Sexual ethics because sex is powerful
Removing ancient boundaries is a risky endeavour. Recently, a farmer moved a stone that was in the way of his tractor and inadvertently caused problems because it made Belgium bigger and France a little smaller. It was a boundary stone put there for a reason. Before you pull down a fence, remind yourself why it was put there in the first place and what chaos removing it could cause. The fact is, we thrive on boundaries.
We need boundaries to create the right kind of spaces for the different parts of our lives. These boundaries can be spatial: this venue is for hockey: that one for football. Both games can be played simultaneously, but not on the same field. They can be temporal: these hours are for sleeping; these for working, and these are for recreation. Sleeping at work or learning an instrument in the middle of the night is seldom for our good. They can also be rational: it’s not okay for strangers to touch my body, but this particular stranger can touch my body in this context because they are my doctor.
Christianity establishes sexual boundaries, and if we listen closely to its sexual ethics we find that its clear boundaries create both a safe space for sex and a whole arena for different kinds of intimate connection.
The popular slogan of western culture that “sex is no more than the body” is said without much thought. Think of those who have been sexually assaulted, raped, harassed or even sexually betrayed. Is it just their body that is attacked – or are they as a person violated? How would you answer that question if it was your wife, daughter or mother? And if it is just their body being attacked why do we then impose such a great punishment on those who commit such crimes? It’s deeper than that. We are quickly reminded that sexuality matters; its violation leads to the deepest emotional and psychological damage. Now this tells us something, what is going on with the body is meant to be a token of what is happening at a deeper level. This becomes all the more evident when someone has an affair: their partner is deeply hurt as a result. Why? Because sex was meant to signify something exclusive, private and intimate, and now that has been shared out.
Sex is more than just the body.
For that reason, I don’t think we really believe in unrestricted sexual freedom as much as we claim. The question is not whether there should be limits on what someone can do sexually, the question is what are those limits? Typically, the only limit that’s universally approved of is consent, with people believing that “so long as everyone involved consents to the sex, it’s ok” (with the caveat that children can’t genuinely consent). But we’ve all consented to things that didn’t do us good, so while consent is a necessary baseline, in a sense consent is not enough. Not every sexual desire is equally healthy, noble, or right. To write off the Christian understanding of sexual ethics as merely being “restrictive” is disingenuous. The fact that certain boundaries and restrictions are necessary shows that sex is more than just physical. We are not just animals. We know that in circumstances self-control is a necessity. We shouldn’t behave in any way we see in nature and expect it to be right for us. We are more than that. We have different expectations of what sex should involve than that of the animal kingdom.
Jesus touches on the issue of sexual ethics when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that anyone who looks at another lustfully has already committed adultery with that person in their heart.”
Jesus firstly quotes the seventh commandment against adultery which was already the basis of the shared sexual ethic at that time. Those listening would have happily agreed to this. But he then went on to expand what it means and how it applies to our lives, that there’s more to it than just physical adultery. Jesus said adultery could take place in your heart even if it never takes place in the bed, that it’s about how you look and think about someone. The concern is with intent. For example, there is a fundamental difference between noticing that someone is attractive and wanting in some lustful way to have them. The teaching here is that people (other than your spouse) are not to be looked at lustfully. They have a sexual integrity that should be honoured by all others. It should not be violated, even in the privacy of one’s own mind.
Now the issue of thinking and looking lustfully is greed – greed for someone you don’t have a right to. To covet someone’s spouse is to want to possess that person. It is treating them not as a person in their own right but as something to have. Looking at someone with lustful intent is looking at someone purely as a means of gratification for you, as a means of satisfying a sexual desire you have. It is turning them into a commodity to be consumed, rather than a person to honour. It makes their sexuality something for us to be satisfied by.
Now you may ask, why does God care? How we treat one another sexually matters a great deal to God because sexual integrity is something God has given. To mistreat someone is to mistreat something God has made. Abuse of them is an affront to him. This means that sexual assault or betrayal is objectively and universally wrong.
Sex has a context
Whatever you have been told in the past, the Christian worldview declares that your life has a distinct value and unique worth. Thank God for that. When someone treats a pet like a human, it looks strange. But when someone treats a human being like an animal, it seems wrong. We still reflect something sacred, something of the image of God, however incomplete and imperfect. When we look at a newborn baby, we’re not coldly observing a mere organism. We’re beholding a precious life. Sex is the means by which a precious being comes into this world. If human life is sacred to God, then the process by which life is created is also sacred. Sex was God’s idea, not ours. His first commandment to humanity is to make babies, “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” I like this God. God gives the human race the mandate to procreate, which is a reflection of His boundless life-giving creativity.
