Virginity pledges. Chastity balls. Courtship. Side hugs. Guarding your heart. Evangelical discourse on sex is more conservative than I've ever seen it. Parents and pastors and youth group leaders told us not to do it before we got married. Why? Because the Bible says so. Yet that simple message didn't go very far in shaping our sexual decision-making.
So they kicked it up a notch and staked a battle over virginity, with pledges of abstinence and accountability structures to maintain the power of the imperative to not do what many of us felt like doing. Some of us failed, but we could become "born again virgins." Virginity mattered. But sex can be had in other ways, and many of us got creative.
Then they told us that oral sex was still sex. It could spread disease, and it would make you feel bad. "Sex will be so much better if you wait until your wedding night," they urged. If we could hold out, they said, it would be worth it. The sheer glory of consummation would knock our socks off.
Such is the prevailing discourse of abstinence culture in contemporary American evangelicalism. It might sound like I devalue abstinence. I don't. The problem is that not all abstainers end up happy or go on to the great sex lives they were promised. Nor do all indulgers become miserable or marital train wrecks. More simply, however, I have found that few evangelicals accomplish what their pastors and parents wanted them to.
Indeed, over 90 percent of American adults experience sexual intercourse before marrying. The percentage of evangelicals who do so is not much lower. In a nationally representative study of young adults, just under 80 percent of unmarried, church- going, conservative Protestants who are currently dating someone are having sex of some sort. I'm certainly not suggesting that they cannot abstain. I'm suggesting that in the domain of sex, most of them don't and won't.
What to do? Intensify the abstinence message even more? No. It won't work. The message must change, because our preoccupation with sex has unwittingly turned our attention away from the damage that Americans—including evangelicals—are doing to the institution of marriage by discouraging it and delaying it.
Late Have I Loved You
If you think it's difficult to be pro-life in a pro-choice world, or to be a disciple of Jesus in a sea of skeptics, try advocating for young marriage. Almost no one empathizes, even among the faithful. The nearly universal hostile reaction to my April 23, 2009, op-ed on early marriage in The Washington Post suggests that to esteem marriage in the public sphere today is to speak a foreign language: you invoke annoyance, confusion, or both.
But after years of studying the sexual behavior and family decision-making of young Americans, I've come to the conclusion that Christians have made much ado about sex but are becoming slow and lax about marriage—that more significant, enduring witness to Christ's sacrificial love for his bride. Americans are taking flight from marriage. We are marrying later, if at all, and having fewer children.
Demographers call it the second demographic transition. In societies like ours that exhibit lengthy economic prosperity, men and women alike begin to lose motivation to marry and have children, and thus avoid one or both. Pragmatically, however, the institution of marriage remains a foundational good for individuals and communities. It is by far the optimal context for child-rearing. Married people accumulate more wealth than people who are single or cohabiting. Marriage consolidates expenses—like food, child care, electricity, and gas—and over the life course drastically reduces the odds of becoming indigent or dependent on the state.
It is, however, an institution under extreme duress in America. In the past 35 years, the number of independent female households in the U.S. has grown by 65 percent, while the share of independent male households has skyrocketed, leaping 120 percent. As a result, fewer than half of all American households today are made up of married couples.
Another indicator of our shifting sentiment about the institution is the median age at first marriage, which has risen from 21 for women and 23 for men in 1970 to where it stands today: 26 for women and 28 for men, the highest figures since the Census Bureau started collecting data about it. That's five additional, long years of peak sexual interest and fertility. (And remember, those numbers are medians: for every man marrying at 22, there's one marrying for the first time at 34.)
Evangelicals tend to marry slightly earlier than other Americans, but not by much. Many of them plan to marry in their mid-20s.Yet waiting for sex until then feels far too long to most of them. And I am suggesting that when people wait until their mid-to-late 20s to marry, it is unreasonable to expect them to refrain from sex. It's battling our Creator's reproductive designs. The data don't lie. Our sexual behavior patterns—the kind I documented in 2007 in Forbidden Fruit—give us away. Very few wait long for sex. Meanwhile, women's fertility is more or less fixed, yet Americans are increasingly ignoring it during their 20s, only to beg and pray to reclaim it in their 30s and 40s.
Where Are All the Christian Men?
Unfortunately, American evangelicals have another demographic concern: The ratio of devoutly Christian young women to men is far from even. Among evangelical churchgoers, there are about three single women for every two single men. This is the elephant in the corner of almost every congregation—a shortage of young Christian men.
