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.

(See also Baude’s further discussion here and Evangelical Outpost’s critique here).

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.)

29 comments for “Sex

  1. I think one of the flaws of Baude’s reasoning is that it assumes that sexual preferences (not speaking in terms of gender but in terms of other factors) are pre-existing and exogenously given. I’m doubtful. It seems to me that preferences are often formed in the process of experience. (Note: this is one problem I have with the microeconomic idea of expressed preferences.) Thus, one reason to refrain from sex before marriage is that it allows the relationship of marriage to be the primary locus of developing sexual preferences.

    That said, I think that it is a good idea for couples to talk about sex prior to marriage, especially about issues like contraception. I really don’t know whether or not such discussions are rare or not among Mormons. My wife-to-be at the time and I had such a conversation:

    “What do you think of sex?”
    “I am in favor of it.”
    Further discussion….

    On the other hand, I have heard the the tales of sexual ignrance that circulate as part of Mormon folk lore.

  2. I concluded long before joining the LDS church that pre-marital sex had far more cons than pros. All one has to do is look at out of wedlock births, abortion rates, STDs, and basic devaluation of a fabulous act. To be frank, sex is a lot better with two partners who are married than with someone who hasn’t made a serious commitment to be around next week, month, or year.

    Perhaps because I haven’t had this problem, I tend to think if two people can’t reach a compromise with sexual issues in their marriage, I suspect there’s other problems that need to be examined in that relationship.

  3. A memory of a memorable Jim Faulconer comment:

    I am sitting in my second semester history of philosophy class my freshman year at BYU. My professor is Jim Faulconer. He is talking about alternatives to propositional knowledge.

    “Let’s think about sex for a moment,” he says.
    “Most of you are, most of the time anyways.”

  4. I’d second the comment about talking about sex prior to the event itself. I think this is doubly true for women for whom more “work” is required than for the guy. My wife was at a bridal shower and mentioned a few things the bride to be ought to have – things like KY Jelly, advising her about foreplay and so forth. They were off in a corner, but a few other single women actually got rather offended by it all. However from what I hear, many women truly do not enjoy sex at first because it is painful and unpleasant – mainly due to ignorance and poor communication between husband and wife.

    Then there are the inevitable issues relating to oral sex and the like. Probably both parties ought to have similar expectations *beforehand*.

    It was my experience at BYU that there was fairly frank talk among married people in the locker rooms. My girlfriends said that the talk among women in the locker rooms was even more explicit than among the guys. (Fewer tall tales or bragging and more nuts and bolts) So if that is going on at BYU I suspect the problem isn’t quite as bad as some make out. Which isn’t to say I haven’t heard horror stories!

  5. Based on the conversations I’ve had with my wife and sisters, it seems that Mormon women are much more likely to discuss sex with each other compared to the amount of informative sex-talk going on among Mormon men. Clark’s comment suggests that lots of BYU women are talking, but not as many BYU men. I think this is a real problem for the men in our church, especially for newly-married men who only have popular media to guide their sexual expectations. Most of us find out, after a few weeks of marriage anyway, that those expectations are usually quite different than the reality.

    I wonder how much the lack of experience with discussing sex openly hurts Mormon men’s sex lives. I mean, if you’ve only had sex with one woman and aren’t getting feedback from other sources, there are many potential problems a man could be overlooking.

  6. “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?”

    First, I would not characterize it as the “church” insisting on abstinence, but rather the Lord. Prior to the restoration, and since Adam and Eve, the Lord’s instructions on sex outside of marriage have been clear–the sexual relationship is to be confined to marriage. How serious is engaging in sex outside of marriage? Alma taught his son Corianton that it was second only to murder. I would encourage anyone who wonders why this is so important to read Elder Holland’s talk entitled “Souls, Symbols and Sacrament.” He also gave a version of this talk in conference in October 1998.

    I find it curious that you would suggest that the Lord’s policy will lead to a negative result for some couples. Well so do all of the Lord’s standards. My wife and I grew up in different households and have somewhat different views on a variety of things–for instance daily scripture study. We are taught to study the scriptures daily. I feel it is important and I enjoy doing it. My wife does not. Thus my wife and I are not fully compatible as to this issue. Should we lament the Lord’s instruction on the matter. No.
    It seems to me that although couple may not sufficiently discuss sex prior to marriage so as to be fully “compatible” much of the problems arise from either selfishness or incorrect beliefs about sex. Even accepting Will Baude as someone who has something worthwhile to add to a discussion of sex is part of the problem. Why do we let the world try and dictate and/or direct our understanding or beliefs about sex? I think far too many of us our influenced by the erotic images and portrayals of sex on television, in movies, books etc. Satan has had tremendous influence in this respect and we are left with a distorted view of its purpose and potential for good within the married state.

    “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.”

