Abstinence & Safe Sex

Preventing unplanned pregnancy & reducing the risk of STDs

Abstinence & safe sex at a glance

  • Abstinence – or not having sex – is the best way to avoid getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and prevent an unplanned pregnancy.
  • Practicing safer sex means you are reducing your chance of getting an STD by using a condom every time you have sex. It also means you are using an effective method of birth control such as an implant, IUD, pill, patch, ring or Depo injection.
  • Practicing safer sex also means that you are able to talk to your partner about abstinence, sex, condoms, birth control and more. If you are unable, or too embarrassed, to talk to your partner about these things, it’s a good idea to wait to have sex, or take a step back and stop having sex if you are already active.
  • It is also important to talk with a trusted adult and a health care provider to make sure you have accurate information about sex, STDs and birth control.

What is sexual abstinence?

In general, the word abstinence means “holding back from doing something.” The most common definition of sexual abstinence means not having oral, vaginal or anal sex. Medical providers use this definition because oral, vaginal and anal sex have the greatest risk of STDs. Additionally, vaginal sex also carries the risk of unplanned pregnancy.

There are many other sexual behaviors like kissing, touching and masturbation. For some people, being abstinent also includes these behaviors, and for some people it does not.

Many teens choose to be abstinent for a variety of reasons including preventing an unplanned pregnancy and reducing the risk of getting an STD. Many teens also choose to be abstinent because they aren’t ready to deal with the emotional and physical consequences that can occur in a sexual relationship.

Why choose to be abstinent?

Just because your peers may be sexually active (or say they are), doesn’t mean you should feel pressured into being sexually active yourself. In fact, more than half of all high school age teens have never had sex. Deciding when to have sex is a personal decision.

It’s important to know that many teens who have had sex already wish that they had waited. Some common reasons are:

  • They couldn’t talk to their partner about what they did or didn’t want to do.
  • They couldn’t be open with their partner about what felt good and what didn’t.
  • They were worried about getting an STD or being pregnant after having sex.
  • They got an STD or got pregnant from having sex and then had to deal with the consequences.
  • Although they liked their partner at the time, they didn’t give themselves long enough to get to know them.
  • They thought that having sex would make them more respected among their friends, but this didn’t happen.
  • They thought that having sex would keep the relationship together, but they still broke up.
  • They regret the rumors and gossip that happened after they broke up with their partner.

Protecting against STDs

Having sex puts you at risk for contracting an STD – a sexually transmitted disease. STDs are spread through intimate or very close contact like vaginal, oral and anal sex. STDs affect millions of Americans, and teens and young adults are among the highest at-risk groups.

What are STDs?

Sexually transmitted diseases are infections that include chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes, syphilis, hepatitis, and HIV.

STDs can cause hard-to-treat infections, scarring, cancer, infertility and other damage to your body, and are very contagious. Though some STDs can be treated and cured, others like HIV and herpes cannot.

This is why it is recommended that everyone get tested for HIV. It is also recommended that teen girls and young women who have had sex get tested for chlamydia each year. Depending on other factors, other STD testing may be recommended. The only way to know if you have an STD is to get tested. Most of the time, there are no symptoms of having an STD.

How to reduce the chances of getting an STD

Receiving and giving oral sex can transmit STDs. Sexually transmitted diseases enter the body through openings in the skin or mucus membranes. Any form of sexual contact can allow a disease to enter the body.

There are some important ways to reduce the risk of getting an STD.

  1. Use condoms. If you do have sex, the risk of STDs can be greatly reduced by using a latex condom every single time. Condoms can be bought at any grocery store or convenience store, and if you are or plan to be sexually active, it is important to have a condom before having sex. Many teens have questions about how to use condoms and how to talk to their partner about using them. Learn more about using condoms>>
  2. Get vaccinated. Routine vaccinations are recommended for teens. This includes a vaccine against HPV, the virus that causes oral, anal, and cervical cancer. This vaccine is recommended for both males and females.  Make sure your other vaccines are up-to-date.

STD testing

If you are having sex, it is important to get tested regularly for STDs (even if you are using condoms). Early detection and treatment are important to your health.

Routine testing for females includes a test for Chlamydia each year that can be done by collecting a urine sample or vaginal swab (no pelvic exam needed). Routine testing for males and females includes an HIV test at least once. Other STD tests might be indicated based on your own medical history and other factors.

Preventing unplanned pregnancy

Ninety out of 100 teens and young women will get pregnant within one year of having sex if they are not using a good method of birth control.

Here are some common MYTHS about getting pregnant. A girl can get pregnant even if:

  • She is on her period.
  • It’s her first time having sex.
  • She has sex standing up.
  • Her partner uses the “pull out method.”

Having vaginal sex, even if the male partner penetrates briefly or only makes contact with the vaginal area, puts you at risk for becoming pregnant.

Sperm are programed to reach a woman’s egg and can survive inside a woman’s body for up to seven days while trying to accomplish fertilization (conception – the beginning of pregnancy). For this reason, sexually active teens should take precaution and use a contraceptive (birth control) method to prevent pregnancy.

Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy, but multiple birth control options are available that, when used correctly, are extremely effective in preventing pregnancy.

Birth control for teens

If you are a young woman who plans to become or is sexually active, it is important to decide what kind of birth control you will use. Talk to a parent, a trusted adult or a health care provider about choosing the right birth control method for you.

Methods such as the implant, IUD, pill, patch, ring and Depo shot are the most effective ways to prevent unplanned pregnancy. It is still important to use a condom to prevent STDs.

Long-acting reversible birth control

The first-line choice for teens who want to avoid pregnancy is long-acting reversible methods such as the IUD or the implant. These methods use hormones to regulate the menstrual cycle, preventing an egg from being developed and released, in addition to a number of other effects that help prevent pregnancy.

Long-acting reversible birth control methods are often much more effective than the pill or condoms because once an IUD or implant is in place, it works for several years without further action (no need to pick anything up from a pharmacy, remember to do something, or talk to your partner about what method to use).

Birth control methods like the IUD, the implant and other methods like birth control pills require a doctor’s prescription so be sure to plan ahead and schedule an appointment with your OB-GYN if you need an effective method of birth control. Make sure you listen to all of the doctor’s instructions, including when it will be effective.

Hormonal methods of contraception do not protect against STDs. Use a condom in addition to an effective birth control method such as an IUD, implant or birth control pills to add another layer of protection.

Learn more about birth control

Emergency contraception, Plan B

Emergency contraception (EC), or the morning after pill, may also be used to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.

Learn more about using emergency birth control>>


Latex condoms are a popular and effective method of birth control when used correctly. They also provide added protection against most STDs. The best types of condoms are those that contain spermicides, which help stop any sperm that may leak from the condom.

Condoms are available at any grocery or convenience store, and do not require a prescription from a doctor.

Condoms are a very effective method of birth control; however, improper use of condoms can lead to birth control failure and potential pregnancy. Be sure you understand how to properly use a condom before having sex.

Learn more about using condoms>>

Talk with your partner

Part of having a healthy relationship is communication. If you are thinking about having sex with your partner, then you need to talk about it first. Be clear with each other what you want to do, and how you will protect yourselves against STDs and pregnancy.

Learn about talking with your partner at www.beforeplay.org/get-talking