- This article focuses on premarital sexual abstinence in the modern context; for the lifelong abstinence of monastics and priests of certain religions see the article on Celibacy.
Sexual abstinence in the modern context refers to the decision to refrain from sexual activity prior to marriage. The traditional religious virtue of chastity combines abstinence before marriage with sexual fidelity to one's spouse within marriage. Reasons for unmarrieds to abstain from sexual activity include religious convictions, to conform to legal injunctions, to prevent undesired pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and to "save oneself" for marriage with the hope of better marital outcomes.
The world's major religions concur in viewing sexual intimacy as proper only within marriage; otherwise it can be destructive to human flourishing. Sexual abstinence prior to marriage and fidelity within marriage are time-honored norms for maintaining strong families. Traditional societies made virginity the norm for unmarrieds; backed by strong community sanctions and even by force of law. However, in the modern West particularly since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, this norm fell by the wayside, replaced by widespread acceptance of casual sex before marriage and even cohabitation in place of marriage. In the current cultural climate, many see sexual abstinence as unnatural, even unhealthy.
In attempting to combat the current climate, social conservatives in the United States have been advocating for abstinence-based sex education, which attempts to uphold the traditional norm. These educators also advocate "secondary virginity," a recommitment to abstinence by teens who previously were sexually active. Some churches promote a "virginity pledge," a commitment to remain sexually abstinent prior to marriage. When supported by medical, psychological, social, and spiritual understanding, such educational efforts have positive impact on the lives of young people.
The norm of premarital abstinence and its decline
Throughout history and in most nations throughout the world, religious teachings have informed social and legal standards. Since adultery has generally been regarded as a sin, and marriage was considered the legitimizer of sexual relations, maintaining virginity prior to marriage, which in early times often took place soon after puberty, was the norm. Yet for many men, prostitution has been tolerated as a sexual outlet, whether openly practiced or conducted discreetly. The Victorian period saw a tightening of sexual mores. The First World War began an upsurge in sexual freedom and indulgence, even as large portions of society retained the traditional moral values of abstinence before marriage.
In the 1960s, the advent of the first oral contraceptive pill and widely available antibiotics suppressed many consequences of promiscuous behavior. This coincided with the "sexual revolution" which celebrated blatant sexuality as an expression of adolescent freedom and self-expression. By the 1970s, abandonment of premarital chastity was no longer taboo in the majority of western societies. Perhaps even the reverse: it became expected, or recommended, that members of both sexes would have experienced a number of sexual partners before marriage. Some cultural groups continued to place a value on the moral purity of an abstainer, but abstinence was caught up in a wider re-evaluation of moral values.
A contributing social trend in industrialized countries has been the delay of marriage to the late twenties and early thirties, as more young people put off marriage to attend college and begin careers. Where traditionally the onset of sexual relations in the teenage years was a cause for early marriage, today early marriage is discouraged. Yet the sexual urges of youth are not as easily delayed, and to keep abstinent until one's thirties is a herculean challenge. Yet studies are questioning the conventional wisdom that early marriages are less stable and of lesser quality than marriages that begin later in life. The early twenties, when romantic feelings are at their peak and the body is most fecund, may be the best time for marriage. The keeping abstinent until then can be a realistic goal.
Today most of the stigmas that discouraged premarital sex have been removed. Even as late as the mid-twentieth century, there was a stigma attached to being a "one-parent family" or producing an illegitimate child—but no longer. The lifting of legal penalties and social stigma regarding illegitimacy has made cohabitation and single motherhood socially acceptable options. Society has not yet reckoned with the social costs of these options, particularly to the children.
Modern abstinence movements
With the increasing problems of unwanted teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, socially conscious educators began to promote abstinence for teenagers and recommending virginity prior to marriage. Without sexual contact, it is virtually impossible to conceive an unwanted child. By avoiding exposure of the sexual organs to other people, one may also avoid the sexual transmission of many diseases (STDs).
