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 a little 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 and that one is for football. Both games can be played simultaneously, but not on the same field. They can be temporal: these hours are for sleeping; these are 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 necessary. 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.
To address this, 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.”
First Jesus quotes the seventh commandment “You shall not commit 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, explaining 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 good looking and wanting in some lustful way to have them. The teaching here is that people (perhaps 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 your own mind.
Now the issue of thinking and looking lustfully is greed – greed for someone you don’t have a right to. It is treating them not as a person in their own right but as something to have. It is a temptation to use, and not to respect, the other. Looking at someone with lustful intent is looking at someone purely 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.
Sex has a context
It is the nature of love to bind itself, and sex has always been traditionally taught as properly 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 most significant 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. 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 covenant marriage. God has designed it to work that way and it works very well.
According to Christian theology, you are not to unite with someone physically unless you are also willing to unite with that person in every way for life. Therefore sex is for marriage. 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 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 bad – and in part that’s what marriage is meant to be about.
Yet there is also another element to sex we can’t forget – it is the means by which a couple can create a new life, and that is why the act of sex is regarded as the most distinctive expression of marital love and self-giving. That is why this act, which is but a passing and fleeting pleasure, is particularly regarded as an act of union. So what makes sex special is nothing to do with the special pleasure attached to it. If sex unites two people simply because it gives pleasure, then it would seem that one of the spouses could at times find a more meaningful union outside marriage than within it. The conjugal act may or may not be accompanied by pleasure (although each desires that for the other), but the meaning of the act isn’t determined by the pleasure from it.
The reason sex is sacred, the reason that it has the potential to be a more intense expression of love and union is because of what happens in sex, which is not just a touch, not a mere sensation (however intense), but an act of communication, an offer and acceptance, an exchange of something that uniquely represents the gift of oneself and the union of two selves. In marital sex, you surrender and accept something unique – each other’s sexuality, and this adds a new dimension so that your love for each other is not merely speculative or intellectual knowledge. It is bodily knowledge as well. Hence why the Bible in the original Hebrew refers to marital sex in terms of man and woman “knowing” each other.
Using metaphorical language: in the bodily language of sex, each spouse utters a “word” of love that is both an expression of each one’s self, as well as an expression of his or her longing for the other. These two words of love meet and are fused into one concept. And as this new unified love takes on flesh, God shapes it into a person – the child, which is the incarnation of the husband and wife’s sexual knowledge of one another and sexual love for one another.
Sex has the power to create life and all of life is sacred. 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.
Now I’m not saying that every time you sleep with your partner you need to scrap contraception and make babies. But it should be intended in your marriage sooner or later if that’s possible (some couples can’t have children for fertility reasons). Why? Because love is creative. God’s love, if we may put it in this way, “drove” him to create. Our love is also meant to create. When people love each other they want to do things together. While this is true of friendship in general, it has a singular application to the love between spouses. A couple truly in love wants to do something “original” together. Nothing is more original to a couple in love than their child: the image and fruit of their union.
Family is at the heart of God’s vision for the world. We live in a culture that can err on one of two sides. One camp doesn’t want kids at all. Sex, sure. Marriage, maybe. Family? No way. The cycle of millions of relationships is “hook up, shack up, break up.” And children are collateral damage. In the US, 25% of children also go to bed without a father at home. The number of children born out of wedlock to women under thirty is more than 50% in most countries. In this way of thinking, children are seen as a nuisance and family as a hindrance to “freedom.” This is so very far from God’s heart.
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, 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 that Christianity places sex within marriage is because it believes in family. Contraception isn’t 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?
Sex has a context – marriage and babies.
What about sex outside of marriage, is it the same thing?
The contemporary view today is that what makes a romantic relationship valuable is not whether it is formalised in marriage, but whether it is simply some form of sexual companionship. Sexuality, and not conjugality, has become the reference point. As a result, the distinction between licit and illicit sexual relationships becomes more and more blurred. Most of my secular peers would maintain that provided each partner genuinely cares for each other, matrimonial and non-matrimonial relationships are almost indistinguishable from the moral point of view. And so for most people, sex is a good thing regardless of whether it is held in marriage or pre-marriage relationships.
I beg to differ. Sex, apart from the context of a 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. 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 lacks that depth of meaning.
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 which shows the unique appreciation each has for the other. 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 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 by committing yourself permanently through marriage. Why is this so intense? Because Christianity declares sexuality as sacred. 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, according to Christian theology sex is when two become “one.” You are joined together. In 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 perhaps she just ignores it). 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 unscarred.
Perhaps there is a rule to be learnt from this – do not become so immediately absorbed with the exterior physical aspects and attraction of sex that it prevents you from truly “seeing” and understanding the real character of the person you are attracted to.
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 reinforce 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 – it’s pleasure before commitment, and in the end, it makes it harder for you to trust the other person. Premarital sex is pleasure minus the covenant of marriage and the character growth that comes with that commitment. There is no “till death do us part,” and because of that, how can you really trust? Throughout the years of a relationship there may be moments when your partner has a sexual desire for someone else, and unless they have proven to be able to control their sexual urge with you by waiting until they are fully committed, then how can you be sure they will control their sexual desire in the moments it’s directed towards someone other than 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.
