Sex outside of marriage

With some trepidation, I’m bringing up the topic of having sex with people to whom one is not married. This isn’t about lgbtq people’s inability to be married in the legal sense in most states in the U.S., and it’s not really about affairs either. It’s about people who are not married in any sense having sex with anyone at all. Or people who are engaged having sex before the wedding.

A couple of times I’ve seen people on YAR say they don’t hold to the same ethic on this as the Christian Church has taught during at least our lifetimes. I have always heard from the Christians in my life that it is a sin to have sex in any form (or get close to it) with anyone other than the person to whom one is married. Having sex at any point before the wedding ceremony (in whatever form it takes) is a sin, they tell me.

Any manner of consequences for such behavior are predicted, ranging from the believable (you might compare your life-long spouse with past lovers in bed) to the outrageous (God has a special Hell set aside for such transgressors.)

Someone posted the following list of Bad Things That Happen Because of Premarital Sex on a message board. I haven’t changed it.

>> Disobedience to God (Rebellion against his Holy standards)
Idolatry (becoming a slave to sexual desires)
STD’s (sexually transmitted diseases)
Dealing with sexual attachments with former lover(s)
Having offspring by former lover(s) that could be abusive of offspring, child becoming rebellious against the absent parent who’s moved on and married someone to raise children with, child being withheld from parent/other family members etc… pregnant lover having abortion.
Sexual sin passing on and generational curse
Developing an attitude of premarital sex is ok as long as you love each other.
Cohabitional relationships
Single parent who has child struggling in poverty
Increase risks of out of wedlock children getting involved in drugs, premartial sex, crime/prison.
No respect for God
Lack of self esteem
Difficulty forming lasting commitments.
Making comparisons between spouse and exlover
Daydreaming more about former lovers than of your spouse
Secret Perversions
Inability to have great sex with spouse
Depression << OK, Skylark talking again. I don't want to mock the person who made this list in earnest, hoping to persuade people to avoid bad situations. But, part of me wonders... It strikes me that all of these things can happen with or without sex in a relationship, and I know many people who have healthy marriages now, when they did sleep together before they got married. On the other hand, some never even talked about sex before they married, believing that would be a sin. And now they discover they've got opposite libidos, or they don't find each other sexually attractive... or whatever. Yet I constantly hear Christians promising if both people are virgins when they get married, the sex will be great. C'mon, virginity's not a cure-all for every possible problem. Where's the middle ground? Is there One Truth on this that can be applied to everyone? Does God have clearly-communicated expectations on this? I'll leave the Scripture-citing for someone else. Perhaps some of you who are more scholarly than I can tell me where the academics are leaning on this.

Comments (35)

  1. Art Kauffman

    First we may have to do some defining as to exactly what marriage is…and what God thinks marriage is. :)

  2. Skylark (Post author)

    Have at it, Art. :-)

  3. Kara

    Wow. I am so glad someone finally actually stood up and said THIS IS SO WRONG. Most people just beat around the bush, saying: “it’s not a good idea,” or “you probably shouldn’t do it.” God is very clear about this subject in both the old and New Testaments.

  4. Skylark (Post author)

    Kara, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear in my post. I was always taught sex outside of marriage is wrong, and I never really questioned it. Here I’m asking people to discuss how they arrived at their beliefs on the matter. What I’m NOT doing is taking an absolute stand, all others be damned.

    Based on your statements, I’m guessing you derive your position on this from the following beliefs:
    1. The Bible, as it exists in contemporary English, is a valid and applicable authority on our behavior.
    2. The Bible defines what marriage is.
    3. Sex outside of that definition of marriage is a sin, which the Bible says.

    It would be helpful for the purpose of this discussion if you would provide a list of chapters and verses to support your statement “God is very clear about this subject in both the old and New Testaments.” Thanks!

  5. dave

    God is very clear about this subject in both the old and New Testaments.

