99% of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have been opposed to having sex before marriage. “Save yourself for marriage” has been the watchword. They point to passages of scripture that teach about marriage. And they point to verses that condemn “fornication.” Fornication is a term that is used in the Greek portion of the Bible as a catch -all for any kind of disapproved sexual activity. But there aren’t a lot of verses that define what that disapproved sexual activity is. The apostle Paul disapproved of homosexuality, adultery (sex with someone married to someone else), prostitution, lewdness (undefined) and uncleanness (perhaps referring to Jewish uncleanness laws in the Law of Moses).
Notice the lack of mention of masturbation. In fact nobody in the Old or New Testaments seemed to care enough about masturbation to even mention it, even though masturbation is the most common sexual activity in the world by far, practiced by 75% of the population, married people masturbating more than singles.
The apostle Paul seems to be relying on the Hebrew Bible to define sexual sin. The Hebrew Bible condemns bestiality, prostitution, male homosexuality, cross dressing, rape, and adultery (capital offenses), sex during a woman’s period, and sex before marriage (less severe offenses).
The punishment for sex before marriage was that the offending couple had to get married, or the young man had to pay a fine to the young woman’s father.
Most of these laws were addressed to male heads of households: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” No commandment to not covet thy neighbor’s husband.
The custom in the surrounding areas was for a man to buy his wife from the father of the bride. The parents of the bride were supposed to guarantee that she was a virgin. For this reason young people were not permitted to date for most of the period covered by the Hebrew Bible. Marriages were arranged.
This was very practical. If a young woman became pregnant, who would take care of her and her child? Forming a responsible society that took family and children seriously guaranteed that Judaism became a major force in history. Children were viewed as a great blessing. Small families were seen to not have been blessed.
There is one book that is an anomaly in the Hebrew Bible that discusses passionate sex, and that is the Song of Solomon. It is a play, perhaps a musical, with a chorus that speaks lines and a young woman with dark skin being prepared for marriage to a young handsome king. Full of lusty passages, it is used by evangelicals and especially pentecostals as an allegory of the passionate love of Christ for the church. It falls down however, when taken in the perspective of the real Solomon: who had ambassador-wives (300) and concubines (700), 1,000 women he had sex with. So this woman in this play is sharing her husband with 1,000 other women.
In the New Testament there is no mention of multiple wives as in the Hebrew Bible. And evangelicals wax eloquent about Jesus quoting the creation story (Matt 19) to tell us that marriage was created for one man with one woman: How else can a woman give herself sexually to her husband if she cannot trust that she is his one and only?
In the New Testament Greek portion of the Bible, several of the sexual and marital rules from the Law of Moses are repeated, but there is a major shift: women are starting to be mentioned as having equal rights in a marriage. The gospel of Mark reports Jesus talking about a woman divorcing her husband. Paul says that men do not have sexual control of their own bodies, but their wives do. Wives should not deprive their husbands of sex and husbands should not deprive their wives of sex.
Conservative Christian advice columnists have repeatedly stated that the more partners a woman has before marriage, the more difficult it is for her to relax and enjoy sex with her husband later. About 3% of the population waits until marriage. While some of the cautions may be true, they leave out the fact that those who now remain virgins until marriage are often dysfunctional, with major lack of differentiation from their parents. They are emotionally reactive and, from what I have seen, end up having the worst levels of bickering with their partners after marriage. So virginity does not guarantee the marital bliss they were promised, and they feel painfully betrayed for having believed this evangelical story.
What then is God’s will for unmarried people today about sex? I cannot answer that question.
However I can make some observations: The only group of Christians successfully raising children who are virgins until marriage, and whose marriages are relatively happy are blue collar fundamentalists and pentecostals. Key word: blue collar. In blue collar working class families (construction workers, technicians, food industry, transportation) it is fine to have babies at age 19 years old. So to get married at 18 years old is encouraged, and to have 4 children is also encouraged. These blue collar families tend to support 1950s values: an obedient wife who stays home, mostly, is poor, and devotes herself to raising lots of children. The entire congregation becomes a support system to encourage these young teens, and then young married adults with lots of children.
Mark Regnerus wrote that evangelical teens have the same amount of sex as teens in the general population, 97% have sex before marriage, but they have more shame and guilt about it. The average evangelical teen starts having sex at 15 years old. Why? Because most evangelical parents will not condone their children getting married until they are 25 years old. Ten years of virginity is unfathomable to these teens, so everyone just looks the other way. Most teens stop attending church.
Few self-respecting upper middle class families can tolerate their 19 year old son or daughter getting married. They see them as being condemned to a life of blue collar poverty. Status is powerful in American society. College is shamed into our children’s psyches from way before first grade. Nothing can get in the way of a college education: not marriage, not pregnancy, not sex and not our evangelical faith. If an evangelical girl gets pregnant, 95% of them get an abortion, even though they believe that abortion is murdering a baby. (The same percentage of women in evangelical churches have had abortions as in the general population.) Dropping out of college to become a poor futureless mother is too much of a shame burden for evangelical middle class and upper middle class women, and their parents are often the ones who urge them to get an abortion, against all their values.
Sarah Diefendorf did her PhD thesis on small support groups of young men wanting to remain virgins until marriage. These groups occur in intense churches who meet at least 4 hours per week, and who encourage extremely traditional 1950s values. She said the the small support groups were powerful, but ended abruptly at marriage. The men felt lost and confused about how to deal with their problems in marriage with no support group.
Sara Moslener wrote Virgin Nation, a book about how the sexual purity movements in evangelicalism is more about explaining our fears than about sexual purity.
So what is the answer? There probably is no one answer. But this is true: Our system is broken. The members of evangelical churches are too full of shame to be able to support each other around figuring out a sexual morality for today.