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definition - premarital sex

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Premarital sex


Premarital sex is sexual activity practiced by persons who are unmarried. Historically it has been considered taboo in some cultures and religions.



Until the 1950s,[1] the term "pre-marital sex" referred to sexual relations between two people prior to marrying each other.[2] During that period, Western societies expected that men and women marry by the age of 21 or 22; as such, there were no considerations that one who had sex would not marry. The term was used instead of fornication, due to the negative connotations of the latter.[1]

The meaning has since shifted, referring to all sexual relations a person has prior to marriage; this removes emphasis on who the relations are with.[2] The definition has a degree of ambiguity. It is not clear whether sex between individuals legally forbidden from marrying, or the sexual relations of one uninterested in marrying could be considered premarital.[1]

Alternative terms for pre-marital sex have been suggested, including non-marital sex (which overlaps with adultery), youthful sex, adolescent sex, and young-adult sex. These terms also suffer from a degree of ambiguity, as the definition of having sex differs from person to person.[1]

  Historical Background

In the English-speaking part of Christendom, sex before marriage became taboo from the implementation of the Hardwicke Marriage Act in 1753.[3] This was in spite of there being "nothing said about premarital sex in the New Testament."[4][5]

The fact that this is not mentioned may seem strange in light of the fact that passages in the New Testament dealing with sexuality in general are quite extensive. Subjects include: the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15), sexual immorality, divine love (1 Corinthians 13), mutual self-giving (1 Corinthians 7), bodily membership between Christ and between husband and wife (1 Corinthians 6:15-20) and honor versus dishonor of adultery.(Hebrews 13:4) Even with the large number of Bible passages that address issues of sexuality, interpretation of these verses can vary. The issue of premarital sex is a good example of how the same verse can be viewed in different ways. In modern English, fornication typically refers to voluntary sexual intercourse between persons not married to each other. Given that modern definition, a verse that condemns fornication (such as 1 Corinthians 6:9 which is often cited by conservative denominations as biblical opposition to pre-marital sex) would appear to be clear. However, in the New Testament, fornication is the word used to translate the Koine Greek word porneia into English. In Ancient Greek, the word porneia meant "illicit sex" or "illegal sex". Early Christians interpreted this word to encompass activities such as incest and bestiality. Modern-day fundamentalists tend to prefer the definition of premarital sex, or will even choose to broaden the term to also include activities such as masturbation and pornography, while progressive and mainstream Christians tend to limit the interpretation of the word to illegal sexual activities such as incest, bestiality and pedophilia.

After World War II, divergence in Christian teaching on sexuality accelerated. Today, most mainstream and progressive Christians around the world affirm that the teachings against premarital sex arose erroneously due to a man-made law (the Hardwicke Act), or that they applied only in some cultural contexts. By contrast, Christian fundamentalist groups, most of which originate from the United States, hold onto the idea that premarital sex is sinful.

  Cultural Views


Prior to the Marriage Act 1753, sex before the public marriage ceremony was the norm in the Anglican Church; with the act in force, for the first time in British history, all marriages in England and Wales had to occur in their parish church. (The law also applied to Catholics, but Jews and Quakers were exempt.) Before its enactment, couples lived and slept together after their betrothal or "the spousals", which were considered a legal marriage. Until the mid-1700s, it was normal and acceptable for the bride to be pregnant at the nuptials, the later public ceremony for the marriage. The Marriage Act combined the spousals and nuptials and, by the start of the 19th century, social convention prescribed that brides be virgins at marriage. Illegitimacy became more socially discouraged, with first pregnancies outside of marriage declining from 40% to 20% during the Victorian era but returning to 40% by the start of the 21st century.[6]

The 1984 Anglican booklet Foreward to Marriage was also tolerant of premarital sex but strongly endorsed marriage as "a necessary commitment for a long-term relationship".[7]

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, commenting on Prince William and Kate Middleton's decision to live together before their wedding, said that the royal couple's public commitment to live their lives together today would be more important than their past. Sentamu said that he had conducted wedding services for “many cohabiting couples” during his time as a vicar in south London and that "We are living at a time where some people, as my daughter used to say, want to test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow".

He also said, "For some people, that’s where their journeys are. But what is important, actually, is not to simply look at the past because they are going to be standing in the Abbey taking these wonderful vows: "for better for worse; for richer for poorer; in sickness and in health; till death us do part"."[8]

  United States

During the colonial period, premarital sex was publicly frowned upon but privately condoned to an extent. Unmarried teenagers were often allowed to spend the night in bed together, though some measures such as bundling were sometimes attempted to prevent sexual intercourse. Even though premarital sex was somewhat condoned, having a child outside of wedlock was not. If a pregnancy resulted from premarital sex, the young couple were expected to marry. Marriage and birth records from the late 1700s reveal that between 30 to 40 percent of New England brides were pregnant before marriage.[9]

Historically, at least a significant portion of people have engaged in premarital sex, although the number willing to admit to having done so was not always high. In a study conducted in the United States, 61 percent of men and 12 percent of women born prior to 1910 admitted to having premarital sex; the gender disparity may have been caused by cultural double standards regarding the admission of sexual activity or by men frequenting prostitutes.[1]