  7. I hadn’t finished my post, but it posted anyway. I wanted to say that it is not the Lord’s policy that that dooms some couples to lengthy unhappiness and/or divorce. People doom themselves to unhappiness or divorce. Marital incompatibility in sex can be remedied. Again, I think the biggest problem is that couples even in the church view sex through the lens provided by the world. Couples who let sex lead to lengthy unhappiness and/or divorce have other issues separate and distinct from sex to deal with (e.g. selfishness, communication difficulties, pride, etc.). Through love, patience, counseling if necessary, understanding, study, etc. any sexual incompatibilities can be remedied. The key, however, is to look to the Lord’s standards of happiness. Mr. Baude proposes a policy in direct opposition to the Lord’s law of happiness. What he proposes is in fact what many have been doing for years, and it is difficult to see any increase in the societal happiness. His views are nothing more than a new justification of an old immorality. The major flaw with his reasoning is that it is immoral. Doesn’t the oft quoted scripture “wickedness never was happiness” come from Alma’s discussion of Corianton’s sexual indiscretion with his son.

    I think you are correct, frank and open discussions are necessary to help us all come to a better understanding about the role sex plays in life and marriage and to help avoid issues of incompatibility. However, we should be wary of letting commentary like that of Mr. Baude guide the discussion. There are many other more helpful views out there that truly lead to greater happiness.

  8. I can’t even think where to look for a citation for this line–maybe one of you will know, but I remember President Kimball in one of his talks on morality mentioning that he counselled many couples who were divorcing because of sexual incompatibility. As I recall, it’s kind of a one-liner; he didn’t elaborate on his conclusions from that fact. But he also didn’t say that they shouldn’t be getting divorced over that. (Bah! Don’t you hate those “a general authority once said…” kind of comments; I’ll find a source!)

  9. Good articles:

    Brent A. Barlow, “They Twain Shall Be One: Thoughts on Intimacy in Marriage,” Ensign, Sept. 1986, 49

    Steve Gilliland, “The Psychological Case for Chastity,” Ensign, July 1975, 54

    “Thoughts on Marriage Compatibility,” Ensign, Sept. 1981, 45

    There are many others.

  10. Speaking of President Kimball, here is a great quote from him:

    “No combination of power can destroy that marriage except the power within either or both of the spouses themselves; and they must assume the responsibility generally. Other people and agencies may influence for good or bad; financial, social, political, and other situations may seem to have a bearing. But the marriage depends first and always on the two spouses, who can always make their marriage successful and happy if they are determined, unselfish, and righteous.” (Marriage and Divorce, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, p. 17.)

  11. Brent writes:

    Prior to the restoration, and since Adam and Eve, the Lord’s instructions on sex outside of marriage have been clear–the sexual relationship is to be confined to marriage.

    I don’t think that’s entirely true. There are a number of verses in the Old Testament which seem to suggest that pre-marital sex is fine, as long as the participants promptly marry after having sex. These include the story of Dinah (Genesis 34); Exodus 22:16; Deut. 22:28-29.

  12. Exceptions to the rule in a couple of instances do not eliminate the rule. Killing is also expressly prohibited, but we are aware of instances where taking the life of another has been not only permitted, but required or directed by the Lord. Of course, that could lead to a whole discussion

    Nevertheless, I think my contention is still valid that there Lord’s has maintained a consistent standard, even if the Lord has recognized that man might deviate from the standard. In fact, the verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy reflect the standard, and proscribe a consequence of violating the standard.

  13. As I read these comments, I feel that some are uncomfortable with Kaimi referring to a non-member’s *gasp* point of view on sex before marriage. As if, when talking about sex, anything less than a quote from a General Authority will simply not do. Why does this blog exist anyway? Why aren’t we all busy watching reruns of Conference?

    On a more serious note, I do agree with what Nate said in his initial comment “…one reason to refrain from sex before marriage is that it allows the relationship of marriage to be the primary locus of developing sexual preferences.”

  14. A few thoughts:


    Sorry, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. The biblical chapters in question are full of proscriptions and punishments. Sex before marriage was not punished. (Forcing the man to marry the woman is not a punishment, considering that in the same chapters we have numerous acts which are punishable by stoning). If Exodus or Deuteronemy treated sex the same way Alma does (breaking the law of chastity second only to murder), one would expect that premarital sex would have a strong punishment. These chapters instead (and the surrounding chapters) punish dozens of crimes with death, but premarital sex only forces the participants to get married.


    The “primary locus” is probably largely correct. I think that that is a very useful way of looking at it. Of course, this leaves the question, “what does this mean for couples where the marriage is not the primary locus of developing sexual preferences?” In particular, setting aside instances of promiscuity (which are certainly the primary source of marriage not being the main locus), widowed or divorced members may, through no sin or wrongdoing, end up in marriages where their own marriage is not the primary locus of developing sexual preferences.

