The Christian community is rife with warnings about people having sexual relationships outside of the marriage commitment, a practice typically referred to as premarital sex. Abstinence is considered to be worth whatever hardship it incurs as it serves to enhance the lifelong sexual fulfillment provided by a spouse. That the Bible explicitly prohibits premarital sex is accepted and taught as fact. It is also assumed that marriage is the logical conclusion of a relationship, such that delaying sex is only a temporary inconvenience on the road to lasting happiness.
Contrary to these beliefs, premarital sex is useful to determine sexual compatibility before entering into what is expected to be a lifelong relationship commitment; contrary to what is commonly believed, it is not condemned by the Bible; and the term “premarital sex” is itself a misnomer, as marriage is not, in fact, a logical conclusion to a relationship.
In the discussion of premarital sex, the sexual compatibility of the couple is often overlooked. Despite the diversity of personality types and sexual preferences, it is taken for granted by the Christian community that both partners will be able to find a common ground that will give both of them happiness.1 Along these lines, the argument is often made that sexual naïveté will promote satisfaction, because each person will be ignorant of what they may be missing.2,3 This perspective falls down under critical examination, as proponents of this view pay little to no attention to the very real concern of sexual fulfillment in a relationship that is ostensibly a lifelong commitment.
The traditional marriage “contract” requires sexual exclusivity with one’s partner, making each person wholly responsible for sexually satisfying the other. Implicit in this agreement is the expectation that the partners are indeed capable of sexually fulfilling each other in areas such as frequency and in preference. Of course, as with any other personality trait, these factors are highly variable between individuals, but it is assumed that willingness to compromise and a commitment to the relationship will yield a satisfactory outcome. While this may be true in many cases, love of the other person and desire to achieve compatibility is sometimes insufficient to overcome this divide.4
An imperfect analogy might be that of a person selecting a flavor of ice cream to exclusively eat for the remainder of their life – without ever tasting any of it. The person sits in the store, examines each of the flavors by sight and small, finally deciding on chocolate. They might enjoy chocolate, they may not initially like it but acquire a taste over time, or, in the worst case, they may be allergic to chocolate. Regardless of the outcome, they are now bound to that flavor.
In his book The Poetics of Intimacy and the Problem of Sexual Abstinence, Michael Hartwig makes the keen observation that merely performing sexual intercourse is not enough to create a genuine sexual relationship. Achieving sexual intimacy requires communication and compatibility, and commitments made without knowledge of these critical aspects are not well founded.5 As with any life-altering decision, the marriage vow must be made with the consideration of all relevant information if the two individuals wish to forge an uplifting and intimate partnership.
Perhaps ironically, it is difficult to obtain reliable data on sexual compatibility among married couples that abstained or were sexually active prior to taking their vows, as nearly everyone in the United States engages in premarital sex. A study of the National Survey of Family Growth by Public Health Reports found that 95% of Americans have had premarital sex by the age of 44, and 75% have had premarital sex by age 20.6-8 This fact remains even among Christians as compared to the general population.9,10
Even so, if the Bible specifically condemns premarital sex, one might expect that God would bless those who follow his instructions with a healthy and fulfilling relationship, eliminating compatibility as an issue. It turns out, however, that the Christian community is consistently misinterpreting the Bible while ignoring the historical implications of premarital sex.
Although premarital sex is never explicitly referenced in the Bible, Christians derive its sinful status from a few specific verses.11 In the New Testament, the key verse comes from I Corinthians 7:2, where Paul says “But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.12” This is interpreted to mean that sex outside of marriage is immoral; thus, the remaining New Testament passages concerning sexual immorality can be said to apply to premarital sex as well.2,3,11 Additionally, injunction against premarital sex is taken from Old Testament passages such as Exodus 22:16, “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.12”
The problem with the interpretation of the New Testament text is the translation of the Greek word porneia, a word that ambiguously refers to illicit sexual activity. Never in the Bible is premarital sex defined as illicit; indeed, the text is far more likely to refer to such acts as cultic prostitution and pederasty than the rigid interpretation commonly accepted by Christian churches.13-16 The Old Testament passages must also be understood in context. Women were considered to be the property of men, either their father or their husband. While men were allowed to take multiple wives and concubines, women were forbidden from sexual activity because to do so would violate the man’s property rights. Thus, in the Exodus example, the man must reimburse the father for the devaluation of his property – note that there is no condemnation of the sexual act itself.15,16
It is clear that the typical Christian interpretation of Biblical prohibition of premarital sex is on far less stable ground than one could be led to believe – at the very least, it is a subject open to debate rather than an axiomatic instruction.
Given that premarital sex is desirable for establishing a satisfying, sexually intimate long-term relationship, and the lack of Biblical instruction against it, the very term “premarital sex” appears to be somewhat of a misnomer. It clearly implies a linkage between sex and marriage, something that is far from reflexive in the world we inhabit.
