(Hemant’s note: This is a guest post by JulietEcho. She is the admin on our Friendly Atheist forum and is currently applying to law schools. She has previously written about polyamory both here and on Daylight Atheism.)
I grew up with the understanding that all things sexual were meant only for married couples. You could kiss and hold hands if you were dating, but anything beyond that was verging into gray territory and then quickly into clear-cut sin. Some of my peers at church and in the ministry my parents worked for went further and endorsed “courtship” instead of dating, with some even planning to wait for their first kiss until their wedding day. Some followed through on this plan. Some others ended up pregnant at fifteen and sixteen. Most of us fell in-between, but those who stayed in the church at least kept up the appearance of chastity.
Most Christian denominations (and many other religious traditions) consider sex outside of marriage to be sinful, or at the very least, frowned upon. Many pastors and priests won’t marry couples (or won’t let them use the church for their wedding), unless they claim they’ve never lived together or had sex. Christian churches and ministries are behind the strong push in the US for abstinence-only sex education, which has continued to garner support despite conclusive studies that indicate the programs are not only ineffective — they decrease the chances that teenagers will use birth control and STI protection.
While even conservative Christianity has gradually eased restrictions on many activities formerly considered sinful (dancing, working on Sundays, gambling, movies and television, divorce/annulments, etc), I’d argue that one area that’s remained black and white in most churches is the chastity/abstinence issue.
Why is that? It’s a common observation that many conservative Christian groups seem obsessed with sex. Their response to the sexual revolution, continued evolution of feminism, and the gay rights movement has been to condemn sex more and more loudly, and sometimes to resort to outright lying (another sin) in order to discourage it. They support sex-negative legislation that bans sodomy, bans adultery, and limits or underfunds sex education and planned parenthood services. Christian missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, have lied to people in Africa about the effectiveness of condoms. Under Bush, the US even had a policy of refusing funding to international aid programs completely if they offered any abortion information or services.
I feel like I understand much of what drives certain religious attitudes, especially in conservative Christianity, since I have education and experience that has taught me a lot. This is one area where I’m clueless, though — so many of these actions seem contradictory. Sexual compatibility is a huge, huge, HUGE part of being able to sustain a lifelong, monogamous marriage — something most churches consider the ideal. But by following the no-sex-of-any-kind-until-marriage message, many couples set themselves up for incompatibility and don’t find out how unsatisfying their sexual relationship will be until they’re already married. Do they divorce (bad!) or do they live a lifetime of bad/no/insufficient sex and try (often unsuccessfully — bad!) not to cheat?
Teens often don’t have the impulse control to overcome their raging hormones, peer pressure, or curiosity (or perhaps they don’t believe sex needs to be saved for marriage), and statistics show that the vast majority end up having sex before marriage. Abstinence-only education makes it more likely the girls involved will get pregnant out of wedlock (even while still in high school) and that both parties will contract and transmit STIs. Do the girls get abortions (bad!) or become single mothers (children need mothers AND fathers!) or risk the physical trauma and social stigma of pregnancy, spending months with the evidence that they’ve “sinned” right there for their whole church to see and judge?
The religious belief that all sex outside a straight marriage is sinful seems to be contributing to a world with less sexual protection, more abortions, and more teen pregnancies. All the evidence points towards sex-positivity as a more healthy, beneficial attitude, so why do so many churches and denominations still condemn sex outside marriage?