St. John’s Antigua- Abstinence is a highly sexual activity. And when we encourage it among young people or people of any age, we are asking them to think sexually. We will fail in our attempts to engage people in considering abstinence as an appropriate sexual behaviour unless we contemplate the sex in abstinence.
Some studies show that the average man thinks about sex 15 times in the hour, about once every four minutes on average. We are not talking here about extended sexual thoughts; sometimes it is only a flash of an erotic image.
The frequency of thinking about sex in a young 17 year-old male is perhaps far greater, with all the hormones ranging within. Without being familiar with similar research for women, one suspects that the frequency of sexual thoughts is perhaps the same for women.
So when we invite a young man or woman to consider abstinence as a resolution to their sexual desires, we are asking him or her to take hold of this sexual pummeling going on in the body, wrap it up, and lock it away somewhere. The act of focusing on one’s sexual reveries is inherently a very sexual act.
Abstaining from sex is not all that unusual; though when we hear the word it rings with so many moral, religious overtones and has this aura of a lifetime painful struggle with the sexual demons inside us. But to choose to abstain from sex is a perfectly legitimate choice, even when it is based on nothing to do with religion or morality.
In reality abstinence is about postponing sex. When we say to teenagers “Abstain from sex”, we are not really requesting that they forever stay away from sex. Of course, we don’t usually say when is the appropriate time to have sex except the religious suggestion to wait till marriage. And this is ignored by most everyone in the Caribbean.
All of us from time to time have had to postpone sex. Not every sexual thought drives us into frenzied sexual action. In many instances we simply let the sex thought go its way and we bide our time for that occasion when thoughts of sex and the opportunity for sex combine for a pleasurable whole. Brian Lara is a master at abstinence when he is at bat; he is very skilled at turning away those sexual visions as he faces the ball. And those sexual visions do pop up and sometimes at the most inopportune moments. We have little control over the timing.
Of course, while we postpone sex, we do so in the knowledge that the time for sex will soon come. When we try to engage adolescents, however, in postponing sexual involvement, we tend to offer a bleak future of no sex at all. Sometimes, not even masturbation is a healthy outlet.
And this is the problem with much of the abstinence advocacy: it fails to see the sex in abstinence and offers no prospect for joyous sex at some later time.
In some professional circles, there is too easy a dismissal of abstinence or postponing sexual involvement as a behaviour to recommend to young people in the Caribbean. It is true that abstinence is not the norm in the Caribbean as it is say in Sudan or in Myanmar. In these countries it is not unusual to find a 25 year old professional being very proud about not yet having sex and is happy to wait till marriage for sex. There is much serenity and delight in being able to abstain from sex.
But in the Caribbean, when by the age of 16 60-70 per cent of young men are already sexually involved, one is naturally inclined to focus on this group as being at risk of an unplanned pregnancy, or being infected with HIV or other sexually-transmitted disease. But we need to recognise that not every one is having sex. And while from a public health point of view it behooves us to worry about the sexually involved, this should not mean we ignore the needs of those who have chosen to abstain from sex.
In countries where abstinence is the norm among young people, they still express a desire for reassuring support which would enhance their decisions to postpone sex in the face of many pressures to do other wise. Young people have their own heart-felt reasons for wanting to delay sexual involvement and many would welcome reassuring support for their decisions. In such instances to provide this reassuring support would be prudent. To do so , however, and ignore the needs of those who have chosen sexual involvement would be unkind and insensitive, if not cruel.
Dr Everold Hosein is Senior Communication Advisor/Consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO). He is also an Adjunct Professor at New York University and Indiana University. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect any official views of the WHO, New York University or Indiana University.