(Not to worry, nothing too personal or explicit here.)
I was married just three months shy of my thirtieth birthday. Up until that time, I was a virgin. Intentionally, I might add.
By modern standards, I’m odd. Those who would call me “old-fashioned,” however, are dead wrong. I, and others like me, am abnormal by any generation’s standards.
According to one study conducted by researcher Lawrence Finer, ninety-five percent of all Americans (male and female) have had sexual relations before marriage. And the rate is the same today as it was in the 1940s. “Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades,” says Finer.
So why did I go against the grain, accepting this most unusual mission to stay celibate before marriage? Religion is a likely answer. True, I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One of our mantras is “complete chastity before marriage, complete fidelity afterwards.” And it turns out that with nearly all Americans having sex before marriage, we really are a peculiar people.
Sometimes we don’t know how bizarre we seem. I know a friend who sat down to eat lunch with his colleagues at law school one day when the topic turned to religion. They knew he wasn’t married, so when he iterated the church’s sexual standard, their jaws gaped.
“Wait. Are you telling me you’re a virgin?” My friend had never been called a virgin before, so, though guilty as charged, he felt equally surprised. Not missing a beat, he declared in his most help-me-I’m-so-backwards voice, “Yup, I’m a virgin!”
Methinks you're being too self-congratulatory, some might say. Hardly, just lucky. Lucky enough to be raised in a religion where I learned abstinence before I knew all the additional non-doctrinal reasons. See, the doctrine handed down to me from my church is just one facet of my decision. What makes up the rest I will attempt to explain.
It has to do with a word which men pretend they don’t know the definition of: vulnerability. Sexual intimacy lays bare more than our skins. Dr. Gray of Mars and Venus fame explains that “during lovemaking men receive a unique opportunity to feel and connect with their emotions. […] It is not that men need sex just for physiological reasons, but also to restore their emotional wholeness” (Brotherson, 93-94). While, for a guy, I’m fairly attuned to my emotions, even I have found there’s a smidgen of truth to what Gray claims. Lovemaking makes men feel love(d).
At least it should.
But if lovemaking fosters this emotional connectivity, what’s bad about premarital sex? Others are asking this very question. Says anthropologist George Murdock, “the sexual laxity current among our youth is admittedly an unlovely phenomenon from an esthetic point of view, I see no grounds, however, for regarding it as socially dangerous. It is probably here to stay, since the principal props of the older morality have disappeared with the advent of contraception and the scientific mastery of venereal infection.” Unlovely phenomenon? Most think not. But the rest of his statement seems to match popular opinion.
As reported by Time magazine, Murdoch gives five benefits of young folks having sex: “1) less guilt, hence less psychoneurosis; 2) an approved outlet for sexual vigor when it is at its height; 3) establishment of normal heterosexual habits; 4) understanding of the role of sex—‘Relief from sexual frustration is a very inadequate motive for marriage’; 5) prevention of marriage between sexual incompatibles.” With all these advantages, why would anyone go through all the hassle (and “psychoneurosis”) of waiting?
Well, my initial response is that we shouldn’t wait any longer than necessary. As soon as one finds a guy or girl who makes said person happy, stop dreaming and get married. Don’t worry about the money; nobody has enough. Yes, Mr. Darcy is fictional, and so are all those supermodels. Alas, I know it’s more complicated than that. Nearly thirty years old, I was a walking “menace to society” by Mormon standards. It’s a literal miracle every time two people find each, both fall in love at the same time, and to the same profundity. I had a list. A long one. Of qualities I was looking for in a woman. I know, I know. (Lucky for me, my wife is that list incarnate.)
But why wait at all? In fact, why not try different people on for size? Sleep around to learn preferences? Cohabitate before marriage to preempt divorce?
Because it doesn’t work. Despite what modern media tells us, sex is not all steam and passion; it’s not a fireworks show. Unless they mean it’s your heart and gut and soul bursting up there.
Imagine if one of our vital organs were external: the heart—not the cutesy valentine, the actual human heart; ten beating ounces of delicate muscle tissue. Imagine it could be given to a partner for safekeeping. This external heart is what keeps our emotions healthy and alive. Symbiotic, it thrives only in another person’s hands. (I’m not saying that all sexual relationships are like this, just that they should be.) A person wouldn’t want to give his heart to a negligent or careless partner. Someone with rough or dirty hands would be an unlikely candidate. Anybody with a history of dropping it whenever something else more interesting chances by he would also scratch off the list. As a married man, I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to have sex in a non-committal relationship or with a complete stranger, especially after reading that researchers MJ Stebleton and JH Rothenberger found that over half of American college students, male and female, felt that a partner had lied to them in order to have sex. Kind of like playing "hot potato" until somebody drops it and I’m left to wonder why love hurts so much. Surely, it’s no game.
Then again, some are no doubt thinking I’m taking sex much too seriously. Sex is fun, they say. Romantic. It’s a blast. It’s liberating. Nirvana. Ecstasy. I’ve heard this before; we all have. But if it’s like ecstasy, I fear we’re buying it over- and under-the-counter, off the streets and even stealing it. We’re a sex-saturated but still sex-starved society; look at the red herring ads, the sex scandals and it’s obvious.
