The Difference Between Chastity and Abstinence

Abstinence and chastity are not the same thing. Abstinence is about saying no, while chastity is about channeling healthy sexual desires. We’ll go over definitions for both.

Depending on your background, the word “chastity” might make your skin crawl.

For me, it conjures up an image of a woman in a frilly 18th-century dress with multiple layers of undergarments, being careful to not reveal her ankles to anyone.

Even as an evangelical Christian raised in the golden age of purity culture, I viewed chastity as a bit weird. But I’ve come to change my mind.

First, let’s talk about abstinence.

Is Abstinence a Virtue?

When I was dedicated to waiting until marriage for sex, I was defensive of the concept of abstinence. I’d hear of movies like “Never Been Kissed or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and feel like culture at large was making fun of people who waited, and perhaps had a good reason to do so.

Especially when a friend confused celibacy with abstinence, I was sure to correct them. Abstinence was temporary, while celibacy was a lifelong vow.

Abstinence-only teaching in churches implies that saving sex for marriage is delayed gratification. If you wait, the sex will be so much better. The bond with your partner will be deeper. The pleasure will be more pleasurable.

Once I was old enough to have friends who were sexually active, I began to see this wasn’t true. There are nuances to sex and relationships. Great sex doesn’t come from waiting — it comes from practice and knowing your own body.

In my book, Shameless, I talk more about how abstinence-fueled shame can detract from good relationships.

Is Chastity Healthy?

Although I had originally written off chastity, I decided to revisit the term. Chastity is defined as a lifelong virtue and identity, while abstinence is a decision about behavior. Chastity is a positive message, while abstinence tells you what not to do.

But, most articles on the topic still indicate that sex should only take place in marriage.

Next, I looked at the definition of chastity in Merriam-Webster.

The first definition was split into four sub-definitions.

  • abstention from unlawful sexual intercourse
  • abstention from all sexual intercourse
  • purity in conduct and intention
  • restraint and simplicity in design or expression

If you break these down, it seems the focus is on restraint. The first sub-definition references “unlawful sexual intercourse,” which would vary depending on what country and time period one was born in. Only the second sub-definition refers to all sexual intercourse.

The second definition simply reads: personal integrity.

For some, chastity might mean wearing protection to promote the health both of themselves and their partner. For others, it might mean getting to a certain comfort level in the relationship before having sex. It could be unrelated to specific sex acts, but be about being clear about your intentions in a relationship.

For those who have rejected the abstinence-only lifestyle, the concept of chastity offers a new guideline for how to express healthy sexual desires.

Buy my book, Shameless: How I Lost My Virginity and Kept My Faith, now: