Contrary to popular opinion, refraining from sexual activity is not psychologically harmful. Sexual energy can be strong, but its expression is not essential for maintaining physical or emotional health.
Sexual abstinence is the only foolproof way to avoid both unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). However, trying to force abstinence on sexually active persons for these reasons will almost certainly fail.
Sexual abstinence is not normative for human beings. For most people sexual partnership and family life are the best choices. Although sexual abstinence can be a healthy way of life for spiritual reasons, some motives for it are faulty.
Various fears of or repugnance for sexuality lead to abstinence in some people. Such sexual abstinence is usually not psychologically healthy. All who practice abstinence out of such motives are best served by counseling that will relieve their misperceptions or troubled emotions.
Some people refrain from sex out of fear of the opposite sex. Some have been abused as children and shun sexuality because it brings up painful emotions that have not been adequately processed. Others refrain because of fear of disease or pregnancy. People with excessively puritanical upbringing may equate sexuality with evil or dirtiness. Their disinclination to sexual activity is also not healthy.
Some people choose sexual abstinence for moral reasons. Those who consider all sexual activity outside of marriage sinful usually try to practice abstinence. Most often this is temporary until they marry. Those who remain unmarried but consider abstinence the moral choice may have periods of great conflict over their desires.
Moral demands sometimes make sexual expression within marriage problematic. Sometimes sexual activity during pregnancy is contraindicated. For health reasons women ought to refrain from sexual activity for some weeks after giving birth. Those who consider contraception immoral must practice periodic abstinence to avoid inopportune pregnancies. Known carriers of sexually transmitted diseases may need to be abstinent out of consideration for a disease-free spouse.
Choosing sexual abstinence as a lifelong option for spiritual reasons holds a venerable place in many world religions. When the motive is to have more time either for spiritual practice or to serve other people, it can be a positive and life-fulfilling choice.
Monasteries and convents have long existed for those who retire from worldly activity to live lives of prayer. Some develop deep concern for and sensitivity to the suffering in the world and live truly self-sacrificial lives in prayer for others. Some sisterhoods and brotherhoods that practice sexual abstinence are devoted to missions of special service to others, such as teaching or nursing. Freedom from family responsibilities makes one’s entire life available for a chosen service.
While failing to relieve sexual tension is not harmful, dishonesty with oneself about sexual feelings and urges can be. People unable to recognize their sexual urges may be pushed to act upon them without realizing what is moving them until they pass the point of stopping. Some who try to stay sexually abstinent by distorting awareness of their urges fail; they may resort to abusive or hidden ways of relieving sexual tensions.
Abstinence is easiest when motives for it are appropriate and one is in touch with what one is feeling. Those practicing either permanent or temporary abstinence for wholesome motives must be honest with themselves about sexual feelings and attractions if they are to be healthily abstinent.