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The prohibition against unmarried sex is a basic teaching of most of the world's religions. So why is out-of-wedlock sex pervasive, particularly among "the young"? And why are three million American teenage girls (that's one in four) infected with a sexually transmitted disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control?
Of course, it's impossible to know exactly how "good" the "good old days" really were. Nonetheless, it's fair to say that the sexual mores of what's become known as the "greatest generation" were more reflective of traditional Judeo-Christian teaching than the sexual practices of their children and grandchildren.
The reasons are complex. For that generation, it was simply expected that people would wait until marriage for sexual intercourse. The culture supported that view in a couple of ways. For one thing, couples married younger than they do today. As I reported in the Spring 2009 issue of Salvo, the age for first marriages in the United States is now the highest it's been since the Census Bureau started keeping records in the 1890s.
The age is even higher among the college educated. There is a cultural expectation that one should attain a certain level of education or have a settled, successful career before considering marriage. The once common practice of getting married immediately after graduating from college would seem almost scandalous, or at least very ill-advised, to many today. So couples wait until they're in their thirties before marrying—but waiting to have sex until then is, well, no longer a cultural expectation.
Morse: Supports Gone
For earlier generations, there were other cultural underpinnings that supported marriage. Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-Up World, is also the founder of the Ruth Institute, an organization devoted to promoting marriage as "the proper context for sex and childrearing."
In an interview, she elaborated on those now-abandoned supports, what she calls the backup plans that were in place if people did have sex resulting in pregnancy before marriage. "The basic norm was that you would either place your baby for adoption or you'd get married. Those things had a way of channeling sexual activity into marriage sooner. Right now there's nothing that channels sex into marriage."
The advent of more reliable and accessible birth control, especially the Pill, was critical in further severing the three-way tie between sex, marriage, and having children. As the culture created the concept of "safe sex," that is, sex with a lower risk of pregnancy, "recreational sex" was born.
Gone was the once implicit contract between two unmarried people having sex. As Dr. Morse put it,
The birth control pill made it impossible for women to hold out and say, "I'll have sex with you if you agree to marry me in the event of a pregnancy." No woman can privately enforce that view. That has to be a cultural expectation that's supported by the whole society. That's the piece that went away.
Central to the women's liberation movement was the idea of sexual liberation. Sex was seen as a good worth pursuing in itself, cultural restraints be damned. Women were sexual beings with a right to go after sex just as men had been doing for centuries, or so the feminist line went.
As the culture stopped enforcing what had been, at their root, religious teachings, was religion able to hold sway without that cultural support? Not much. Sexual practices at odds with traditional morality took hold.
Regnerus: No Longer Premarital
The National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR), conducted between July 2002 and April 2003, examined adolescents' religious, family, and social lives. Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology and religion at the University of Texas, was a co-investigator for the study. His book, Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, details the findings of that and other similar research.
Teenagers in the NYSR survey were asked, "Do you think that people should wait to have sex until they are married, or not necessarily?" Only 51.2 percent, slightly more than half, of Roman Catholic teenagers said yes, they should wait; and only 51.9 percent of mainline Protestants agreed. Mormon teens ranked highest in votes for waiting, at 77.3 percent, followed by Evangelical Protestants at 73.7 percent.
In general, among adolescents who reported attending weekly religious services (not broken down by affiliation), 66.2 percent said they believed in waiting till marriage. The numbers jumped considerably among teens who reported being in church more than once a week: 83 percent of these believed in waiting for marriage before having sex.
Regnerus notes that even the meaning of the expression "premarital sex" has changed. Where once it referred to sexual relations between a couple who intended to get married but had not yet done so, now it refers to sexual relations any person has with another, without any particular intentions regarding marriage. A more apt term, he suggested, would be "nonmarital sex."
As to religion and its influence on adolescents' sexual behavior and attitudes, Regnerus concluded that religious affiliation was less important than what he calls "high religiosity" and teens being immersed in what he refers to as "religious plausibility structures," that is,
a network of like-minded friends, family and authorities who (a) teach and enable comprehensive religious perspectives about sexuality to compete more effectively against ubiquitous sexually permissive scripts, and (b) offer desexualized time and space and provide reinforcement of parental values.
So it appears worth examining whether certain religions or denominations do more to provide the "plausibility structures" Regnerus deems so critical.
Mormons may be a small religious minority, but when it comes to instilling their values in young people, they've been very successful. I spoke with a young Mormon woman who works for the Love and Fidelity Network, which, according to its website, works with college students "to educate, train and equip [them] with the arguments, resources and direction they need to uphold the institution of marriage, the unique role of the family and sexual integrity on their campuses." She told me that young people in the Mormon Church are given very specific direction when it comes to dating, chastity, and avoiding pornography. The church "addresses these issues head on," so that "young people know what's expected of them."