Organizations on the Left such as SIECUS have called abstinence-only programs "fear-based," "designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame, and guilt." Advocates for sexual abstinence dispute this, and claim numerous positive benefits, such as the freedom from teenage pregnancy and the resulting ability to focus on education and preparing for their future. They note that, contrary to the promiscuity norm following the "sexual revolution," preparation for a lifetime of happiness with a single, faithful marriage partner is well served by practicing self-restraint in situations of sexual temptation.
The effectiveness of abstinence programs for sex education remains a topic of much controversy in the United States. Opponents frequently adopt the line that abstinence education is acceptable only if it is combined with other methods, such as instruction in the use and easy availability of condoms. Proponents reply that to teach about condoms and promote their availability effectively undermines the abstinence norm.
In the fight against HIV/AIDS, Uganda is cited as a model for its "ABC" program that mobilized local clergy with its abstinence message. The initials ABC actually signified a mixed approach—"Abstain, Be faithful, use a Condom"—but with each of the three messages addressed to different audiences. Young people were advised to be abstinent; married people to be faithful to their spouse, and high-risk groups such as sex workers and promiscuous men to use condoms. With this separately-targeted approach, the government could utilize clergy to get out the word to the villages (which they were uniquely positioned to penetrate) with the abstinence and fidelity message, while other health workers dealt with the high-risk groups. Such a mixed approach is a sensible alternative to the polarization between advocates and opponents of abstinence that characterizes the issue in the United States.
The Case for Abstinence
Abstinence and marriage preparation
Beginning with Florida and Oklahoma in 1999, numerous states have begun mandating marriage education classes in high schools. This is in response to the growing rate of divorce and the perceived lack of relationship skills among young people to succeed in making lasting marriages. In cities that have instituted a "Community Marriage Policy" in which judges and clergy agree to conduct marriages only for couples who have received premarital education and counseling, divorce rates have dropped considerably.
In this context, the practice of sexual abstinence creates an excellent foundation for marriage preparation. It allows for the strengthening of character free from the moral compromises of sexual involvements; it allows for personal development free from sexual distractions; and it allows for friendship building free from sexual complications. These in turn tend to reinforce postponing sexual activity. Individuals with integrity, a close relationship with their parents, many good friendships and cultivated talents and interests find abstinence less of a challenge.
At the same time, those who practice abstinence tend to have a more positive view of marriage. Research found that virgins have more favorable attitudes toward marriage than do nonvirgins who had multiple sex partners. Both abstinence and pro-marriage attitudes reinforce each other. Boston University’s The Art of Loving Well is a literature-based course that is used for both purposes. Marriage education sustains the hope of a happy committed relationship, making the choice of saving sexual activity until marriage more viable and attractive. Even where marriage preparation courses do not have an explicit abstinence message, educators report that the very discussion of the demands and rewards of committed relationships reinforces the concept of abstinence before such relationships.
Negative consequences of premarital sex
Lethal sexually transmitted diseases and unwed parenthood garner attention from parents, teachers, legislatures and public health officials. Lost in this focus is the reality that even if disease and pregnancy are avoided, every sexual encounter outside of a mature and lifelong commitment—marriage—carries the risk of negative psychological, relational and social consequences. This risk is inherent to the nature of sexuality and therefore unavoidable. Yet because the prevailing permissive ethic is grounded in a certain non-judgmental tolerance, the deeper, non-physical levels of harm and therefore the more subtle forms of abuse within sexual relations receive little acknowledgement.
As first explored by educators Thomas Lickona and Josh McDowell, the emotional and psychological harm of sex in insecure relationships may be perceived only semi-consciously at the time, eclipsed by the pleasures and supposed benefits of expanded experience. Too often the real price paid is discovered after much of the damage is done. One woman psychiatrist recounts the impact of her promiscuous teenage years: “That sick, used feeling of having given a precious part of myself…to so many and for nothing, still aches. I never imagined I’d pay so dearly and for so long.” The effects of sex outside of marriage on psychological health, especially among adolescents are many:
- Hindered personal development: Getting involved in sexual activities prematurely and in insecure relationships drains youth of the energy needed for emotional, moral, creative and intellectual growth. Sex under these circumstances becomes a powerful distraction away from important tasks that adolescents need to complete on the way to personal maturity, creating a family and pursuing their careers.