The truth is, there are too many broken families in this world, too many fatherless children and too much childhood anguish caused by warring parents. Not all marriages ultimately succeed, of course, but the breakup rate for non-married couples is far higher than the divorce rate, and this is bad for children. One of the central reasons the Christian faith places sex within marriage is because it believes in family. Contraception is rarely 100% effective, so because heterosexual sex has the potential to result in childbirth anyone entering a sexual relationship should be prepared to properly look after children should they come along. The commitment of marriage provides the stability that children need. If we believe “a dog is for life, not just for Christmas,” if there’s a possibility we’ll be producing children, how much more committed should we be to providing a good, secure context for them to be born into?
Yet God’s idea for sex runs deeper than just procreation. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and sex has always been traditionally taught as confined within the boundaries of a loving relationship. Male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories – they each experience and contribute things that the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a life-long covenant of marriage. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5). The word one which is echad in Hebrew is set alongside the word flesh, it essentially means “fused together at the deepest levels.”
Echad transcends just you or me, it’s we.
Echad is when you know and are known.
Echad is when you’re so intertwined with someone that it’s difficult to envision how you could separate.
When you make love with your partner, this is meant to be about knowing them at the deepest level. So sex is so much more than physical fun, sex is fundamentally unifying. Sex is supposed to be part of the marriage process by which two people become “one” in the eyes of God. The one-flesh concept of marriage is the greatest union between a man and a woman, so sex is understood as both a sign of that personal, legal and spiritual union and the completion of it. But it’s not just describing the sense of togetherness a couple might feel while caught up in the height of passion. Something powerful happens, during sex two people become echad – they know each other. It is intended to have a profoundly unifying effect on two people. In the right context, it deepens a particular form of love. It is something objective, physical and real. Physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, two people are becoming knitted together, hence why sex is biblically expressed as being for a specific setting; designed and intended for the context of marriage. God has designed it to work that way and it works very well. Sex, as a uniting act, is a good thing.
According to Christian theology, you are not to unite with someone physically unless you are also willing to unite with that person emotionally, personally, socially, economically, and legally. Don’t become physically vulnerable to the other person without becoming vulnerable in every other way. The covenant of marriage is necessary for sex, partly because it creates a place of security for vulnerability and intimacy. So once you have given yourself in marriage, sex is a way of maintaining and deepening that union as the years go by. Every sex act is meant to be a uniting act.
God wants what’s best for us, especially when it comes to sex. God wants those of us who marry to have incredible sex. The kind we dream of. The kind everybody is searching for. Sex which is not just pleasurable, but deeply intimate, meaningful, and part of a bigger picture – part of uniting your life with someone you honestly trust and truly love – in good times and in the bad.
What about sex outside of marriage, is it the same thing?
Not really. Sex apart from the context of this deeper marriage union is an attempt to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. Theologian Tim Keller writes: “If sex is a method that God invented to do self-giving, it should not surprise us that sex makes us feel deeply connected to the other person, even when misused.” Sex is fundamentally about giving our whole self to someone else. So having sex with someone without the intention of giving ourselves in every other way is actually a form of taking, it’s theft. When you have sex with anyone other than your spouse, you’re defrauding them of what God wants for them. Sex may seem to be the same both inside and outside marriage, but the narrative of each is completely different. Sex within marriage says “I’m committed to your wellbeing long-term” while enjoying pleasure, whereas sex outside of marriage says “I’m not fully committed to your wellbeing long-term, at least not yet, but I still want the pleasure I can get with you.” Ultimately sex without marriage seeks pleasure more than the other person’s good.
I used to see the Christian practice of not having sex before marriage as a weird, outdated, sexually repressive, impossible-to-follow rule. A rule meant to spoil my fun and restrict my pleasure. Then I came to realise this is not the case at all. Marriage is how we promise to give ourselves to someone else fully and exclusively, vowing whole-life commitment to the other. Sex is meant to be both an expression and a means of that. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.” We ought not to use sex to say anything else.
You see, words have meaning to them. Sex means something, says something, expresses something. It’s the word that ought to say “all of me for all of you, always.” It’s a loving word. So when we have sex outside of that covenant relationship, we say something we don’t really mean. We lie. And that’s why when relationships that have been sexual don’t work out, there can be such a deep sense of having been lied to, betrayed, it feels like a broken promise because it is a broken promise. Having sex in the covenant of marriage is saying something true. You mean it – “all of me for all of you, always.”
Sexuality is God’s sacred wedding gift to human beings. Any expression of it outside those parameters constitutes an abuse of God’s gift because it goes against what it is intended for. To abuse or misuse God’s gift of sex is to devalue marriage. Christian theology is effectively saying that you don’t have the right to a person’s body until you have their heart and until you have proved that you have the character to be responsible with that via committing yourself in permanency through marriage. Why is this so intense? Because Christianity declares sexuality as sacred, not cheap. That may be viewed as outdated, but who cares. I think it is totally incongruent to give your body to someone to whom you will not also commit your whole life. As C.S. Lewis said, “sex without marriage is like tasting good food without swallowing and digesting.”
