Nearly every religion teaches the principle of chastity before marriage, but fewer and fewer people are observing it. The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches that "God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife" (¶ 4) and that "children are entitled to birth within the bounds of matrimony" (¶ 7).
In today's American culture, most people consider sex before marriage normal. Movies, television shows, and popular music all reflect this permissive standard. God, however, has not rescinded the strict standard of chastity he taught in the Old and New Testaments. The Proclamation warns that "individuals who violate covenants of chastity . . . will one day stand accountable before God." Further, the Proclamation maintains that sexual permissiveness is a major contributor to the disintegration of the family. That disintegration, the Proclamation warns, "will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets" (¶ 8).
The Proclamation's language may seem sharp to some, perhaps even offensive. But research supports its point of view.
Negative Effects of Premarital Sex and Cohabitation
Americans commonly believe that couples who engage in premarital sex or live together before marriage are more likely to create a successful marriage. In fact, studies show that both those who have sexual experiences before marriage and those who cohabitate are more likely to divorce. Cohabitation in particular is linked to lower marital commitment and a higher divorce rate. Researchers have found no benefits of cohabitation. Some speculate that cohabitation has harmful effects because it teaches a couple they can have the benefits of marriage without full commitment, which in turn fosters a type of independence that is not compatible with a healthy marriage. When the couple marries, it is difficult to unlearn this independence and create a healthy interdependent bond.
Positive Effects of Chastity Before Marriage
Researchers have found that chastity before marriage offers many benefits, including a decreased chance of psychological damage from expressing intimacy without commitment, freedom from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unwanted pregnancies, and an increase in marital stability and satisfaction.
Psychological Dimensions of Sexual Bonding
The basic human need for touch and physical affection is real, but even more important is the basic human need for a loving connection with others. Many people confuse their need for sexual expression with their need for love. If they attempt to connect with another person primarily through sex, chances are high the relationship will eventually deteriorate and leave psychological damage in its wake.
Jess Lair8, a psychologist at Montana State University, explains that sexual experiences can be psychologically significant for individuals: "Sexual bonding includes powerful emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual links that are so strong that the two people become one, at least for a moment. Sexual intercourse is an intense, though brief physical bonding that leaves indelible marks on the participants. . . . To believe one can walk away from a sexual experience untouched is dangerously naïve."
Recent research may have discovered the physiological basis for this deep bonding--a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone is released in both women and men during sexual orgasm. It promotes an attachment between the two individuals that is likely to grow with each sexual exchange. Since most unmarried couples will break up, it is psychologically unsafe for them to engage in sexual activity. Perhaps this is one reason God has benevolently commanded "that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife" (¶ 4).
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
According to the Center for Disease Control2, approximately 333 million new cases of STDs are reported in the world each year. The cost for health care to treat STDs is about $17 billion per year in the United States alone. Anyone who begins a sexual relationship believing "it can't happen to me" risks his or her health--and possibly his or her life.
There are dozens of STDs, some mild and others lethal. Common STDs include syphilis, gonorrhea, pelvic inflammatory disease, genital warts, genital herpes, chlamydia, and AIDS or HIV. A few STDs are particularly dangerous to women. Human papilloma virus, for example, the most common STD in the world, rarely causes symptoms in men but can cause cervical cancer in women. About 99.7 percent of all cervical cancer cases are caused by this STD. In addition, women are much more likely than men to become infected with HIV through heterosexuals.
The best way to ensure you never get and STD is to abstain from sex before marriage and to marry someone who also has abstained.
For a longer discussion of STDs, see the accompanying expanded article.
Unwanted Pregnancies and Abortion
Unwanted pregnancies are a huge problem today, especially among teenagers. The negative effects impact the mother, the child, and society in general.
Children born to unwed mothers have, on average, lower birth weights and more complications at birth. Unwed mothers are more likely to drink alcohol, which can permanently damage their babies. Single mothers and their children are more likely to live in poverty than married women and their children. The children of teenaged mothers are more likely to be incarcerated than children with more mature parents.
In many cases, the double burden of providing both parenting and financial support is too much for one person to handle. Two parents are better able to care for a child than one. Once again, the Proclamation offers wise counsel: “Children are entitled to birth within the bounds of matrimony."
Society, too, pays a huge cost because of unwed pregnancies. Half of our nation’s welfare funding goes to families created by teenaged pregnancies.
Effects of Chastity on Marital Stability and Satisfaction
Couples who remain chaste before marriage report greater satisfaction in their marriages than those who were sexually active before marriage. Their marriages are more stable and more fulfilling. Researchers have even found that couples who did not have sex before marriage report greater sexual fulfillment after marriage than those who had premarital sex.
