According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes toward premarital sex 38 percent of adults in the US think that premarital sex is always or almost always wrong (note that the question is framed in terms of heterosexual couples only).
I thought this was odd given that a much smaller percentage of people actually do wait until they are married before having sex, so I poked around in some of the charts. In terms of basic demographics, there are predictable differences between people’s attitudes depending on their age group, with older respondents being more likely than younger ones to think that premarital sex is wrong. Other demographic factors that are correlated with a greater likelihood of thinking premarital sex is wrong include income (as income goes up tolerance for premarital sex also goes up) and education (people with more education are less likely to think that premarital sex is wrong), thought the differences are small.
And not surprisingly by far the variable most strongly correlated with a belief that premarital sex is wrong is religious affiliation, but even I was surprised by the numbers. Remember, 38% of all adults surveyed believed that premarital sex between a man and a woman was always or almost always wrong. But when broken down by religious affiliation, only 8% of those who identified as “secular” felt that way, and only 29% of Catholics felt that way. On the other hand, almost half (49%) of Protestants thought that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong.
When Protestants were broken down into White evangelical, White mainline, or Black Protestant groups the differences became even more stark. (And no, I don’t know why they broke white and black protestants down differently, except that perhaps Black Protestant churches are just much more likely to be evangelical than White protestant churches.) In any case, among White evangelicals, 71% said that they thought that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong.
Of course this fits in with the abstinence-only sex ed agenda that has been driven by the white evangelical Christians, but it’s interesting to see the numbers so starkly laid out there. It tells you just what segment of the population those policies appeal to, and it tells you who is left out.
I was thinking about this all the more because of the conflict this must create for people who believe so strongly that sex before marriage is wrong, but then who have it before marriage anyway (because most people do, according to the most recent sex research). The feelings of shame and guilt must be tremendous! And then there are the sex scandals that ooze out of the evangelical churches with some regularity. Remember, it isn’t the extramarital sex per se that causes the scandal. It is the apparent hypocrisy that causes the scandal.
And it makes me wonder why it is that that branch of religious folks so vocally and visibly hangs on to a belief that is so extraordinarily hard for so many to live up to.
Because it doesn’t have to be that way even for deeply religious folks. There are coalitions of Christians who believe strongly in their Christian faith but who make room for openness around sexual diversity. I’ve recently learned a little bit about the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, for example. They’re an interfaith organization that works on helping congregations to create sexually healthy environments for their members. They focus on things like sex education, sexual and reproductive health, and gender and sexual diversity. Their web site contains statements like this one, from the Gender and Sexual Diversity page:
“All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.”
“While religious denominations continue to debate issues of sexuality, the silence and condemnation of clergy have led to destroyed relationships, suicidal despair and discrimination and violence against LGBT persons. Denying that God created diversity as a blessing is denying Biblical teaching”
I’m not a religious person, myself, but I’ve often thought that much of what is missing from progressive politics is a recognition of the potential strength of the “religious left.” Just as among conservatives there are different voices (ranging from the free market fiscal conservatives who couldn’t care less about the social issues of the religious conservatives, to the evangelical conservatives whose interests don’t always mesh with the deregulation logic of the fiscal conservatives) on the left there is also a range. But ironically, I think sometimes that the atheists, secular humanists and religious leftists have more in common in terms of their positions on actual issues than do the conservatives. What would happen if the religious left could really tap into the same kind of political power than the religious conservatives have tapped into? What if the religious left could motivate the same kind of voter turnout and political urgency? Would the rest of us on the left support them? Would we see our interests as at all in line with theirs?
It gives me hope that deeply religious folks can be allies in the fight for sexual freedom and sexual justice.
(Note: This is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org — check out our community-building site!)