Premarital Sex

JANET SMITH

Much of what I have to say here about premarital sex is drawn from studies done in the United States. I suspect the US is fairly representative of Western, industrialized nations. And since most the world seems eventually to "catch up" with the United States, what I have to say is likely more broadly applicable.

Janet E. Smith

The recent attempts at Cairo, Beijing, and Istanbul of the United Nations, the US and other Western European countries to export western sexual mores to third world countries through population control programs, suggest that we have reason to fear that what is true in the US may soon become true everywhere.

In the United States, the media and opinion makers have finally come to recognize that unwed pregnancy is a major source of social chaos in our culture. Every few weeks, some columnist in the newspaper or news journal writes an editorial bemoaning the problem of unwed parenthood. The evidence is overwhelming that children raised in households headed by a single parent are much more prone to sexual abuse, drug abuse, crime, and divorce, for instance. Their health is poorer; their academic achievement is poorer; their economic well-being is less than that of children who are raised in two-parent households. In every way, children raised in single parent households seem to have a few strikes against them as they forge their way through life. (I do not want to suggest, of course, that all children raised in single parenthood households are doomed. I simply want to report that Catholic Church teaching, the teaching of most religions, sociological research, and perhaps common sense are at one in recognizing that children fare better when raised in a household with two parents.) The number of single-parenthood households has risen dramatically, due, of course, largely to unwed pregnancy and divorce.

The dimensions of the problem of unwed pregnancy are very serious, indeed. In the early nineteen sixties, some 3% of white babies were born out of wedlock, some 22% of black babies and as a whole, 6% of the babies born in the United States were born to unwed parents. Now some 22% of white babies, 68% of black babies and as an aggregate in the United States some 31% of babies are born to unwed parents. [1] One out of four to one out of three pregnancies in the United States are ended through abortion, the vast majority performed on unmarried women. Nearly every one of these births and abortions represent a failed relationship, a relationship that was not committed to the caring for any children that may be conceived through the relationship.

Certainly, sex outside of wedlock is not a new phenomenon. Certainly there is a tendency among many to think that things are worse than they are and always getting worse. But the common view that things are quite out of control now in a new way is confirmed by statistics. [2] Consider that:

  1. In the 1960s, 25 percent of young men and 45 percent of young women were virgins at age 19; by the 1980s, fewer than 20 percent of males and females were.

  2. In the 1950s, roughly 9 in 10 young women got married without living with their partner, compared with 1 in 3 in the early 1990s.

  3. The percentage of white women married from 1960-65 who were virgins was 43; from 1980-85 it was 14.


What is also important to note is that much of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion is not the result of teenage hormones gone wild or of "puppy love" — the infatuation or first love of young people. It has come as a surprise to many to learn in recent years that teen pregnancy is largely a result of older males preying on young girls. A study done in 1990 of teen pregnancy in California found that 77% of all births to high school age girls (ages 16-18) and 51% of births to junior high school age girls (15 and younger) were fathered by men older than high school age. [3] Men over age 25 fathered twice as many teenage births as did boys under age 18. On the average the males are 4.2 years older than the high school girls, and 6.7 years older than junior high school mothers. Six out of ten girls who sex before the age of 15 are coerced by males on the average 6 years their senior. These facts have led several states to consider re-instituting or enforcing laws on the books about statutory rape although some states place the age of consent for sexual intercourse as low as fourteen years of age.

Although legal protection is important, the real problem seems to be that most of these girls do not have a father at home to guide and protect them. Thus, we need real cultural change more than law enforcement to correct the problem.

There is some significant reason to hope that things are getting better among teenagers. We seem to be experiencing a somewhat miraculous reduction in the incidence of loss of virginity among teenagers; in 1989 studies showed that 59% of high schoolers had had sexual intercourse. A study of young people in 1994 shows that only 36% have had sexual intercourse; that is a 23 per cent drop in only five years. There is reason to believe that abstinence based sex education programs are having an impact, as perhaps is a general fear of contracting AIDS.

Still, while fewer teenagers may be having sexual intercourse outside of marriage, the vast majority of people are having sexual intercourse prior to marriage. Thus, although along with the teenage drop in premarital sex, there has been a corresponding drop in the number of abortions, the decrease that we might hope for in unwed pregnancies and abortions has not occurred — due to the fact that the majority of unwed pregnancies and abortions are not had by teenagers.