  15. Sex before marriage has such a high risk of pregnancy that it isn’t funny. Even lots of people I know who practice safe sex still have had run ins with pregnancy. That then leads to the problem of children in a family where the couple don’t have the commitment. To put it bluntly, while sex has many aspects, the procreative power is one of the greatest. To misuse that brings heartache. Perhaps not to the people involved, but frequently to the children.

    Likewise the perspectives of men and women on the matter are different. I’m sure more men would love sex before marriage, especially if the commitments and responsibility could be completely eliminated. Among my friends who aren’t active Mormon, I’ve seen that time and time again. Both sides lose the ability to have intimacy and the women are disproportionately hit as men’s perceptions of the event are so radically different from theirs.

    The most powerful sermon I can recall for chastity was by Elder Ashton at a BYU stake conference. After a series of Stake Presidents giving the expected condemnations of unchastity, he brought his wife up to the stage and basically said, I don’t want this to be negative. Let me explain why you want to be chaste, why you ought to want to have this. He then gave a very powerful and spiritual demonstration. I can’t recall the details, but he really didn’t say much but the message was communicated.

    As for those who haven’t found the special person. I can certainly understand. I was 35 before I got engaged. Up to that point there were less than a handful of women I’d met that I even particularly wanted to date. At 30 I must admit that I’d become rather bitter over the whole situation. I could see how easy it would be to slip into limited relationships as the counterfeit of what we ought to be pursuing…

  16. Couples coming to some agreement beforehand– I favor it, from positive experience, though I’m also thankful for a couple of my married friends who were willing to laugh at themselves and admit that they thought going into marriage that they’d have to pay someone to drag them away from home every morning and found it was not so . . .

    The stirling example of Old Testament figures–
    1) I don’t know that marriage afterwards should be understood to remove the sin, but getting married without further punishment may be the best that can be made of a bad job.
    2) Any decent person should aspire to a higher morality than that practiced by our forefathers in the tribes of Israel
    3) Having sex and then marrying the girl to make some amends doesn’t do anything to ensure sexual compatibility. If anything, less.

  17. Signseeking and sex:

    The idea of testing out partners before marriage reminds me of the story of the prophet Joseph rebuking a signseeker as an adulterer. He said that if someone sought a sign from you that often implied they had trouble with sexual morality (of course in a more direct, 19th century way). This leads me to wonder if more important than the empirical data of having sex before marriage and testing out sexual compatibility is the faith and commitment to make it and the entire marriage work afterwards. After all, faith and faithfulness in and to one’s spouse is what we really need to make marriages work, not just good sex.

  18. Oy. I wrote about sex recently on my site. The comments were kind, but I was blasted a bit in emails. Here’s the link:

    I hate the “test drive” argument; equating testing out the car before you buy with testing out your fiancée before you marry makes me cringe. It cheapens sex and treats it like something to bought. (And what happens after buying the car? The value goes down.) Sexual compatibility is an issue, but it’s an issue that should be mostly explored after marriage. If a couple is truly committed to each other, I can’t imagine very many cases where sexual incompatibility couldn’t be resolved with time, trust, honesty, and/or care.

    I agree that some things should be talked about before marriage. Some topics are inappropriate before marriage, though. I think that this is a balance that every couple needs to find.

    I’d like to confirm that Mormon women are very frank about sex. (My blog is a pretty good example of this.) I have no idea if Mormon men are the same, but the level of honesty and openness in female conversations, even in front of primary-age girls, is very high. In my experience, the talking was (and is) among female family members at family functions and mostly related to childbirth and such.

  19. Okay, I’ll jump into the fray.

    Jan – I appreciate your post on your site. The whole idea of trust is HUGE! Why don’t most young women approach it from that view??? I guess maybe they don’t trust themselves enough to believe in themselves and wait it out for the right time and person, and in the right setting (after marriage).

    I too disagree wholeheartedly with the “test drive” point of view. It cheapens the whole act. How can there be true intimacy if you “practice” it out with a few people first?

    I really understand the curiosity issue. That’s why I just wish sometimes you could easily explain to someone just how sex is, how it feels and what it does etc, etc, etc. But the key is that sex really can’t be good if you’ve cheapened it by testing it out with a few people along the way. It is the intimacy factor that makes it good.

    Speaking of that issue – intimacy – one of the best books ever written on the subject is Human Intimacy by Hugh Brown. Another great article to read on this subject is from BYU’s Women’s Conference a talk by Wendy Watson :

    Sexual incompatability can be dealt with through good communication with each other or through the use of counseling with a professional. (There are some things that a bishop just isn’t equipped to do) Sexual incompatability is a subject that gets buried and manifests itself in other ways. There are sources available for help without going to extremes. If a couple actually makes it to the altar without having any sexual experiences outside of that marriage they’ll probably need some outside help sorting through the maze called sex. It can be great if dealt with in proper ways, but it can be really bad if you just ignore it hoping it will get better.