- Corruption of character: In marriage, sexual intimacy supports the partners’ mutual love, while in uncommitted relationships among youth, it is mainly to boost the partners’ egos. Premarital sex thus often compounds self-centeredness, rather than supporting the developmental task of learning unselfish love. Worse, premarital sex is a corrupting influence, providing occasions for males to lie and cheat to get sex. According to a University of Connecticut study of 75 middle-class 19-year-old male students, sixty-five percent admitted that they had gotten young women drunk for that purpose. More than half had arranged to enter their date's apartment, and 40 percent had used verbal intimidation. One in five had used force or threats of violence. In a survey of University of California students, one-fourth of men who were sexually involved with more than one person at a time said their sexual partners did not know.
- Guilt and shame: Many people intuitively feel that to give away their virginity in an unworthy relationship, and to possibly continue to abuse their sexuality, is a profound violation of self. This becomes a source of shame. The shame is deeper still if they have violated their parents' trust and feel compelled to keep their sexual activity a secret. Girls face the additional shame of a ruined reputation. For males, knowingly—or even unknowingly—using another only for the pleasure of sex and then witnessing the partner’s heartbreak after being discarded can generate guilt that can linger over a lifetime. College counselor Carson Daly comments, “I don't think I ever met a student who was sorry he or she had postponed sexual activity, but I certainly met many who deeply regretted their sexual involvement.”
- Lowered self-esteem: When sex is a matter of making conquests or negotiating favors, or using and being used, youth may lose self-respect, even if they are not conscious of the loss for a long time. Further, making sexiness and sexual prowess an important basis for romantic connections amplifies the tendency to judge people on what they do and how they look rather than on who they are. Thus anxiety is built into insecure relationships. “Do I still please you? Do I still look good?” There is always the legitimate fear that someone else will perform better or look more attractive when sexual utility is the criteria for attention.
- Sex addiction: Like controlled substances, sex is addictive—there are estimated to be over 13 million sex addicts in the U.S. As with any addiction, sex can take over relationships and overwhelm other interests.
- Depression: All romantic involvements of some duration are painful when they break up, and sex intensifies the feeling of loss. Breaking off a premarital relationship in which two hearts have bonded through sexual union can precipitate an emotional crisis resembling that of a divorce. The heartbreak, compounded with the sense of having given themselves so totally for such a paucity of return, can help drive young people to the brink of despair. One tragic result is teenage suicide, which has tripled over the past 25 years in the U.S.—the same period during which the rate of teenage sexual activity rose so sharply. Statistically, non-virginal girls are six times more prone to suicide than are virgins.
- Anti-social and criminal behavior: Sexually experienced girls aged 12 to 16 are 18 times more likely to run away from home than virgins. They are 9 times more likely to be arrested by the police. The probability of being suspended from school is 5 times greater. Non-virginal girls are 10 times more likely to use marijuana, one of the gateway drugs. Similar correlations are found among non-virginal boys. The emotional explosion over a sexual betrayal can sometimes turn jealousy into rage, leading to violence against the former partner or the rival lover, even murder.
- Alienation from parents: When their children enter into sexual relations outside the formal process of marriage, parents can feel disrespected and hurt, their values compromised.
- Broken friendships: Sexual involvement can turn close friends into bitter enemies overnight. Few things are as divisive as sexual jealousy. A crowd of sexually active adolescents can feel like a sticky web of sexual attraction, possessiveness, jealousy, rivalry and betrayal. All intentions become suspect. Is it just a hug or an invitation to something more? Does she want a friend or is she trying to make someone jealous?
