Abstinence: Why? Where? And, when it started (in Handbook of Sexualities)

The full article appears in the SAGE Handbook of Global Sexualities (available now).

Abstinence, whether temporary or lifelong, is a fascinating subject to most people because its practice has both detractors and admirers. The Catholic religion has elevated abstinence as a path to men’s and women’s higher, more spiritual nature. Traditionally, lust – or raw appetite not connected to procreative intentions – has been seen as sinful. Clergy must forego the pleasures of the flesh as part of their devotion to God. Purity of spirit is directly related to purity of body. In both Christianity and Islam, mainstream voices associate women’s social value with their ‘chaste’ character. Women’s virginity is often a requirement for marriage in Muslim societies; some communities even require ‘virginity tests’ at time of marriage to verify the woman’s premarital abstinence (Ahmadzai and Sadeghzadeh, 2017). Abstinence can also be valued for pragmatic reasons; certain countries in Africa endorse abstinence as a prophylactic measure to reduce HIV/AIDS transmission.

Critics of abstinence promotion consider abstinence an unnatural act. Judaism considers sexual intercourse a ‘mitzvah’ (a gift and fortunate deed). Many psychologists, medical professionals, and people in the natural sciences consider abstinence unnatural, even bizarre, since sexual intercourse is necessary for the species to replicate and usually necessary for personal and relationship satisfaction.

Whether one considers abstinence unnatural or not, dialogues on abstinence’s purpose and its presence throughout history hold interest for sexologists who seek to understand why it exists, who practices it, what it tells us about social control, and how it affects the lives of men, women, and society.

Topics in this article include:

  • Gender and virginity
    • Virginity tests
    • Who is abstinence designed for and why?
  • The roots of abstinence in the pre-modern world:
    • The early East and abstinence
    • The early West and abstinence
    • Europe in the early Modern Period
    • The New World (abstinence in the Early Americas)
  • Abstinence in 20th and 21st Century America
    • Early movements
    • The politics of unwed motherhood
    • Contraceptives and eugenics
    • The rise of the Religious Right
  • The push and pull with secular culture
    • The rebranding of modern abstinence movements
      • purity as self-control
      • sex-positivity (in marriage)
      • virginity as a spiritual trait
      • youth events
      • sexual education
  • Psychosocial impacts of abstinence

See full article here.

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