We undress why. Like other believers she knew growing up, Maria Kearn* planned to save sex for marriage. She made it through high school with her virginity intact, but when she was 20 she started having sex with her college boyfriend.
“It seemed everyone in my life, older and younger, had ʻdone it,ʼ ”Kearn says. “In fact, I waited longer than most people I knew and longer than both of my sisters, even though we were all Christians and came from a good home.”
Kearn continued to have sex with her college boyfriend for years as they maintained an on-again/off -again relationship. “I was so hooked on him that it took me too long to ﬁnally break up with him,” Kearn says. “The straw that broke the camelʼs back was that I came down with HPV, highlighting the fact that even though I was only with him, he [had been with] other people.”
Stories like this arenʼt often heard in church, but that doesnʼt mean they arenʼt common. In fact, a recent study reveals that 88 percent of unmarried young adults (ages 18-29) are having sex. The same study, conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, reveals the number doesnʼt drop much among Christians. Of those surveyed who self-identify as “evangelical,” 80 percent say they have had sex.
So much for true love waits.
Whatever Happened to Abstinence?
Apparently, the concept still exists even if few are following it.
Dr. Jenell Williams Paris, an anthropologist and the author of The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Deﬁne Who We Are, says the high rates of premarital sex are a call to the Church to live in reality.
“We need to talk to people as they really live in the world they really live in,” Paris says. “If rates of premarital sex are really that high, but we continue to talk as if the vast majority of people are virgins when they get married, weʼre out of touch. We need to address reality.”
And the reality is the numbers arenʼt going down. Of those 80 percent of Christians in the 18-29 age range who have had sex before marriage, 64 percent have done so within the last year and 42 percent are in a current sexual relationship.
In addition to having premarital sex, an alarming number of unmarried Christians are getting pregnant. Among unmarried evangelical women between the ages of 18 and 29, 30 percent have experienced a pregnancy (a number thatʼs actually 1 percent higher than among those who donʼt claim to be evangelical).
According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of all pregnancies in America are unintended. And of those, 40 percent end in abortion. More than 1 million abortions occur in the United States each year. But perhaps the most disturbing statistic for the Church: 65 percent of the women obtaining abortions identify themselves as either Protestant or Catholic (37 percent Protestant and 28 percent Catholic). Thatʼs 650,000 abortions obtained by Christians every year.
The pregnancy stats are shocking to many—and the abortion stats horrifying— but the root problem is the willingness to have sex before marriage. Without sex, pregnancies and abortions donʼt happen.
If abstinence messages were actually working—and this generation of Christians was genuinely committed to saving sex for marriage—then the other issues would dwindle considerably.
If this generation wants to reverse the trend and reduce the number of Christians having premarital sex, the ﬁrst step is trying to ﬁgure out why so few are waiting.
Why Waiting Is So Hard
The mediaʼs marketing of sex, the cultural endorsement of the “do what feels good” mentality, the prevalence of pornography and the widespread misunderstanding of sex that prompts people to chase after love and acceptance in unhealthy physical relationships are all factors that make it difﬁcult to practice chastity. The reality is chastity is not the norm. And such a discipline is certainly not easy.
Godʼs picture of sex and marriage is certainly a beautiful one, but itʼs also … old. Biblical times were a lot different than current times. Is such a picture still relevant?
Scot McKnight, author of One.Life and professor in religious studies at North Park University in Chicago, is aware of the difﬁculties facing unmarried Christians and the shifts in the “reality” of living chastely.
“Sociologically speaking, the one big difference—and itʼs monstrous— between the biblical teaching and our culture is the arranged marriages of very young people. If you get married when youʼre 13, you donʼt have 15 years of temptation.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age for ﬁrst marriages for both men and women has been increasing for the last 45 years. In 1965, the average man ﬁrst married at age 22.8; the average woman, 20.6. In 2010, the average age was 28.1 for men and 26.1 for women.
Abstinence messages have often been geared toward teenagers, but as the average marrying age creeps closer to 30, the time period when Christians are called to be chaste can easily extend a decade beyond their high school graduation—or much longer. So what does abstinence look like as Christians “grow up” and enter the real world but are still single?
