How Important Is It To Have Sex Before Marriage?

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In a recent piece on Salon entitled “My Virginity Mistake,” author Jessica Ciencin Henriquez talks about how an abstinence pledge ruined her marriage. In her words: “Without having sex before marriage, I blindly walked up an aisle and committed myself to a man who didn’t know me and gave my long-held virginity to someone with whom I had no more chemistry than a second cousin.” The crux of her piece is that sex is too important to a relationship to save it for the wedding night and that couples need to establish sexual compatibility before tying the knot. In light of this article, I thought it would be worth taking a look at what the science has to say on this topic. Does your sexual satisfaction and chance of relationship success really depend upon when you start having sex?

Earlier this month, I attended a talk at the Midwestern Psychological Association conference about how virginity status at marriage is related to sexual satisfaction [1]. In one of the studies presented, there was no difference in satisfaction between people who got married as virgins and those who had premarital sex. In the other study, there was a small but statistically significant difference such that virgins were somewhat less satisfied (they were still satisfied overall, just slightly less so). Thus, the picture was mixed, but it did not appear to be the case that virgins were inherently unhappy with their sex lives--on average, everyone was pretty satisfied regardless of when they jumped into bed.  

How about the link between virginity status and divorce? I have seen a couple of nationally representative surveys reporting that people who are virgins at marriage actually have longer-lasting relationships than those who have premarital sex (i.e., virgins have a lower likelihood of divorce) [2]. Does this mean that being a virgin at marriage improves your relationship? Not necessarily. And I would be cautious about drawing that conclusion because sexual abstinence is typically confounded with religiosity—and people who are highly religious tend to have more negative attitudes toward divorce. So, it may not be that “saving yourself” makes people’s marriages last longer; rather, it may just be that people who are abstinent until marriage are less likely to feel that divorce is an option because of their religious background. Any way you look at it, given the correlational nature of these data, we just can't draw any definitive conclusions about whether timing of sex causes breakup.

In short, there is no scientific evidence that saving yourself for marriage necessarily results in bad sex and/or a quick divorce, or that premarital sex enhances the relationship. However, we’re dealing with population data here, and what works on an individual level may be very different. What this means is that for some people, waiting until marriage might be the right decision, and for others, establishing sexual compatibility up front may be the best course of action. Couples need to figure this out for themselves. My perspective is that we should avoid telling people what to do with their sex lives because everyone and every relationship is different and sex isn’t equally important to all of us.

I should also say that the physical sex act itself isn’t what makes or breaks a relationship—what matters even more is sexual communication. My feeling is that a lack of communication may have had more to do with the relationship problems Henriquez described in her Salon piece than bad sex. For example, Henriquez talks about how she mentally “checked out” every time they had sex, how she would lie to her partner about what felt good, and how she frequently faked orgasms. She also noted that “I was not a willing student but he was no teacher.” On top of this, she mentioned that she had second thoughts before getting married and felt pressure to go through with it from her parents because they were  spending so much money on the wedding. To me, all of this suggests that this relationship may have been a little rocky from the start. She was getting married for the wrong reasons (i.e., social pressure) and she and her partner did not appear to have strong sexual communication. In other words, perhaps a lack of sexual chemistry wasn't the problem here--maybe the real issue was that they weren't talking, and without communication, the quality of their sex never had a chance to improve. So, rather than holding this story up as an example of the importance of sex before marriage, perhaps we should be holding it up as an example of the importance of sexual communication.

In my view, whether you have sex early or wait is not be as big of a deal as some sex columnists make it out to be. What matters most isn’t when you have sex, but how you approach it. The key is being able to talk about sex and to share your desires so that each of you can maximize your sexual satisfaction and get what you want out of the relationship.

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[1] Klement, K., & Venzke, B. (2013). Abstinence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.

[2] Laumann, E.O., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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