This is an extremely important point, for although few would deny that it is good that fewer teenagers are having sex outside of marriage, we need to see that teenagers are not the only and perhaps not the chief problem. In 1994, just 22 percent of children born out of wedlock had mothers age 18 or under; more than half had mothers ages 20 to 29. Over half of the abortions each year are had by unmarried women in their 20s, while just a fifth are under 20. Teenagers account for a smaller proportion of unwed births today than 20 years ago. (As late as 1975, teen girls bore the majority of all out-of-wedlock children in the United States.)

The number of unwed pregnancies and abortions that result from unplanned pregnancies suggests that the couples engaging in sexual intercourse are not really engaging in what should be called "premarital" sexual intercourse. It is highly unlikely that any discussion of marriage or plans for marriage have been made. Indeed, there is much evidence that a considerable amount of sexual intercourse, especially first time encounters, occurs among those who are inebriated and know each other hardly at all.

In some cultures, couples would get married when a pregnancy occurred. Premarital sex was largely a matter of advancing one's wedding night a few months and formalizing one's commitment once a pregnancy made marriage necessary. In such situations the category "premarital'" sex is more precise; the sexual intercourse does precede marriage. One study shows that the context of sex outside of marriage used to be "premarital." [4] It reports on the premarital sexual habits of young unmarrieds before the availability of contraception and abortion. This study reports that most couples having sexual intercourse before marriage engaged in a very important conversation. Since contraception and abortion were not available, the young woman would ask of the young man, "what happens if I get pregnant?" And the young man would customarily answer, "I will marry you." Indeed, the study reports that when a pregnancy occurred, the young man would in fact marry her. Today this is rarely the outcome of an unwed pregnancy; again, abortion, unwed motherhood, and placing a child for adoption are the predictable consequences of an unwed pregnancy.

Why are young people so prone to engage in premarital sex? Certainly, the human condition, original sin, and concupiscence explain a great deal, but there is also much evidence that we are doing little to combat the effects of original sin and much to exacerbate them. It is uncontroversial to note that our entertainment and media bombard our young people with the message that everyone should be sexually active — that sexual activity is essential to happiness. It also bombards them with sexual stimuli — an enormous number of products are marketed with ads featuring scantily clad seductive women or with men and women in romantic, not to say, explicitly sexual poses. Until recently, sex education programs did more harm than good because they assumed that teenagers would not be able to refrain from sexual activity. Some federally funded programs promote teaching kindergartners about masturbation and teach junior and senior high school students that pornography can be beneficial. Those programs are still in operative in too many places but are being rivaled by abstinence-based sex education programs. These programs seem to be having a salutary effect; as we noted recent reports show that sexual activity among teenagers has diminished though it still occurs at a terrifyingly high rate.

The Catholic Church speaks of "remote preparation" for marriage, which is what young people learn at home largely through the examples of their parents' interaction. Chaste parents, parents who are faithful to each other, who use natural family planning, who disdain pornography, and who are generous in the child-bearing stand to raise children who have a healthy and sensible understanding of sexuality. I think babies are themselves a "sex education." I advise parents that if at all possible, when their oldest child reaches the age of 12- 15 they have another child. For a teenager, having a baby in the household is a fantastic means of conveying the responsibilities of parenthood. Both teenage girls and boys love playing with their baby brothers and sisters and get a sense that parenthood is wonderful. They also learn that they are not yet ready for such responsibility. We must do everything we can to try to convince teenagers and adults that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is terribly irresponsible; it is similar to drunk driving and certainly much worse than smoking. Whatever effort we put into combating those bad practices should be matched multiple times in trying to convince people the premarital sex is wrong.


While many of the opinion-makers have succeeded in making the connection between social chaos, unwed pregnancy, and premarital sex, they have not yet discerned how crucial contraception is to this picture. In fact, they still generally mistakenly believe that better contraceptives and greater access to contraception should help reduce the number of unwed pregnancies. The factual evidence to the contrary is pretty substantial — wherever contraceptives have become more available the rate of unwed pregnancy and of abortion has increased. Teenagers are just as reliable in using contraceptives as they are in doing their chores, such as making their beds and doing their homework. [5]

The practice of contraceptive sex is very much behind the problems our culture has with sexuality, precisely because it has allowed us to think that the acts of having sex and the act of having babies and becoming truly bonded with another are separate acts. Having sexual intercourse and having babies are now considered to be distantly related actions rather than inherently connected actions. Couples who engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage need not and do not discuss what happens if a pregnancy occurs. Because they are contracepting they do not expect a pregnancy to occur and if one should occur, they know that abortion is an option. [6]

The connection between contraception and abortion is fairly well established; fifty per cent of those going to abortion clinics claim they are there because their contraceptive failed. Consider this passage from the Supreme Court decision, "Planned Parenthood vs. Casey":

"…in some critical respects abortion is of the same character as the decision to use contraception…for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail."

