Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 38, Issue 5, pp 665–674 | Cite as

University Students’ Definitions of Sexual Abstinence and Having Sex

  • E. Sandra Byers
  • Joel Henderson
  • Kristina M. Hobson
Original Paper


We asked 298 heterosexual Canadian university students about their definitions of the terms abstinence and having sex. For both terms, students were provided with a list of 17 sexual behaviors and indicated whether they would include each in their definition. The majority of both male and female students included activities that did not involve genital stimulation in their definition of sexual abstinence and did not include these activities in their definition of having sex. Conversely, most students did not include bidirectional sexual stimulation (penile–vaginal intercourse or penile–anal intercourse) in their definitions of sexual abstinence but did include them in their definitions of having sex. Students were quite mixed in whether activities involving unidirectional genital stimulation (e.g., oral sex, genital fondling) constituted abstinence, having sex, or neither abstinence nor having sex. However, they were more likely to see these behaviors as abstinent than as having sex. Students were more likely to rate a behavior as abstinence if orgasm did not occur. A canonical correlation analysis was used to examine the patterns of association between a number of predictors and inclusions of behaviors involving no genital stimulation, unidirectional stimulation, and bidirectional genital stimulation in abstinence definitions. The results indicated that male participants who were more involved with their religion and sexually conservative, less sexually experienced, and who had not received sexual health education at home were more likely to define bidirectional genital stimulation and less likely to define no genital stimulation and unidirectional sexual stimulation as sexual abstinence. The research and health promotion implications of these results are discussed.


Sexual abstinence Having sex Sexual definitions Sexual health 



This research was conducted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a B.A. (Honours) by the second and third authors under the supervision of the first author. The authors would particularly like to thank Lindsay Walsh and Susan Voyer for their help with data collection and data entry. We also appreciate the input into the design of this study of the Human Sexuality Research Group at the University of New Brunswick and Hilary Randall.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. Sandra Byers
    • 1
  • Joel Henderson
    • 1
  • Kristina M. Hobson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of New BrunswickFrederictonCanada

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