Monday, January 25, 2010

Evangelicals and Premarital Sex

A facebook friend recently posted a New Yorker article, "Red Sex, Blue Sex," by Margaret Talbot, that offers some interesting observations and insights about evangelical sexual attitudes and practices.

Drawing mainly from the book, Frobidden Fruit, by UT-Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus, Talbot calls attention to a number of important facts about evangelicals and sex. Among the highlights:

  • "(R)eligion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and...this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelicals."
  • "(E)vangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their 'sexual d├ębut'—to use the festive term of social-science researchers—shortly after turning sixteen."
  • "(E)vangelical Protestant teen-agers are significantly less likely than other groups to use contraception."
  • "More than half of those who take (abstinence) pledges—which, unlike abstinence-only classes in public schools, are explicitly Christian—end up having sex before marriage, and not usually with their future spouse." (But, it turns out, they often wait a bit longer to have sex than evangelicals who don't take such pledges.)
  • "(C)ommunities with high rates of pledging also have high rates of S.T.D.s." (Some room for dispute about cause and effect here).

While these facts are interesting and important, the article links them to a broader observation about differences between conservative evangelicals and liberals that I found especially intriguing:

    Social liberals in the country’s “blue states” tend to support sex education
    and are not particularly troubled by the idea that many teen-agers have sex
    before marriage, but would regard a teen-age daughter’s pregnancy as devastating
    news. And the social conservatives in “red states” generally advocate
    abstinence-only education and denounce sex before marriage, but are relatively
    unruffled if a teen-ager becomes pregnant, as long as she doesn’t choose to have
    an abortion.

Put another way, evangelicals tend to take a strong stand against premarital sex, even to the point of discouraging sex education programs designed to protect teens from the more adverse consequences of failing to practice abstinence--but when their teen daughter comes home pregnant, they take it in stride so long as she "takes responsibility." More sexually progressive liberals are far more accepting of premarital sex--being more concerned with discouraging "unsafe" sex than with discouraging sex as such--but when their daughter comes home with a bun in the oven, they are devastated.

Essentially, evangelicals demand abstinence before marriage but aren't any better than the rest us at practicing it. And while there is every indication that they are judgmental and condemnatory towards "fornication" in the abstract, when it comes to their own children they are less inclined to make their pregnant daughters feel like dung for what they've done, focusing instead on present responsibility.

So what, exactly, is going on here? With respect to how evangelicals differ from liberals in their response to unwanted teen pregnancy, I suspect that several things are going on. First of all, for more sexually progressive families in contemporary America, the sexual choices of teens are regulated more by prudential considerations--fear of unwanted pregnancy, fear of STD's, worry over not being emotionally ready for that level of intimacy and the personal entanglements that sex creates--and less by concepts of moral duty. The danger posed by teen sex is not so much that it threatens virtue as that it threatens prospects for future flourishing. The announcement of an unwanted pregnancy is thus accompanied by a sense of shattered hopes for the child's future. This is what makes the announcement so "devastating."

Of course, evangelical families may feel many of the same things. But the response of devastation is tempered by other factors. First of all, there is the fact that if teens anticipate a parental response that is too harsh, they may opt for abortion in order to avoid it. Realization of this fact, coupled with a strong pro-life stance, may have shaped evangelical culture so as to encourage a more temperate and forward-looking reaction to unwanted teen pregnancy.

Furthermore, like all Christians, evangelicals embrace a doctrine of grace, one that acknowledges the ubiquity of sin and insists that we forgive it rather than beat people over the head about it. So they are in the habit of speaking out vociferously against policies that seem to endorse or minimize some sin or other, but when one of their own commits this sin, the appropriate response is to forgive and look forward.

But I'm pretty sure something else is going on here as well. An unwanted teen pregnancy is not just a threat to an adolescent's future, but to the virtue of both the girl and the boy--a fact that puts something else in the forefront, something significant enough to eclipse many of the concerns about a young person's future. The fact is that, given the way evangelical Christianity understands "virtue" in connection with sex, it follows that virtue can be (at least partially) restored after the fact by "taking responsibility" for the consequences of premarital sex--that is, by getting married and raising the child.

There's substantial biblical endorsement of the idea that the impropriety of premarital sex can at least be partially erased if the couple marries. But what is most important here is to understand why this is possible. The reason, I think, lies in the patriarchal norm--a norm which has it that a woman "belongs" to her husband in such a way that he has exclusive proprietary claim to her sexuality.

This norm explains why, if a man has sex with a woman who "belongs" to someone else (either through marriage or pledge), the problem is so grave that (according to the authors of Deuteronomy) it requires the execution of the man in cases where the woman was clearly unwilling, or of both man and woman if there is even a chance that the woman was willing--as indicated by the fact that she was in an urban area and didn't scream loudly enough to be discovered and rescued (see Deut. 22:22-27).

