I’m Not Sold On “Secondary Abstinence”

In a recent New York Times Modern Love piece, writer Ali Rachel Pearl tells of the time a doctor declared that she was “secondary abstaining” because she hadn’t had sex in two years. She wasn’t staying away from sex by choice, but simply because she was in a phase in her life where sparks just weren’t flying with anyone. As for “secondary abstinence,” she hadn’t heard of the term, but after a little Googling, she learned that it tends to refer to a person who pointedly decides to stop having sex, either to avoid the health risks of sex or (seemingly more commonly) to feel more “pure” for religious reasons. All in all, it seemed like an odd thing for a doctor to mention as if it were a medical term.

A writer at Fusion seems to have felt the same way I did when reading Pearl’s piece, and took her digging a step further. She discovered a multitude of religious and anti-abortion groups that encourage sexually active people to revert back to abstinence in an attempt at a “second chance” to erase the “mistake” of having premarital sex  — essentially, a way to emotionally revirginize themselves so that from that point on they can save themselves for a future spouse. The phrase has also been used to describe a course of action for women who are at risk for STIs – but isn’t avoiding sex in general, whether it’s “secondary” or not, considered a way to avoid STIs?

Here’s what confuses me: isn’t any form of abstinence simply … abstinence? Whether you are avoiding sex intentionally, accidentally, or have never had sex at all, abstaining is abstaining. We already have words for that, like “celibacy” or just “not having sex right now.” Slapping a new label on a lack of sex makes it into a thing, worthy of judgment and commentary and association with values that may not apply to that person. But maybe I’ve just been living under a rock and this phrase is used all the time? Friends, enlighten me. Is this a phrase you’ve ever heard? Do you ever use it? Because I’m not sold on it just yet.

[New York Times]


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