Does anybody still have premarital sex?
It sounds like a crazy question, in a country where 40 percent of births in 2010 were out of wedlock. But 2011′s Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, And Think About Marrying, by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, begins by noting that the common meaning of their title has shifted since the early twentieth century. Back then premarital sex was often expected to be pre-marital: You’d met your future spouse, but were feeling a little more hasty than wise. Nowadays when unmarried people have sex it seems like their coupling is simply non-marital, unrelated to the prospect of future marriage.
I’ve written about Regnerus and Uecker’s illuminating book twice before: here and here. They do an excellent job of laying out the “scripts” which now govern sexual decision-making for most young adults. In this post I’ll focus on just two aspects of their message.
First, they show that marriage still has a strong hold on the minds of unmarried young adults—but it influences their behavior in unexpected ways.
One of the less-recognized core purposes of marriage is to structure the sexual behavior of the unmarried. In the past it may have been easier to see this structuring, since the basic message was, “Don’t do it until you’re married.”
But even today the prospect of marriage shapes young adults’ sexual behavior—it’s just that the shape has been turned inside-out. Instead of waiting until marriage, you’re supposed to try a few different sexual partners. You prepare for marriage not through chastity but through sexual variety.
If you’ve only had sex with one person, getting engaged to that person is often seen as a foolish act which you’ll regret—a precursor to divorce. The prudent course is to try a few different people so that you’ll discover what you want and need in a sexual relationship. If you get engaged without even having sex with your future spouse, that’s even more unsafe. What if you’re sexually incompatible? Such incompatibility is considered a sure prelude to divorce, and something which can only be discovered through sex itself.
So what may seem like merely non-marital sex is actually in some sense premarital. Like almost all of the new sexual rules, it’s often an attempt to prevent divorce—though it does a better job of preventing marriage. Regnerus and Uecker draw out the beliefs about the self which shape this ethical norm: for example, the belief that you should only marry when you’re done with “life,” done with change and personal growth.
The second important point is that although Regnerus and Uecker build a strong case that they have discerned many of the underlying foundations of young adults’ sexual ethics, when the people themselves were asked to explain the beliefs behind their sexual choices they found it extraordinarily difficult. Their sentences became garbled and rambling, full of shamefaced backtracking (“It’s one of those things. It’s not, I’m sure I’m just justifying, but it’s something that I’m really, I don’t know, I can’t say for us. I know I’m speaking a horribly illogical argument”) and acknowledged self-contradictions. Donna Freitas found the same phenomenon among the college students she worked with in her 2008 study, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses. These bright, articulate young adults turned into Raymond Carver characters when they were asked to describe the beliefs underlying their sexual behavior—especially how those beliefs related to their religious faith.
Freitas found that students at evangelical Christian colleges were often the exception to the inarticulate rule. Freitas criticized many aspects of Christian college culture, but she was impressed by the degree to which these students, almost alone among their peers, were able to think clearly about the intersection of ethics and desire.
Maybe part of the confusion lies in the way that young adults are trying to be simultaneously religious and satisfied, steadfast and self-actualized, and—most importantly—romantic and practical. For the contemporary can-do American, Eros is the god you can tame.
This post is part of a series by Eve Tushnet about the postnuclear family. Our new family landscape may look chaotic, but the books in this series can help us understand what’s going on with sex, love, and marriage in America.