As I have commented on this passage elsewhere: [7]

"As the Supreme Court candidly states, we need abortion so that we can continue our contraceptive lifestyles. It is not because contraceptives are ineffective that a million and a half women a year seek abortions as backups to failed contraceptives. The "intimate relationships" facilitated by contraceptives are what make abortions "necessary." "Intimate" here is a euphemism and a misleading one at that. Here the word "intimate" means "sexual"; it does not mean "loving and close." Abortion is most often the result of sexual relationships in which there is no room for a baby, the natural consequence of sexual intercourse."

Contraceptive sex and sex outside of marriage not only leads to unwanted pregnancies; it also leads to bad marriages and divorce. One economist, Robert Michael from the University of Stanford claims that the increased use of contraception has led to and increased incidence of divorce. He noticed that the divorce rate in the United States doubled between the years of 1965-1975; contraception became available in the early 1960s and nearly every woman had access to contraception by the year 1975. Michael attributes 45% of the increase in the divorce rate to increased use of contraception. He argues that when women use contraception they have fewer children and are therefore less financially dependent and thus are less likely to stay in bad relationships.

I think the reasons are much more complicated why contraception contributes to divorce. The reason I would like to focus on here is the fact that contraceptive sex outside of marriage is a very bad preparation for marriage. I can't stress enough how much I think the fact that nearly all sex now is contracepted sex has destroyed our understanding of sexuality and has led to the widespread phenomenon of sex outside of marriage and even outside of relationships at least putatively based on love.

The severing of sexual intercourse from the natural prospect of a pregnancy has not only made it possible and thinkable to have sexual intercourse outside of marriage. It has also made it possible and thinkable to have sexual intercourse when one is not the least bit in love with one's sexual partner. Twenty years ago, when I started doing public speaking on abortion, when I would ask young people what was the purpose of sexual intercourse, they would immediately answer that the purpose was expressing love for another. Now they look somewhat quizzical; sexual intercourse is just something that one does; it is a highly pleasurable activity that is justified precisely for that reason. Again, when I was young, the big debate was over whether one would kiss on the first date; whether the willingness to kiss indicated that one was "fast" or "easy" by which we meant that one was too free with one's sexuality. Now, in some circles sexual intercourse is considered to be a normal part of a relationship and often begins long before a couple knows each other well at all — let alone feeling comfortable making declarations of love for each other. Couples think there is no need for them to be in love with each other before they engage in sexual intercourse. If they do not engage in sexual intercourse after a few dates or within weeks of dating, they tend to think there is no sexual chemistry between them and that the relationship is just a friendship and not a romance.

Many couples begin having sexual intercourse very early in a relationship; many of them eventually move in with each other. I suspect that many of these simply "slide" into marriage; that is, they do not make a very clear cut decision that this individual would be the best person for them to marry. After they have lived together for a while, others will inquire when they are going to marry and they will certainly discuss this among themselves. I suspect that some of them simply get married because the sex is o.k.; they don't fight too much; and they don't like the idea of starting a search all over again. Then a few years latter when the sexual attraction diminishes or when children become part of the picture, they may well learn that they do not share many fundamental values with their spouse. Couples who cohabit have a much higher rate of divorce than couples who do not.

In fact, some observers are now noting that the contraceptive culture has quite ruined the practice of courtship and that young people no longer know how to engage in courtship.

A very thoughtful philosopher in the US Leon Kass has written a marvelous article, "The End of Courtship" [8] wherein he reports upon the sad state of affairs among today's college students in terms of their relationships with the opposite sex. He speaks of the males as sexual predators who practice "serial monogamy" and of young women as "sad, confused, and lonely." He observes "For the first time in human history, mature women by the tens of thousands live the entire decade of their twenties — their most fertile years — neither in the homes of their fathers nor in the homes of their husbands; unprotected, lonely, and out of sync with their inborn nature." [9] Young people no longer know how to find a suitable spouse; they engage in premature sexual relationships; their own experience with failed relationships and the specter of divorce all around them makes them rather despair that they will find a lifelong partner. The habits of our culture do nothing to assist them in discovering the true values of love, marriage, and sexuality and thus they rather ricochet from relationship to relationship and often get married to a sexual partner not so carefully chosen.