And like addicts, we ignore the crushing biological realities. Medical researcher James Trussell claims almost half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unwanted, running up to $5 billion in medical costs a year. And no matter a person’s stance, the annual 42 million abortions seems wasteful on some level, economically or morally (Speidel, par. 1). CCASA reports that one in six American women have been raped or narrowly escaped it. AVERT estimates that forty percent of American teenage girls who have had sex have a sexually-transmitted infection. Three billion people worldwide suffer from a curable STD. My wife works for the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health where one of their advertising campaigns asks viewers to imagine when they sleep with a partner that they also sleep with all that partner’s previous partners. A sobering thought, and true when it comes to transitive disease. These are the multitudinous side-effects to our sexual buzzes.
Okay, a young person says, so I’ll practice safe sex and make sure it’s consensual. Still, premarital sex is not without disadvantages.
What if I said that if we wait, it will be even better? I know, patience runs counter our society, our culture, our biological makeup, one could argue.
Like the kids in the above video hilariously depict, some of us want to dally with sex, trying to fudge the line between waiting and sneaking a bite or two. But if a person can really hold off until marriage, it actually will be better. Better than receiving another marshmallow even. Not only have researchers reached the oft-cited conclusion that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to get divorced, but a new study shows that couples who wait to have sex until their wedding night are happier and have more satisfying sex. That’s right. Unpracticed and awkward, they’re experiencing better sex.
According to USA Today, over two-thirds of married couples polled in 2005 cohabitated beforehand. (Again, I find myself in the minority.) Remember, the prelude to cohabitation is premarital sex. In fact, it seems to be the only criterion in some cases. I was shocked to find that sharing a bedroom sorta just happens sometimes. The article explains that many couples “end up spending more and more time together until finally all the stuff gets moved into one person’s place.” First comes sex, then come on over, then comes marriage (usually to appease one of the partners or his or her parents), then comes the baby carriage. With such poor family planning, no wonder the divorce rate is over fifty percent.
What’s especially devastating is when one partner sees cohabitation as meaningful while the other sees it as merely convenient. The USA Today article continues, “In focus groups, women perceive cohabitation as a step before marriage to that partner, whereas men are tending to see cohabitation as something to do before you make a commitment.” The other emotional repercussions are far more serious. Married? According to sociologist Linda Waite, the chance of physical abuse is five percent. Living together? It increases threefold. Cohabitating couples also tend to sleep around more, make less money, and abandon children more frequently. These all are among the most stressful and emotionally-debilitating events in domesticity. Talk about taking one’s heart in one’s hands.
Inversely, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, couples who wait to have sex until the wedding night “rated sexual quality 15 percent higher than people who had premarital sex, relationship stability as 22 percent higher, and satisfaction with their relationships 20 percent higher.” Furthermore, they also reported happier relationships overall, beating out even those who “became sexually active later in their relationships but before marriage.” I know what some must be thinking. It’s because, like my wife and I, these couples were religious, right? Actually, the study found the same results regardless of religious activity or affiliation.
Perhaps this just proves the old maxim: Good things come to those who wait, whatever their reasons. Now who'd like an extra marshmallow?
But if the statistics prove anything, many who read this have already had premarital sex. So it may sound to them like the benefits of waiting to have sex until marriage are unattainable. While some good has slipped away, I'm a firm believer that people who profoundly change their behavior gain most of those advantages back. C. S. Lewis agrees: “I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on." In psychology, behavior change therapy is real. Together counselors and patients identify the destructive or risky behaviors in their life, then reorient their worldview, making small, specific, attainable goals to retrain the patient. The field of public health does the same on the community level. Either way, it's a self-motivated reengineering of the heart, mind, and guts of a person, and has definite results.
There are some common pitfalls of changing behavior. Trying to simply stop isn't effective. It needs to be replaced by positive actions. For example, "I'm not going to sleep with my exes anymore" is a hopeless resolution unless the man or woman takes up something to fill those lonely or dull hours. Also, people making goals get mired in vagueness. "I'm going to be more committed to my partner" isn't as effective as "On Thursday night this week, I'm going to ask my partner whether marriage is in our future." And in an abusive relationship, the only thing a person can do is get out. People shouldn't rely on their own ability to control the situation. If he's throwing punches or she's throwing vases, if insults are being hurled every night, the relationship is already out of control. And finally, if someone won't commit and the other person wants to, is that couple really compatible? Will the other person come around, eventually? Sometimes change can only occur in changing the context of one's life. If a woman keeps finding lowlife boyfriends in bars, she could stop going to bars and try some other way of meeting people. A person can change, once they stop trying to micro-manage their lives, making sex into a coping mechanism.
There's another pernicious myth that people cannot control themselves at all, that sex is such a basic need that it will express itself in one way or another. Today, people most commonly cite the Catholic priest molestation scandal as evidence. While I'm not sure lifelong celibacy is healthy, celibacy while deciding on a marriage partner is not psychologically self-damaging. In fact, most researchers agree that between the emotionally insecure and the emotionally healthy, the former are more likely to have premarital and extramarital sex. The can't-control-ourselves argument puts the cart before the horse. Furthermore, some argue (though the jury is still out) that pre- and extramarital sex actually lead to emotional instability, especially when the relationship falls apart or the dull pace of living sets in. As a result, some go from one bad sexual partner to another without stopping for breath.
In any case, those who have not waited until marriage can begin now with small reasonable goals. Those who are already married can pledge complete fidelity to their spouse. Both groups can succeed, if they can stand standing out.