Increases in women’s rights an education has significantly altered the sexual landscape, as emerging adults become more focused on developing their individuality and furthering career goals. At the same time, entering a marriage in no way guarantees sex. These two considerations effectively divorce the concepts of sex and marriage so that the term “premarital sex” is inaccurate.
The current median age of marriage in the United States is around 26 when both men and women are pooled, a sharp contrast to the pre-pubescent marriages commonplace in Biblical times.7 As society has shifted from a patriarchal focus to one that is more egalitarian, women are far freer to pursue careers and further their education, significantly contributed to this relatively high age.17 At the same time, perhaps because of increasing focus on higher education, both men and women express a desire to spend more time developing themselves as individuals before focusing on a long-term relationship .17,18 At the same time, the decision to get married does not automatically include sex. A number of married couples have very little sex, something that may stem from lack of communication and intimacy about sexual interactions prior to making the commitment.19
Just as it is not a given that people will get married when they are ready to have sex, it is not assured that getting married will lead to an active sex life. By referring to premarital sex as such, an inaccurate picture is assumed that affects both the education and the expectations of emerging adults.
Clearly, the topic of premarital sex deserves even more in-depth consideration, but critically evaluating what is reflexively assumed to be true in the Christian community reveals a number of significant flaws. Hoping that love, commitment, and a relationship with God will lead to sexual compatibility is insufficient, such that sexual intimacy is an important part of the decision to forge a long-term commitment. Biblically, the link between marriage and sex, and the establishment of sex outside this bond as a sin, is nonexistent (or, at the very least, open to substantial interpretation). Finally, an egalitarian, educated society does not form an axiomatic link between sex and marriage, indicating that sexual intimacy and the challenges of sustaining a long-term relationship should be addressed separately as well as together. Thus, the typical Christian crusade against “premarital sex,” or, as it is better termed, “sex,” is misplaced and unnecessary. Instead of crusading against it, Christians should spend their time encouraging young couples to forge healthy, lasting relationships with each other, regardless of their level of sexual intimacy.
1. Wright, R. Dynamic Sex: Unlocking the Secret to Love. Power to Change (1996).at <http://powertochange.com/discover/sex-love/dynamicsex/>
2. Schutte, S. Three Lies About Premarital Sex. Focus on the Family (2008).at <http://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/christian_singles/being_single_and_faithful/three_lies_about_sex_before_marriage.aspx>
3. Kidson, J. & Martin, R. Sex Before Marriage? :: Abstinence Works! Life Aloud (2007).at <http://lifealoud.wordpress.com/2007/11/03/sex-before-marriage-abstinence-works/>
4. OneMoreOption The Importance And Benefits Of Having Premarital Sex. Sexuality & Love in the Arts (2009).at <http://sexualityinart.wordpress.com/2009/04/28/the-importance-and-benefits-of-having-premarital-sex/>
5. Hartwig, M. J. The poetics of intimacy and the problem of sexual abstinence. (P. Lang: New York, 2000).
6. Finer, L. B. Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954-2003. Public Health Rep 122, 73–78 (2007).
7. Jayson, S. Most Americans have had premarital sex, study finds. USA Today (2006).at <http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2006-12-19-premarital-sex_x.htm>
8. Warner, J. Premarital Sex the Norm in America. WebMD Health & Sex (2006).at <http://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/news/20061220/premarital-sex-the-norm-in-america>
9. Connolly, C. Teen Pledges Barely Cut STD Rates, Study Says. The Washington Post A03 (2005).
10. Somanader, T. Study: Majority Of Young Evangelicals Have Pre-Marital Sex, Exposing Flaws With Right-Wing Attacks On Sex Ed. Think Progress (2011).at <http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/09/29/331692/study-finds-huge-majority-of-young-evangelicals-have-pre-marital-sex-exposing-flaws-with-right-wing-attacks-on-sex-ed/>
11. Got Questions Ministries What does the Bible say about sex before marriage? Got Questions? (2002).at <http://www.gotquestions.org/sex-before-marriage.html>
12. International Bible Society The Holy Bible. (International Bible Society: 1984).
13. Lawrence, R. J., Jr. The Poisoning of Eros: Sexual Values in Conflict. (Augustine Moore Pr: 1989).
14. Coogan, M. God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says. (Twelve: 2010).
15. Thelos, P. Divine Sex: Liberating Sex from Religious Tradition. (Trafford Publishing: 2003).
16. Liberated Christians Premarital Sex – Not a Biblical Conflict. Liberated Christians (2003).at <http://www.libchrist.com/bible/premaritalsex.html>
17. Regnerus, M. & Uecker, J. Premarital sex in America : how young Americans meet, mate, and think about marrying. (Oxford University Press: Oxford; New York, 2011).
18. Thompson, T. Marriage, Take a Backseat…Sex Drives. Newd Magazine (2011).at <http://www.newdmagazine.com/apps/articles/web/articleid/73713/columnid/5466/default.asp>
19. Parker-Pope, T. When Sex Leaves the Marriage. New York Times – Well Blog (2009).at <http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/when-sex-leaves-the-marriage/>