I have argued against the common secular view that sex is for any ‘committed’ relationship, whether or not that’s formalised in marriage, but is that view even still the majority? I’m not so sure. It seems that in the eyes of many, sex is for whenever and with whoever you want. Sex doesn’t have to be formalised in any type of valued relationship, and this has given birth to what we call ‘hookup’ culture.
Most modern “sex education” is, in effect, trying to instil into young minds the idea that so long as there’s consent, there is no such thing as a good or bad use of sexuality, that all use of the body is in fact indifferent. Half of romantic movies, TV series and even a good chunk of music follow this theme. 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. The problem is it’s not working. Decades into the sexual revolution and nations are falling into the grip of a sex recession. So what’s gone wrong?
Today 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. To most, sexual activity doesn’t imply a deep dedication; it can be casual, temporary or promiscuous. There is no longer any norm for sex: no understanding within which it attains full and proper meaning, and outside of which it must be considered abnormal. The voice of many is that, regardless of the context, sex should be enjoyed as long as its first consented to; that’s it, that’s their only rule. The “goodness” of sexual intimacy no longer resides in the total self-donation shown through the marriage relationship. It is placed instead in the fragile “goodness” of feeling and desire, devoid of any real aspect of self-dedication; it is placed in a sort of transitory love, without any promise of fidelity, and closed to its possible fruit in a new life. Such ‘love’ does not really unite – more than for a moment in passing – nor can it take a person out of their existential solitude. Look at the world around us: sex has lost its significance – 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 don’t know about you but that sounds screwed up!
God’s view of sex is much richer than the world’s, and I really don’t see much of a debate in that. 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, but crucially, this affects how we see each other too. But God says we are made in His image and therefore sex should be treated 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, and that’s why sexual intercourse is meant to characterise one unique human relationship – reserved for those who are spouses.
Constant porn use, photo after photo, 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 a covenant love relationship is morally 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, a hookup might get you somewhere – it may give you the momentary pleasure you seek, but that’s just about it. 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? 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. If sex becomes primarily about getting pleasure then it isn’t an exaggeration to describe it as a mutual experience of solitary sex, despite how much pleasure and feeling may be accompanied by it.
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.
The general consequences of multiple sexual partners – a voice from sociology
Now maybe you’re reading all of this and you’re not convinced – “The idea that sex is for marriage is just oppressive! I want to sleep with as many people as I like. I want to roll out of a stranger’s bed without worrying about being judged on anything but my manners.” So you rack up the Tinder 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.
Well, my friends, I’m afraid research in the field of sociology has some unfortunate news for you.
Data emerging consistently for decades show that premarital sexual activity seems to be associated with a significantly elevated risk of divorce and relationship dissolution.
It all began in the 1990s: The National Health and Social Life Survey, conducted at the University of Chicago, was the first serious, fully reputable study of sexual behaviour in America. It found a marked connection between premarital sex and elevated risk of divorce. The author Edward O.Laumann explains: “For both genders, we find that virgins have dramatically more stable first marriages…” Additionally, “Those who marry as non-virgins are also more likely – all other things being equal – to be unfaithful over the remainder of their life compared with those spouses who do marry as virgins.” This higher prevalence of marital infidelity among the non-virgin marriages is assumed to be an important factor in their higher likelihood of divorce.
More recently, Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of sociology at 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 five 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 previous 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 partners before marriage were also least likely to divorce. In fact, there appears to be a 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 five years of marriage which is triple that of virgin marriages. For example, by 2010, just 5% of new brides were virgins. And just 6% of their marriages dissolved within five years, compared with the total average of 20%. The highest rates of divorce after five 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 report being 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.
Sociology is now showing us what the church and our grandmothers knew all along. Having sex with someone who is not our spouse can have a real, measurable and harmful impact on later relationships. While popular culture says being a virgin is embarrassing, virgins are still the ones who have improved odds of a happy and sustainable marriage.
Now the question is: Why do virgin marriages work best? 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. The more sexual partners you have had, the less likely your current partner will outdo those past sexual experiences, and if they don’t, a sense of disappointment can creep in. 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 us 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 a 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. Now I do not mean to write this as a message of despair for those who have had previous sexual partners, as 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).
Deal with the past before it breaches the present
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 has enduringly reserved themselves and you haven’t, then you should confess your sins 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. 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.
Now a word of advice – delete old photos, messages, and even contacts with previous partners, don’t let that sexual history loom into your current relationship. In return, your partner then needs to listen, grieve over the loss, and forgive. 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. Well listen, there’s good news: it’s called the gospel. We have all fallen short of God’s intentions for us, even in the area of sexuality, but in Christ He has chosen to redeem us for eternity.
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).
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
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 what we have formerly done. In the eyes of God you are being made new! Embrace that. Live from it. 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.
This essay is part 1 of 2. For part two – coming soon.