We have a whole generation of young people who are receiving from their culture the understanding that sex before marriage — sex with several partners before marriage with whom one does not have a committed relationship and has no plans to marry, is perfectly acceptable. Very few manage to remain virgins until marriage. These young people need to hear and to come to understand the Christian understanding of sexuality — that it belongs within marriage. They need to hear that it is designed to create powerful bonds between spouses, bonds that enable them to forge the intimate relationship vital to their growth and vital to the well-being of their children. They need to learn that sexual intercourse is not simply a pleasure to be pursued without reverence for these purposes of sexuality.

One wonders, of course, how much assistance young people get from their Church in learning and accepting the Church's wisdom on sexuality. A student recently told me that her religion teacher told them that premarital sexual intercourse was not a sin because it was not explicitly condemned by the Ten Commandments. Many Catholic school sex education programs show more evidence of being influenced by Planned Parenthood than by the Catholic Church.

That some Churchmen are starting to realize that they are not doing all they could and should do is indicated by this remarkable passage from a statement by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines in 1990 in reference to their failure to teach the Church's wisdom on contraception:

"It is said that when seeking ways of regulating births, only 5% of you consult God. In the face of this unfortunate fact, we your pastors have been remiss: how few are there among you whom we have reached. There have been some couples eager to share their expertise and values on birth regulation with others. They did not receive adequate support from their priests. We did not give them due attention, believing then this ministry consisted merely of imparting a technique best left to married couples.

"Only recently have we discovered how deep your yearning is for God to be present in your married lives. But we did not know then how to help you discover God's presence and activity in your mission of Christian parenting. Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraceptive technology, we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with a lame excuse: "follow what your conscience tells you." How little we relized that it was our consciences that needed to be formed first. A greater concern would have led us to discover that religious hunger in you."

Those are remarkable words. We all need to reflect on what we can do to instruct couples on the evils of contraception and premarital sex, for if we succeed in convincing them to follow Church teaching on both, we dramatically increase their chances of marital stability and marital happiness.

I frequently give talks against premarital sex to college students. One fairly powerful technique I have is the following. I ask them, how many of them want their spouses to be faithful to them throughout their marriages; they all raise their hands. I ask them how many of them intend to be faithful to their spouses throughout their marriages and they all raise their hands. Then I ask them: Why not start now? Why not be faithful to the person that you are going to marry before you meet him or her, so you can say to him or her, "I knew you would come along some day. I knew you would be worth waiting for. I have saved myself for you." I tell them that their sexuality actually does not belong to themselves in a way that they can give it to anyone. Rather, it belongs to their future spouse and should not be given away to anyone but that spouse. Their sexuality is a gift from God that is meant to be shared only with one's spouse — it is to be put in the service of love and family, and not to be pursued for selfish pleasure.

There are many impressive programs now in the US that use the "True Love Waits" theme that involve young people taking pledges and even wearing rings or some other sign that they intend to remain virgins until marriage. Young people seem to respond well to this approach; perhaps especially the females but many of the males as well. (As an aside, I would like to say that I think we do males a disservice by portraying them as predators. Many young men have a natural nobility, a natural protectiveness towards women and children and thus a natural chastity. Our culture, however, works very hard to strip them of that chastity and to produce predators.)

Once they have heard the eminently sensible objections there are to premarital sex, many young people seem understand that they should wait for marriage to have sexual intercourse. We need to explain to them that truly intimate relationships need trust and commitment in order to grow and thrive and children need to have parents who are completely committed to each other. I ask students what kind of parents they hope to be to their children and ask them if they are currently prepared to be such parents. They soon realize that they would be foolish to endanger their ability to have truly intimate relationships and to care for their children well by having premarital sex.

Students then ask a question that is very important to them "How far can we go?" When I answer that they should keep all their clothes on, their feet on the floor, and never "French kiss", some of them squirm and protest. They think they should be able to nearly go "all the way." I explain to them that they should never do anything that makes them really desperate to "go all the way." They should engage in behavior that allows them to show affection but that when sexual arousal begins in earnest they must stop and stop doing as a rule what has led the sexual arousal to begin.