Try counting singles in your congregation next Sunday. Evangelicals make much of avoiding being unequally yoked, but the fact that there are far more spiritually mature young women out there than men makes this bit of advice difficult to follow. No congregational program or men's retreat in the Rocky Mountains will solve this. If she decides to marry, one in three women has no choice but to marry down in terms of Christian maturity. Many of the hopeful ones wait, watching their late 20s and early 30s arrive with no husband. When the persistent longing turns to deep disappointment, some decide that they didn't really want to marry after all.
Given this unfavorable ratio, and the plain fact that men are, on average, ready for sex earlier in relationships than women are, many young Christian women are being left with a dilemma: either commence a sexual relationship with a decent, marriage-minded man before she would prefer to—almost certainly before marriage—or risk the real possibility that, in holding out for a godly, chaste, uncommon man, she will wait a lot longer than she would like. Plenty will wait so long as to put their fertility in jeopardy. By that time, the pool of available men is hardly the cream of the crop—and rarely chaste. I know, I know: God has someone in mind for them, and it's just a matter of time before they meet. God does work miracles. But the fact remains that there just aren't as many serious Christian young men as there are women, and the men know it.
Men get the idea that they can indeed find the ideal woman if they are patient enough. Life expectancies nearing 80 years prompt many to dabble with relationships in their 20s rather than commit to a life of "the same thing" for such a long time. Men have few compelling reasons to mature quickly. Marriage seems an unnecessary risk to many of them, even Christians. Sex seldom requires such a steep commitment.
As a result, many men postpone growing up. Even their workplace performance is suffering: earnings for 25- to 34-year-old men have fallen by 20 percent since 1971, even after accounting for inflation. No wonder young women marry men who are on average at least two years older than they. Unfortunately, a key developmental institution for men—marriage—is the very thing being postponed, thus perpetuating their adolescence.
Still, the data from nearly every survey suggest that young Americans want to get married. Eventually. That makes sense. Our Creator clearly intended for male and female to be knit together in covenantal relationship. An increasing number of men and women, however, aren't marrying. They want to. But it's not happening. And yet in surveying this scene, many Christians continue to perceive a sexual crisis, not a marital one. We buy, read, and pass along books about battling our sexual urges, when in fact we are battling them far longer than we were meant to. How did we misdiagnose this?
The answer is pretty straightforward: While our sexual ideals have remained biblical and thus rooted in marriage, our ideas about marriage have changed significantly. For all the heated talk and contested referendums about defending marriage against attempts to legally redefine it, the church has already ceded plenty of intellectual ground in its marriage-mindedness. Christian practical ethics about marriage—not the ones expounded on in books, but the ones we actually exhibit—have become a nebulous hodgepodge of pragmatic norms and romantic imperatives, few of which resemble anything biblical.
Unfortunately, many Christians cannot tell the difference. Much about evangelical marital ethics is at bottom therapeutic: since we are pro-family, we are sure that a happy marriage is a central source of human contentment, and that romantic love is the key gauge of its health. While our marriage covenants are strengthened by romance, the latter has no particular loyalty to the former.
Our personal feelings may lead us out of a marriage as quickly as they lead us into one. As a result, many of us think about marriage much like those outside the church—as a capstone that completes the life of the autonomous self. We claim to be better promise keepers, but our vision of what marriage means is not all that unique. When did this all change?
The shift has gone largely unnoticed over the past half-century. As we finally climb toward multigenerational economic success, we advise our children to finish their education, to launch their careers, and to become financially independent, since dependence is weakness. "Don't rush into a relationship," we caution them. "Hold out for a spouse who displays real godliness." "First loves aren't likely the best fit." "You have plenty of time!" we now remind them. "Don't bank on a mate." Even those who successfully married young now find themselves dispensing such parental wisdom with little forethought.
As a result, many young adults sense that putting oneself in the trust of another person so soon may be foolish and risky. Many choose to wait out the risk—sometimes for years—to see how a relationship will fare before committing. (We seem to have lost our ability to shame men for such incessant delays.) Consequently, the focus of 20-somethings has become less about building mature relationships and fulfilling responsibilities, and more about enjoying oneself, traveling, and trying on identities and relationships. After all the fun, it will be time to settle down and get serious.
Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed. Increasing numbers of young evangelicals think likewise, and, by integrating these ideas with the timeless imperative to abstain from sex before marriage, we've created a new optimal life formula for our children: Marriage is glorious, and a big deal. But it must wait. And with it, sex. Which is seldom as patient.
Objections to Young Marriage
Now let's have a dose of that pragmatic reasoning, because there are some good reasons to avoid marrying young. Indeed, studies continue to show that early marriage is the number one predictor of divorce. So why on earth would I want to consider such a disastrous idea that flies in the face of the evidence? Two reasons:
First, what is deemed "early marriage" by researchers is commonly misunderstood. The most competent evaluations of early marriage and divorce note that the association between early age-at-marriage and divorce occurs largely among those who marry as teenagers (before age 20). Although probably all of us know successful examples of such marriages, I still don't think teen marriage is wise. But the data suggest that marriages that commence in the early 20s are not as risky—especially for women—as conventional wisdom claims.