  20. I agree with many of the recent posts. There is simply no justification for a “test drive” idea. To suggest that such a policy may provide real “benefits” is to deny the teachings of ancient and modern prophets as well as modern evidence. Numerous studies show that couples who do just what Mr. Baude proposes (or at least those who live together) end in divorce in statistically greater numbers than couples who do not.

    Furthermore, my discomfort with Mr. Baude’s comments and Kaimi’s reference to them comes not from the author (a non-Mormon (without the gasp)) but from the substance of the comments. His suggestion that there is something virtuous and beneficial about pre-marital sex strikes me as ludicrous. Who he is and his religious/political/or other affiliation are irrelevant to the discussion. I believe the principles Mr. Baude espoused are unsound and I merely offered my reasons for that belief, such reasons being based largely on our doctrinal beliefs with respect to sexual intimacy.

  21. I think Mr. Baude’s arguments for premarital sex are ridiculous. He totally ignores any consequences resulting from premarital sex. So what happens to the girlfriend/boyfriend/fiance(e) if they fail the sexual compatability test? Are they then discarded and one moves on to the next prospect? And suppose the first partner is left with a child, an STD, or emotional scars due to being dumped by their fiance? No body will have the same sexual preferences as their spouse, so I believe compromise is the key as with any other issue in a marriage. Sometimes I feel that too much emphasis is placed on sex in the marriage relationship, even in LDS marriages. It seems that we are being subtly influenced by the world’s view in many respects. Suppose that one’s spouse was ill or injured and unable to participate in sex. Would we then be justified in divorcing that spouse or seeking sex outside of the relationship?

  22. I just noticed that Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column (similar to a Dear Abby column) just had a sexual incompatibility item. I vaguely think that I’ve seen these kinds of things in Dear Abby / Ann Landers in the past.


  23. This has been touched on briefly, but I think it deserves more attention (although since I only just discovered this site, I’m assuming this thread is long dead anyway). For most of history, there haven’t been reliable means of birth control–so it made sense to forbid sex until there was some sort of long-term committment in place. I don’t claim that is why God opposes pre-maritial sex, although it seems like at least one good reason, but it makes sense why social mores would arise prohibiting it.

  24. Relationships should be based on love not lust and sexual compatibleness….If you need a quick reminder of what love truly is, then….Love is kind, patient, NOT SELF-SEEKING, does not envy, keeps no records of wrong, not proud, not boastful, rejoices with the truth, can’t stand evil, not easily angered, it perseveres and it NEVER FAILS. Surely two people in love would understand their sexual differences without a problem.

  25. Well …


    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?


    The raw statistics are that people who abstain are more likely to have successful marriages than those who don’t.

    That’s reality, for what it is worth.

    Not to mention, sexual drive is amazingly adjustable. People who are at a frequency of 4-6 times a day at one stage will be at a frequency of 2-3 times a month at another. That is a wide range of adjustment.

  26. There isn’t a single commandment put out by the LDS church that someone isn’t going to try and challenge. Pre-marital sex is wrong for over a million reasons, it creates bonds that should only be between husband and wife, it can lead to STD’s, pregnancy and many other consequences.But It’s not JUST about being able to have pre-marital sex. Quite simply its about obedience. The prophet instructed us that excess body piercings and tattoo’s are wrong. But if one were to get a tattoo its not as if the earth would come crashing down on him, we obey these commandments because it shows our dedication and faith to the lord. We are infinitely blessed when we follow guidelines and commandments. They are all for our own well being.

  27. Why is it that the Church constantly pressures its young people to get married and start having children? Why is it not okay to be a 33 year old Mormon bachelor? Why is it that a typical Mormon young couple has dated for only 3 or 4 months before jumping into marriage?


    Let’s face it. The Church wants everyone married because underneath the facade of true love and marital bliss we all want to have sex. My contention is that you need to have your head screwed on straight before you jump into marriage. If getting your mind clear takes having premarital sex, then take the necessary disease/pregnancy precautions and do it. My parents (married 41 years) jumped into marriage after a 3 month courtship, most likely due to the fact that they really wanted to have sex (of course no one ever TELLS you that). It was only after the marriage that my mom found out about my dad’s explosive temper. Though they have been together all this time and dad’s been (mostly) a good guy, I can’t say they are the happiest. And I can’t say I want to end up with a man just like dad.

    That’s why I made the executive decision at age 25 to begin having sex with anyone I’m seriously dating. Though I don’t have a temple marriage, I’m also not miserably married either. And I’m not making any children miserable either. When it comes to premarital sex, you should do it if it will clear your mind so you can make a sound judgment about marriage and your future.

Comments are closed.