What's the best way to encourage people to save sex for the covenant of marriage? Mark Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit, Richard Ross, co-founder of True Love Waits, and Donna Freitas, author of Sex and the Soul suggest the best way to help.
Premarital Abstinence: Focus on Calling
Human sexual development has not kept up with our preference to have more education, financial security, and life experience before marrying. On the contrary, the time gap between sexual maturity and marriage is the highest it's ever been.
In response, evangelicals muster popular perspectives on courtship and what clothes can and cannot come off and when. The lack of an authoritative message about sexuality is not lost on youth. Many don't mind that there is no shared story about sex. It makes the lowest common denominator easy to abide by.
Premarital sex will always be alluring. Sex, after all, does what it's supposed to do. It bonds. It makes us want more: more relationship, more security, more sex. That is the reality of its unchanging nature.
What we can change, however, is our widespread misunderstanding of how marriage happens. Christian scholar James Olthuis reminds us that entering into Christian marriage is not a light switch that's flipped on at the wedding, but rather a process in this intended order: a pledge of fidelity, reliability, integrity, and friendship between a man and a woman, a covenant between the two persons and God, a communal recognition of the marriage, and sexual consummation.
In one sense, there's no such thing as premarital sex. There is only non-marital sex and marital sex. When couples skip some of the steps, it's the job of the church to make sure the others occur, or to call non-marital sex the sacrilege it is.
Far too many Christians link sexual morality to the issuance of a legal document by a secular state. But the state does not permit marriages; it only recognizes them. The biblical writers never presumed that marriage was the domain of the state, nor did they presume that it belonged to the church. It was simply an institution among institutions.
Unfortunately, most young Christians move into their 20s without realizing that a vocational calling—to marriage or singleness—has already been given to them by a loving Creator. Instead, they imagine marriage as the capstone to the self and a wedding as its commencement, to take place when they wish it to.
What we have as a result is what we deserve: lots of unmarried Christians trying to discern what does and doesn't constitute sex, and attempting to retain some semblance of virginity by keeping non-marital partners to "just a few" as they live out the self-centered promises of emerging adulthood. The church is called out of that nonsense to be a peculiar people. In step with their peaking fertility and sexual interest, Christian young adults need to get about the business of their calling to marriage or singleness—whichever it is.
The rest of us ought to help them discern the process, encourage their maturation, empathize in their struggles, and support them better than we have up until now. Nobody else will.
Make a Promise to Jesus
True Love Waits is not a promise to a program, card, or ring. It is a sincere promise of purity made to the reigning Christ for the glory of the Father by the power of the Spirit.
The promise is kept most tenaciously by teenagers who have moved beyond moralistic therapeutic deism and who adore the King of Kings with awe and intimacy. They know their Lord and Savior said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Their walk in purity is a way to express deep love for him and to respond to his supremacy.
For teenagers who know Christ, that is a far stronger motivator than a desire to avoid disease and pregnancy. Risk avoidance is a weak motivator during adolescence, since the development of the brain's prefrontal cortex (which governs self-control) lags well behind the development of the amygdala (which drives emotions and impulses). Teenagers need to know about the risks of promiscuity, as well as about the benefits that total life purity brings. But the most powerful way to impact prom-night decisions is for parents, leaders, and peers to more fully awaken teenagers to God's Son, to invite them to make a promise to him, and to walk beside them in a journey toward purity.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracked unbroken increases in teenage sexual activity from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. Then, paralleling the explosive growth of the True Love Waits movement, the CDC watched those rates drop through 2008. That does not prove that True Love Waits made the difference. But it is more than a little interesting.
Some church leaders have been confused by articles with such titles as, "True Love Waits Doesn't Work." These articles point to studies that have lumped together all teenagers who have ever made any kind of pledge or promise related to abstinence, including many students who have made pledges after weak, brief, and entirely secular programs in schools and by community organizations.
Not surprisingly, a number of those students eventually become sexually involved. But here's the rub: Journalists assign the sexual failures of that pool of students to True Love Waits, even though True Love Waits students usually compose only a fraction of the population studied.
A study of teenagers in one state (Weathersbee, 2002) found that if the behavior of True Love Waits students is tracked exclusively, the students' behavior is markedly different from their peers'. We are pursuing funding to do a similar study on a national scale. Until the hard data are available, we find anecdotal evidence and scores of stories informative.
The genetic code for True Love Waits is made up of several weeks of thoughtful Bible studies about purity, a promise to God made while surrounded by one's family and community of faith, continuing encouragement and teaching at home and in church, and support from True Love Waits peers. Students making promises that are Christ-focused, Word-centered, and Spirit-empowered will likely live in purity up to their wedding day and beyond.
Stop Talking Marriage
My initial response to the question—and I'm not being facetious—is the following: Stop talking about marriage when you talk about saving sex.
Over the past year and a half, I have been giving lectures and workshops at colleges and universities in response to a national study I conducted on sexual decision-making and students' attitudes toward sex as they relate to students' religious and spiritual commitments. I talk about hookup culture a lot because it has become the norm just about everywhere you go (save at Christian colleges). Oddly enough, hookup culture seems to send many students into a period of spiritual seeking, drawing them closer to faith and to God.
Living in the context of hookup culture over an extended period of time tends to throw students into a life crisis. Most students experience hookups as self-emptying, exhausting, and unpleasant, making those involved feel ambivalent about sex. As a result, the average college student is eager to find a way out of the culture.
This is when talk about abstinence becomes interesting, even exciting, on just about every college campus I've visited.
Offering students a variety of ways to think about not having sex or taking a break from having sex—for a night, for a weekend, for a month, for a semester, essentially trying on abstinence for a period of time—turns on a light switch for many students.
Deciding not to hook up becomes a revolutionary one-night stand of sorts—just not the kind that students are used to, which makes it all the more attractive. Most students are shocked to think you can try out abstinence just like you can try out hooking up.
Most people understand abstinence as a several-years-long commitment, perhaps even a several-decades-long one for young adults, and present it as such. If you present a student, already overwhelmed by living in hookup culture, with what sounds like another overwhelming framework for having sex (or not having it), you won't get very far, at least not with too many of them. They are already living in one impossible situation—offer them what sounds like another impossible situation, and they are likely to keep treading water where they are. And where they are is hookup culture.
The unpleasant, unfulfilling realities of hookup culture have made abstinence more attractive. But tying a discussion about abstinence to marriage, in my opinion, is a pedagogical mistake. Most students need help in seeing their way out of hookup culture for this coming weekend, never mind being asked to see years beyond graduation to the second half of their 20s, when the average college graduate is likely to marry.
There is so much talk about sexual experimentation during the college years. Choosing abstinence is a kind of sexual experimentation. We just don't often discuss it in such terms. But college students love the idea, and, once they have thought about it for a while, are often eager to experiment with it.
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Mark Regnerus is a sociology professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Forbidden Fruit. Richard Ross is a professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and co-founder of True Love Waits. Donna Freitas is a visiting scholar of religion at Boston University and author of Sex and the Soul.
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