Second, the age at which a person marries never causes divorce. Rather, a young age-at-marriage is an indicator of an underlying proclivity for marital problems, the kind most Christian couples learn to avoid or solve without parting. Family scholars agree that there are several roots to the link between age-at-marriage and divorce. I consider five of them here, together with some practical ways that parents, friends, and the church can work to turn such weaknesses into strengths.
(1) Economic insecurity: Marrying young can spell poverty, at least temporarily. Yet the mentality that we need to shield young adults from the usual struggles of life by encouraging them to delay marriage until they are financially secure usually rests on an unrealistic standard of living. Good marriages grow through struggles, including economic ones. My wife and I are still fiscal conservatives because of our early days of austerity.
Nevertheless, the economic domain remains an area in which many parents are often able, but frequently unwilling, to assist their children. Many well-meaning parents use their resources as a threat, implying that if their children marry before the age at which their parents socially approve, they are on their own. No more car insurance. No help with tuition. No more rent.
This doesn't sound very compassionate toward marriage—or toward family members. This is, however, a two-way street: many young adults consider it immature or humiliating to rely on others for financial or even social support. They would rather deal with sexual guilt—if they sense any at all—than consider marrying before they think they are ready. This cultural predilection toward punishing rather than blessing marriage must go, and congregations and churchgoers can help by dropping their own punitive positions toward family members, as well as by identifying deserving young couples who could use a little extra help once in a while. Christians are great about supporting their missionaries, but in this matter, we can be missionaries to the marriages in our midst.
(2) Immaturity: Even if economic security is not a concern, immaturity and naïveté often characterize young marriages. While unlearning self-centeredness and acquiring a sacrificial side aren't easy at any age, naïveté may actually benefit youth, since preferences and habits ingrained over years of single life often are not set aside easily. Let's face it: Young adults are inexperienced, but they are not intrinsically incompetent at marriage. So they need, of course, the frank guidance of parents, mentors, and Christian couples.
Women, however, do tend to exhibit greater maturity earlier than men. As a result, it shouldn't surprise us when a young woman falls in love with someone three, five, even ten years her senior. Indeed, two of the finest marriages I've recently witnessed exhibit nearly a dozen years' difference between husband and wife. While there are unwise ages to marry, there is no right age for which we must make our children wait. Indeed, age integration is one of the unique hallmarks of the institutional church, tacitly contesting the strict age-separation patterns that have long characterized American schools and universities.
One common way that immaturity reveals itself is when parents or children make marriage into another form of social competition or sibling rivalry. Modern adolescence and young adulthood read like one contest after another: the race to win in sports, to get good grades, to attend a prestigious college, to attract the best-looking person, to secure that coveted job. Where does it end? Not with marriage. Even college students who wish to marry are painfully (or proudly) aware of the "ring by spring" competition. Marriage becomes equated with beautiful, successful people. Weddings become expensive displays of personal and family status. Clergy often get caught in the middle of this, and feel powerless to contest it. My father, a minister, told me that he'd rather "bury people than marry people."
Such is the pressure cooker of modern weddings. None of this is good. Marriage is too important and too serious to be treated as yet another game to play, with winners and losers. It's a covenant of mutual submission and sacrificial love, not a contest of prestige, social norms, and saving face. A trend toward more modest weddings would be a great start.
(3) A Poor Match: Marrying early can mean a short search process, which elevates the odds of a poorer match. In the age of online dating personality algorithms and matches (see "Restless, Reformed, and Single," page 28), Americans have become well acquainted with the cultural notion that getting the right fit in a marital partner is extremely important. Chemistry is the new watchword as we meld marriage with science. Should opposites attract? Or should we look for common interests?
There is no right answer to such questions, because successful marriages are less about the right personalities than about the right practices, like persistent communication and conflict resolution, along with the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much about marriage, and a bedrock commitment to its sacred unity. Indeed, marriage research confirms that couples who view their marriages as sacred covenants are far better off than those who don't.
Toward this end, pastors, premarital counselors, and Christian friends must be free to speak frankly into the lives of those seeking their counsel about marriage. While it may be nice to find an optimal match in marriage, it cannot hold a candle to sharing a mental and spiritual commitment to the enduring covenant between God, man, and woman. It just can't. People change. Chemistry wanes. Covenants don't.
