Reverent Sundays: Premarital Sex

Welcome to today’s installment of Reverent Sundays, where I write about an aspect of my faith. This can deal with recent books I have read on Christianity, my thoughts on religion and current issues, as well as particular messages I find touching and/or powerful. I am aware that most of my readers are not religious, and that is fine — you are more than welcome to not read these posts if they make you uncomfortable, enrage you, or bore you to tears. I am open to debates and discussions in the comments section as long as everyone remains respectful. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, an article in RELEVANT Magazine titled “The Secret Sexual Revolution” ignited much talk among the Christian blogs and online magazines I read. The premise of the article is that more and more unmarried Christians are having sex — with the latest numbers citing about 80% of Christians who identify themselves as “evangelical” having had premarital sex.

Of those 80 percent of Christians in the 18-29 age range who have had sex before marriage, 64 percent have done so within the last year and 42 percent are in a current sexual relationship.

So why are the numbers so high? Why is there little to no difference in how Christ followers and non-Christ followers handle themselves when it comes to sex before marriage? Is this some sort of new sexual revolution or are we just more open about it in today’s culture?

The article goes on to theorize (emphases are my own):

The mediaʼs marketing of sex, the cultural endorsement of the “do what feels good” mentality, the prevalence of pornography and the widespread misunderstanding of sex that prompts people to chase after love and acceptance in unhealthy physical relationships are all factors that make it difficult to practice chastity. The reality is chastity is not the norm. And such a discipline is certainly not easy.

Godʼs picture of sex and marriage is certainly a beautiful one, but itʼs also … old. Biblical times were a lot different than current times. Is such a picture still relevant?

Scot McKnight, author of One.Life and professor in religious studies at North Park University in Chicago, is aware of the difficulties facing unmarried Christians and the shifts in the “reality” of living chastely.

“Sociologically speaking, the one big difference—and itʼs monstrous— between the biblical teaching and our culture is the arranged marriages of very young people. If you get married when youʼre 13, you donʼt have 15 years of temptation.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age for first marriages for both men and women has been increasing for the last 45 years. In 1965, the average man first married at age 22.8; the average woman, 20.6. In 2010, the average age was 28.1 for men and 26.1 for women.

Abstinence messages have often been geared toward teenagers, but as the average marrying age creeps closer to 30, the time period when Christians are called to be chaste can easily extend a decade beyond their high school graduation—or much longer. So what does abstinence look like as Christians “grow up” and enter the real world but are still single?

“Itʼs absolutely not realistic,” McKnight continues. “But itʼs also not realistic not to do a lot of things, and that doesnʼt mean the Bible doesnʼt tell us the ideal and design of God is to not have premarital sex.”

As young Christians mature into their 20s, itʼs natural for them to reevaluate their beliefs as they strive to figure out how faith fits into their expanding worldview. If they determine they can drink responsibly and watch movies and listen to music with a discerning spirit, is it possible the “donʼt do it because itʼs wrong” message gets tossed aside along with all those other “legalistic” messages of youth? That they start to believe they can also have sex “with discernment”?

“We have to recognize that people are not married during the years when their hormones are hardest to control,” McKnight says. “So weʼre dealing with a very serious issue that needs to be treated from a variety of angles and not simply the moral angle that itʼs wrong outside of marriage.”

McKnight also wonders if part of the problem is a devaluing of marriage. If young Christians no longer deem marriage a worthwhile endeavor—or see it as a temporary thing (proven to them by the brevity of their parentsʼ marriages and the prevalence of divorce in Western culture), then sex within marriage certainly loses some of its profundity—and sacredness.

Obviously, preaching abstinence, conducting chastity vows, and handing out promise rings among the Christian youth is simply not working.

Our first kiss as husband and wife

I do not want to be a hypocrite. Because the truth is that I have had premarital sex — I am among the 80%; I am in the majority.

But I wouldn’t be lying it I were to say that it is one of the biggest regrets of my life.

What are people like me to teach our children about premarital sex and God’s design for sex and marriage? Do I want my daughters to remain virgins until they are married? Of course I do! But looking at our culture and society, looking at the statistics above, and speaking as someone who has fallen into temptation myself, I know that realistically speaking, they will have sex before they get married. Heck, I also know that if current trends continue, they will most likely be having sex by the time they are in their early to mid-teens.

As a former youth group teacher, I have been asked this question on more than one occasion. And my answer has always been to discuss God’s design for marriage, to exalt married sex (because honestly, it really can’t seem to get any better but always does), and talk about the potential dangers of premarital sex…but at the same time, also acknowledge that it is very difficult to abstain, and that if you do decide to have sex before marriage, to please be wise about who, when, and how (and by this, I mean protection).

And if I could go back in time, I would also add that abstinence should be not taught just for the sake of it, but that it is an act of obedience — and a form of worship. I would also encourage “renewed abstinence,” that even if you have lost your virginity physically, you can still start afresh spiritually.

What are your thoughts on the high rates of premarital sex among Christians? What would you, as a Christian, tell our future generations about premarital sex?