As we have said, in Christianity, sex is when two become “one.” You are joined together. Inside of marriage this is a life-giving thing, but outside, that kind of unbridled, fierce power is explosive. Two people become one, long before any covenant is made. A relationship that should last a few weeks instead lasts a few years, and a story that should end with a gracious parting of ways ends in regret, hurt and remorse. We’ve all seen it. But how did this happen? Partly because sex obscures your vision. We’ve all seen the girl dating the guy (or the other way round) who’s a jerk, and all her friends are saying, “What are you doing? Don’t waste your life on him.” But for some odd reason she can’t see it. Or she just ignores it. Judgement goes out the window. Nine times out of ten she’s sleeping with him, and any objectivity she once had is long gone. It’s obvious they’re not a good fit, but she’s blind to it. When you have sex, it can take longer to accurately “see” the person you’re dating, because when two people are intimate, the hypothalamus in the brain releases chemicals that induce feelings of attachment and trust. Having sex outside of marriage results in a person forming an attachment and trusting someone with whom he or she does not have a serious committed relationship, in the sense that they are not yet committed for the long run, through the thick and thin. This is dangerous. The definition of trust in the mind is far more likely to deteriorate. The wounds left behind at the end of a sexual relationship gone south can harden the heart, and there is no way to move on from that unscared.
Conversely, if two people make a conscious, deliberate choice to commit to each other in marriage, and then allow the intimacy that releases these chemicals, the body can reaffirm the connection the mind has made. The physiological feelings of trust and attachment are reinforced by the reality of the relationship. In this way, two people become one physically, and that reflects what God has done spiritually in marriage.
So sex outside of marriage works backwards – its pleasure before commitment, and in the end, it makes it harder for you to trust the other person. Think about it, because it’s all pleasure of sex minus the covenant of marriage and the character that comes with that. There is no “till death do us part,” and because of that, how can you really trust? The fact is, throughout the years of a relationship, there are going to be moments when they have a sexual desire for someone else, and unless they have shown to be able to control their sexual desire with you by waiting until committing to be faithful, then how can you be sure they will control their sexual desire in the moments it’s directed towards someone other from you? And what if the other person entertains their desire? How do you know they can resist and stay faithful? The same applies to you.
Christianity is pro-sex
Now Christianity may actually be the most body-positive religion in the world. It says that God created sexuality and created men and women for each other from the very beginning. The Bible contains great love poetry that celebrates sexual passion and pleasure. Within marriage, God expects each person to enjoy the other in sex, even to the point that one spouse should not unnecessarily deny sex to the other:
“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time” (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).
When women were legally considered the possession of their husbands, the apostle Paul made a revolutionary claim that “the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife”, and likewise that the wife’s body also belongs to her husband. Paul was teaching that in marriage, each partner, male and female, consents to give themselves fully to the other in sexual relations. Nothing like this has ever been said before. Most of us will find this text satisfying because of our contemporary Western view of human rights, but that is not the main point Paul is communicating. He is giving us a remarkably positive view of sexual satisfaction within marriage. The view of the Roman culture in which the Corinthian Christians lived was that men had wives in order to have legal heirs, while sexual pleasure would typically be found outside the marriage. Paul, in effect redefines marriage as a context for the mutual satisfaction of erotic desires.
Furthermore, the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 also tells us that sex is designed to be a form of giving oneself entirely to the other; “the body of each belongs to the other.” This is what sex is about. The focus is on the other person, and so each is to give to the other what is their right in marriage. “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” The focus is on serving each other.
Sex is not a commodity to be transacted but a means of devotion to your spouse.
This means that in marriage the concern is about giving pleasure, not getting it. Therefore, if your main purpose in sex is giving pleasure, then a person who doesn’t have as much of a sex drive physically can give to the other person as a gift. This is a legitimate act of love, a way to serve one another. This principle also teaches that sex is not a way to impress, but to become vulnerable to each other and to know the satisfaction of giving one another pleasure. Sex is meant to be an act of giving pleasure – an act of love.
So, with this in mind, and as a consideration, when one forces a particular sexual act upon one’s spouse, it ceases to be an act of love and becomes sexual abuse. True love is always seeking to bring pleasure to the spouse. It is never demanding something that the spouse finds objectionable. If the two of you disagree on a particular kind of sexual expression, then it calls for communication and negotiation. If you can’t reach an agreement, then love respects the desires of the spouse who objects. To violate this principle is to sabotage what sex is all about.
Now, it’s common to frame faith as somehow in conflict with healthy sexuality. It can be said that unfulfilled, or “repressed,” sexual desires cause a host of psychological and social problems. And yet, according to a recently released study from the Wheatley Institution (Jason S. Carroll, Spencer L. James, and Hal Boyd), couples who are both deeply committed to their shared faith report more satisfying sexual relationships than their secular peers.