    Kara… would you be able to give us examples of how the Bible is “very clear” on this issue?

  6. folknotions

    I recall someone mentioning in a previous post ( I think it was Eric….) that there isn’t an over-arching sexual ethic in the Bible. Whoever said that, maybe this could be a place to elaborate that point?

  7. eric

    I’ll take the blame. I said it.

    But I was mainly quoting Walter Wink’s article “Homosexuality and the Bible” (This article has moved, so old links on this site won’t work) which concludes:

    The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no biblical sex ethic. Instead it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand-year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible only knows a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, culture, or period.

    I agree that rules and norms are necessary: that is what sexual mores are. But rules and norms also tend to be impressed into the service of the Domination System, and to serve as a form of crowd control rather than to enhance the fullness of human potential. So we must critique the sexual mores of any given time and clime by the love ethic exemplified by Jesus. Such a love ethic is non-exploitive (hence, no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to their loss), it does not dominate (hence, no patriarchal treatment of women as chattel), it is responsible, mutual, caring, and loving. Augustine already dealt with this is his inspired phrase, “Love God, and do as you please.”

    Our moral task, then, is to apply Jesus’ love ethic to whatever sexual mores are prevalent in a given culture. This doesn’t mean everything goes. It means that everything is to be critiqued by Jesus’ love commandment. We might address younger teens, not with laws and commandments whose violation is a sin, but rather with the sad experiences of so many of our own children who find too much early sexual intimacy overwhelming, and who react by voluntary celibacy and even the refusal to date. We can offer reasons, not empty and unenforceable orders. We can challenge both gays and straights to question their behaviors in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other and of society as a whole.

    I think we do a poor job of distinguishing between our own cultural sex mores and what is actually in the bible. They don’t match up as well as a literalist might hope. There’s more about that in the body of Wink’s article, and I don’t have much to add at this point beyond the argument he makes, so you might as well read it over there. It’s entirely worth your time.

    (Soon I’ll have quoted the entire article here on YAR, and you’ll be able to piece it together on your own. Just wait around for the next installment.)

  8. DenverS

    A few thoughts on the topic. Maybe this is the postmodernist in me, but I don’t think there is “One Truth” on several gray topics, sex being one of them. I think God can convict people differently.

    That said, I personally find value in not having sex until I’m in a long term committed relationship (marriage). I have people in my life keeping me accountable to that value. I don’t expect everybody to live by this standard, but I’m not ashamed to say that I think there is value in waiting to have sex.

    It’s a choice I’ve made that is tied to what it means for me to live radically different then culture. I DON’T claim to understand God’s opinion on the matter, other then it seems like a gray area in which God seems to be calling many, including me, to a different standard.

    I think, from Eric’s comment, I can see that my choice may have been influenced by the religious culture I’ve grown up in. But for at least me personally, I make the connection between Christ’s love ethic to my partner in waiting to having sexual intimacy till I’m in a long term committed relationship. To give an extreme example, I don’t think the one night stand scenario passes Jesus’ love ethic test in showing love to your partner. When then is sex acceptable? Two dates? Ten dates? I’ve personally chosen to make marriage (as our culture currently defines it) that acceptable point. If Christ has convicted you otherwise, then I won’t criticize that decision, but admittedly it’s hard for me to make that connection.

    On separate tangent, I admit the challenges to my line of thinking. As a straight guy who is dating and never been married, I live with this tension of ways to positively deal with this God given sexual energy. As a single, I’m given no positive outlet, except to cap it, and wait till I get married (but when I signed up for this Christian thing, I did read the disclaimer that many things wouldn’t be easy). But I at least have marriage as an option on the horizon.

    Now I live in a State that doesn’t allow homosexual marriage and I go to a church that frowns on the idea. Combine this with the fact that my church also recommends you leave sex for marriage, and I realize someone who is homosexual is out of luck. No positive sexual options, a life of celibacy for you. (Unless of course you decide to go the heterosexual route and get married first).

