What does this chart tell us about Christian sexual ethics?

What does this chart tell us about Christian sexual ethics? February 27, 2013

There are several possible ways to interpret this chart:

We could view this as:

A. Evidence of Christian hypocrisy.

B. Evidence of Christian honesty.

C. Evidence that the lack of a coherent sexual ethic leaves many Christians adrift.

D. A compelling reason to convert to Buddhism.

E. All of the above.

I found this via Andrew Sullivan, who titled his post: “Which Religions Are the Most Chaste?” That’s not quite what the study found, though.

Kevin Hartnett of the Boston Globe wrote about the research by Amy Adamczyk and Brittany Hayes of the City University of New York. Their chart above comes from survey data of 418,000 people around the world, but note that this chart does not show the probability of premarital sex, but rather the “Probability of Reporting Premarital Sex.”

As Hartnett writes:

Sex is a notoriously difficult subject to study. There are all sorts of reasons people dissemble about what they do, and you can imagine those incentives are even stronger when you’re a woman in a conservative Muslim household being asked whether you had sex before marrying your husband. Aware of these challenges, the researchers ran several statistical tests to assess respondents’ truthfulness. They found that Muslims and Hindus were actually the least likely of all religious groups to fib about premarital sex. This could suggest that Muslims and Hindus have fewer transgressions to lie about; or it could mean that Muslims and Hindus are better dissemblers given the heightened consequences around premarital sex in those cultures.

And, similarly, the chart could mean that Buddhists are having more sex than everyone else, or else it could mean that Buddhists are more honest than everyone else.

Whatever else that chart means, though, I think it supports the argument that “The problem with evangelical sexual ethics is that we haven’t got any.”


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  • Makabit

    What kind of a religion is ‘Traditional’?

  • The_L1985

     I guess it’s that old-time religion.  I think it’s the one with Zeus?

  • I think this shows that (mainline?) Christians are generally comfortable with the sexual ethos of the society they live in, for all the hue and cry wrought by the fundamentalists.

  • MikeJ

    It was good for Romulus and Remus
    It was good for Romulus and Remus
    It was good for Romulus and Remus
    It’s good enough for me

  • mcc

    I look at this chart and I can’t possibly think about sexual ethics because the part of my brain that thinks about math just starts screaming “hidden variables! hidden variables! holy hell hidden variables!” until it drowns out everything else. Before I really drew any conclusions I’d want to read the exact paper (which seems nice and statistically meaty) about how they tell the difference between behavior which varies across by regions or ethic groups as opposed to religious groupings.

    Also I must express some surprise, assuming I am reading this chart correctly, at the apparent existence of any culture in which the number of virgins in the population is under 15%…?

  • Is there bird sign?

    Usul, we have bird sign the likes of which even God has never seen.

  • Damanoid

    “Missing religion?” 

    This always happens to me, I’m glad they finally added a category for it.  One time I left my religion on the roof of the car and drove off by accident.  

    Another time I thought my religion was missing but it finally turned up behind the couch cushions.  It’s always in the last place you look, isn’t it.

  • Becca Stareyes

    As you said, it probably depends on who they are surveying. (One obvious caveat is the age distribution of the sample.  For instance, I imagine children and teens weren’t surveyed, so the actual percentage of virgins is probably higher in the general population than in the sample.) 

  • LoneWolf343

    Aren’t “No religion” and “missing religion” functionally the same thing, or are people saying that they keep their metaphysical philosophies next to their keys?

  • mcc

    I believe “No religion” refers to “the respondent said they have no religion” whereas “missing religion” refers to “we did not have religious affiliation data for this respondent”. The study mentions several times they have incomplete data for some survey respondents.

  • Aaron Boyden

    Well, I looked it up; apparently the “Traditional/Indigenous Religion” category includes “Animist,” “Kirat,” Vaudouisant,” “Vodoun,” and, of course, “Other Traditional.”  “Missing” seems to indicate cases where there’s a problem with the data.

    What I want to know is why Fred think this tells us to convert to Buddhism when it seems that Other is even more appealing.  Though the religions included in “Other” are absurdly heterogeneous, ranging from “Confucian” to “Zoroastrian” to “Don’t Know.”  I can see why the researchers say they wish they could have broken it down more finely.  Apparently the data they drew on wouldn’t allow that; one hopes somebody will eventually collect better data, and we’ll get a chart with more details and without the “Missing” category.

  • Narcissus

    Aware of these challenges, the researchers ran several statistical tests to assess respondents’ truthfulness. 

    Not being aware of what the above entails I’m going to advance gingerly.
    According to the actual study, found here… http://asr.sagepub.com/content/77/5/723.full.pdf+html

    Ages were 15-49 women and 15-59 men. The survey however included only those who were ever married and the respondents that gave one age for marriage and a different age for loss of virginity were flagged.  As the study says, might indicate a desire to answer according to social desirability. “6 percent of all responses were flagged.” The flagging fell this way…

    “…Buddhists were the most likely to have a flagged response (16 percent), followed by Jews (8.9 percent), Christians (7.2 percent), Muslims (5.3 percent), and Hindus (3.5 percent). 

