Abstinence means different things to different people. For some, abstinence means no genital or sexual contact at all. For others, abstinence may mean not having penetrative vaginal or anal sex, but oral sex and/or mutual masturbation is okay. Everyone has a different definition of what sex is and this can be reflected in a person’s definition of abstinence. If you opt to abstain, informing your partner of how you define that can help them understand your personal limits.
How effective is abstinence? It depends on how you define it. Avoiding any type of sexual activity is the only method of birth control that is 100% effective. Depending on how you practice abstinence, you may be at risk for some STIs. For example, some STIs, such as herpes, can be transferred by having direct skin to skin contact with a person who has the STI.
Establishing clear boundaries and communicating them to your partner can help to avoid sexual activity that you’re not comfortable with or wanting to engage in.
How do I make and maintain my decision? Only you can decide for yourself what level of sexual activity you’re comfortable with. You have the right to set your own limits and not be pressured into doing anything you aren’t comfortable with.
Some helpful tips
1. Think about the responsibilities, consequences and pleasures that come with different sexual activities. Do you feel ready to accept each of those outcomes?
2. Read about the possible risks associated with different kinds of sexual activity and decide which risks you’re comfortable taking. Everyone has their own level of acceptable risk and accepting a certain amount of risk is a normal part of being sexually active.
3. Reflect on your own personal attitudes and values around sex.
4. How will your family react if they know or find out that you’re sexually active? Would you be comfortable with their reaction?
5. Are there any situations that may put you at risk of acting against your decision? (e.g. drugs, alcohol, being alone with your partner etc.). Being aware can help you manage different situations and contexts.
6. Talk to your partner(s) about your values, decisions, and the kind of relationship you want.
7. Work towards a strong sense of self-love and respect. If you’re in a relationship with someone that is pressuring you to do things you don’t want to do or makes you feel childish, dumb, or wrong if you do or don’t do certain things, this is a sign that you should re-evaluate the relationship. Everyone has the right to choose what happens with their body and when or how they wish to be sexual. If your partner doesn’t respect your choice to abstain, then they don’t respect you and your boundaries. It can be easier to resist the pressure of those trying to make us do things we don’t want to do if we have a strong sense of self-love and respect and cultivating this is a life-long journey.
8. Think about who you are making decision for. Do others expect you to abstain or to be sexually active or is this your personal decision? Are you making a choice about sexual behaviour or abstinence to please a partner or yourself?
9. Know that you have the right to change your mind. You may choose to abstain even if you have had sex before. You may also decide to have sex if you have abstained for years. Only you can make that choice. You can also choose to stop proceeding with sex even if it has started.
10. Know that you’re not alone. Many people practice abstinence at different times of their life.
Pros: Abstinence helps to prevent pregnancy and STIs. It doesn’t cost anything. It may be in line with your own personal values or beliefs.
Cons: It can be difficult to manage sexual tension. Abstinence may be difficult to maintain especially if you are feeling pressured to have sex or if you strongly desire to have sex. It may still carry risks for pregnancy or STIs depending on how you and/or your partner define abstinence and the information you have about sexual health.
Breastfeeding (or chestfeeding, also called the lactational amenorrhea method or LAM)
Breastfeeding (or chestfeeding) can be used as a method of contraception during the first 6 months after giving birth, if you have not yet started getting your period again and you are breastfeeding or pumping regularly (no more than 4 hours apart). As long as these conditions are strictly in place, this method can be 98% effective during the first 6 months after birth.
Pros: Breastfeeding (or chestfeeding) is beneficial for a baby’s health and for developing a parent-child bond. This method is free and doesn’t cause any side effects.
Cons: It can only be used for 6 months after delivery, with certain conditions. Once conditions change, another birth control method is needed. It does not protect against STIs. As the baby begins to eat solids and eat food other than just breastmilk, it is important to switch to a different type of birth control.
Effectiveness: LAM is at least 98% effective during the first 6 months after giving birth, as long as you are still solely breast/chestfeeding your baby and have not started getting your period again.
Fertility awareness method (also known as FAM)
This is a natural method of birth control that involves charting signs of fertility on a daily basis so that you can understand your fertility patterns and know when you are fertile and able to conceive. There are two ways to go about it. The first one involves examining your cervical mucous (normal vaginal discharge) daily for its color and texture. The second one combines examining your cervical mucous and taking your temperature each morning with a basal thermometer. The second way is more effective. FAM can be used to plan a pregnancy or to avoid one. It requires commitment and daily monitoring of fertility patterns. If you are using this method to avoid pregnancy, you will have to avoid having vaginal sex or use condoms on fertile days. If your average cycle is 28 days long, you will be most fertile on day 12, 13, and 14, though this should be adjusted for longer or shorter cycles and can also be impacted by stress levels.
You should know: FAM is sometimes confused with other natural methods of birth control such as the rhythm method and natural family planning. Natural family planning can involve either of the above-mentioned approaches, but it does not support the use of barrier methods for your fertile days and is typically done within a religious framework. The rhythm method (calendar method) involves a series of calculations to determine your most fertile days. The rhythm method is not a reliable form of birth control. There are many apps you can download to keep track of your cervical mucus and temperatures.
Pros: If used perfectly, FAM is an effective form of birth control. FAM increases awareness of your body and can increase communication between partners. It’s also free and has no side-effects.
Cons: Using FAM properly requires education and practice as well as constant monitoring. If you have an irregular cycle, it’s still possible to use this method effectively, but it may be more difficult. Your cycle may also be impacted by changes in your lifestyle, including stress and changes to your body weight. The fertility awareness method requires both partners to be motivated and knowledgeable about fertility. Body disturbances (e.g. fevers, stress, and medication) may change body symptoms, throwing off the patterns you are familiar with. FAM does not protect against STIs.
Effectiveness: The fertility awareness method is 80% effective with typical use and 91-99% effective with perfect use.
Withdrawal (the pull-out method)
This method relies on a person withdrawing or “pulling out” their penis out of the vagina before ejaculation (the moment when semen spurts out of the penis). Its effectiveness relies on doing it correctly, every single time. You must be able to know when you are reaching the point when ejaculation can no longer be stopped or postponed. Ejaculation from the penis then happens outside of the vagina. If you cannot predict this moment accurately, withdrawal will not be as effective. That said, even when done perfectly and the penis is pulled out in time, pregnancy can still happen as pre-ejaculate may contain enough sperm to cause pregnancy.
Pros: It can be used to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy when no other method is available. There are no medical or hormonal side effects. No prescription is necessary. It’s free.
Cons: The biggest disadvantage is the risk of using withdrawal incorrectly. It makes it an unreliable method of birth control. The withdrawal method requires great self-control, experience and trust. It’s not recommended as a birth control method for people who don’t know when to pull out. It’s not recommended for teens and sexually inexperienced people because it takes lots of experience before someone can be sure to know when they’re going to cum. It does not protect against STIs.