    So while I admittedly feel a bit uncomfortable endorsing homosexual marriage, in my mind a long term committed relationship to one partner seems preferred, and I don’t think I’d stand in the way of someone seeking to do that. If they were a Christian brother or sister, I might at least check to see if they were at peace with God about that decision (I’m not sure there is One Truth on the homosexuality subject either). But that’s a subject for another thread.

  9. Brian Hamilton

    A bit extreme to say that the Bible has no sex ethic! A variety of sex ethics, yes, but sex ethics it has. The job to be done is weighing them and understanding properly what they have to teach us. Hopefully Christians are capable of a sufficiently sophisticated exegesis that the presence of polygamy in the Old Testament doesn’t get us worked up to the point of giving up on finding any guidance on sexual matters from the forebears of the faith both Jewish and Christian. Appealing to ‘the law of love’ separated from the actual practice and teaching of the early Christian community on sex and family (on which the NT is far from silent), dismissing the latter as outdated mores, is just a way of giving our contemporary or future mores normative status–since theirs were ‘unreflective’ and ours are more holistic.

    The first question, I submit, should not be Can we have sex outside of marriage? but Why should Christians have sex at all? Only by a good answer to that question will we be able to understand the meaning of sex and so understand how and when and with whom we should have it. Over against the normative normalcy of family life (on one side of the political spectrum) or the quasi-sacralization on sexual expression and actualization (on the other), we might be surprised to find that the New Testament usually opts for a baseline of singleness. The reign of God is at hand, so who has time for sex? If we do, it will be for particular purposes that grow out of our mission to proclaim Christ to all the nations. I’m speaking rashly, perhaps, but only in order to illustrate how a Christian sexual ethic might actually be connected with the rest of our moral vision and the moral vision of the early Christian community. This is a more nuanced question than can be answered by a quick scan to see if the Bible univocally stipulates ‘how far is too far’ before marriage.

  10. dahlia

    Why should Christians have sex at all is like asking why should Christians create art or eat good food or enjoy a sunset. Why should Christians care about quality of life? Maybe some people don’t think we should. Perhaps some people won’t do some things in particular – some people won’t have sex or make art or take walks in woods or eat fresh baked bread slathered in melted butter. But I hope no one stays away from all those things. I think we were created in God’s image, and God is creative. Therefore, we should create: art, sex, food. God is passionate – take a close look at flowers, or bugs. Excessive and beautiful. Why should we not create our own excessive and beautiful art? Why should we not create paintings and amazing pasta dishes and children? Why should we not kiss passionately and write poems and go swimming in a refreshing lake? I believe God put us here to do those very things. Let’s start there.

  11. JUnrau

    Well put dahlia. I’d been looking at this thread for a while trying to express my views on the topic, but you’ve got me covered there. Good sex (in the “wow that was awesome” kind of way) is a good thing and doing good things is good. See, it just sounds tautological when I say it. Yours is much better.

  12. Brian Hamilton

    Note: my question “Why should Christians have sex at all?” wasn’t stacked against sex; I also think folks should have it. It’s a way of asking, What does sex mean for Christians? I don’t think it’s enough to say that good sex is a good thing and doing good things is good, because that doesn’t even try to answer why sex is a good thing. (Pleasure by itself is rarely a good criterion for goodness.) Creativity and joy and abundant life are good answers, ones we need to insist on, but I’m still not sure that’s were we should start. Christians aren’t first of all romantics, ‘living life to the fullest.’ Why have sex in light of the Jesus’ good news? What does sex mean now that the God’s reign is at hand?

    And can your answers make sense of a dominant New Testament attitude about sex, that singleness is usually preferable?

  13. lukelm

    I loved dahlia’s response. I think my biggest problem with the way sexuality gets discussed in the church is that (it seems) sex is considered bad, dangerous and harmful by default. I’m not sure the church really wants to talk about sex this way, but somehow that’s always how it comes across.