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15 Responses to “Reverent Sundays: Premarital Sex”

  1. Carol says:

    I remember my mom telling me that if I had sex before marriage, she’d kill me. Come to think of it, most conversations went that way – “If you do ______, you’re dead.” To her credit, she openly jokes about sex now that ST and I are married. Anyway, once again, I applaud you for putting yourself out there and discussing an extremely awkward topic. Great article, btw. It’s good to know the Church is facing reality head on.

  2. Whitney says:

    I believe that my message would be that it IS possible to wait.
    My husband and I are in the 20% that waited–frankly, it was easy for us. We began our relationship by placing that line in our relationship and we both knew that it was important to both of us to experience sex as a married couple. There are so many things that can go wrong–so many risks–involved in sex (even if you’re married! Pregnancy is nothing to balk at, right?). The only way to control your future and keep pregnancy, STDs, and potential emotional damage from sex…is to not have it.
    It is possible, but I agree that in today’s society it may not be realistic to expect this from everyone. While we don’t judge anyone who did not make the same decisions we have, we believe wholeheartedly that we made the right choice in our efforts to honor God with our lives and our life choices.

    I love reading these articles–thank you for posting!

  3. MrsW says:

    I was in the 20% as well. I don’t want to say it was easy, because there were a LOT of times that it sure wasn’t, and I thank God that I ended up marrying my first boyfriend because we had some close calls that I would be ashamed to have had with a man I didn’t eventually give it all to in marriage.

    What made the difference for us, I think, was one time early on, when we were being strongly tempted, I stopped, pulled away from him, and said, “So are we gonna have sex right now or not?” I think actually saying it out loud was kind of a cold shower experience for both of us, so it wouldn’t “just happen”… if we went forward then it would be a deliberate, conscious denial of what we knew to be the right thing.

    Being in the 20%, I sometimes wonder what happens to people in the 80%. I never found out what it would take for me to cross that line, and even though it’s probably rude to wonder, I am curious about what happens for other people who have/had similar convictions to mine who did cross it. I’m trying to think of a way to talk about the role of God’s grace in the issue without making it sound like I’m special because I got more grace than someone who did have premarital sex… but I think of it more that God certainly MUST have given me grace to endure because I know I wouldn’t have made it on my own.

  4. Grace says:

    I come at this from a rather different perspective. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with premarital sex, or having many casual sexual partners, or having sex as a teenager. But I have only had sex with one person (my husband), and that wasn’t until college.

    This experience is actually not that unusual for people who are educated and upper middle class. At my college prep high school, almost nobody was having sex (even though theoretically few people felt it was wrong; my classmates were not very religious for the most part). A large proportion of students at elite colleges like Harvard are either virgins or have had very few sexual partners, even though they tend to be “liberal” politically/socially.

    The real reasons people have or don’t have sex, then, don’t have much to do with their theories of life/religion, but something else. I think if Christians are interested in lessening the rates of premarital sex, they need to take a careful look at the reasons behind people’s decisions about sexual behavior.

    The most important determinant of a girl’s age of having sex for the first time is her family’s socioeconomic status, for example (even though poor people are in general more religious). Until Christians address these kinds of facts honestly, the whole premarital sex debate seems like a lot of rather useless hand-waving.

  5. I love your Reverent Sundays posts – they make me think about aspects of our faith that I normally take for granted. Thank you also for being so honest about this issue, which doesn’t seem to be discussed as much (or as openly). It’s really encouraging 🙂

  6. D says:

    I’m a guy, so I know I’m coming from the other side, but the one thing I would definately tell my daughter, if I had one that is, is that one line of yours.

    “But I wouldn’t be lying it I were to say that it is one of the biggest regrets of my life.”

    It’s something to treasure to present to the one God sets you up with. It’s something to show him how much you value him that you waited for him. Once its given, all that’s left behind is a sense of regret.

    As a guy, I personally would feel more special if the girl I were to marry were to tell me on the wedding night “I’m a virgin, I waited all this time just so I can give it to you, my husband”.

  7. Walnut says:

    I’m an unmarried Christian in the 80%. I think one of the things that has changed about sex and marriage for those of us who are younger is that marriage isn’t significantly about sex. For me, marriage is the union of two people who are better combined than they are apart. My S/O and I make each other better people and as a union we are able to be more than we are apart. Some of the older teachings of ‘wives submitting to their husbands’ isn’t really a reality for me. My S/O and I are equal, inferior to God, but not to each other. When we marry, we won’t simply be doing so to have a family to grow God’s “army”. Instead, we will combine our talents, mitigate our weaknesses, and rely on each other to comfort, to strengthen, to support. And none of that is really about sex.

