“YOU’RE not religious. Why should you be abstinent?”
Or: “Abstinence is just for conservatives. You probably also think gay people shouldn’t get married.”
Or, even better: “Abstinence is just an excuse because you’re not getting any.”
At various points during our Princeton careers, we’ve both had periods of abstinence and heard these pieces of wisdom. We both have had sex before marriage (assuming we do marry); one of us doesn’t have sex outside of committed relationships, and the other has spent part of her college career with the active decision to abstain. Abstinence, for both of us, was an important personal choice. It was temporary, but it allowed us to respect our bodies and our boundaries and to make sure that when we did have sex, it was the sex we wanted to be having.
Abstinence seemed logical and not particularly unusual. But our friends were still confused about and sometimes antagonistic toward our terminology. Our use of the word “abstinence” to describe our decisions was often the launching point for a series of assumptions about our political beliefs, our ethical values and our religious traditions. And when we tried to separate abstinence from chastity, we got blank stares.
Abstinence is at the center of a storm of controversy over our campus sexual ethic, but we all seem to be surprisingly ignorant about the different forms it can take. For example, abstinence and chastity are not synonymous. Celibacy, a word that is often invoked somewhat confusedly in these conversations, has even less to do with abstinence. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, chastity is “purity from unlawful intercourse,” while celibacy is the “state of living unmarried.” Both of these ethics imply a moral choice, a view of some forms of sex as categorically impure.
By contrast, abstinence doesn’t need to be connected to sex — you can abstain from doing anything, for any reason. It’s a simple “no” — without moral implications. You can be abstinent for a weekend. You can be abstinent after being in a sexual relationship. You can choose to be abstinent at any point in your life. As a college student, you can be abstinent knowing that you will probably have sex before marriage.