The Wheatley report analyzed survey data from 11 countries and its findings suggest that the level of a couple’s religious involvement can actually play a role in reported sexual satisfaction. According to the analysis, moderately religious women were 50% more likely to report being sexually satisfied in their relationship than women with no religious practice. However, women in highly religious relationships where both spouses are unified in their religious devotion (such as couples who pray together, read scripture at home and attend church, etc.) were twice as likely than their secular peers to say they were satisfied with their sexual relationship. And the men in these couples were a whopping four times more likely to report being sexually satisfied than men in relationships with no religious activity.
These findings complement a separate study titled ‘The Influence of Religiosity/Spirituality on Sex Life Satisfaction and Sexual Frequency: Insights from the Baylor Religion Survey’ by Stephen Cranney published in the Reviews of Religious Research, which found that married religious couples also have more frequent and even better sex.
Contrary to the popular notion of Christianity “holding someone back” from sexual fulfilment, for most people the opposite seems to be the case. United Christian couples in the Wheatley analysis reported higher emotional closeness, commitment, and more appreciation for their partner. It would seem that their sexual satisfaction may stem in part from an added spiritual closeness that reinforces their physical and emotional connection. The Wheatley study indicates that the couples that pray together actually tend to stay together. Rather than a source of tension, then, perhaps the real secret regarding the sex lives of church ladies is that they appear to be marked by a greater satisfaction. This is no surprise given the positive and high view of sex within the Christian faith.
The next thing to remember is that since sex is a bonding experience for marriage in the most intimate way, it ought to be practiced and maintained. Early on in the marriage, sexual fulfilment may not come straight away, especially as you are both getting used to each other in this way. Some people find this phase awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a fun learning experience. Think about it this way: let’s say you could maintain a romantic session twice a week, that’s 100 times a year, and say over 30 years that’s 3000 times. So what does it matter, therefore, if say the first 20 romantic sessions are a bit difficult before managing one that just about verges on acceptable? 20 out of 3000 is only a fraction. Keep at it. Is there not some possibility that you could devote a fraction of your time to perfecting your technique, seduction, communication, and lovemaking? Most things worthwhile take commitment, practice, and effort, and I see no reason to think that romance with your partner is any different. It’s not.
On a practical note, often for women, foreplay is more important than the actual act of intercourse itself. While women like to simmer, men tend to reach boiling point much faster. According to a 2005 Society for Sex Therapy and Research member survey, the average man lasts anywhere between three to seven minutes in bed. Earlier surveys showed that a significant proportion of men struggle to last two minutes. So maybe slow yourself down. It is the tender touches and kisses of foreplay that bring her to the point of desiring sex and ready to experience the pleasure of climax. Because sex is about giving pleasure, you are less concerned with yourself, more concerned with what works for them. This applies to both the husband and wife. So continue to work out what’s better for your partner and how to improve and maintain sex within your marriage. Over time, in marriage, you get better and better at giving your spouse pleasure in bed. You learn what they like. That’s why sex can be fun.
The fundamental rule of marriage, however, is that time marches on. Time, stress, children, illness, and age all bring changes that may require creative, disciplined responses to rebuild sexual intimacy that was once easier at an earlier time. If you don’t confront and adapt to these changes, they’ll erode your sex life. The reality is attraction can be difficult to maintain over the years, so you may need to vary what you do with your partner.
Remember that sex is a good gift for marriage – don’t neglect it.
If you are wondering how you should plan and diligently maintain the romance in your relationship, then remember that play requires peace, not resentment, and peace requires negotiation. Negotiation requires a willingness to make sacrifices and serve the other in order to bring a solution to the differences between the two of you. Good luck trying to maintain a decent sex life when you’re both stressed, frustrated or resentful towards each other. If you negotiate and work on this first, it might well make room for a better sex life. So maybe start by taking out the trash. Clean up after yourself. Sort out the bills. Make time for each other… then romance may have room to flourish.
Surveys suggest that the typical adult couple manages a reasonable romantic interlude on average once a week – alongside the business of general life, all that worry and responsibility and concern. That frequency, if handled well, seems to work out well for both partners. In fact, surveys show that people in relationships who have sex at least once a week experience more happiness. But no sexual intimacy in marriage is detrimental to the relationship. While the frequency of sexual intimacy will likely decrease with age for obvious reasons, if you go to zero while at least one of you still maintains a drive, then one of you is tyrannizing the other. On zero, the chances of an affair occurring – physically, emotionally, or maybe in some other way – dramatically increase. I am not recommending the affair at all or seeking to lay blame, but that is what you are risking if you stop serving one another in this way.
According to The US National Health and Social Life Survey in 1992, 22% of relationships among couples aged 18 – 59 admitted that their relationship is “sexless’’ according to the official definition (no sex, or fewer than ten times in the past year). That’s almost a quarter of relationships.
