I usually start my day with a cup of hot cocoa and The Washington Post. Last month while reading Carolyn Hax’s weekly advice column, “For the Under-30 Crowd,” I was stunned by her advice to a college student. He was disturbed because his fiancée had slept with several men before meeting the man of her dreams.
“Before we were together,” the man wrote, “my fiancée had sex with three other guys … I have a really hard time dealing with this past. I know it’s something I need to work through, and I talk to her about it … [but] most of all I just want to forget.”
“In case you’re wondering, we’re sophomores in college, recently engaged, tying the knot after graduation. I have no previous sexual experience, not even so much as a kiss. I was saving myself for the one I wanted to marry (although I did have sex with my fiancée before we were engaged).”
He signed the letter “Wanting to Forget.”
Well, “Wanting to Forget” isn’t likely to forget Carolyn Hax’s tart reply:
Since “wanting to forget” is just another way of saying “not wanting to deal with it,” which is just another way of saying “seriously screwed-up marriage,” you need to think about this more, not less. But not the sex, the engagement — specifically your mind-bending rush to secure it. What exactly are you afraid of? Dating? Disease? Virginia Woolf?
… But you didn’t question your engagement, you asked for professional help. So I got you some free. Melissa Berler, a licensed clinical social worker based in Chicago, suggests you “reframe” your fiancée’s hay-rolling as an advantage for you. “She chose you … despite her past sexual, emotional and intellectual experiences. Her choice is a compliment, and actually it is a more informed choice than yours.”
Saving yourself for marriage is often just a cover, “hiding fears of one’s sexual capabilities as well of emotional and sexual intimacy.”
Just how bad is Hax’s advice? Let me count the ways.
First, she tells “Wanting to Forget” to “reframe” his fiancée’s “hay-rolling” as an advantage, because in choosing him, she’s made a “more informed choice.” But if you take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, it follows that the more people you roll in the hay with, the better informed you are. Does Hax have any limits in mind? Five partners? Ten? Would 50 be enough? But how many of us really want our future spouses that well informed?
Second, if people take Hax’s advice, they may become better informed about things they never anticipated — such as venereal disease. Every year, three million young people are infected with one of 60-odd sexually transmittable diseases (STDs). According to the Western Journal of Nursing Research, “because of the high incidence of STDs among adolescents, they are more likely to have sexual partners with an STD than are adults, even if the adolescent has had only one partner.” Left untreated, these diseases can lead to severe health problems, including infertility.
There’s more grim news for women: Females who have slept with three or more people over a lifetime are 15 times more likely to get cervical cancer.
That’s a pretty steep price to pay for being “well-informed.”
Third, Hax claims that “saving yourself for marriage is often just a cover” for people who are really afraid of intimacy, both sexual and emotional.
Far from being afraid of intimacy, most unmarried Christians I know would love to engage in sex — but they know it’s wrong. Only those who have not scratched every sexual itch know how difficult it is to remain pure in an impure culture.
If people really want to make well-informed choices about sex and marriage, they ought to listen to the real experts: People like Mike McManus, a Christian newspaper columnist and author of Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Avoid Divorce. McManus, with his wife, Harriet, has counseled hundreds of engaged couples. A few of the facts he’s collected about sex and marriage:
- Couples who engage in sex before marriage are far more likely to divorce. According to a study by the National Survey of Family Growth, women who have the kind of sexual experience Hax advocates — the premarital kind — increase their odds of divorce by about 60 percent. It is, McManus notes, “secular evidence for St. Paul’s injunction, ‘flee fornication.'”
- The more promiscuous you are before marriage, the more likely you are to commit adultery after marriage. (The sexually self-indulgent have had no practice in self-restraint.)
- Couples who live together before marriage are unlikely to marry. A Columbia University study found that “only 26 percent of women surveyed and a scant 19 percent of men” married the person they were living with. Another study showed that even if they do marry, couples who begin their marriages through cohabitation are almost twice as likely to divorce within 10 years compared to all first marriages: 57 percent to 80 percent.
- People who have premarital sex run the chance of marrying someone who’s not right for them. Why? Because sexual intimacy can be emotionally blinding: it makes couples feel closer than they really are. “Real love,” McManus says, “can stand the test of time without physical intimacy. The sexually active lose objectivity.”
- Couples who sleep together outside of marriage “often suffer guilt and fear due to the dangers of STDs or unwanted pregnancy. Guilt can lead to frigidity and impotence.”
Disease, divorce, guilt, adultery, impotence — who’d want to miss out on those? And we haven’t even talked about pregnancy, another frequent, unpleasant side effect of premarital sex. The vast majority of the million and a half abortions performed each year are sought by singles. And among these women who do give birth, their babies don’t thrive the way they should — even if the mother is well educated. According to columnist Maggie Gallagher, “a baby born to a college-educated single mother is more likely to die than a baby born to a married high school dropout.” Gallagher says that’s because “unwed mothers, doing double or triple duty with little or no relief, are simply less likely to be consistently effective parents than married mothers, and their children show the effects.”
