Is it good, bad, or neutral, to have sex before marriage? This topic comes up often in discussions in many places. The church has taken the unambiguous position that pre-marital sex is wrong. For us as members, what does the church’s teaching mean about its (and our) attitudes about sex generally?
(NOTE: This post is about sex. It’s not Playboy, and is not trying to be salacious, but it does discusses sex and Mormon attitudes at a level of frankness that might be higher than readers are accustomed to.)
Will Baude (not a church member) suggests that sex before marriage should not only not be discouraged, but should actually be encouraged. Baude writes:
I think it’s generally unwise for people (particularly people who view monogamy as generally desirable and divorce as generally undesirable) to get married before they’ve begun having some sort of sexual relations. Sex is important to marital compatibility . . . and it would be bad to be stuck married to somebody whose views about the purpose and details of sex were drastically different from one’s own.
Baude raises some valid concerns. Pre-marital abstinence results in entering into a marriage essentially blind to the other person’s sexual preferences and ideas.
Some of this blindness can be mitigated. One way to mitigate the blindness is by talking frankly about sex prior to marriage. However, my impression is that this is very seldom done. This blindness can probably be further mitigated to at least some extent by noting general habits of affection. (I.e., the girlfriend who doesn’t want to hold hands or kiss in public may be more likely to be a “cold fish” in bed as well.)
However, these mitigation techniques are less than perfect, and they are not always used. The result is that a number of Mormon couples — the majority, I would venture to say — enter marriage with no idea what the other’s sexual ideas are. They do not know if they are sexually compatible.
This can be a problem. There are different was in which couples may not be compatible. Couples may disagree about the frequency of sex — if one person believes sex should be a daily event and the other thinks it should happen monthly, this will create tension in the relationship. Similarly, attitudes may differ on what type of contraception, if any, to use. Finally, attitudes may vary about the propriety of sexual experimentation within marriage. (While some sorts of experimentation, such as multiple partners, are clearly off limits, other sorts are subject to each couple’s decisions).
We all know that sex is intense, and is tied to intense emotions. I believe that critics such as Will Baude are right to note that these disagreements can potentially lead to tension and even divorce.
And yet, as we all know, the church teaches that people should refrain from having sex before marriage. Why? What does it mean that the church insists on abstinence despite the fact that this policy will inevitably lead to some marriages where the partners are not sexually compatible?
I think we can deduce a few ideas:
First, the church does not anticipate major problems in sexual compatibility, and assumes that any sexual compatibility problems will be resolvable. The monthly-sex person and the daily-sex person can compromise. Sexual compatibility is not viewed as a deal-breaker.
(I’m not sure how much I agree with that. I have known of couples who split up after marriage due in part to sexual compatibility issues. Yet the church clearly views these as minor or resolvable.)
Second, and relatedly, the church believes that most people are sexually compatible. (If most people were not sexually compatible, then perhaps there would be a need for pre-marital sex to test compatibility.)
Third, the damage done by pre-marital sex is sufficiently great that it is worthwhile to maintain a rule which causes post-marital harm to some percent of couples. For example, assume that x% of couples are strongly sexually incompatible. The existing rule condemns them to either divorce or major unhappiness. However, this negative it outweighed by the large number of couples who do not break the law of chastity prior to marriage.
There is probably more which can be deduced from the church’s position. I’m not sure what all of the assumptions underlying the church’s position are, but I think it is helpful to discuss them. To the extent we can promote sexual discussion and prevent divorce, that is helpful. And I suppose that as church members we should admit that the Lord’s policy does seem certain to doom at least some couples to lengthy unhappiness and/or divorce.
(Also, I wonder how this discussion relates to scriptural stories (particularly Old Testament stories) where men seem to take fiendish delight in making sure women are not sexually satisfied. (E.g., Judah and Tamar; David’s decision not to sleep with Michal anymore). I find those stories to be very odd.)