The sex recession is upon us. A new multiyear study of 35,000 participants released in ‘The British Medical Journal’ found that half of people in serious relationships have sex less than once a week. Data from the 2018 General Social Survey showed similar results with 19% of couples having sex two or three times per month, 17% having sex once a month, 7% having sex about once or twice in the past year and 10% who haven’t had sex in the past year. Let’s reverse the trend. As mechanical as it may seem, it will help to be deliberate and structure sex into your weekly agenda.
Sex in the eyes of the world
Let’s move on. The implicit assumption today is that more openness and less judgement about sexual desires will result in more and better sex, which will be nice. What’s not to like? Chiefly the fact that it’s not working. Decades into the sexual revolution and nations are falling in the grip of a sex recession. So what’s gone wrong?
Modern views of sex have changed from the Christian understanding. Popular culture goes about sex in a completely different way to Christian theology. Couples often start with sex. What used to come at the end of a romantic relationship as the sought-after prize after a couple proved their commitment and character, crossing the finish line into marriage, now comes at the beginning of the relationship. A man and a woman meet – at a party or bar or nightclub, at work, on a trip – and they hook up – sleep together. Instant gratification. Then if they feel like they’re a fit and want to start a relationship, fine. If not, they move on.
I am not sure if there’s a name for this, other than screwed up!
God’s view of sex is much richer than the world’s. Popular culture says sex is just biological – just the momentary coupling of two bodies for sexual release. What’s the big deal if it’s just recreation between consenting adults? To popular culture, sex is temporary, cheap and easy, and this affects how we see each other too. But God says we are made in His image and therefore Christianity treats sex as something sacred. It’s an act in which two separate, autonomous human beings are fused into one. It’s the melding of two bodies and two souls. It’s physical and it’s meant to be spiritual too. That’s why in Christianity there’s no such thing as casual sex because sex ought to involve all of you.
Constant porn use, poster after poster, film after film, associates the idea of the abuse of sex with ideas of health, normality, youth and good humour. Hookups have become the norm. It’s easy, all we have to do is shut down emotionally as a person—no need for commitment, faithfulness, loyalty, honour or leadership; just our pleasure. The concern is simply for gratification. Now this association is a lie. Like all major lies, it is based on truth, the truth that sex in itself is healthy and pleasurable and good, but the lie is that all sexual activity even outside its purpose and moral boundaries of a covenant love relationship is right. In our hedonistic culture where sex is a common and meaningless act with and whoever you want, it takes away everything sacred and special about it. Eventually it becomes only a shadow of what it was meant to be, it itself has not changed; only our attitudes to it have.
Now don’t get me wrong, lust on its own might get you somewhere – it may give you the momentary pleasure you seek, but that’s just about it. It is by no means everything it could be. Don’t you want to enjoy sexual intimacy with someone who actually cares and is deeply devoted to you, and you to them? Isn’t that far more meaningful? So why would you take something that ought to be meaningful and treat it as nothing special? Why would you reduce the value of intimacy to that level? To treat sex casually, you have to divorce your sexuality from the humanity of the people you hook up with, and I can only see that as a mild form of psychopathy – reducing your potential and ability to really love or establish meaningful personal relationships.
Our abuse of sex takes away its significance. Every time you use a sticker it loses its effectiveness to stick. If you stick it too frequently eventually it will lose its strength. The binding effect of sex in a relationship is what makes the breakdown of a sexual relationship so painful. And the more that union is forged and then broken; the more casually we treat sex, the more our capacity for deep and abiding unity is in some sense diminished.
Today, casual relationships are increasingly on the rise and monogamous relationships are declining. This is no surprise. We are simply not designed for multiple sexual relationships. I’m not denying that the sex may be just as pleasurable, but it certainly won’t be as meaningful, and possibly less relational as a result.
If sex is viewed only as a way to relieve sexual tension or to experience a moment of sexual pleasure, it ceases to fulfil its designed purpose. It even becomes a mundane act of selfishness – no longer an act of love.
Is more premarital sex better for marriage?
Now maybe you’re reading all of this and you’re not convinced. Maybe you rack up the phone swipes, first dates and new sexual partners without asking yourself whether all this sexual experience will make you happier with whoever you may end up with? In other words, do you think having more sexual partners before marriage will help your marriage, maybe make no impact, or could it stick you on a hedonic treadmill of potential lovers, doomed like some sort of sexual Sisyphus to be constantly close to finding your “soulmate”, only to realize – far too late – that they are deal-breakingly disappointing?
Well, my friends, I’m afraid research in the field of sociology has some unfortunate news for you.
Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of sociology in the ‘Department of Family and Consumer Studies’ at the University of Utah, has found from decades of data that women who have only ever slept with their spouses are most likely to report being in a “very happy” marriage. While the lowest odds of marital happiness (by a degree of 13% less than those who have slept with only their spouse) correlate to women who have had 6 – 10 sexual partners. Even women who have had just one partner instead of two are generally about 5 percentage points happier in their marriages. While this trend is still evident for men, it is not as impactful as it is for women. So contrary to worldly wisdom, when it comes to sex, less experience is better, at least for the marriage.