    And for Brian’s challenge about what sex means for Christians – I’d say that being a Christian adds a whole other dimension to all of one’s actions in which things aren’t considered simply for their isolated pleasure value or for strictly utilitarian “ethical/moral” ends. Since Christian believe in a loving God who created the world (and sex), we are able to reflect in individual acts a connection to, caring for, and awareness of how individual pieces of our lives fit into all of creation and into God’s presence. This can work for sex as well as for all other aspects of one’s life – how we eat, the work we do, how we treat fellow humans. (Note: I don’t think this is necessarily exclusive to Christianity.)

    But I’m not sure I agree with you Brian in saying that we have to be able to “back up” what is good. Why do we find a sunset beautiful? I don’t think there’s ever anything that could ever be said that could explain this. Goodness is goodness because it simply IS. That doesn’t mean that we can’t try to think about something like sex and the ways it fits into people’s lives and try to describe when it is good, how it is good, and how/when it isn’t – but that essential core of what goodness really is, to me, is undefinable as God is undefinable.

    On the New Testament: I think the focus on singleness, where it is found, is a reflection of the eschatology of the time – since the world and creation are about to end, then forming connections and bonds in this world and seeking after good things here is just wasting time. I have a problem with this way of viewing the world, since to me it often (maybe inevitably) leads to a kind of violence against creation and created beings. I don’t want to devalue singleness as inferior to being partnered – in fact, I consider a period (or multiple ones) of adult singleness to be invaluable to personal development & growth – but I think a true call to lifelong celibacy to be very rare.

    My ideal for all of this – sexuality, partnership, singleness – is one of openness and embrace to the things, the people, the situations that God places in our lives. We can’t plan what God has in store for our lives, and by overdetermining and rigidly controlling exactly what we allow into our lives (in the realm of sexuality and relationships as in all things) we cut ourselves off from the growth, learning, and joy that God has for us.

  14. Skylark (Post author)

    Wow, where to begin? Thank you, all, for adding your thoughts to this conversation.

    As some may have picked up, I’m bothered by some of the lines the “Sex outside of marriage is a sin” people have drawn. They would (happily?) condemn a couple who had sex on the eve of their wedding/committment ceremony without ever explaining what exactly is bad about that. I heard someone say, “If your fiance is willing to have sex with you before you’re married, that’s a good indication your spouse will sleep with people to whom s/he is not married after you marry.” But by that rationale, we shouldn’t kiss, hold hands with or do anything prior to marriage with our SOs that we wouldn’t want to happen with other people outside of the exclusive relationship. Even long, intimate conversations might be out. Sorry, I refuse to commit to a person I don’t know well. To some, “knowing a person well” means finding out if there’s mutual interests in bed.

    And I’ve known senior citizens who have lost their spouses to disease or old age, and they meet someone while living in a retirement community or nursing home. As one person told me about his sexual experiences with his neighbor down the hall, “I’ve had the love of my life. I’ve had the till-death-do-us-part. Nothing can compare with that. Now I just want a little companionship, and neither of us wants the complications of marriage.” At that point in life, pregnancy and STDs are probably non-issues.

    Luke, the problem I have with saying that sex is beautiful just because it is, is I see that idea applied to other concepts as an excuse not to provide any supporting information or reasoning. I hear people say marriage is supposed to last till one or both partners die–why? because that’s the way it should be. Why is marriage exclusively for heterosexuals? Because that’s the way it should be. Why can’t one person have multiple spouses? Because that’s not what God intended. “Because God says so” and “because that’s the way it should be” mean essentially the same thing to me. Which is to say they draw firm lines in dirt without explaining “Why?” worth squat.

    Yes, we can go overboard with asking “Why?” I remember when a five-year-old girl at my church was obsessed with asking everyone “Whatcha doin’?” quickly followed by a litany of “Why?” “Why?” Why?” to every response the person gave. Eventually it comes down to “because I think it will make me happier.”