Starting in the 1920s, and especially after World War II, premarital sex became more common; this was especially prevalent among women. By the end of the 20th century, between 75 and 80 percent of Americans had vaginal intercourse before the age of 19. This has been attributed to numerous causes, including the increasing median age at marriage and the widespread availability of efficient contraceptives.[1]

The growing popularity of the automobile and corresponding changes in dating practices also caused premarital sex to become more prevalent. Alfred Kinsey found that American women who became sexually mature during the 1920s were much less likely to be virgins at marriage than those who became mature before World War I. A majority of women during the 1920s under the age of 30 were nonetheless virgins at marriage, however; and, half of those who were not virgins only had sex with their fiances.[10] A 1938 survey of American college students found that 52% of men and 24% of women had had sex. 37% of women were virgins but believed sex outside marriage was acceptable.[11] Prior to the middle of the 20th century, sexuality was generally restricted. Sexual interactions between people without plans to marry was considered unacceptable, with betrothal slightly lessening the stigma. However, premarital sex was still frowned upon.[1]

Beginning in the 1950s, the stigma attached to pre-marital sex diminished. Love began to become enough for a reason to practice sex, instead of marriage or engagement. By 2000, roughly a third of couples in the United States had lived together prior to marriage. Premarital sex has become, if not acceptable, tolerable.[1]

In a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study of US teenagers, 29% of teens reported feeling pressure to have sex, 33% of sexually active teens reported "being in a relationship where they felt things were moving too fast sexually", and 24% had "done something sexual they didn’t really want to do".[12] Several polls have indicated peer pressure as a factor in encouraging both girls and boys to have sex.[13][14] The increased sexual activity among adolescents is manifested in increased teenage pregnancies and an increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

An Episcopal Church report published in 1995 entitled Continuing the Dialogue, A Pastoral Study Document of the House of Bishops to the Church as the Church Considers Issues of Human Sexuality noted, in reference to the Song of Songs that "in praise of sexual love, celebrating youthful passion, with no reference to marriage.... It affirms that sexual love is in itself good and beneficial."[15]

By 2011, "roughly 85% of the American population... approve[d] of premarital sex." [16]


According to the 2003 Australian Study of Health and Relationships conducted by La Trobe University, "over three quarters of men and women agreed that premarital sex is acceptable. There was little difference between men and women."[17]

By 2011, a survey of 500 parents found 80 per cent thought sex before marriage was acceptable. "The survey, which was conducted by TV station SBS, also found almost one in five parents thought it was acceptable for young people to start having sex at age 16."[18]

A 1987 study looked at premarital sex norms imposed on female Aboriginal Australians.[19]


By 2007, according to a Roman Catholic website, "France has probably the highest rate of premarital sex by age 20 of any country in the world: 72% or almost three quarters of the young population."[20]

  French Polynesia

Traditionally, "Polynesian societies condoned premarital sexual expression, access to partners was strictly structured. Gregersen (1983), for example, reported that on the island of Raroia in the Tuamotu Archipelago, there were only 109 people in 1951. Such a small population meant that seven of the nine women of marriageable age were prohibited from having sexual partners because of incest regulations. In the neighboring atoll of Tepuka in the 1930s, the young people were all related and had to journey to other islands or await the arrival of visitors to find a partner... Among traditional French Polynesian societies, and for Polynesia generally, there were two standards for premarital sex that varied by status and rank, according to Davenport (1976). For example, among the Tahitians, firstborn daughters in lineages of firstborns were very sacred. As a consequence, their virginity was valued and protected until a marriage with a partner of suitably high status was arranged. Among these elite daughters, virginity was demonstrated, for example, by the display of a stained white bark cloth following coitus. Subsequent to the birth of their firstborn child, females of high rank were permitted to establish extramarital liaisons. On Pukapuka, according to Marshall Sahlins (1967), the chief kept a sacred virgin in his retinue as a symbol of his spiritual power."[21]


A 1998 study conducted by the University of California-Irvine indicates that the "Japanese frequently answered the question on premarital sex as wrong only sometimes, a unique response. This might be interpreted that the Japanese are favorable to premarital sex as long as it is done discreetly and does not interfere with one's social responsibilities. Also the Japanese tend not to choose extreme response categories."[22]


For the Muria people of Madhya Pradesh, sexuality prior to marriage is accepted and at times expected.[1]

  Other Countries

According to the 1998 study by the University of California-Irvine, "Premarital sex was the most accepted of these four types of nonmarital sex. On average, 61% of respondents across 24 countries agreed that premarital sex is not wrong at all. On the other hand, only 7% of respondents across the 24 countries agreed that there is nothing wrong at all with teenagers younger than 16 having sex. The countries most tolerant of both premarital and under 16 sex were East Germany, West Germany, Austria, Sweden and Slovenia. The most sexually conservative country on all four questions was the Philippines. Five other countries considered sexually conservative were the USA, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Poland."[23]

According to a 2001 UNICEF survey, in 10 out of 12 developed nations with available data, more than two thirds of young people have had sexual intercourse while still in their teens. In Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, the proportion is over 80%. In Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, approximately 25% of 15 year olds and 50% of 17 year olds have had sex.[24]


Physically, premarital sex poses the same risks as post-marital sex. It can be a disease vector, transmitting chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, HIV and other such diseases.[25] There is also a risk of an unplanned pregnancy in heterosexual relationships.[26]

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