Further analysis conducted by professor Wolfinger found that women who have had zero or one previous sexual partner before marriage were also least likely to divorce. In fact, there appears to be surprising durability to marriages between people who have only ever had sex with each other. Data collected by the National Survey of Family Growth (2002-2013) showed that women with just one premarital sexual relationship had a rate of divorce after the first 5 years of marriage which is triple that of virgin marriages. For example, by 2010, just 5 percent of new brides were virgins. And just 6 percent of their marriages dissolved within five years, compared with the total average of 20 percent. The highest rates of divorce after 5 years of marriage are among women who have had ten or more premarital partners, with a divorce rate which is 5.5 times that of virgin marriages.
So in summary, the great preponderance of research suggests that people who have had sex with fewer people seem to be more satisfied after they tie the knot. And this is especially true for virgin marriages. Yet if you want to also consider cohabiting relationships, the trend is still the same – for women in particular, each sexual partner corresponds to an increased chance of relationship collapse.
While popular culture says being a virgin is embarrassing, virgins are still the ones who have improved odds of a happy and sustainable marriage. They have been wiser. Virgin marriages, as God intends and has asked it, is the best way.
But the question is why? Why do virgins tend to have the happiest marriages?
It could be that if you were a virgin (or close to it) before marriage, you might not have had that many sexual relationships to compare your current one with. Having more partners prior to marriage makes you critically evaluate your spouse in light of previous partners, both sexually and otherwise. Comparison sucks the joy out of life. Generally speaking, the more you have to compare, the less likely you are to be content with what you’ve got. But for virgin marriages, your mind doesn’t compare to previous sexual encounters, wishing you were in a former time, nor is your partner attached to any expectations you may have formed from previous experiences. It’s all new. You are able to simply enjoy life with whomever you ended up with, love handles and all, without comparison to spoil it. That’s one possible reason.
It could also be that those who have never had sex with anyone but their spouse may be the kind of people who value that commitment to a degree far higher than most; they have never been interested in sex without commitment, and once married, they may be more committed to their spouses, and therefore happier. If you detach sex from marriage, then marriage surely has less significance. Reserving sex till marriage heightens the value and meaning of sex within that commitment.
A further reason could be that you may have had a lot of sexual partners not because you are good at sex (maybe you are), but because you’re bad at relationships. And there is no triumph in that.
But I think the answer runs deeper still. Our culture has taught that sex before marriage is recreational and that once you get married, you can simply wipe the slate clean, commit yourself to be sexually faithful to your spouse and all will go well. However, it is not so easy to wipe the psychological slate clean. You leave a fragment of yourself behind with every partner you have. The more people you sleep with, the more you start to hollow yourself out so you have less to give away. Maybe that’s why St. Paul says “All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.”
Couples often struggle with the desire to know their spouse’s sexual past, and when they know, it sometimes becomes a memory that haunts them. When it comes to marriage, there is something deep down in the human psyche that cries out for an exclusive relationship. And we are pained by the thought that our spouse has been sexually intimate with others. If you have patiently saved yourself till marriage while your partner hasn’t, you will know the sort of sting that kind of pain can bring. A type of grief that you can exclusively give something which is lost in return. It’s devastating. There is something about an exclusive monogamous relationship that can only be described as somewhat sacred. Maybe that is because God intended it that way. So don’t let the desires of the present hinder your future; it’s for your own good to wait for the right person if marriage is what you want for your life.
The fact is, sin is always messy. There are consequences. Now I do not mean to write this as a message of despair and hopelessness for those who had previous sexual partners, the majority of people who have had a number of sexual partners in their past are still very content in their marriage – generally speaking, marriage is an enormous boost to our wellbeing regardless of how many sexual partners we may have previously had. Data from the General Social Survey (GSS) collected between 2010 and 2018 shows that married people report being happier together than those single, divorced, or just living together – by roughly 16 – 23 percentage points (depending on the situations studied).
This analysis merely suggests that sleeping with fewer people is correlated with marital happiness, but it doesn’t guarantee that one thing predicts the other. Even those with a “body count” in the double digits could go on to live in blissful matrimony. It’s just that according to the voice of sociology, it is the best part of wisdom to refrain from sexual encounters until marriage (if marriage is your desire).
Now on a practical note, in your relationship, I would suggest that it is far better to deal with past sexual experiences before marriage. If you don’t properly discuss and deal with this with your partner, then remind yourself that the past has a way of erupting into the present.