    By the way, I’ve often found sunsets to be most beautiful when they contrast the sky during the rest of the day, and they contrast the geography I’m looking at below them. A completely overcast sunset is just a gradual fading from gray to dark. Vibrant colors, competing textures, and other anomalies contribute to my definition of “beautiful.” But then I could try to explain why I fing those things beautiful, and I’m back where I started. Do we define beautiful things by comparing them to other things we think are beautiful?

  15. lukelm

    Skylark, in talking about beauty I was saying something about the nature of goodness or beauty itself – that it is undefinable, and that there really can’t be a “how” or “why” that can get at the core of goodness or beauty itself. In other words, there’s no outside source or criterion that could account for one’s one innate sense of beauty and goodness. It’s probably more a of a side-track philosophical point in the midst of a more practical discussion, but it’s something I think is important.

    However, I don’t mean to say that sex can be defined as some sort of absolute good or beautiful thing, end of discussion. There does need to be a lot of discussion of the how and why when it comes to living sexuality.

  16. AmyKate

    I read your post (skylark) with great interest and have read all the subsequent posts with interest as well. I’m glad you brought up the topic. It’s not one to be taken lightly, in my opinion.

    I too have grown up with the teaching that sex should be reserved for marriage, and it’s a belief I held to during my dating/courtship years.

    In response to the comment about couples learning if they are sexually compatible: I don’t think it takes as much experimenting as some people may think. I remember dating a few guys who I was not attracted to at all, and the thought of touching them was out of the question. And although my husband and I didn’t kiss for the first number of years we dated, I didn’t have any doubt that once we did, we’d enjoy ourselves immensely. So the argument that people need to see if they’re compatible doesn’t hold water, in my opinion and experience.

    I have plenty of friends who hold a different view on sex and have had their fair share of sexual relationships outside of/before marriage. I don’t pass a judgment on them for it, but if some one asks me straight out what I think (especially some one younger trying to determine what they want to do, what is best, wise, right, etc.), I definitely urge them to wait, to save sex for marriage, because I cannot honestly see more benefits in sex outside of a life commitment. I have heard too many stories from women of regret, of being mistreated, of having nothing physically sacred to share with the person they are committing their life to. I haven’t heard a woman say she wishes she’d have had more partners or more sex. Granted, many women I’ve spoken with grew up with the teaching the sex outside of marriage was wrong, so that could be impacting their feelings.

    But perhaps sex in general, with boyfriends or girlfriends or random hook ups weren’t your intended focus. Were you thinking more specifically of couples who have made a life commitment to each other? Engaged couples?

    Another thought: what is SEX? What constitutes sex? It seems to me that should also be defined. Is it merely intercourse, or does it include petting, oral sex, etc?

  17. Katie

    Skylark said
    “At that point in life, pregnancy and STDs are probably non-issues.”

    I know this is very nit-picky in the context of this discussion but I thought I would just throw this in. Yes, pregnancy probably isn’t much of an issue but STD’s are as much of an issue for a sexually active 70 year old as they would be for a sexually active 20 year old. They might even be more problematic if they have other health issues that may complicate or increase the risks. I’m not sure what kind of sex ed a 70 year old would have gotten through life but who knows if they are practicing safer sex or not?

    I’ve actually read somewhere (NY Times?? I think) that STD’s are increasing in the older generations and some nursing homes are starting to offer sex education. I kinda remember a certain blue pill being mentioned as a reason older folks are more sexually active. All sexually active people (gay/straight, young/old, male/female, married/single) should be thinking about sexual safety.

    Sorry to get a little preachy there, I’ll get off the soap box for now.

  18. Skylark (Post author)

    Terms to define: “Marriage”, “Sex”, “Love”, “Beauty.” Anyone want to take a gander, especially on the first two?

