(Post originally written for the Guiding Star Project)
Abstinence. It’s a word that makes many of us cringe. It means avoiding some indulgence, not partaking in a pleasurable activity, resisting our desires. When we think of periodic sexual abstinence in marriage, we generally think of cruel deprivation. ‘Natural’ or ‘beneficial’ are not words that we associate with abstinence, but I argue that they should be. This might come as a surprise – after all, what could possibly be positive about avoiding sex with your spouse?
If you think about it, everyone of reproductive age today (at least in Western cultures) has grown up in a post-sexual revolution society. Sex in general, and especially sex in marriage, is seen as a given, a right, something to be taken for granted. With the creation of modern contraception, it is possible to have intercourse pretty much whenever – without considering the possibility of pregnancy. As fun as this may sound, the prospect of continuous sexual activity is actually pretty unnatural.
Just look at the way a woman’s body is designed. She has phases of her menstrual cycle that affect her in different ways as the month progresses. For 3-7 days, she has a period, a time that indicates rest and solitude. Her mood changes from week to week, as do her relational needs. Sometimes she longs to be held and caressed, and at other times she needs her space. When a woman is not contracepting, she is often more in touch with this natural ebb and flow of physical and relational needs. It’s part of being a woman.
With hormonal contraception, however, the natural cycle is suppressed. A woman’s period is often shorter and lighter. Though this may be convenient, it doesn’t foster the same rest and rejuvenation that a true period does. Her hormones are replaced with synthetic versions, which react in her body quite differently than her own. She may lose her desire for sex, while ironically living with an expectation of constant sexual availability.
But there is another way. Instead of chemically shutting down her reproductive system to avoid pregnancy, a woman can learn natural family planning. This involves working with her body’s cycles rather than against them. There is only a short window each month when conception is possible, and the female body has physical signs that indicate when this time has come and passed. A woman can learn to read these signs, and simply avoid sexual activity on the days when conception could occur. When learned and practiced correctly, this method can be over 99% effective. Natural family planning is a philosophy of fertility acceptance, rather than fertility suppression.
Which brings us back to the abstinence question. What possible benefit could this have? Wouldn’t hormones or barriers be a much simpler way to avoid pregnancy? Simpler, perhaps. Better? That’s up for debate. Besides the risks and side effects of hormones (too numerous to go into here) and the clumsiness of barriers, saying no natural family planning (and the opportunity for periodic abstinence) means missing out on its many benefits.
For example: a couple who refrains from sex periodically for the purpose of avoiding pregnancy must find other ways to express affection. They must learn the art of self control, a skill which is often sadly lost in our culture of instant gratification. They must be excellent communicators, not only discussing the intimate details of the woman’s fertility signs, but they must also have the ability to share their thoughts, feelings, needs, desires and frustrations. They must frequently discuss their dreams for the future, their intentions for their family, their hopes and fears. All of these things are qualities that are required for success with natural family planning, but more than that, they are essential ingredients for a healthy relationship. Does your birth control method foster these traits?
Abstinence won’t kill us. In fact, it could make us stronger. It could make us fall deeper in love. Would you give it a try?