    Again, the report calls the table Fred reproduced the predicted probabilities that the study could then show to be accurate/inaccurate. The graph is called “Figure 3” and only shows females, who do not work and who live in rural areas only.
     This is not some actual survey tally. 

    But like the sacred texts of each religion, who reads past the abstract anyway….

  • So that’s why those people are always coming to my door asking me if I’ve found Jesus.

  •  Maybe they want him back?

  • Joykins

    The difficulty with reporting rates of *premarital* sex is that some people never marry, therefore confounding the statistics.  Is sex-while-single for a person who never marries truly *pre*marital?  Hmmmm….

  • Lliira

     And this is one reason I hate the term “premarital sex”.

    The other is that it draws a line between sex in marriage and sex outside marriage as if they’re inherently different things. They aren’t. While being married to my husband is simpler than living with him because suddenly he’s allowed to do a lot of stuff for me he couldn’t before (like make doctor’s appointments) and typing “husband” is easier than typing “fiancé”, our actual relationship has not changed one bit.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     Tell them to look in the Republican National Committee’s basement.  I think they’re holding the poor guy prisoner.

  • arcseconds

    I was wondering whether the national culture also played a big role, and it looks like it does.   A muslim woman has a big decrease in the chances of reporting pre-marital sex with greater proportions of muslims in the surrounding society.

  • Hilary

    This reminds me of a joke:

    There are four questions every modern person must face in life: [said in voice-over of deep and profound philosophical meaning]

    1. Is there a God?
    2. What is the meaning of life?
    3. What happens when we die?
    4. Where the fuck are my car keys?

  • Zero-Gravity

    The probability of “reporting” has nothing to do with the probability of “having” premarital sex. It could very well be that Buddhists have sex so seldomly that they like to make a fuzz when it actually happens. ;-)

  • Baby_Raptor

    Well, technically until you marry, you’re in a state of “pre-maritalness” even if you never plan to marry. 

  • reynard61

    “Tell them to look in the Republican National Committee’s basement.  I think they’re holding the poor guy prisoner.”

    Wouldn’t doubt it. He’s basically become their child of Omelas.

  • Anon_Ymous


    I don’t consider myself in a state of pre-Olympian-ness just because I haven’t made it to the Olympics…

  • Not everyone live somewhere where it’s necessary to have a car, though. I suggest we amend the 4th to being simply “Where the fuck are my keys?”

  • Carstonio

    I would amend the first to say “Do one or more gods exist?” One of my frustrations with theology is the sweeping assumption of only one god, dismissing the many religions that have many gods or that have other types of supernatural beings. 

    Similarly, “the meaning of life” implies an agency capable of creating such meaning. I usually say that any individual creates meaning for hir own life instead.

  • Perhaps, although you may be underestimating their potential for cognitive dissonance. But then, I grew up in a pretty fundamentalist area, so my experience probably isn’t typical.

  • Matthias

    How about you actually read a study before ranting about “hidden variables”? The graph Fred shows includes only females, who do not work and who live in rural areas, i.e. the hidden variables were accounted for.

  • Why is Andrew Sullivan so obsessed about sex?

    Found Jesus? I think it is terrible that so many people have misplaced him. Look under the mess in the back of your closet.

  • P J Evans

     mcc did read it. You apparently didn’t.

  • One of the interesting things about lay Buddhism is that according to the Five Precepts, one should not engage in sexual misconduct.  However, Buddha never defined what “sexual misconduct” actually was.  As a result, there is a big diversity in opinion on the matter.  

    In a big way, I think that not being too specific about sexual ethics was very forward-thinking of Buddha.  It allows the notion of what is sexually right or wrong to be re-calibrated rather than to be fixed to the social mores of a particular era of a particular culture.  

    While the opinions are varied, a lot of lay Buddhists will start with the other things Buddha said about being mindful and avoiding doing harm when considering sexual ethics.  That is, if they were not doing harm with their sexual activities and reporting it does no harm to others, then there is no shame in admitting so.  

    More devout practitioners (such as monks) will be more abstinent, but that has more to do with a general rejection of worldly desires to divest themselves of excessive attachment rather than something specific to sex.

  • LL

    It sure would be nice if, in the 21st century, “premarital sex” could just be “sex.” 

  • AnonymousSam

    Because the definition of premarital sex in any context you’ll ever hear it as it relates to religion just means “sex outside of marriage.” Going to the Olympics to perform isn’t considered the default state of behavior. Getting married to make church-approved babies is.

  • Getting married to make church-approved babies is only the default expected state of behavior for a small group of people in our society, and that group is shrinking all the time, though they still have power far beyond their numbers. Why must the rest of society be stuck with their outdated terminology? 

  • AnonymousSam

    Not sure it’s a small group of people, but I agree that their expectations shouldn’t be considered the norm for everybody.

  • This method of discovery would not work for those people who abstained until they were in a “serious” relationship – i.e., engaged – before having PIV sex.  Just because the age is the same in both cases is no guarantee they lost their virginity AFTER the marriage ceremony.

  • Tricksterson

    I would guess any or all paeleo-Pagan religions that aren’t Hinduism.  What I want to know is what are “missing” religions?  SHould we be looking for their pictures on milk cartons?