I have discovered that students seem completely oblivious to the concept of the occasion of sin. I teach on a campus where many students take their Catholicism very seriously; they understand very well why sex outside of marriage is wrong; and they very much intend to be chaste and remain virgins until marriage. Yet every year we have a significant number of pregnancies and many of these are by couples who are devout and who even are seen frequently at daily mass. Alcohol is a major factor, both in the rather random sex that takes place on campuses and in the sexual intercourse between the engaged. Students drink too much, go into a dark room alone together, and nature takes over. Students seem to think that they can deal with an enormous amount of proximity and emotional dependency and avoid physical intimacy.

We even have a phenomenon on our campus called "scamming" where young men and young women who claim not to be romantically involved, sleep together fully clothed "just for the companionship"; a fair number of pregnancies result from such foolishness. Students seem to believe two contradictory things; one is that they it is very difficult to wait until marriage and secondly that they can manage amazing physical proximity and emotional intimacy and avoid sexual intercourse. There is something very faulty in their understanding of human nature. What I want to stress here is that convincing young people that sexual intercourse before marriage is not enough; they need some very practical instruction on how to maintain chastity. The advice to "just say no" is not enough; young people have quite unbelievable freedom and the opportunities that present themselves make "just saying no" inadequate.

When I speak about premarital sex to college students, I give them a challenge. I tell them I have a formula for a long lasting marriage. Now, one thing that young people hate is divorce; they have either themselves suffered from the ravages of divorce or their friends have and they would very much like to avoid experiencing and inflicting that pain within their lives. I tell them that they need to do four things:

  1. First, they need to save sexual intercourse until marriage and if they have been having sexual intercourse they should stop and to figure out why it was so wrong to be having sexual intercourse. Studies show quite clearly that those who remain virgins until have a much lower incidence of divorce. [10]

  2. Second, they should get married in a Church and go to Church regularly and to pray together often. Actually I suspect this one practice would save most marriages; God really does supply the sacramental graces to those who seek it. Studies clearly show that the most lasting marriages and happiest marriages are between those who share religious convictions and act upon them. [11]

  3. Third, they should tithe; they should give at least 10% of their earnings to charity.

  4. Fourth, if they need to limit their family size, they should use natural family planning and never use contraception. The divorce rate among couples who use natural family planning is nearly non-existence.*


Endnotes

  1. William J. Bennett, The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. New York. 1994, 46.

  2. A source for these an other statistics on the sexual practices of Americans can be found in Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago. 1994. 

  3. Mike Males and Kenneth S. Y. Chew, “The Ages of Fathers in California Adolescent Births, 1993,” in Anerican Jouranl of Public Health 86:4 (April 1996) 565-568 and Mike Males, “Poverty, Rape, Adult/Teen Sex: Why ‘Pregnancy Prevention’ Programs Don’t Work,” Phi Delta Kappan (Jan. 1994) 407-410. 

  4. George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen, Michael L. Katz, “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States in The Quarterly Journal of Economics 111: 2 (May 1966)  277-317.

    The following are the rates of contraceptive failure for teenagers
    (percent per year)


    Birth control pill   . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  11 percent
    Condoms            . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  14 percent
    Diaphragm            . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  16 percent
    Spermicides          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  34 percent

    Other methods (i.e., withdrawal) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38 percent



  5. Reference:  Robert A. Hatcher.  Contraceptive Technology, 1986-1987. 13th Revised Edition, New York, Irvington Publishers, 1986, page 139. 

  6. See Adkerlof et alii, above.

  7. Janet E. Smith, “The connection between Contraception and Abortion,” in Homiletic and Pastoral Review  

  8. Leon Kass, Public Interest 126 (Winter, 1997), 39-63. 

  9. Kass, 42. 

  10. Laumann et alii, 503-5. 

  11. Laumann et alii, 501ff.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Smith, Janet. "Premarital Sex." Sacerdos.

Reprinted with permission of Sacerdos.

THE AUTHOR

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics, Beginning Apologetics 5: How to Answer Tough Moral Questions–Abortion, Contraception, Euthanasia, Test-Tube Babies, Cloning, & Sexual Ethics, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right. She has published many articles on ethical and bioethics issues. She has taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas. Prof. Smith has received the Haggar Teaching Award from the University of Dallas, the Prolife Person of the Year from the Diocese of Dallas, and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. She is serving a second term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family. Over a million copies of her talk, "Contraception: Why Not" have been distributed. Visit Janet Smith's web page here. See Janet Smith's audio tapes and writing here. Janet Smith is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1998 Sacerdos