    AmyKate, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you and your husband enjoy each other. Unlike you, I HAVE heard women say they wished they’d had more sex. Obviously no one can ever know “what would have happened if,” and I think it’s simply more common to wish something that happened didn’t. ‘Cause then you know the unpleasant consequences first-hand. Some women I know were raised in fairly strict homes where sex wasn’t ever talked about. They went for the first man who promised to get them out of their parents’ homes, but it turned out to be a bad choice–and now they wish they’d had more experiences before he came along, including having “good sex” so they knew when the man was just in it for himself.

    It’s probably also worth noting that just finding the other person attractive doesn’t mean you’re going to want the same things in the sack. I’ve had people ask me, a single, 24-year-old virgin, how I’m planning to iron out sexual differences if I get married someday. My answer has been something like this: “We’ll talk about what we want before we get married to head off what we can. Once we’re wed, we’ll both be making compromises and working to please the other in a variety of ways. I don’t expect there to be anything within the ‘normal’ scope of sexual desires that couldn’t be worked out. One person may not get everything s/he wants as often as s/he wants it, but that’s part of life.” It’d be nice to hear from some sexually experienced (and probably married) folks if that’s a realistic thing to say.

    Yes, I was thinking of couples who have made a life committment to each other, too. One-night-stands are the extreme, and plenty of people disapprove of them who don’t hold to the Traditional Christian Sex Ethic. Apart from the person I quoted in an earlier comment, I haven’t gotten much of a reason out of people who condemn those who have sex with their fiances.

    What would the ethic of love require, as luke and others suggest? I could definitely see how it’s not loving to have sex with someone before you two have some kind of long-lasting agreement. But what, really, truly, is unloving about having sex with the one you’ve promised to marry? What’s the substantive difference between being married and being engaged? In some cultures, being betrothed (similar to our engagement) meant being married in the legal sense but not coming together physically yet. Why they did it that way I have no idea. It seems fairly arbitrary.

    Katie, I had to chuckle when I saw your post. I get nit-picky, too, so I don’t mind at all you correcting me. The nursing homes and retirement communities in which I’ve interacted don’t have enough residents humping each other to talk openly about STD rates. Or maybe it’s still oh-so-private.

  19. Kara

    To all of those people requesting that I come back and post:

    I have not yet donated the proper amount of thought and research to the subject. I will try to do so in the near future.

    Look for my post.

    I stand by my original statement: “Sex outside of marriage is a sin.” There is no gray area.

    Skylark, you posted:

    They would (happily?) condemn a couple who had sex on the eve of their wedding/committment ceremony without ever explaining what exactly is bad about that. I heard someone say, “If your fiance is willing to have sex with you before you’re married, that’s a good indication your spouse will sleep with people to whom s/he is not married after you marry.” But by that rationale, we shouldn’t kiss, hold hands with or do anything prior to marriage with our SOs that we wouldn’t want to happen with other people outside of the exclusive relationship. Even long, intimate conversations might be out. Sorry, I refuse to commit to a person I don’t know well. To some, “knowing a person well” means finding out if there’s mutual interests in bed.

    Okay, I’m going to break this down piece by piece.

    First, while I do firmly believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin,Iwill not condem anybody who practices fornication(because all sexual acts outside of marriage are just that, fornication) because it is not my place to condem them. It is my place to love them, to care for them, but not to judge them.

    Secondly, sex on the eve of their marriage is disrespectful to both partners involved, even if each partner wanted to have sex.

    Please hear my heart beat on this one:

    Sex before marriage causes scars.

    Sex before marriage causes hidden, but irreparable damage.

    Sex before marriage causes feelings of mistrust.

    I’m sorry. That’s all I have time for right now. Look for further comments from me. I’d enjoy feedback, even if you don’t agree with my views.



  20. j alan meyer


    Thanks for posting, and I look forward to hearing more from you. You ask for feedback, but it’s hard to provide much when even you recognize that you still haven’t really fleshed out your opinions much, but have just restated them. So I understand that you’ll say more on this, but I’ll reply briefly anyway.

