Little Valentine’s Day sex for those (old) mainliners?

On one level, I cannot believe that the folks at Religion News Service thought to get involved in doing a serious survey about the religious ghosts in Valentine’s Day sex.

However, I am glad that they did. Honest.

Stranger yet, it’s pretty obvious to me that the RNS team needs to do some more digging into stories that might spin out of this research — especially the stories linked to two of the most important niches in the religious landscape in postmodern America. I am referring to the declining world of liberal mainline Protestantism and the growing, and related (listen to pollster John Green) world of the so-called “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated believers and unbelievers.

We may as well start at the beginning on this rather short RNS report:

Unchurched Americans have high expectations that they will have sex on Valentine’s Day. Lutherans, Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants? Not so much.

A new study from the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute, conducted in partnership with Religion News Service, shows that 57 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans think sex is in store for them on the holiday of love. That compares to 51 percent of Catholics who predict Valentine’s Day sex, 48 percent of white evangelicals and 40 percent of white mainline Protestants.

This is particularly interesting because the religiously unaffiliated tend, as a rule, to be singles. This serves to underline one of the main themes that emerged in that media-friendly “‘Nones’ on the Rise” study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life — which is that one of the main bonding elements in the whole religiously unaffiliated camp is a rejection of traditional forms of religion, especially when it comes to sexual morality.

So more information, please? For the “nones,” is sex on Valentine’s Day somehow important for the sake of symbolism or, dare I say it, a kind of big-R Romantic sacrament? Is this their “church”?

Meanwhile, as the RNS story asks:

What’s going on — or not going on — between the sheets for white mainline Protestants?

“One thing you have to remember about mainline Protestants is that they tend to be older and be in longstanding relationships, and both those things are negatively correlated with having sex on Valentine’s Day,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director.

Whoa, baby.

Back up the data-train just a bit. Does anyone remember this little National Institutes of Health factoid from a decade or two ago?

Little attention has been given to the question of how marriage is related to the chances that people will have active, satisfying sex lives. Cross-tabulations based on data from the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey show that levels of emotional and physical satisfaction with sex are highest for married people and lowest for noncohabiting singles, with cohabitors falling in between (Laumann et al. 1994). Additional evidence for the importance of commitment as a determinant of sexual satisfaction is provided by more recent multivariate analyses of these data (Waite and Joyner 2001). To date, these relationships have not been quantified using longitudinal data.

Our knowledge about the relationship between religion and sex is also limited. Cross-tabulations by religious denomination show that those with no affiliation (i.e., no involvement in religious activities) are least likely to report being extremely satisfied with sex either physically or emotionally (Laumann et al. 1994). Waite and Joyner (2001) find that emotional satisfaction and physical pleasure related to sex are higher for frequent attenders of religious services, holding other characteristics of the individual constant. Along similar lines, Greeley (1991) reports that couples who pray together say they have more “ecstasy” in their sex lives; he also finds that religious imagery and devotion is positively associated with sexual satisfaction. The small amount of evidence available is only suggestive of a connection between religious participation and the quality of people’s sex lives.

So, yes, I see the “older” adjective in the RNS story. And, yes, the wholesale graying of the declining world of liberal mainline Protestant believers is a demographic reality. But it also seems that long, stable marriages would provide support for, well, a happy Valentine’s Day.

Or is the positive force of religion in this matter somehow linked to people who are conservative and/or frequent worship attenders?

There is some interesting info in the RNS story on this angle, too. Check out the following and look for the potential follow up questions:

Of those surveyed, 54 percent said an unsatisfying sex life is a major problem for a relationship or marriage, while only 29 percent cited a couple’s differing religious beliefs as a major problem. But only white evangelicals — 56 percent — seemed to home in on religious difference as a big relationship issue. That doesn’t mean they’re not concerned about a bad sex life — 57 percent see it as a major problem.

Catholics also stand out in the study: Relatively few Catholics — 19 percent — consider differing religious beliefs a big concern for a couple. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, encourages a shared faith and typically frowns on a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic within the church.

But Cox said this finding is not surprising in light of American Catholics’ tendency on some issues — such as gay marriage — “to differ with official positions of the church while also affirming their identity as good Catholics.”

But wait, what about the surveys suggesting that the number of so-called “American Catholics” who are seriously, actively involved in the full sacramental life of their parishes being quite low, perhaps in the range of 20 percent of those who still call themselves Catholics?

So many questions. This is a very interesting story and I hope that this RNS story is the first to dig into this survey.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    When I was growing up it was almost always “SAINT Valentine’s Day” I noticed a few years ago that there seemed to be an effort to get the word” saint” out of the picture. Is that because then schools could no longer refer to the day if it was viewed as a saint’s day.
    Of course it is no longer St. Val’s Day in the universal church calendar because there are questions about the accuracy of some of the bios about him. But the customs of Feb. 14th grew out of his reputation–so why the dumping of the word “saint” in almost every media article referring to today????

    • Heather

      Deacon – That might be a good question for Mr. Ostling.
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/

    • Taylor

      I have been thinking about the point your raised for a few days now, and I don’t think that the secularization of the schools is the reason for dropping the “Saint” from St. Valentines day. After all, St. Patrick’s day, just a month and a few days later, is still always referred to as St. Patrick’s day. My theory is that the dropping is because 1) St. Valentine is not longer a canonical Saint for the Catholic church, 2) a “Valentine” has become a gift/card/commercial product that one gives to another (Hence the increasingly common use of the plural “Valentines Day, instead of the possessive “Valentine’s Day”) and people are referring to the gifts rather than the founder. Above all Valentine is a three syllable word, and expecting people to add another in front of such a long word is just too much for everyday speech in modern America.

  • Matthew B

    It might be that marriage is correlated both with higher sexual satisfaction and with a smaller likelihood of sex on Valentine’s day. Valentine’s day might be a day that non-married couples focus on; those who have been together for years and (living together) can have sex whenever might find the holiday less important. And that could go doubly for the aged, who-so they tell me-often find sex to be a less important part of their romantic lives.

    • LMoon

      Exactly what I was thinking – expecting to have sex on Valentine’s day and being satisfied with one’s sex life are not the same.

  • sari

    Rather than relay dubious factoids on religion, the article should have been scrapped as bad science. Someone, somewhere correlated scx on Valentines Day, one day a year, with a satisfying sex life. I’d like to see hard data to support that contention. A look at the survey suggests that it was commissioned specifically for V-Day.

    A more interesting article would have examined why some people in committed relationships ignore Valentines Day and why.

    http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/PRRI-RNS-Religion-News-Survey-Topline-February-2013.pdf

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    For the “nones,” is sex on Valentine’s Day somehow important for the sake of symbolism or, dare I say it, a kind of big-R Romantic sacrament? Is this their “church”?

    I’m surprised to see that question posed on a site that’s gone to great pains to point out the diversity of beliefs of “the nones” before. Why assume such a fuzzily-categorized group even could have anything analogous to a sacrament?


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