  8. S says:

    Thank you Jenny for this post – it certainly addresses an issue I’ve been debating in my mind. First of all, I’m in the 20%, still unmarried, and theoretically in my mid-30s (even though I’d prefer to lump myself into the “early 30s” group,). I grew up in a conservative Christian household and have since become much less religious (actually, it is not a huge part of my life at all right now in terms of going to organized religious events); however, because of my upbringing, I have resisted temptation. I will say not having the sex to (try to) make up for other shortcomings in my 2 relationships has helped. It really has helped me evaluate things from a more “rational” perspective when we hit roadblocks. Is that the only way to do it? Definitely not. I’ve certainly been tempted, but the guys also knew from Day 1 my preferences and respected them. I think had I met “the one” in the past – if such a person exists – I might have had premarital sex. At this point, I’m not opposed to it, but I don’t want to sleep with someone just for the sake of doing it. I mean, if I’ve held off this long, what’s another year or two? My current issue is another one – that of “if I’m this age and still have not met a guy I want to marry, will I ever find that person?” But that’s a whole ‘nother story 🙂

    • AB says:

      I’m unmarried and in my mid-twenties and have not had sex. I don’t consider myself very religious but grew up Catholic which definitely influenced some of my thinking earlier on. Just wanted to say thank you for admitting that you are in the 20%. Even though I am secure in my choices, it can feel lonely to be in the minority, especially as you get “older”!

    • Laura says:

      There’s still hope. I was a virgin when I met my husband at 34 and subsequently married him at 35. My life changed overnight when i met him. I had all but given up hope of meeting someone I wanted to marry (and who wanted to marry me!) and then it happened. Don’t give up hope.

  9. For background reference, I was raised Catholic, so it’s a question that matters to me. And I think it’s a very difficult question. I never considered the fact that back then when the Bible was written, people fit get married almost as soon as their hormones were making them think of sex, which indeed is very different now.
    I am also pondering this:even though we know that the high rate of pre-marital sex is apparently not helping the divorce rate go down, is it not, however, a bit weird to get married with someone without having explored something so important with them? I mean we’re encouraged to start a marriage after careful consideration, and for life, yet we should be ignorant of what our sex life with that person is going to be like? And this even though the Bible does give importance to sex, so it’ no small detail!
    There’s one contradiction there, that I have no way to answer.
    I do agree, though, that God may show us a greater ideal, no matter how hard it is to follow. But well, it’s complicated.

  10. Adrienne says:

    I was raised conservative Christian and expected to wait until marriage. I have now changed my mind and no longer consider premarital sex to be inherently evil or un-Christian. I think it’s ok in a loving and exclusive relationship; and actually natural and healthy or several important reasons.

  11. Sal says:

    I’m currently in the 20%, still single~
    I’m really glad you brought up this subject as it’s something I have thought about from time to time. I know it’s superficial, but I always have this mini-fear people are going to judge me by my virginal status, especially now that I’ve technically just reached that 20+ age group where everyone who’s not religious would be assumed to have “done it” by now.

    I know that as a Christian, I shouldn’t be so fickle and shallow re:chastity but I’m finding it harder and harder to judge for myself what should be the right option. Sometimes I think it’s not a big deal, yet sometimes I feel I’d be doomed if I had premarital sex. It’s definitely not getting easier in today’s highly-sexualised society. However, I’ve always tried combat this anxiety through further prayer and re-evaluating where I stand in my relationship with God, and hope to be able to do so much later into the future until I meet my hubby :).

    Thanks once again for a great post – it’s a comfort to see others’ views on it as well!

  12. Vince says:

    I would never “have sex” but I prefer to “MAKE LOVE” to a woman I feel close to . . .
    Also, “giving [sex, virginity] to your husband on your wedding night” implies that it’s a one way street. Women who experience deep vaginal orgasms [wave-like reflexive contractions extending throughout to the pelvic region over 1 min i duration] understand that they’re getting the better part of the deal.
    BTW, no physical contact is necessary to get orgasmic (largest sex organ is the brain) so you might want to differentiate “premarital sex” and “premarital orgasm”

  13. David says:

    My wife and I are both in our 90s and will celebrate another anniversary soon. We met in College in our Junior year. At the end of that year I was drafted into the Army; she continued in college. We had an “agreement” when I left for the Army. I had gotten to know her rather well during that year but had not had an exclusive relationship – more because of her desires than mine. I had previously decided that I wanted to finish my college and post grad work before settling down in marriage. I had dated several girls during the year. Going into the Army changed my attitude somewhat. I wanted some connection with a more important girl back home. After 6 months in the Army, I was stationed relatively near Home – less than 200 miles, part of the time less than 50, and saw my love almost every weekend for a few months. We decided to announce our engagement before I was transfered to a more remote base.
    Shortly I was assigned to bases about 100 to 150 miles away. During the following five months I was restricted technically to a close proximity to my base. She came to see me about once a month for weekends. We spent the entire weekend very close to one another and engaged in “heavy petting” but I never even brought up having sex even though I thought about doing so.
    After another two months at a more remote base, we decided to get married. Following our wedding in her home, we honeymooned at a high class hotel where our marriage was finally consumated.
    It had not been easy and we could easily have crossed the line earlier because “no one would have known” although I am sure some of our friends suspected.
    I am glad we waited for that special night. God has given us so many wonderful years. Our time before I went into the Army and until we married gave us time to really know the capabilities, gifts, and steadfastness of one another. Our life together after the Army has been marked by many opportunities for us to work together raising a family and using our gifts in God’s service. And we still enjoy the intimacies that God designed us for.

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