    I know it’s being a bit nit-picky (apparently that’s a trend on this thread), but “fornication” specifically refers to sexual intercourse, not “all sexual acts,” as you wrote. I say this recognizing that I’m simply reinforcing the need for us to do more work defining what we mean by “sex”. But of course I’ll point out the need for someone to do it, but I won’t do it myself.

    Also, I honestly don’t understand your reasoning for saying that “sex on the eve of their marriage is disrespectful to both partners involved, even if each partner wanted to have sex.” Please elaborate on that when you have time. Because while I may go back and forth about the pros and cons of premarital sexual intercourse in general, I can’t say I understand a good reason why engaged couples (who are therefore in a long-term committed relationship) should abstain.

  21. lukelm

    Kara, thanks for continuing to participate in this conversation. Could you explain more of why you believe that sex before marriage causes scars, hidden damage, and mistrust? I know I’ve heard such things, but it just isn’t born out it my observation of people’s lives.

    I don’t know that I want to be heard as arguing one distinct “position” on this issue since it’s quite complex and has so much to do with individuals’ upbringing, beliefs, expectations, age, experience, etc. But it might be clear that I don’t hold any sort of absolutes about where sexuality is good, bad, right, wrong, sinful, blessed, (maybe even somewhere in between all that?), etc. I do believe that those attributes do exist and are crucial to think about and apply to our sexual lives, but I don’t think there are one-size-fits-all cookie cutter categories for where we can/n’t apply them.

    This shouldn’t become a thread about LGBT stuff (there one’s over in “Is it a sin?” if anyone wants to discuss that further), but I’ll say a little more about my own life to illustrate my point. My being gay here is not the point – it’s only something that has necessitated me finding a creative path outside the “system” that most of us who grew up in the church were taught.

    I’m in a committed, monogamous relationship. My partner and I have been together for close to six years now. From the beginning of our relationship there was an understanding that we were committed to each other in the long term. However, because marriage and all the social convention, support, and structure that go all with it weren’t available to us as a gay couple, this commitment to each other wasn’t really about “we are entering into marriage.” It was about promising to work for the highest good of the other person – to truly love each other selflessly. It didn’t necessarily mean we would always be together as a couple – we were both open at that point to the possibility that working for each other’s highest good might actually mean that we would separate at some point. There were some things that we knew would simply have to be “worked out” over our years together, and we couldn’t determine what would happen – for example, I was younger than my partner (21 at the time) and we both knew I still had a lot of growing up and exploring life paths to do (whereas he had an established life/career.) Now, this might be really hard for a lot of people to understand because who have always grown up with marriage as a such a distinct rigidly defined monolithic social institution with ones of its bedrock principles “til death do us part.” But since we didn’t have all that structure of marriage there to fit into, then this other kind of commitment was actually the most real, honest, and caring way we could enter into our relationship. We were together for five years before we actually had our formal commitment ceremony (about a year ago.) During that time my career/life path has become much clearer (it had better be clear, since I’ll never be able to pay off these med school loans if I decide one day not to be a doctor!) and we’ve both had time to learn that being together really is the right thing to commit to for as long as we can imagine – for life. I did feel the need for some life exploration away from our relationship during the first couple years – I traveled in Latin America for a while and also lived in Europe for several months. This was very good, and critical to my growth and to our understanding of ourselves as a couple.

    And we’ve got a pretty amazing partnership going on right now.

    I bring all this up just to try to give a bit of a glimpse into what navigating the world of relationships and sexuality might look like outside the realm of all the rigid social structures. I’m not saying ours is necessarily a better way. It was just a way that worked for us, partly because of necessity and partly from choice – but it felt mostly to me like a matter of simply discovery of reality and acceptance of it through truly being honest with each other. The whole conceptual box of “sex” being wrong “before/outside of marriage” just ceased to function for me, in a lot of ways because marriage just isn’t available to gay people now, at least not here in the Midwest (either culturally or legally.)