  • Tricksterson

    It was good for Aphrodite
    Tho’ she’s rumored to be flighty.
    But she looks good in a nightie
    So she’s good enough for me

    It was good enough for Odin
    Tho’ the ravens croakin’ was forbodi’
    But then the giants rode in
    And that was good enough for me

    It was good enough for Loki
    And he is the god of Chaos
    So this verse doesn’t even rhyme
    Or scan
    Fuck you!

  • There’s a Livejournal comm set up to answer that very question: http://myfsckingkeys.livejournal.com/profile

    The origin story is amusing:

    I guess I’m curious as to whether, if people posted “I’ve lost my [keys], where should I look?” and other random people across the globe said, for example, “On your fridge”…would they be right, and if so, how often? An exercise in delving into the collective unconscious, as it were. 

  • AnonaMiss

    What I’m curious about is why the “nones” reported less than the Christians… I wouldn’t expect them to underreport more than any other group, so are they just honestly having less premarital sex than anyone else? And why would that even be?

  • JustoneK

    Yes, keep on ticking off those boxes!  Most of us have bingo several times over.

    You’re really new to this trolling idea, aren’tcha?

  • mcc

    For the record, I didn’t read it; I skimmed it very briefly, enough to tell that they’d done their homework but not enough to understand what exactly this chart was measuring and how. I was just trying to express I was very uncomfortable with this discussion proceeding on only the information Fred’s summary and limited-context chart offered. (I do hope to read the whole thing at some point, but it’s long!)

  • Aaron Boyden

    Also a little puzzled at the “no religion” being in the middle of the pack.  Maybe people meet far more of their sex partners through religious gatherings than we would have expected?

  • Maybe people meet far more of their sex partners through religious gatherings than we would have expected?

    It would not surprise me.  It is an easy way to gather together as a community, and you can be certain that the other members there share certain values that you do.  In a lot of ways, going it alone (religiously) makes meeting potential partners more difficult because you do not have that same kind of inbuilt community.  

    Actually, I would argue that having a community with a nice mix of genders and orientations compatible with your own is a big factor in meeting partners.  A religious community is one form of that, but there are others that a person can seek out if they should so choose.  If nothing else, meeting more people increases the chance that you will meet someone who is compatible with you.  

  • In Buddhism, there’s nothing to gain by lying like Christianity other than the fact that a bride price is still practiced in many Buddhists countries. A virgin is worth more. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    There’s nothing to gain, except for money? So…not nothing at all.

  • If your worth more, that makes you “better”; just an educated woman is worth more. But still, conservative Christianity teaches that your tainted if you had pre-marital sex; in Buddhism, merit can be made to take away the sin (sometimes on their wedding night they will offer the spirits food in the bedroom of the couple who already slept with each other). Its honestly not a huge deal. Conservative Christianity teaches that you need to be either cold or hot for God, if your inbetween, you will be spit out (Revelations). The Buddhist commoner, outside the monks and such who do live strict lives, live moderate lives. They try not to harm others and do take care of their neighbors, they make merit, and live how they want.

  • Matthias

    Oh, I didn’t, that is strange because I was so sure I in fact did. But then again I’m not infallibel so I guess it is possible.

    Just one quick question how did gain your wisdom? Because it would be really great if I would also be capable to figure out what people did or did not do without seeing more of them than a single online post.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Conservative Christian and Buddhist commoner is a bit of a false equivalence, don’t you think?

    Please stop automatically equating Christianity with the social hangups of the conservative fraction; it’s annoying. Or at the very least apply equal treatment to all groups if you’re attempting to compare them.

  •  This comment just won the thread.

  • I have two, possibly competing, possibly complimentary, ideas:

    1.  If sex drive is a continuum with some people having a higher sex drive than others (which it seems to be) and that continuum is at least partly genetic (which it might well be), then maybe a community, such as conservative Christianity, that has very strict rules about when and where and under what circumstances one can have sex would be very attractive for those who are disturbed about having very high sex drives.  So those with high sex drives congregate (as it were) in these communities, marry from those communities, and proceed to have lots of children who also may have statistically higher sex drives.

    This may also explain conservative Christianity’s fixation with sex.  They truly do think about nothing else. 

    The “nones” on the other hand, may come, not from a lower, so much as from a more balanced distribution of sex drives. Some have high sex drives, others are asexual, and lots are somewhere in between. 

    As a result, the Christian group has a lot more premarital sex than the “nones.”

    2.  The Christian respondents may come from rural areas.  The “nones” probably do come from more urban areas.   There is more entertainment available in an urban area than in a rural area — clubs, coffee shops, parks, museums, movie theaters, and so forth. 

    So, in a rural area, when you get together with your sweetie on a Saturday night, instead of going out dancing until you’re too tired to do anything else, what do you do? 

    Additionally, living in a rural area affords more opportunities for sex, because there are more places to go to be alone, and nearly everyone has to have access to a vehicle of some sort.  In urban areas, the really intrepid could have sex in the middle of a park or on the subway, but for most, I suspect the opportunities to be alone are fewer and farther between.