Teaching Children the Principle of Chastity
Without deliberate counter measures, children will tend to soak up the messages they’re getting from all quarters that sex before marriage is normal and acceptable. Thus parents must make a concerted effort to teach their children there is a better way. Here are some practical ideas to help you in this effort:
- Be open, honest, and unembarrassed about sex. Respond to questions about sex--no matter how blunt--rationally, calmly, and accurately. Know well the physical elements of human sexuality and teach children the correct names for body parts. If your children feel confident that you will talk to them openly about the physical aspects of sex, they will be more likely to talk without about the emotional dimensions.
- Communicate that sex is a sacred act between husband and wife. Parents ‘sexual values are likely to be held by their children, especially if parents talk about their values. What you have to say on this subject will be much more meaningful to your children than anything they hear from others.
- Be aware of myths about sex and teach them to your children. Teens need to know that sex is not the same thing as intimacy. True intimacy occurs only in an enduring, committed relationship and involves relating with another person emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Teens need to know that sex will never hold a troubled relationship together. It cannot cure loneliness, doesn't make anyone popular, and won't make anyone feel better about himself or herself.
- Teach children about chastity when they are young. Teach children early about human sexuality and intimacy. Exactly what age is appropriate depends on an individual child's maturity and what questions he or she asks. But don’t wait until the media, schoolmates, and others start leaving their imprint. Teach your children before they become too acquainted with the world's views. Values carefully instilled at an early age are likely to have protective power later on, especially as adolescent hormones begin to kick in.
- Be warm and loving. Children need loving, warm acceptance from their parents. Some youth seek sexual intimacy as a way to feel loved if they're not getting those feelings at home. The need for love and touch varies at different ages and stages. For example, infants need continual affectionate contact. Older children appreciate hugs, kisses, gentle touch, warm conversation, and being told "I love you." When children feel the love of their parents, they are less likely to seek its counterfeits elsewhere.
- Set clear rules. As a family discuss your values about chastity, set dating standards, and come up with strategies for maintaining chastity. Many families find that two rules are particularly effective in helping their children remain chaste: (1) no dating until age 16, and (2) only double dates or group dates until age 18.
- In two-parent families, be loving to your spouse. If your children see you behaving courteously and warmly with your spouse, they will learn the value of affection that is expressed within the boundaries of lifelong commitment.
- Make your home teen-friendly. Teenagers often complain of boredom, and this is an area where you can fill the vacuum with healthy options. Make your home a welcoming place for other teenagers so that your children feel comfortable hanging out with friends within the safety and comfort of your watchful eye. This simple act of opening up your home can make a profound difference in your child's life as you help him or her escape the unchaste behavior many teenagers indulge in because there's "nothing better to do."
- Know your teenagers' friends, their friends' parents, and who your teens are dating. To effectively monitor your teen's activities, you need to conscientiously and fearlessly ask the four W's: Who is your teen with? Where are they going? What will they be doing? When will they be home? Know what's going on in your child's life.
- Encourage independence and self-reliance. Teenagers need to practice independence and decision-making so they will be prepared to make good judgments when they're on their own. If your teenager makes a mistake, forgive him and help him to strategize how he can do better in the future.
- Spend time with your kids. Teenagers (when they're not bored) tend to be constantly on the go. Finding time to keep up your relationship with them can be a daunting challenge. One mother having this difficulty with her 17-year-olddaughter decided that when her daughter was on a date, she would go to sleep on her daughter's bed. When the daughter got home, mother and daughter would talk about the date. Usually it was late and their conversations were short, but sometimes they ended up talking and laughing for hours. Not only was their relationship strengthened, but also the mother was able to make sure her daughter was home safe and on time.
Practical Ideas for Teens and Young Adults
Teenagers and young adults should carefully think through how they intend to behave with members of the opposite sex. They should anticipate what situations might becoming challenging for them and practice strategies for resisting temptation. Here are some practical ideas to help teens remain chaste:
- Determine your standards for behavior with the opposite sex and write them down.
- Share your standards with your family and friends. Ask them for support.
- Choose friends who share your beliefs about chastity. Break off ties with friends who have a more permissive attitude about premarital sex.
- Date only people who share your views about chastity.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs. Indulging in either one makes it much more difficult to maintain your standards.
- Avoid music, TV shows, movies, videos, and magazines that include sexual content or promote premarital sex.
- Don't allow yourself to be alone in an empty house or room with a member of the opposite sex.
- Make friendship, not physical affection, the foundation of all your relationships with the opposite sex.
- When dating, choose activities that are public and productive, such as walking together, biking, bowling, socializing with other friends, etc. As you spend time together in these ways, you will get to know each other better and you will avoid tempting situations.
- Do not participate in any activity you find sexually arousing, such as backrubs, cuddling, and kissing.
Written by Christine Bakker and Jill Cox, Research Assistants, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, and Brigham Young University.
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