Religion, Pledging, and the Premarital Sexual Behavior of Married Young Adults

By Uecker, Jeremy E. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2008 | Go to article overview

Religion, Pledging, and the Premarital Sexual Behavior of Married Young Adults


Uecker, Jeremy E., Journal of Marriage and Family


Social scientists know little about the effect of religion and abstinence pledging on premarital sex beyond adolescence. Evidence from a sample of married young adults in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (N = 2,079) reveals that premarital sex is widespread even among religious Americans and abstinence pledgers. Nevertheless, these individuals are much more likely than their counterparts to avoid premarital sex entirely. When they do have premarital sex, pledgers are more likely to restrict the behavior to their future spouse. Though contextual, exposure, and social control effects explain some of the influence of religion and abstinence pledging, religion and abstinence pledging appear to exert robust, direct effects on premarital sexual behavior.

Key Words: National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), premarital sex, religion, youth/emergent adulthood.

The vast majority of married Americans-over 90% of men and about 85% of women-engage in sexual intercourse before their wedding (Chandra, Martinez, Mosher, Abma, & Jones, 2005; Martinez, Chandra, Abma, Jones, & Mosher, 2006). By age 44, 96% of men and 94% of women have had sex before marriage (Finer, 2007). Despite its prevalence, however, major religious traditions in the United States nearly universally disapprove of premarital sex, albeit to varying degrees and with different tones (Bullis & Harrigan, 1992; Cochran, Chamlin, Beeghley, & Fenwick, 2004). Conservative Protestants, arguably the most vocal critics of premarital sex, have created an entire abstinence pledge movement with the sole purpose of eliciting promises of sexual abstinence (until marriage) from adolescents. Launched in 1993 with the formation of True Love Waits (an organization founded by the Southern Baptist Convention), the pledging movement now consists of over 100 loosely connected groups. Pledging organizations endorse a variety of reasons to abstain from sex until marriage, including what they perceive to be the "failure" of contraceptives, the "horrors" of STDs, the importance of giving your spouse the "gift" of virginity, and biblical teachings about sexual morality. Although there is great interest in premarital sex among both religious groups and pledging organizations (many, but not all, of which are religious), social scientists know very little about how religion and abstinence pledging actually influence sexual behavior beyond adolescence and until marriage.

Not only does premarital sex have a great deal of religious relevance, but it has also been linked to other suboptimal outcomes such as marital dissolution (Heaton, 2002; Kahn & London, 1991; Teachman, 2003). Recent evidence, however, suggests that those who have premarital sex only with their future spouse have similar rates of divorce as those who wait until marriage to have sex (Teachman). It is not entirely clear whether these heightened rates of divorce among those who have premarital sex with someone other than their future spouse are the result of selection, causation, or both. But whatever the case, a "did-they-or-didn't-they" approach to the study of premarital sexual behavior ignores details that have significant ramifications.

Yet this is the approach most commonly taken, especially when it comes to studies of religion and sex. These studies ignore with whom individuals have premarital sex partly because religious groups make no moral concession to those who have premarital sex only with their future spouse and partly because the distinction is difficult to make with samples of unmarried individuals. Although event-history models can provide good estimates of the prevalence and timing of premarital sexual behavior, they are less useful for identifying premarital partners as a future spouse or as someone other than a future spouse. Moreover, these techniques can only provide estimates of the occurrence of events up to the age of the oldest respondents in the data. …

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