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Not Doing It is Not Enough: Defining Abstinence with Teens

Abstinence can mean different things to different people. Some teens may understand abstinence to mean avoiding any type of sexual contact. Others may believe that oral and anal intercourse count as abstinence because these behaviors do not lead to pregnancy. To add to the confusion, many curricula do not clearly define abstinence.

Whether teaching one activity or an entire curriculum on abstinence, it is imperative that the educator and youth are using the same definition of abstinence. Here are some steps that will help you and your teens create a clear definition.

Do Your Homework

  1. Determine the role abstinence plays in the activity/curriculum you will be heading. If the purpose of the activity/curriculum is pregnancy prevention, abstinence could mean avoiding vaginal intercourse. If, however, the purpose is pregnancy prevention and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the definition of abstinence must include avoiding anal and oral sex since these behaviors can transmit an STI.

  2. Have a "bottom line" definition in mind before you begin leading the activity/curriculum. You can present this definition to the youth if the group is too shy or uncomfortable to develop a definition together as suggested in the section below: "Involve Youth in Defining Abstinence."

    Here are a couple of possible definitions of sexual abstinence between two consenting people:

    • avoiding vaginal intercourse (penis to vagina sex),
    • avoiding vaginal, oral (mouth to penis or vagina sex) and anal intercourse (penis to anus sex), or
    • avoiding genital contact (any type of direct touching of the partner's penis or vagina)

  3. Be prepared to talk about alternatives to sexual intercourse. If youth are given the impression that all types of sexual contact are "off limits," they may feel discouraged from participating in the discussion. Afterall, their new feelings, attractions and curiosities are very real.

    Such "outercourse" discussion allows educators to discuss alternatives to sexual intercourse like hand holding, kissing, back massage or even masturbation. Nonphysical activities like making your partner a tape of her/his favorite music, eating together or exercising together can also be satisfying and build a sense of intimacy. (For more alternatives to sexual intercourse, go to ETR Associates Publishing and search for the pamphlet "101 Ways to Make Love Without Doin' It.")

Involve Youth in Defining Abstinence

  1. Tell the group that they will be working together to define the word "abstinence." People have different definitions of abstinence, so sometimes the word can be confusing. It's important to come up with a common definition of abstinence because the group will be discussing abstinence quite a bit in the activity/curriculum.

  2. Ask each student to take out a piece of paper and write a definition for "sexual abstinence." Suggest that they start by thinking about any feelings, thoughts, images, etc. that come to mind when they hear the word "abstinence" and to use these to help them arrive at a personal definition.

    Acknowledge that timing and context may be factors in personal definitions of abstinence. For example, for moral or religious reasons, some people may define abstinence as no sexual contact until after marriage. Tell the students NOT to write their names on their papers.

  3. Collect all papers and read them aloud to the class. Record definitions on the board or on newsprint. Put check marks next to similar definitions. If necessary, suggest definitions that have not been considered.

  4. Lead a large group discussion about which behaviors and what situations should be included in the group's common definition.

  5. Start the group discussion by asking the students to look at the definitions listed and see if there are any common definitions or themes. Group the definitions according to their responses.

  6. Ask the students to look at the grouped definitions and decide which definition they think is appropriate for a given situation. For example, ask the students, "If the curriculum is about preventing STIs, which definition do you think is most appropriate and why?" Then ask the students which definition of abstinence they think is appropriate for the activity/curriculum you are teaching.

  7. After some discussion, if there is a general consensus and the students' definition of abstinence is similar to your bottom line definition, post it on the board or on newsprint. Inform the students that for the purpose of this activity/curriculum, the group will be using this definition of abstinence.

    If the students cannot agree on a definition or their choice is off the mark, present and post your bottom line definition of abstinence. While acknowledging the validity of other definitions, explain why this is the appropriate one to use for the purposes of this activity/curriculum.

Want more on abstinence? See the Educator Skill "Abstinence Education: What Are My Options" and the Topic in Brief on abstinence.