In my opinion, if your fiancée/fiancé/boyfriend/girlfriend has enduringly reserved themselves and you haven’t, then you should confess your wrongs to them because it was done against your future spouse. They saved themselves for you, but you haven’t done the same – you have robbed them of what you should rightfully give to them in marriage – the exclusive you. When you love someone, you give them an intimate part of yourself that you give to no one else. But if you have already given your body to someone else sexually then that is something that has been given and cannot be given new. You should feel the pain you have caused your partner, the damage you’ve inflicted. You need to take it seriously. You should verbally confess to your partner that you are no longer attached to your previous sexual partners, renounce and reject the past, pray together, and then both stand together on a new foundation. In return, your partner then needs to listen, grieve over the loss, emphasize that your sins are forgiven by God and then forgive you themselves. After you’ve done that, you need to move on. You can’t dwell on the past. You don’t want the image of the past tainting your relationship. Practice controlling those thoughts and images – deny them when they arise. You have to unhook your mind and imagination from what happened and fill your thought life with what’s to come.
Overcoming regret and shame
Now, I don’t know your story. Maybe sex for you is baggage and pain. Maybe this all hits you like a sucker punch of regret. You’ve learned this the hard way. If only you could go back in time. If only you could have another chance. Well listen, there’s good news: it’s called the gospel. Sex is powerful, but God is even more so. Do not underestimate what He can do in your life to put you back together. Know that sex is good. And God wants to heal the way you think about sexuality. You may have regrets, but sincere regret is the first step towards transformation. We can’t change our past, but a change of heart today can transform tomorrow. I can’t think of a better intellectual and spiritual resource to move forward than the Christian message of rebirth and transformation:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In Christ, your past doesn’t define you. It is wiped clean. So we no longer regard one another according to a worldly point of view – according to their past. In the eyes of God you are being made new! Embrace that. See your partner through the lens of Christ, free them and free yourself from any guilt or shame which has already been pardoned. There is power in this.
Which path will you follow?
So when properly understood, the Christian view is not diminishing sex, but actually glorifying it. Being careful about something is a sign of how much we value it. Christianity is particular about physical intimacy because it has a deep value for it.
The biblical and Christian view does teach that there are categories of sexual behaviour that Christians believe are wrong, prohibited and ought to be avoided. But there are also forms of sexual behaviour regarded in the bible as thoroughly good and right, which ought to be celebrated and enjoyed. Marriage creates immense freedom and security for loving, sexual intimacy without fear of critique or abandonment.
The fact is, in our perverted world where casual sexual relations and hookups are the norms; to enjoy sex in its right context requires a lot of self-control. It’s difficult. Few married people never have the desire for sexual intimacy with someone other than their spouse. Every Christian is called at times to deny certain desires. In some sense the whole “me too” movement is a vindication of this view – we should all control our desires for one another’s good. We know self-control is necessary.
The stuff written in the essay might as well have been written in Arabic because it sounds like a foreign language. And the way God has set is good, but it’s hard. Really hard at times. Every cell in your body wants to cave in, to take matters into your own hands. To follow the crowd rather than the ways of God. His path is narrow, and few walk by it.
The temptation to do something sexually immoral like watching porn or a cheap one-night stand comes when you’re tired, weak, after an argument, when you’re run down or lonely. That’s when the bait comes out. You see that dodgy show on tv, an innocent tag or link leads to some revealing images, maybe that tinder notification pops up, and in the moment you think “I really want this,” while later you don’t feel any more fulfilled. The world will always offer you something far less than you are worth and if you don’t understand your true worth you will settle for it.
It’s easy to be wrongfully lustful. Be careful what you listen to; be careful what you watch; be careful of the situations you entertain. Our freedom from a twisted view created by the idolisation of sexual pleasure starts when we decide to not look with lust (keep that to your partner if you have one). I am reminded of the words of Christ: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
Now when sex is your god you have to watch porn. You have to jack off. You have to sleep with your boyfriend. You have to let him touch you. You’re stuck on the hedonistic treadmill and you have to give into your body’s cravings, even if you know it’s going to steal from your future. You have no choice because you’re a slave. If you follow the path of hedonism then you will no longer be lord over yourself because pleasure dominates.
Hedonism fails. Sexual fulfilment has never fulfilled anyone or ever made anyone more secure in their identity. Sex is great but its not a source of fulfilment. I have hedonistic friends who at times seemed to have slept with a different person every month or so, and yet when the hype was over they would attest time and time again that their lifestyle left them feeling no better off.
We like to define freedom as the ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want, with whoever we want. That’s not really freedom. Freedom is the ability to do whatever you should. To enjoy the world as God intended it. Freedom to do the right thing even when you don’t feel like it because it’s ultimately for our good. To live fully awake and alive. When it comes to sex, freedom is seeing it as a gift. Nothing less, and nothing more. Not as a dirty secret to be swept under the rug and not as a god to be worshipped, but a gift, and a good one at that.
Remember that sex is God’s gift for marriage. Keep it that way. Even when it comes to dating, it’s hard to be patient, after all – where do you draw the line? How far can you push the boundaries without it being sex? Once you and your dating partner start running on the sexual treadmill, it will be blimmin’ difficult to control. While it is right to start down that road once you are married, if you find yourselves burning with passion for each other and are confident that your dating partner is worthy of making marriage vows to, and you have both seriously thought about this, then why torture yourselves? If you’re both struggling with self-control, worried that you might not be acting honourably towards God and your partner, and if your passions are too strong, then it is better to marry than burn with passion (1 Corinthians 7:9). If you wait till marriage to have sex, you won’t regret it, because you’ll know you’ve gone about it the right way – the way God intended it.
