Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford


  • Susan HimesEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2456-1



The practice of restraining from a particular behavior.


Abstinence is a broad term that can cover many different behaviors that one may wish to avoid indulging. Although this term can be used in several contexts, abstinence in regards to sexual intercourse will be the focus. Largely used as a personal strategy to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), it is often associated with the avoidance of vaginal intercourse but can also include the avoidance of all sexual activity. Individuals will often have varying definitions of what is considered to be abstinence, but they ultimately have the same goal in mind.

Abstinence in Sex Education

The topics discussed in sex education is a controversial issue. Assuming that the sex education provided in schools is a driving force behind sexual lifestyles, the information that is taught within these courses should be scrutinized. Guidelines for this information are not universally distributed throughout the United States. Depending on where an individual lives in the country, the course may have an abstinence-only focus which stresses the effectiveness of abstinence either by comparing it to other birth control methods or by exclusively discussing abstinence as a birth control strategy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC 2016), the USA has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy among developed countries. Due to this high rate, many studies have been conducted in order to evaluate how effective the different strategies are for teaching sex education, specifically abstinence-only education. Carr and Packham (2016) recently evaluated the different outcomes of teen pregnancy and STD presence in states in which sex education courses stress abstinence. It was found that there were no differences in teen pregnancy rates or STD rates regardless of what was taught in the courses (Carr and Packham 2016). This recent study replicated what has been found in earlier studies. Abstinence-only education does not reduce the prevalence of teen pregnancy or STDs compared to a more comprehensive course that discusses various different forms of birth control including abortion. In fact, it has been shown that individuals who participate in comprehensive sex education courses have a lower likelihood of teen pregnancy (Kohler et al. 2008).

The evidence of previous research concludes that abstinence-only education is ineffective in decreasing teen pregnancy rates and STD rates, but the causes are not quite as clear. One of the main arguments for why sex education should be more comprehensive is because of the instinctual nature of sexual intercourse. Especially during adolescence, the presence of the sexual drive will lead many to participate in sexual activities, regardless of what sexual education they have been exposed to. In order for adolescents to be better equipped to make informed decisions concerning their sexual behaviors, a comprehensive education that covers various birth control methods will provide more of a benefit than an education focused on abstinence.


Abstinence is a personal lifestyle choice that gives the individual a strategy that will not lead to pregnancy. Despite it being the most effective birth control method, when it is taught as the sole form of birth control in sex education, it may actually lead to riskier sexual behaviors as compared to having a more comprehensive course.



  1. Carr, J. B., & Packham, A. (2016). The effects of state-mandated abstinence-based sex education on teen health outcomes. Health economics.Google Scholar
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Reproductive health: Teen pregnancy. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/teenpregnancy/
  3. Kohler, P. K., Manhart, L. E., & Lafferty, W. E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42(4), 344–351.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Kansas State UniversityManhattanUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carey Fitzgerald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South Carolina - BeaufortBlufftonUSA