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So if you're not getting a little action now and then, you're certainly missing out on all of these positive side effects – right?
It may seem backward, but if your sex life isn't quite where you want it to be, choosing to abstain for a short period of time might be just what you need to get your libido back where it belongs.
Jessica O'Reilly, a Toronto-based sexologist, says abstinence varies from person to person. "Some people abstain from all sexual touch, while others only forgo partnered activity or intercourse," she says.
The effects of abstinence differ on a case-by-case basis, but there can be both benefits and disadvantages to abstaining from sex.
The bright side to abstaining from sex
High school teachers tell their students that abstaining from sex is the only way to guarantee they won't catch sexually transmitted infections or get pregnant, but there can be more benefits to abstinence than what you're not getting.
O'Reilly says her clients have reported a number of advantages after abstaining from sex, including "a greater appreciation for physical as opposed to only sexual pleasure. They learned to enjoy the sensations of touch to promote intimacy and connection, exclusive of sexual pleasure."
Choosing to abstain from sex for a period of time has also helped many of O'Reilly's female clients learn more about their own bodies. She says this is particularly positive for women who have never had an orgasm during intercourse with their partners. Once these women learn to pleasure themselves through masturbation, they become more aware of their own desires and responses "without the added pressures and expectations of partnered sex," says O'Reilly, and they are more likely to achieve orgasm during partnered sex.
Couples who abstain from intercourse but explore other types of play and touch may also experience an increase in affection, discover new erogenous zones and master other sexual techniques.
Page 1 of 3 -- Learn the influence abstinence can have on your partner's self-esteem on page 2
Downfalls of abstaining
David McKenzie, a sex therapist and relationship expert based in Vancouver, says, for men – "if you don't use it, you lose it." Similarly, "the longer you're away from sex, the more shy you can become," he adds.
Abstinence can have a significant impact on a person's self-esteem. McKenzie says there are many variables in such situations – and a change in self-esteem is hard to pin solely on someone's sex life – but if one partner is downright refusing the other, then that person's self-esteem can certainly suffer.
"Our culture assigns value to the capacity to attract partners, so when we can't find willing sexual partners, it can have an unnecessary impact on our sexual self-esteem," says O'Reilly.
"The value you put on sex will shape the impacts of abstinence." Of course, how you're affected may also depend on why you have chosen abstinence.
According to O'Reilly, some of the negative effects of abstinence include sexual frustration (particularly if you use sex as a stress reliever) and loss of affection. "If you are abstaining from sex because of tension or unresolved issues in a relationship, you may also cease being affectionate altogether, and this can obviously have a negative impact on levels of intimacy," she says.
O'Reilly also notes that some abstainers may have negative responses to sexual stimuli. "The brain is the most powerful sex organ and fuels all sexual feelings (positive or negative)," O'Reilly says. "Scare tactics used to pressure women (and men) into repressing sexual feelings can have a psychological impact on the development of one's sexual self." She also says sex-negative messages that force people into abstinence can adversely impact how people think about sex.
McKenzie agrees: "Usually people who abstain hide behind religion," he says, "and they could have a fear of intimacy."
Page 2 of 3 -- How far does abstinence go? Find out on page 3
What about masturbation?
O'Reilly refers to masturbation as "one wonderful option from the delicious buffet of sex." It's not necessarily a replacement or substitute for intercourse with a partner, but women do get many of the same health benefits from masturbation as they do from partnered sex, including improved circulation, burned calories, stress relief and restful sleep, for example.
Similarly, O'Reilly says, "some people prefer masturbation to partnered sex, as many women report that they are more consistently orgasmic through masturbation."
Although the physiological effects may be similar, McKenzie says there are significant emotional differences between masturbation and partnered sex.
Sex is emotionally bonding, and women tend to feel an emotional closeness to their partner when they have sex together.
Every individual (or couple) will experience abstinence differently. It's important to be clear about why you're abstaining and to talk to your partner if you feel your sex life needs some change.
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