What the hell is 'secondary abstinence'?

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Abstinence may be the only method of birth control that can happen by accident. Unlike, say, putting on a condom or taking a pill, it's not always a deliberate choice—it's merely the state into which a person enters when he or she isn't having sex with another person.


This being the case, abstinence can have the unsettling habit of sneaking up on you, kind of like it did for Ali Rachel Pearl—the writer of a recent New York Times Modern Love column titled "On Tinder, Off Sex." The question is: Is all abstinence created equal?

In her column, Pearl recounts a phenomenon that's all too familiar. She writes that, despite trying dating apps and putting herself out there, she hasn't had sex in two years and has fallen into a state that she calls "accidental abstaining." Her gynecologist, however, had a different word for it: "secondary abstaining."

"Secondary abstinence" isn't a term Pearl had heard before, it definitely isn't one I was familiar with as a reader—and when I first saw it in The New York Times, I wasn't sure I bought it. So I Googled it to see if somehow I'd missed out on this qualified state of sexual purity.

There were a handful of options to explore.

Most references came from faith-based sites, like Abstinence Resource Center, that promote abstinence as the best way to maintain integrity in a romantic relationship and offer secondary abstinence as a sometimes life throws you a second chance type deal. The center's website features first-person stories from young folks who've chosen to secondary abstain.

One comes from Tiffany, age 23:

"They always say that your first time is your best time," Tiffany writes. "I think whoever said that was wrong. I chose secondary virginity and my best time was on my wedding night. It truly felt like the first time I really experienced what sex was supposed to be; there was such an amazing difference. The man I married was the man I gave my virginity to 2 years earlier. So no one can say I married a guy who was 'better at it.' There is something that happens when sex is inside marriage that changes everything. We may have made mistakes but we decided to wait together."


Lovematters.com, an anti-abortion site dedicated to helping young men and women maintain sexual purity, gives steps on how to become a secondary virgin, which is a person who practices secondary abstinence.

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Or for $1.39 plus shipping and handling, you can purchase an entire pamphlet on the practice of secondary abstinence.

"This pamphlet for mature teens and young adults promotes the benefits of practicing abstinence until marriage, even if a person has had sex in the past," reads the product description. "Discusses the physical, emotional, and moral risks of premarital sex. Discusses nonsexual ways to be intimate, and provides strategies for combating sexual pressure."


Another slew of references for "secondary abstaining" comes from a 2012 study that explored secondary abstinence as an option "among young African American females at risk for HIV or STIs." The study basically found that abstaining from sex for a period of time lessened the risk of contracting or spreading HIV and other STIs, but interest level in secondary abstinence was hard to gauge.

And then there's another small study from 2009 that references a survey of Texas students who reported engaging in secondary abstinence in college. Of the 1,133 undergraduate students surveyed, about 12.5% reported being secondary abstinent, and some of the biggest predictors for that behavior were "greater religious ties, and previous negative sexual experiences."


But nothing in the Google search results for "secondary abstinence" or "secondary abstaining" indicated it was a generally accepted term in obstetrics or gynecology, as Pearl's doctor seemed to imply during their exchange.

To check the medical validity of this born-again virgin concept, I sent an inquiry to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Within a few hours, Jennifer Conti, an OBGYN at Stanford University, got in touch to help me figure out whether or not "secondary abstinence" is something you're likely to hear at a gyno appointment.


"Secondary abstinence is not a medically recognized term," Conti told me over the phone. "There are several reasons why someone may choose to practice abstinence, and it's important to be careful of qualifiers that may make patients feel judged about their sexuality."

Conti made the point that "abstinence is abstinence, regardless of when in your life you’re practicing it," and adding a qualifier like "secondary" in front of it turns a perfectly normal, healthy, and common practice into one that feels shameful and embarrassing.


Basically, if you're currently practicing abstinence—which is to say you're not involved in sexual activity, whether it's on purpose or by accident—there's nothing secondary about it.

Hannah Smothers is a reporter for Fusion's Sex & Life section, a Texpat, and a former homecoming princess.