On abstinence and sex education

Here is a question from a regular reader:

“What role do you think the choice of abstinence should play in sexuality education?”

Well, I think it’s critical. All teenagers must know, absolutely, that the choice to have sexual intercourse is first and foremost theirs to make about their own body. And making the decision to not have intercourse is often a wise one, given just the physical issues involved with sexual intercourse. To elaborate, it is often useful to ask teenagers what their goal is with having intercourse. If it is sexual pleasure, there are many ways to achieve that without intercourse. If it is physical and emotional closeness with their partner, there are many ways to achieve that without intercourse. If they feel pressured, well, that’s a huge red flag (see above). If they want to get pregnant, well, they probably need more experience with babies, and they should get a job or volunteer at a daycare center to get a sense of what babies are really like.

But the critical thing about all of this is that these pieces of information can’t just be thrown at the teenagers – they need to come to these realizations on their own. It’s hard as a parent, educator, friend, to let them do this. But it’s the way that has the largest impact on them. And they can and will, through some good conversation with adults where the adults are primarily listening and asking the occasional question, come to those realizations.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. If they’re feeling pressured, do you think the pressure comes from their partners, from society at large telling them that people who don’t have sex are undesirable/unattractive, or from somewhere else?

  2. From society, from their partners, from their friends, from within. Everywhere.

    Notably, the cohort that an adolescent hangs out with has a huge affect on their age at first intercourse and the number of partners they have.

    Adolescents also feel pressure from within – this is something of a conglomerate of all of the other pressures from society, partners, and friends. Adolescents aren’t always sure where the pressure to have intercourse is coming from – but they sure feel it. And that’s what I’m calling pressure from within. Being able to figure out where it’s coming from is an important step for adolescents to find their real desires and choices.

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