(4) Marrying for Sex: One byproduct of the abstinence culture is that some marry early simply for the promise of long-awaited, guilt-free sex. After all, Paul told us that it's better to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7). And modern America certainly bears a striking resemblance to Corinth, whose church was confused about what to do with marriage. Its people were delaying marriage, just like we are. Yet in our culture of shallow marriages and easy divorce, marrying simply for the lure of sex is not what Paul had in mind. He reminded the Corinthians—and us—of the only two callings for believers in this matter: a season or lifetime of singleness, or marriage. In other words, our freedom to serve as singles or our submission as married people is never intended to be about us. It's about God. While I certainly understand the biological urge to mate, we need to remind young adults that values like generosity, courage, dependability, compassion, and godliness live on far longer than do high testosterone and estrogen levels. Simply put, family and friends ought to do their best to help young couples discern whether there is more to their love than sexual desire.
(5) Unrealistic expectations: Today's young adults show tremendous optimism about their own personal futures, leading many to sense they are entitled to a great marriage that will commence according to plan, on their timetable. Unfortunately, marital life often ends up looking different from what they had anticipated. Marriage is a remarkable institution in many ways, but it cannot bear all of the unrealistic expectations that we moderns have heaped upon it.
So enough of the honeymoon banter: insiders know that a good marriage is hard work, and that its challenges often begin immediately. The abstinence industry perpetuates a blissful myth; too much is made of the explosively rewarding marital sex life awaiting abstainers. The fact is that God makes no promises of great sex to those who wait. Some experience difficult marriages. Spouses wander. Others cannot conceive children.
In reality, spouses learn marriage, just like they learn communication, child-rearing, or making love. Unfortunately, education about marriage is now sadly perceived as self-obvious, juvenile, or feminine, the domain of disparaged home economics courses. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In sum, Christians need to get real about marriage: it's a covenant helpmate thing that suffers from too much idealism and too little realism.Weddings may be beautiful, but marriages become beautiful. Personal storytelling and testimonies can work wonders here, since so much about life is learned behavior. Young adults want to know that it's possible for two fellow believers to stay happy together for a lifetime, and they need to hear how the generations preceding them did it.
Enduring Gospel Witness
Abstinence is not to blame for our marital crisis. But promoting it has come at a cost in a permissive world in which we are increasingly postponing marriage. While I am no fan of the demographic realities I outlined earlier, one thing I will remember is that while sex matters, marriage matters more. The importance of Christian marriage as a symbol of God's covenantal faithfulness to his people—and a witness to the future union of Christ and his bride—will only grow in significance as the wider Western culture diminishes both the meaning and actual practice of marriage. Marriage itself will become a witness to the gospel.
Romantic relationship formation is what I study. I've spoken with hundreds of young adults about not only what they think or hope for, but also what they actually do. Time and again, I've listened to Christian undergraduates recount to me how their relationships turned sexual. One thing I never ask them is why. I know why. Because sex feels great, it feels connectional, it feels deeply human. I never blame them for wanting that. Sex is intended to deepen personal relationships, and desire for it is intended to promote marriage. Such are the impulses of many young Christians in love. In an environment where parents and peers are encouraging them to delay thoughts of marriage, I'm not surprised that their sexuality remains difficult to suppress and the source of considerable angst. We would do well to recognize some of these relationships for what they are: marriages in the making. If a young couple displays maturity, faith, fidelity, a commitment to understanding marriage as a covenant, and a sense of realism about marriage, then it's our duty—indeed, our pleasure—to help them expedite the part of marriage that involves public recognition and celebration of what God is already knitting together. We ought to "rejoice and delight" in them, and praise their love (Song of Sol. 1:4).
Mark Regnerus, Ph.D., is the author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2007). He's an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, where he lives with his wife, Deeann, and their three children.
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Forbidden Fruit is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
This story was posted with "Restless, Reformed, and Single." Christianity Today will also post three responses to "The Case for Early Marriage" on Monday.
Previous Christianity Today articles about singleness, chastity, or marriage include:
My Top Five Books on Marriage | By Charles W. Tackett, CEO of PursuingHeart.com (May 7, 2009)
Choosing Celibacy | How to stop thinking of singleness as a problem. (September 12, 2008)
Practicing Chastity | A lifelong spiritual discipline for singles and marrieds. Lauren F. Winner reviews Dawn Eden's The Thrill of the Chaste. (March 15, 2007)
30 and Single? It's Your Own Fault | There are more unmarried people in our congregations than ever, and some say that's just sinful. (June 21, 2006)
Sex in the Body of Christ | Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church. (May 13, 2005)
Reflections: Sex, Love, and Marriage | Quotations to stir the heart and mind (February 1, 2003)
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