“Itʼs absolutely not realistic,” McKnight continues. “But itʼs also not realistic not to do a lot of things, and that doesnʼt mean the Bible doesnʼt tell us the ideal and design of God is to not have premarital sex.”
As young Christians mature into their 20s, itʼs natural for them to reevaluate their beliefs as they strive to ﬁgure out how faith ﬁts into their expanding worldview. If they determine they can drink responsibly and watch movies and listen to music with a discerning spirit, is it possible the “donʼt do it because itʼs wrong” message gets tossed aside along with all those other “legalistic” messages of youth? That they start to believe they can also have sex “with discernment”?
“We have to recognize that people are not married during the years when their hormones are hardest to control,” McKnight says. “So weʼre dealing with a very serious issue that needs to be treated from a variety of angles and not simply the moral angle that itʼs wrong outside of marriage.”
McKnight also wonders if part of the problem is a devaluing of marriage. If young Christians no longer deem marriage a worthwhile endeavor—or see it as a temporary thing (proven to them by the brevity of their parentsʼ marriages and the prevalence of divorce in Western culture), then sex within marriage certainly loses some of its profundity—and sacredness.
“I think churches need to value marriage so highly that they teach the meaning of love and marriage on a regular basis,” McKnight says. “The Church needs to encourage and prepare people for marriage, but they need to do this without offending people who choose to remain single and people who are single who donʼt want to be single. I donʼt think the reason to get married earlier is to avoid temptation for sex or to avoid abortions, but simply because itʼs a good thing. If we valued marriage higher, I think we would have more people getting married earlier.”
Itʼs Possible (No, Really)
If the statistics are correct and 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals between the ages of 18-29 have already had sex, then what does this mean for the majority of Christians in their 20s? If chastity is understood as “one strike and youʼre out,” what hope is there for the large percentage of Christians who have essentially “failed” by having sex outside of marriage?
“I absolutely think we should encourage ʻrenewed abstinence,ʼ” says Joanna Hyatt, the director of Reality Check (Los Angeles), a sexual and relational health education program that promotes sexual integrity. “You cannot talk about sex within the Christian community without also [mentioning] Godʼs grace. If weʼre serious about people growing in their faith, we have to help them see this issue will stand in the way of their relationship with God, but it doesnʼt have to keep them from God.
“Renewed abstinence is a way to make a stand, to commit again to living a life of purity in body, heart and mind. There may be consequences youʼll have to deal with from past decisions, but those decisions do not deﬁne who you will be going forward or the nature of your relationships.”
In spite of the discouraging statistics, Hyatt knows itʼs possible to wait for marriage.
“Having lived through it myself, I can actually say it can be done, but it will take work,” Hyatt says. “[Abstinence] is incredibly difﬁcult—and itʼs a decision you have to proactively make every day. For couples in serious relationships, it means not letting down your guard, remembering that temptation gets stronger and being smart about how you handle your relationship. No one, and I mean no one, is exempt from sexual temptation once theyʼre in a relationship, which is why it is so important to have clear physical boundaries, to have accountability with people youʼll actually be honest with and to regularly remind yourselves why it is youʼve chosen to wait.”
Giving the Abstinence Message a Makeover
Everyone knows we live in a hyper-sexualized society where sex is constantly available—online if not in person—but the idea of chastity has become even more complicated by a shifting deﬁnition of what sex is.
“Iʼve heard people say oral sex is sex, but it doesnʼt breach virginity,” Paris says. “Even the terms seem to be shifting. And thatʼs not just people trying to get away with sin. I think itʼs [the result of] honest questioning: What does my sexuality mean? What exactly is sex? And as a Christian, what is holiness? Where is that line?”
But when the focus is on “the line,” it becomes easy to lose sight of what it means to be abstinent, to be chaste, to “wait.” Abstinence shouldnʼt be about whatʼs OK to do or how far itʼs possible to go without sinning, but rather it should be about honoring God in all things.
Even though most Christians believe abstinence is the right thing, something needs to change for believers to truly live out their faith and pursue holiness in every area of life—including oneʼs sexuality.