stakes.
In truth, all of these problems, logistically, mechanically, anatomically, emotionally, and relationally, arise in sexual relationships. However, when abstinence is a factor in a person’s sex life, it adds a uniquely opportunistic component: betrayal.

Betrayal is the largest problem that I have encountered in counseling couples who decided to be abstinent until marriage; because the person they agreed to marry, and they thought they knew, didn’t remain the person they were, or be the person they said they would be once they started having sex. Yes, sex changes things, but more specifically, you change by growing and discovering parts of yourself that maybe you weren’t even aware of. Yes, you are agreeing to a whole change in how you relate, how you interact, how you communicate, how vulnerable you are, without knowing what you are getting yourself into, and after you have agreed to a lifetime with this other person and these problems.

Changing so personally, and so globally, and also not expecting problems and difficulties to arise because you did the, “right thing,” by waiting until marriage, is a perfect setup for feelings of betrayal and broken trust.

With abstinence, ironically, betrayal and broken trust arises, not from sex outside the marriage, but with sex inside the marriage.

It is so much harder to get close to a person when parts of oneself are hidden. To date and never know the familial parts of a person and meet their family, has added consequence. To date and never know the social parts of a person and their friendships, has extra consequences. To date and never know the professional or financial background of a person, has more consequences. To date and never know the sexual side of a person, has implicit consequences. These are all personal and intimate parts of a person, and each and every aspect of a person is worthy of being known. If hidden, this precludes an informed knowing of another person, which increases the likelihood of betrayal, in dating and in marriage.

To date and abstain, means choosing to leave a part of a potential partner unknown. Like leaving unknown the feeling of holding a loved one’s hand.

If holding hands is something that is important to you, is intimate for you, then sexual abstinence asks of you to not even hold hands until after a ring is on a particular finger of that hand.

With abstinence, ironically, betrayal and broken trust arises, not from sex outside the marriage, but with sex inside the marriage.
Those that champion abstinence may disagree on handholding, but if pressed, would acknowledge the intimacy of the act, and thus the need for abstaining. Going further into extra expectations, if we assume a heterosexual pairing, with attendant gender assumptions… we actually wouldn’t assume otherwise. Again, abstaining from sex is pitched as part of the procreation within marriage discourse, which leaves out a lot of people who may not want to be married and/or a lot of sex that isn’t aiming for pregnancy.

With regard to the narrow intended audience of those choosing to abstain from sex, if sex is to be relegated to the narrow confines of a singular long-term relationship for the purpose of procreation, sex does lose some of its luster by becoming myopically goal oriented, rather than process oriented.

My not subtle and not secretive agenda: I would hope that those persons that believe sex is for the purpose of procreation also have purposeless sex that is process oriented, and is about reconnecting, about losing yourself in your partner’s body, or even about being silly.

My desire for those persons that choose to abstain from sex before marriage, and do eventually marry, is to address their sexual development and identity and extra-marital (because it is extra) problems, gently.

You are going down a harder road, not for greater reward, or a more stable union with less unknown variables, but for greater problems and more unknowns to explore.

There is this idea that love is limited, and that giving your body to another is like giving a piece of yourself away, and your ability and capacity to love is limited and to be rationed. Curiously, this idea  thinks lowly of love, that love is finite, that a person cannot grow to love more, and that your value lies in not fully loving another person.

Abstinence, then, is valuing the denial of love, and choosing additional problems. It is a choice of a certain set of extra problems, and a commitment to live with those extra problems for better or for worse. Metaphorically, and literally, it is choosing to hold onto a hand that you haven’t held before, and that hand now has the added weight of a ring.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn the consequences of sexual abstinence

Comments 5

  1. Sam

    Fantastic article! I found this really helpful as I have been questioning my religious beliefs about abstinence recently. More people need to hear this!

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      Brady

      For many it can be, and that dialogue doesn’t happen nearly enough, dialogue of the consequences that is. Thanks for reading!

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