Prudent Premarital Sex

Adults should have sex before they get married, and not just with the people they’re going to marry. Criticisms of the abstinence-only approach to sex ed usually focus on its lack of success. But even if the abstinence-only approach were successful, it would have the drawback of sending young adults into marriage with no sexual experience—not even with one’s spouse-to-be. Let’s agree that it would be better if minors limited themselves to the sorts of sex that don’t risk pregnancy. Even so, adults are well advised to try sex out before committing to a lifelong partner. Abstinence-only sex ed doesn’t prepare people to do so safely.

The social expectation that adults not have sex before marriage has been handed down to us from a time when sexual fulfillment was considered either irrelevant or trivial. In fact, choosing a spouse who would fulfill you personally is a rather new idea, and sexual fulfillment is just part of that package. The tradition of chastity coincides with the tradition of devaluing sexual fulfillment. In Europe, sexual fulfillment was devalued to the point that giving up all sexual fulfillment for a religious life was (and in some places still is) considered exceptionally virtuous. In some African cultures, this tradition takes the extreme form of female genital mutilation, preventing even basic sexual satisfaction for women. On the male side of the equation, any wife a man gets is assumed to be able to serve as a fulfilling sexual partner, either because people are assumed to have vanilla sexual tastes, or because women were expected to conform to whatever the man’s tastes might have been.

But it’s the 21st century, and that’s not how we do things. In addition to all the traits that go into marital compatibility, there’s sexual compatibility. People should know what they’re getting into when they marry. Not only does premarital sex help you get to know your partner, it helps you get to know yourself. Having a variety of sexual partners helps you figure out what you like and what you’re really looking for. Comprehensive education about contraceptives and STD prevention helps people get this experience safely.

Of course, the fundamental motivation behind the abstinence-only approach is faith that premarital sex is against YHWH’s rules. Whether sex before marriage is prudent is not at issue. Either premarital sex is defined as imprudent and not subject to honest debate or prudence is devalued relative to piety. But as long as abstinence-only advocates try to win their case by appeals to reason, reason-based refutations of their position are amusing and perhaps slightly useful.

July 2005