Avoiding sex before marriage isn’t much of a problem in a society where people get married shortly after they become sexually mature. Unfortunately, the West isn’t such a society. Take a look at how things have changed.
Centuries ago, first marriages in Europe were typically at 25 years, with brides a couple of years younger than grooms. Yes, Shakespeare portrays Juliet as only 13, but that was uncommon. Noble folk typically married earlier, but Juliet would’ve been young even for a noblewoman.
Onset of puberty in the 1800s was about 16–17 for girls and a year later for boys, with sexual maturity requiring another five years.
This meant that young people typically had just a few years between sexual maturity and marriage. Even so, premarital sex was common (though out-of-wedlock births were frowned upon). Until the mid-1700s in Britain, betrothed couples could live together and have sex, and pregnant brides were common and accepted. Customs in Colonial America were about the same, and a third of New England brides were pregnant.
The average age at first marriage in the U.S. is now 27 for women and 29 for men, a bit older than centuries earlier. The bigger difference is the age of sexual maturity. Onset of puberty is now 10–11 for girls and a year later for boys. The process is complete about five years later.
While the cause of this change in puberty is debated—some combination of improved nutrition and hormone-like chemicals in our environment?—this means an average of over a decade of sexual maturity before marriage. Abstinence before marriage is now much more of a trial.
What does the Bible say?
The Bible has a lot to say about sex. It talks about a girl who is presented as a virgin but isn’t. It talks about adultery. It talks about when rape is okay. It talks about how to take captured women as wives. It talks about which relatives you may not sleep with. It even talks about which relatives you must sleep with. (More on the Bible’s crazy marriage and sex customs here.)
The Bible also has plenty to say about premarital sex. Or nothing, depending on your interpretation. The issue revolves around the Greek word porneia.
The New Testament uses this word a lot. It’s clearly a bad thing, but it’s not clear exactly what it means. It’s often translated as “fornication,” which is consensual sex between two persons not married to each other. That includes premarital sex, so the Bible prohibition appears to be clear.
But explore other translations, and the issue is trickier. Some define the word as “prostitution,” because the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) used it this way.
A popular translation is “sexual immorality,” though this ambiguous. Even if the sins in this category were clear in Paul’s mind, they’re not clear in ours, and we are only projecting our own biases when listing what this prohibition must mean. No, “sexual immorality” doesn’t clearly prohibit premarital sex, and it’s not included in the long list of sexual sins in Leviticus 18 and 20.
Even if premarital sex were prohibited in the Bible, so what? The Bible celebrates genocide, polygamy, and slavery, and yet we reject them. You might say that God was bound by the customs of the time, and that’s why they’re allowed. But no matter—they’re not allowed today. Similarly, if a ban on premarital sex makes no sense for modern society, drop it.
The Christian response
One approach, often adopted by conservative Christians, is to get married early. You want sex? Fair enough—just get married first. But a rush to marriage driven by a desire for sex can make for a poorly grounded marriage. A Barna study came to similar conclusions as earlier studies when it concluded, “divorce rates are higher among people who are members of conservative Protestant faiths,” and “divorce rates were lower for people who described themselves as atheist or agnostic.”
Just as sex-driven marriage isn’t the best approach, neither is abstinence-only sex education. More knowledge leads to less risky sexual behavior. Not teaching safe sex or discouraging teens from the HPV vaccine is like banning fire extinguishers because otherwise everyone will set things on fire.
Let me propose a different approach. Nature will give adult bodies to teens whether we like it or not. We don’t give them the keys to the car without driver’s education, so give them the owner’s manual to go along with their adult bodies as well (more).
Instead of a one-size-fits-all demand that premarital sex be off limits, society should (1) provide sex education that minimizes unwanted pregnancy and STDs, (2) make contraception and condoms easily available, (3) emphasize that “No” means no in a relationship, and (4) teach that sex alters a relationship and shouldn’t be treated lightly. Finally, have abortion available as a backstop.
Yes, there can be harm with sex, but there can be harm with cars and the internet, too. Sexual compatibility is an important component of a strong marriage. Should the couple figure that out before or after committing their lives to each other?
The gap between sexual maturity and marriage has gone from a couple of years to more than a decade. The ban on premarital sex is naive, especially when it’s just a tradition and isn’t in the Bible. This is like female genital mutilation in predominantly Muslim societies—it’s only a tradition, and it’s not in the Quran.
There’s nothing inherently harmful in premarital sex, and the sin of premarital sex is one of those rare problems that you can simply define away.
We are living at a time where some people . . .
want to test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow.
— John Sentamu, Archbishop of York
(commenting on the decision of Prince William and Kate Middleton
to live together before their wedding)
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/23/13.)
Photo credit: Wikimedia