But if the woman does not belong to another man, then instead of death the penalty is a fine paid to the father and a requirement to marry the woman--and this is called for even in cases in which the woman was raped (Deut. 22:28-29). The horror of being married off to one's rapist didn't seem to bother the writer(s) of Deuteronomy, since the perceived crime of rape was that a man was taking what didn't rightly belong to him--a crime that could be erased if his victim came to belong to him through marriage.

On this view of things, a teenage boy's sexual virtue lies in sexually claiming only that woman who rightly belongs to him. A girl's virtue lies in giving her sexuality freely only to the man to whom it belongs. And marriage defines what woman belongs to what man.

Although contemporary evangelicals would probably not be inclined to marry their daughters off to rapists, the patriarchal conception of marriage as the proper context for sexual expression persists--and insofar as it does so, much of what it perceived to be wrong with premarital sex can be neutralized by subsequent choices. This helps to explain why evangelicals are inclined to focus less on the past sin of fornication and more on what happens next.

But none of this explains why evangelicals are not only no less likely to engage in premarital sex than others, but arguably even more likely to do so. Let me reflect on this issue for a bit.

Human sexuality is potent stuff. The urgency of sexual desire is so intense that even "good little Christian" teens have a hard time resisting it altogether. And we live in a culture in which adolescents who are attracted to each other have substantial opportunity to interact and explore their mutual attraction. Not even evangelical parents are typically prepared to enforce draconian rules against contact with the opposite sex (assuming their kids are straight--which raises an entirely different issue).

After all, such rules would so conflict with the norms of the broader culture that they would not only trigger resentment but defection. Put simply, if the broader culture allows me to flirt and date and follow my instincts for romance but my conservative Christian parents don't because they're afraid it might lead to a prohibited end--then there's a good chance I'll rebel against my parents and their values. A prohibition against sex is one thing. A prohibition against living the American way of life is another.

American teens may swallow the former, but they're not likely to happily embrace the latter. And so it's the former that becomes the expectation for evangelical teens. So long as they don't cross the line--so long as it's just kissing on the park bench--they've done nothing wrong. And so they kiss on the park bench, and their sexual longings are enflamed. They find a moment alone, and the kissing continues in private. So long as they keep their clothes on, everything's okay. So they do, fondling each other madly through their clothes. Then under the clothes. But, of course, the clothes stay on, so they're safe.

They don't plan for sex, because they have a rule against that. But they push against the boundaries of the rule. And somehow they're convinced they'll be able to resist. But all the while they're becoming at home with one incremental stage of intimacy after another. They linger at each stage--far longer than their secular friends are inclined to linger--thereby ensuring two things: first, that they become entirely comfortable with each other at that level of intimacy, entirely trusting; second, that they are fully immersed in the maximal sexual urgency that such a step is capable of producing. And so when the urgency drives them forward to the next incremental step, there is no sudden flare of distrust, no fear of boundaries violated or in danger of being violated. And there certainly is no talk of going to get a condom.

In short, by taking it slowly they may actually make the culmination of their sexual explorations more inevitable than if they moved more quickly. If they moved more quickly there'd be a greater chance of triggering fears that could derail the progress of their intimacy. But what makes them take it so slowly is the very same thing that ensures that, when they finally have sex, it's unprotected: their moral inhibition against having sex. It isn't strong enough to stop the fire of adolescent desire, at least in the absence of rules segregating the sexes except under conditions of strict supervision. But it is strong enough to ensure that when they finally take that last step, it's an unexpected stumble.

For months, perhaps, they've flirted with the edge of actual sex but resisted it. They don't expect that this time will be any different. But there are forces at work that conspire together to make that stumbling step into sex almost inevitable--not just the power of sexual desire itself, but certain other impulses that are uniquely bound up with evangelical Christianity itself.

Evangelical Christianity in America is not just about biblical inerrancy or accepting Jesus into your heart. It's also characterized by views concerning family. In fact, a former colleague of mine, Betty DeBerg, has argued in Ungodly Women that American evangelicalism has had, as one of its driving impulses from the beginning, the aim of preserving traditional Victorian-era family values against a variety of so-called threats.

For such idealization of an earlier sexual era to succeed, I think there has to be an important streak of romanticism to it. Only if the Victorian-era marriage is seen through rose tinted lenses can it endure compelling challenges based on its inequity towards women and its restrictiveness with respect to human liberty. To sell restrictive gender roles to the women who are most trammeled by them, it helps to wrap them up in chivalry and lace. When a suitor asks a father for the daughter's hand in marriage, the blatant patriarchy of it--the fact that men are deciding the fate of a woman as if it were some kind of commercial exchange--can be more readily swallowed if it's defined as a romantic gesture.

