Abstinence is an equal opportunity behavior

By Amy Johnson, Sex in the Suburbs

Let’s talk about abstinence.

The word “abstinence” seems to cause some youth and adults to roll their eyes (particularly if the adult is uttering the word in front of a youth), and others to strongly defend deeply held values and beliefs. If we separate ourselves into these two camps, I believe we are missing some really important points about abstinence.

I offer you another paradigm, attributed to Pamela Hillard:

Abstinence is a lifelong behavior. It’s a myth that sex is for adults and abstinence is for teens. Adults practice abstinence at different times throughout their lives — there are times when people of all ages plan not to have sex or just don’t feel like it. They are practicing abstinence.

Abstinence is not virginity. Abstinence is an equal opportunity behavior. Whether you have had first sex or not, whether you are in a relationship or not, whether you have been pregnant or made someone pregnant or not, you can choose at any time to be abstinent: To not have sex. It is your right to make the decision every time, throughout your whole life.

Abstinence is a thoughtful choice reflecting personal values. Whatever my beliefs are about the morality of sexual behavior, I can’t make anyone else decide what is best for them. They have to do that themselves. Each person ultimately decides when in his or her life and with whom he or she is going to be sexual — and with whom he or she wants to practice abstinence. Thoughtful decisions are made with a clear mind and free from effects from drugs, alcohol or external pressure.

Abstinence is an expression of personal power and self-confidence. When people feel good about themselves, they make decisions differently than when they feel down on themselves. Making decisions that are sometimes complex and challenging can make people stronger. Caring about yourself is something other people notice; it encourages them to treat you with dignity and respect.

I believe if we focus too much on one definition of this controversial word, we lose a lot of opportunity to be available to our children and youth who are struggling with the enormity of deciding who they are, what they stand for, and how to do that amid daunting peer pressure.

A sitcom this week aired an episode that addressed the pressure in high school for girls to wear different colored bracelets that signified “how far” they’d gone sexually. As parents, we need to be aware of these issues and strive to be sources of availability and safety for our children. When we share our values in respectful ways and honor our children’s abilities to think clearly for themselves, we show them we believe they have the strength to make their own safe, respectful, responsible decisions.

And it’s equally as important for us to be there when they don’t, so we can assure them, that like abstinence, they can choose every time what is best for them.

Amy Johnson, MSW, is a professional life and parent coach in Federal Way. She facilitates faith and sexuality classes for youth, and parenting classes at the Federal Way Community Center. Contact:

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