- Emotional withdrawal: The expression, “Once burned, twice shy” applies to many people who emotionally withdraw and refuse to trust anyone as a potential partner after the heartache of the breakup of a sexual relationship. The remembered pain of betrayal can stand in the way of giving themselves trustingly to anyone else.
- Prospective marriage derailed: The introduction of sex can risk derailing a warm and caring friendship that might well have been a good basis for marriage. Physical intimacy can become an easy substitute for the effort to build emotional intimacy. Sex can easily come to overpower any meaningful communication or other healthy activities together. Caught up in the pleasures of sex, the partners may begin to expect sex and demand it of each other, raising the level of tension in what had been a warm relationship. In fact, sexual involvement outside of marriage, especially among live-in lovers, is associated with more violence and other forms of abuse than among the married.
- Negative consequences for future marriage: A person rarely forgets a sexual partner, even if he or she wants to. Those who have engaged in premarital sex may find that they are haunted by the images of past partners, even in the marriage bed. Involuntary comparisons to a previous lover—who might have been better at kissing or some other love-play—can certainly be disruptive to loving one's spouse. A young wife may develop a feeling of scorn for her husband who cannot measure up to her idealized memories of past partners. After many uncommitted relationships, sex may lose its power to build intimacy with the one chosen to be a lifetime companion. Like glue, sex does not bond as well when reused again and again. Worse, studies show the habit of surrendering to sexual feelings before marriage can prove to be a serious problem at some stressful time with a spouse. How can a spouse trust that her mate, who never practiced sexual integrity before marriage, will be able to do so after the wedding?
Unwed teenage pregnancy
Adolescent girls becoming pregnant and bearing children has always been commonplace; until the recent past they were typically married. Though there are some health risks, the greatest hazards of pregnancy to an unwed teenager are less physical than psychological, relational and economic—mainly due to her being unmarried. Unwed pregnancy generates a great deal of emotional distress, especially between the partners themselves. Nine out of ten American adolescent boys abandon their pregnant girlfriends, even if reluctantly. Suicide is seven times more likely for the pregnant girl.
Economically, girls who choose to bear their child are far less likely to complete higher education, less likely to marry, or to escape poverty. Mothers who are unmarried, under 20 years old, and without a high school diploma are ten times more likely to raise their child in poverty in America than those who are not. Aborting the pregnancy carries other risks, including chronic grief and guilt.
The massive epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is largely a result of premarital sex with multiple partners. Of the total population infected with any STD, two thirds of these cases are youth under the age of 25. It is estimated that half of nonvirginal Americans can expect to be infected during their lifetime. (There are 300 new STD cases for every new HIV case in the United States.) More than one in five teenagers and adults currently has an incurable viral STD, apart from AIDS. Condoms are largely ineffective with common infections like genital herpes, gonorrhea, human papilloma virus and chlamydia.
Many people are even unaware that they have an STD. Like HIV/AIDS, these diseases can present no symptoms for quite a while. The potential consequences of STDs include chronic pain and psychological distress. In one study over half of herpes victims reported fear of rejection and depression during their most recent outbreak. More serious consequences include infertility, a greater susceptibility to cancer and HIV, and difficulty in getting married.
Young women's bodies are more vulnerable to infection than those of adult women. Their cervical mucosa is more conducive to microorganisms. Teenagers are ten times more vulnerable to pelvic inflammatory disease, an affliction accompanying chlamydia and gonorrhea that threatens fertility. Most of those with the chlamydial form of the disease will face pelvic surgery of some kind, whether to remove organs or to help conceive a child. Sexually active girls under 17 years of age have double the rate of cervical cancer of grown women. Cervical cancer is also linked to having many sexual partners. It does not occur in girls who remain virgins.
Youth are at greatest risk also because those who begin sex early will likely have more sexual partners over a lifetime. It is this—not whether each of those relationships was mutually exclusive at the time—that increases the probability of contracting an STD. Medical realities affirm that people, especially the young, are not suited for sex outside of a lifelong monogamous relationship.
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