The evidence is out there: It’s better by far to remain chaste prior to marriage. So why are people like Hax ignoring the evidence? Even if she’s unaware of the empirical evidence, surely she’s seen enough anecdotal evidence — friends with STDs, “crisis” pregnancies and broken relationships — to know that non-marital sex is a dodgy proposition at best.
Roberto Rivera, a cultural critic and Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum in Reston, Va., explains it this way: “We live,” he says, “in an age in which people say, ‘facts, schmacts.’ To previous generations, the fact that sex outside of marriage might lead to disease and sterility would give them pause. But today’s culture teaches that there is no one truth out there that governs everything, so they feel free to pick and choose among truths.”
For example, Rivera says, “we have statistical facts that say, ‘if you engage in ready-and-rampant sexual behavior before marriage, ultimately, it’s harmful.’ On the other hand, there’s this competing fact: ‘I enjoy sex.'” What really miffs America’s secular elites, Rivera believes, “is that these two truths are mutually exclusive: You can’t enjoy the benefits of chaste behavior without being chaste.” People like Hax get angry at people like “Wanting to Forget” because, Rivera maintains, they’re reminders that some things are true whether we want them to be or not. “They know that a biblical view of sexuality brings physical and emotional health benefits. But the last thing they want to admit is that the way they choose to live has this big downside.”
The consequences are hidden by cultural trend setters who pretend that sexual downsides don’t exist. Take the hit film Pleasantville. The plot revolves around a teenage brother and sister whose TV remote control magically transports them into the peaceful, black-and-white world of a ’50s TV sitcom. The sister promptly seduces the captain of the high school basketball team, and before long, the once-innocent teenagers of Pleasantville are all engaging in sex. Soon, their dull, black-and-white world turns to glorious color. The director’s message is obvious: Sexual promiscuity will lead to freedom and happiness.
The Pleasantville view of the universe could benefit from a little perspective. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis reminds us that “for the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality. And the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue.” But for modern men and women, Lewis notes, “the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of man” — in this case, the wish to engage in non-marital sex without consequence.
Ironically, it’s people who marry as virgins and remain monogamous who actually have the best sex lives.
A few years ago the Family Research Council surveyed 1,100 people about their sexual satisfaction. In a Washington Post op-ed, FRC’s William Mattox, Jr. took a look at the exciting results. The poll “found that 72 percent of all married ‘traditionalists (those who ‘strongly’ believe out of wedlock sex is wrong) report high sexual satisfaction. This is,” Mattox said, “roughly 31 percentage points higher than the level registered by unmarried ‘non-traditionalists’ (those who have no or only some objection to sex outside of marriage) and 13 percentage points higher than that registered by married non-traditionalists.”
It gets better. Mattox noted that the survey “found that strictly monogamous women experienced orgasm during sex more than twice as often as promiscuous women.” He quoted National Institutes of Health researcher David Larson, who says that couples who don’t sleep together before marriage and who are faithful during marriage “are more satisfied with their current sex life and also with their marriages compared to those who were involved sexually before marriage.”See “The Hottest Valentines: the Startling Secret of What Makes You a High-Voltage Lover,” by William R. Mattox Jr., The Washington Post, Feb. 13, 1994.
But what about “Wanting to Forget,” who can’t get those memories of his fiancée’s former partners out of his mind? Given the evidence, he’s right to be concerned about her sexual history. Mike McManus thinks it’s good that this couple is planning to wait a couple more years before tying the knot, and he recommends that they stop having sex and continue to get to know one another in nonsexual ways. He also recommends that they take part in a premarital inventory program such as PREPARE (Premarital Personal and Relationship Evaluation), which identifies a relationship’s strengths and weaknesses, and determines with about 80 percent accuracy which couples will divorce.For more information about Marriage Saver programs, including PREPARE and Engaged Encounter, contact Mike McManus at 301-469-5870. Also see McManus’s book, Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Avoid Divorce (Zondervan).
This premarital program includes having engaged couples work with older “mentor” couples who have been married for many years and who will help them work through problem areas — such as how to work through concerns about a fiancée’s sexual history.
This is a godly approach to sex and marriage, and as McManus puts it, if you “play by God’s rules, you’re much more likely to have a lifelong marriage, which is a goal that almost everyone longs for.”
McManus is right, and if “Wanting to Forget” is smart, he’ll take his advice. People who wait till marriage to have sex are healthier, both physically and emotionally. Plus, they have a better sex life when they do marry. Much, much better!
Copyright 1998 Anne Morse. All rights reserved.