The teaching is "principle-based," meaning that reasons are given for all the teachings. In addition to spending an hour at church every Sunday, Mormon youth spend two more hours together going over the issues laid out in documents called "For the Strength of Youth." Starting at the age of 12, she and her peers began attending youth group, where leaders addressed such issues directly. Friendship was emphasized, dances were organized, wholesome recreation and activities were available, and teens learned to develop the basic elements of friendship.
On the Mormon Church website, under the heading of "Dating," adolescents are advised to "date only those who have high standards and in whose company you can maintain your standards. . . . Do not date until you are least 16 years old. . . . When you begin dating, go in groups or on double dates." Chastity is addressed under "Sexual Purity": "God has commanded that sexual intimacy be reserved for marriage. . . . Do not have any sexual relations before marriage, and be completely faithful to your spouse after marriage."
Bozell: Media Matters
Given the susceptibility of teenagers to peer influence and to the sexualized culture that surrounds them, an intentionally religious "village" (or "religious plausibility structure," to use Regnerus's term) is something all faith organizations serious about teaching chastity need to consider. The "village" influencing today's teens is rife with what Regnerus refers to as "sexually permissive scripts." Adolescents are bombarded with hypersexual media in the form of movies, television, teen magazines, and advertising. Thanks to the internet, this generation of young people has easy access to the most outrageous kinds of pornography. Sex is not only divorced from marriage; it is also often divorced from any sort of relationship.
In the course of one generation, television has gone from not showing married couples sharing a bed (think The Dick Van Dyke Show) to airing Victoria's Secret commercials that border on the pornographic (think early Playboy magazines).
Brent Bozell is president of the Media Research Council, a media watchdog group founded in 1987. I asked him if it is true that the culture pushes the media, as most media outlets claim. "This is a great misconception, a great falsehood," he replied, and continued:
The media's standard defense is that they're only reflecting reality. In fact, they're pushing reality. On a regular basis, they promote issues that they want to promote, and they're tearing down the culture the way they want it torn down. Whereas you and I might come from the position that teenage sex is wrong, they come at it from a position that it's okay.
The Parents Television Council (which Bozell founded but no longer runs) released a report called "Tinseltown's New Target: A Study of Teen Female Sexualization on Prime-Time TV." Based on a content analysis of the most popular primetime broadcast television shows in the 2009–2010 season, the report found that "underage girls are rapidly becoming the new female image of sexualization in the media." Among the findings: a higher percentage of underage females were shown in sexual situations compared to adult females, and 98 percent of the incidents involving underage females were portrayed as taking place without any kind of committed relationship.
Besides a culture that is now, for the most part, not simply unreflective of traditional and moral values but diametrically opposed to them, one must also factor in the power and influence of the federal government.
Thanks to support by federal tax dollars, Planned Parenthood and SIECUS (the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.) are the largest providers of sex education in the U.S. And not just any sex ed—these groups push what they call "comprehensive" or "evidence-based" sex education. This is not teaching about marital sexual intercourse. And it has nothing to do with morality, little to do with biology, and lots to do with teaching teens how to "have sex," i.e., how to give themselves and their partners genital pleasure, and how to lessen their chances of becoming pregnant or infected with sexually transmitted diseases.
By supporting such groups and the sex education they provide, writes Dr. Morse,
The federal government is very aggressively promoting the ideology that says, "As long as you don't get pregnant, sex outside marriage is not a particular problem." They are promoting an alternative worldview, one that has positively affirmed that sex is a sterile, recreational activity. The federal government has an ideological position.
One must now ask whether it is even possible to recover the traditional norm of waiting for marriage to engage in sexual intercourse.
Certainly there have been effective religious revivals and cultural turnarounds in the past. The story of Anthony Comstock, who successfully fought against pornography starting in the late 1800s (covered in the June 2009 issue of Touchstone), is a case in point. Furthermore, when the federal government decides to tackle what it sees as a problem, the results—for good or ill—can be impressive. The government's war on smoking is generally considered a success, with smoking rates now half what they were at the time the first Surgeon General's warning appeared on cigarette packs. The Mormons' pro-active, direct approach to helping young people counter the culture in matters of sexual morality, especially when compared statistically to other faith groups, has proven effective.
When it comes to objectionable material in the media, one strategy that has worked in the past, according to Bozell, is targeting the advertisers. Conversely, changing the government's approach to sex education (and therefore sexual behavior) would require that the right voices get a hearing, so to speak, from receptive legislators in Washington.
Too long asleep at the wheel, many churches could choose to actively and directly counter the culture, both from the pulpit and by providing their own versions of morally sound sex education for young people. Many faithful parents do their part, starting at the kitchen table.
However, parents alone—surrounded as they are by a culture that undermines them at every turn, and often laboring without the active support and involvement of a religious community—have a very hard time holding the line.
We can nevertheless hope that the time for a new sexual revolution has come, spearheaded by parents this time and welcomed by young people happy to be liberated from the anxieties and dead ends of a hook-up culture. •
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