Girls must be taught from a young age to swoon over such objectification, or they'll rise up in rebellion against it. Likewise, they must be trained early on to idealize the selfless wife who quietly works in the shadows to lend her husband the strength to achieve great things. The saying, "Behind every successful man there's a good woman," must become a role that each young woman aspire towards--because she sees it as a badge of honor. She must be conditioned to see the world through her husband's eyes, to identify his achievements as her own, so that her own subservience becomes viewed as the means to her own success. For this to work, empathy for her husband's desires must be so great that she confuses them with her own. That level of self-subordination needs to be sold early or it won't stick. And to sell it early requires that an aura of romantic idealization be wrapped around the whole affair.

And the same must be done with respect to the prohibitions on premarital sex, which cannot be seen as just an outmoded constraint on individual liberty. In a post-sexual revolution era, in which so much that we see and hear through the media is infused with sexuality, the restraint on sexual expression must be romanticized. The reason for restraint has to be rooted in the almost sacramental grandeur that sex can achieve between a husband and a wife. Premarital sex is then seen as debasing something of exquisite beauty. Within the bonds of marriage, the sexual act can serve as a crucible of love that unites husband and wife, deepening their connection to one another in ways that will hold them together throughout their lives. To pursue sex outside of that context is to trivialize it.

A part of me is inclined to think there is a fair bit of truth in these latter ideas about sex and its context. I certainly do think that sex can be trivialized, and that located within the context of a stable, enduring relationship, it can acquire a meaning and value that it would not have apart from that context.

But there's a problem with selling this romanticized foundation for premarital sex taboos as a basis for discouraging Joey and Susy from having sex after months of romance and passionate intimacy. The problem, simply put, is that when you've built up your intimacy slowly, achingly over time, what you've forged together does not seem even remotely trivial. Joey and Susy are awash in love, practically bursting with it. They want to melt into each other, to become one. They gaze into each other's eyes and know that they are meant to be together forever, that this is what all the songs and stories and movies are about, that here is something unbelievable, wonderful beyond compare: true love.

If anything, they are less inclined than their secular peers to be realistic about what tomorrow will bring. Since what they are feeling has the scent of a sacramental act, the ugly realities of facing the morning after are more readily lost behind the idealized image of marital love that they have been fed since childhood.

One of the most important sexual inhibitions in the evangelical toolkit--Susy's fear that Joey will lose all respect for her--might have been operative up until that moment when they finally stumble into sex. But in that moment of passion, when they are lost in the romantic ideal of their eternal union, what she sees in Joey's eyes reassures her utterly that he cannot disdain her for what she's about to give. Perhaps, later, the fear of his contempt will surge back up--perhaps even poisoning their relationship. But in this moment it's gone.

In its place, for her, is a vivid awareness of his desire, which has now reached the level of agony. And she has been trained well, all these years, for her future role as the good wife--a role that requires her to subordinate her own wishes to those of her true love, to see the world through his eyes and his achievements. And so, in that stumbling moment of passion, her own fears about pregnancy, which otherwise might rise up to halt the tide of desire, are subordinated. All that exists is his desire--but because it is for her, giving into it becomes a way of reclaiming herself. He wants her so badly. He wants her so badly. Her patriarchal training ensures that this is the ultimate validation of herself: this young man's whole self is straining towards, longing for, desiring her. In this moment she is the most valuable thing in his world.

This narrative probably doesn't account for every case of premarital sex among teenage evangelicals. But I suspect it is an important piece of the puzzle.


  1. I suppose that one of your main points is that complementarianism and petting before marriage can lead evangelicals into premarital sex. I agree. I also suppose that Christian egalitarianism and petting before marriage can lead evangelicals into premarital sex. Nonetheless, I'm an evangelical who teaches egalitarianism and no petting or any other sexual favors before marriage. And I occasionally talk about this with my four teenagers.

  2. Interesting stuff. I'm in the UK and while things aren't as intense here in the evangelical world as in the US I imagine much the same dynamics apply among evangelical teenagers. One question though: you mention that evangelical teens are more likely to have sex than Mormon teens. Why? Given the narrative you have presented I'd assume that all the same forces would kick in, and perhaps even more strongly so. Thus I can't see why Mormon teens are less likely to be having premarital sex than evangelicals.

  3. Tony: An interesting question, and I'm not sure I know what the answer is. But were I to hazard a guess, it would be that the Mormon community imposes more powerful constraints on unsupervised time together. Those sorts of constraints come with risks of driving teens to rebellion, but the character of the Mormon community--less integrated into mainstream American culture?--may reduce this risk.