Let’s Talk About Sex, Vandy: The blurred lines of abstinence

Outercourse, periodic and more

You might still be reeling from your abstinence-only sexual education in high school that burned into your head that abstinence means no sexual activity at all. However, abstinence can mean a variety of things, and sexual education programs get it wrong by not taking into account the variety of definitions of abstinence.

Sexual abstinence is actually the practice of refraining from some or all aspects of sexual activity. Abstinence is a very effective method of birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted infections. But, it’s important to realize that in the same way that “hooking up” means very different things for different people, so does abstinence because there are different levels and everyone’s sexual limits are different.

Some people might engage in complete abstinence, which means they are not engaging in any form of oral, vaginal or anal sex. 100 percent abstinence means 100 percent protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. However, some people might find it difficult to commit to complete abstinence. An alternative might be outercourse which is exactly what it sounds like: a range of different activities including kissing, massaging, mutual masturbation, grinding, dry humping and many others that take place outside of the vagina. The important distinction here is that vaginal sex does not occur and, to prevent pregnancy, semen does not enter the vagina.

Others might take it a step further and engage in oral and anal sex. However, it is very important to use condoms and dental dams because the transmission of sexually transmitted infections is still a risk due to skin-to-skin contact and the exchange of bodily fluids. Finally, some people might practice periodic abstinence, also known as fertility awareness or the rhythm method, where sexual intercourse does not take place on the days of a woman’s menstrual cycle when pregnancy might occur. Alternatively, women may use barrier methods during that time.

A common question people have when practicing abstinence is: when is the right time to have sex? There is no absolute right time to have sex, but rather, a right time for each individual person. That could mean that college might not be the right time for you. Having sex is an individual decision and should not be influenced by the actions of our peers. In fact, not as many of our peers our having sex as most people think. In one study of 700 college students, researchers found that forty percent were virgins and 41 percent of women and 49 percent men were not sexually active. Many students are practicing some form of abstinence for personal, religious or medical reasons, so you’re not alone. Having open and consistent communication with your partner is most important so that if decisions change, you feel comfortable addressing them.


  1. Abstaining from coitus offers limited protection against STDs, as STDs can be transmitted by kissing, shared needles or razors, other body fluids, skin-to-skin contact, and babies can even be born with STDs. Thus, it is very misleading to state, as the Texas Education Code does, that abstinence is 100% effective against STDs. See https://www.stdcheck.com/blog/how-to-get-an-std-without-having-sex/

    Add that to the fact that 60% of college students surveyed don’t think that oral sex is sex, and 19% think that anal sex isn’t sex, it becomes clear that “abstinence” or “outercourse” isn’t much protection at all. As a goal, it is worthy to teach teens to wait until marriage or other committed, loving relationship, but young married couples STILL need to learn family planning and disease prevention. See http://www.treble-up.com for one example of a marriage friendly program.