I have never met someone who regrets reserving sex for their spouse. And it makes sense – the inverse correlation between sexual promiscuity and long-term relationship success reflects the relationship prospects of people who have exercised self-restraint in the interests of keeping sex special. It’s reasonable to suggest that having chosen a lifelong partner, such people are having more meaningful sex than the people who embraced sexual openness. A young woman whose first sexual experience is with someone who vowed in a public ceremony to spend the rest of his life with her just might find that experience more meaningful and exciting than a teenage girl who has sex because she feels embarrassed about still being a virgin, and she doesnt want to be the “odd one out” in her friendship group. Tell me, which is likely to be hotter: a casual one-night stand or a kiss after allowing sexual tension to build over weeks or even months? Which delivers more of a charge: a conversation with carefully half-hidden sexual subtext or a photo of someone’s genitals?
Desire is like a liquid: if you spread it over a large open area it will start to evaporate. But the more it’s pressurised, the more forcefully it will flow. Real “sex-positivity” means mounting a paradoxical, countercultural defence of human sexuality, by embracing the power of restraint as an erotic accelerant. Restraining from sexual experiences till marriage is what makes the marriage experience all the more exciting.
Ultimately, when it comes to how you treat sex, it becomes a matter of faith.
Which way will you follow – the way of this fleeting world or the ways of God? What do you trust? Your own subjective moral compass of God’s absolute wisdom? The “serpent,” if we use a biblical analogy, says the best sex is found in short, risky, promiscuous relationships with beautiful people. God says sex is for when a man and women say to each other “let’s do this thing called life together, let’s join up till death do us part.” It’s all about who you trust.
Which path will you follow?
I have not upheld God’s standards for sexual ethics, and I wish I took it more seriously in the past. Even today there are times that I struggle. When we realise what God teaches about sex, it leaves us all very much fallen short of his ways. There are not many things I can think of more honourable than two people coming together in marriage without the baggage of previous sexual partners to compare, so that each partner knows that each has resisted the temptation to give themselves away, and can honestly say they have reserved themselves to be physically vulnerable to just the one person worthy of making those vows to. They have truly given themselves exclusively to each other. Isn’t that precious? The issue is, however, the vast majority of us have thrown that opportunity away. Not one of us is innocent of sexual immorality, regardless of what degree that may be.
The uncomfortable implication of the message of Christianity is that it puts us all in the same boat. We are all sexual sinners. You are. I am. It doesn’t take long for our minds to start thinking of others in a way that does not honour their sexuality: a way that dehumanises and commodifies them. We need to know that God’s capacity to forgive and heal is far greater than our ability to mess things up. God’s response to our mess is not simply to get rid of us but to help us.
God is not only the reference of moral good, He is good even in how He responds to us when we break His ethical standards, inviting us to a change in heart. God advertises himself to be “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” Amen.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be “poor in spirit” is to recognise you’re not as ‘spiritually great’ as you may have previously thought. Our twisted hearts taint every part of life. It’s not to say that every part of life is as bad as it could be; just that no part is as good as it should be. To recognise that is a blessing because it makes us open to God’s good solution.
Jesus has shown that the real issue is what goes on in our hearts. We are all broken in this area of life. We might be broken in very different ways and even to varying extents, but none of us can truly claim self-righteousness. Even the great King David was in the same position as he wrote: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” So if the problem is what our hearts are like, then starting by trying to conform to certain external ethical standards is not going to ultimately help us. It would be like trying to improve the symptoms without addressing the underlying issue.
The deeply uncomfortable realisation to come to terms with is that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. We misuse sexuality because of what our hearts are like. Our sexual brokenness is a sign of a more fundamental brokenness in our human nature. The message of the gospel is that God does not scold us for being as we are, but steps into our reality and takes all our brokenness onto himself through Jesus Christ. Jesus paid the price for our moral debt and offers to transform our nature. The good news is that God doesn’t just forgive us without also transforming us. The gospel is our reference for love, a God of love who demonstrated his love for us and showed us how to love, and in knowing Him we find a love that brings ultimate value to our lives.
As we learn about the significance that Christ took our moral blemishes on himself, we start to have a different attitude to it. It is not that we are no longer incapable of sin but that it doesn’t taste as good, like drinking orange juice after you’ve brushed your teeth. The juice hasn’t changed, but the taste has. In re-directing my life to Jesus, I have found that what is called ‘sin’ gradually loses its flavour. It is painful coming to terms with what the Bible says about our sexuality being so broken, but such recognition is the way into the joy of knowing forgiveness and transformation.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” God (Ezekiel 36:26).