Abstinence is complete and total avoidance of an activity such as drinking, sex, shopping, or gambling. It is commonly used as a strategy for avoiding problematic or dangerous behaviors.

What is Abstinence?

Abstinence stands in contrast to concepts such as limited consumption or self-restraint, because the abstinence model requires complete avoidance of a substance or behavior. For example, a person who limited his or her drinking would not be practicing abstinence, but a person who refused all alcoholic beverages on a long-term basis would be abstaining from drinking.

Abstinence is commonly used to refer to complete avoidance of sexual behaviors, particularly among children and adolescents. A person who only has sex with his or her partner is monogamous but not abstinent. A person, by contrast, who vows not to have sex until marriage has committed to abstinence until marriage.

Role of Abstinence

Abstinence is often a part of recovery programs targeting addictive behaviors. The 12-step model used by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs advocates total abstinence from addictive substances. This is because many researchers believe even a single exposure to an addictive substance can trigger addictive behavior in someone with a substance abuse problem. However, not all addictions can be treated with abstinence. It is not always possible or healthy to avoid certain behaviors for the long term.

Sexual Abstinence

Abstinence from sex is the most reliable way to avoid sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Many high schools and religious programs in the United States teach abstinence-only sex education, advocating for abstaining from sex until marriage. While abstinence is the only guaranteed method for avoiding disease and pregnancy, abstinence-only programs are generally considered ineffective. Some educators advocate instead for emphasizing the benefits of abstinence and then teaching strategies for avoiding disease, ensuring healthy sexuality, and ensuring emotional needs are met.


  1. Abstinence. (n.d.). TeensHealth. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/teen/sexual_health/contraception/abstinence.html
  2. Kohler, P., Manhart, L., & Lafferty, W. (2008). Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42(4), 344-351. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.026
  3. Mandal, A., MD. (n.d.). Abstinence – What is abstinence? News-Medical.net. Retrieved from http://www.news-medical.net/health/What-is-Abstinence.aspx

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

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