  22. AmyKate


    As a married person, I think your explanation of ironing-out sexual differences is basically the view point my husband and I had/have. I couldn’t explain it better. We did the whole pre-marital counseling thing, and sex was one of the issues we discussed along with finances, in-laws, etc. It’s an area that takes communication and compromise and an understanding that each time might not be the best it could be for either person, for a variety of reasons, but we try to make it great for each other, and meet the desires we have.(sorry for the run-on sentence)
    I definitely believe couples need to talk about their expectations, desires, etc.

    Moving on…j alan wrote that “fornication” refers to intercourse and not necessarily other sexual acts. I have always wanted some one to specifically define that. Thank you!

    I propose some definitions, because it’s helpful to have a common understanding of what we’re discussing, and I thought I might as well get the defining started. Please, suggest changes.

    sex = intercourse
    marriage = life time commitment marked by a ceremony (legal or otherwise)

  23. dave

    I stand by my original statement: “Sex outside of marriage is a sin.” There is no gray area.

    I am not sure where you get this from. I really think that if you are going to make assertions about sin, you need to support these assertions. And don’t just give Bible verses, but give a full understanding of these verses in their cultural context.

    You go on to address some of the issues that you see involving sex before marriage. But not one of them is based on a Biblical principle. They are all based on your opinion about how sex before marriage is a social problem.

  24. Skylark (Post author)

    What kind of intercourse, AmyKate? Which peg in which hole? If sex is penile-vaginal intercourse, then have people who engaged in oral and/or anal properly “saved themselves for marriage”? Or are you including all three common forms of sex in your definition of “intercourse”?

    I’ve known people who pushed the definition of “marriage ceremony.” One couple opted to have a non-legally-binding ceremony in Ukraine, after which they considered themselves married. However, upon their return to the U.S., they did not tell their families about the ceremony. (The woman told me, her coworker, but I was sworn to secrecy.) They did not move into their own home until they had a wedding ceremony in the U.S., which was legally binding. At which point were they married? There probably should be something in our definition of “marriage” that includes “public statement” or “publically known.” Can you be in a secret and non-legally-binding marriage? I’m thinking “no.”

    Luke, thank you for sharing your experience. I have a clearer picture of how the relationship went down than I did before. Still… it was a little bit off-topic. (Not that I mind.) I’d like to know more about where you stand on the question of boundaries on healthy sexual expression in a committed relationship. Is there value in waiting and/or self-denial? Do you think it’s good to reserve sexual intimacy for one partner? Is it better for the relationship to wait on sex until you’re making a long-term commitment to the other person? Do you think there are emotional and/or relational consequences for sleeping with someone before that point?

    Kara, thank you for coming back again. While you may feel as if you are in front of the firing squad, I hope it’s clear nobody’s hating on you here. I second Dave’s request for citing where in the Bible and its culture(s) you get your support.

  25. eric

    Several thoughts held together by bullet points in a cheap attempt to feign organization:

    • “sex” can get a bit difficult to define. And what if you aren’t dealing with simple peg/hole combinations? I suppose for many, that’s out for other reasons. The problem is, it all comes down to a continuum. Sexuality doesn’t have clear lines and boundaries. Talking as though it does is more useful in condemnations than in decision making. (Maybe someone should design a self test with questions rating percentage potential for procreation and percentage potential for STD transmittal and whatever other factors people care about. Then you could find your sex score per encounter. Never score higher than a 6.3 outside of marriage – that’s my advice.)
    • Marriage is also a bit arbitrary as a boundary in relational commitment. No ceremony is required for public statements of commitment, and certainly not for commitment in the first place. Maybe it’s required for God or your parents? And what is long-term, anyway? I’ve been dating the same person now for longer than my marriage lasted. Guess we can call this one long-term? It sure is a better, happier, more fulfilling relationship.
    • No one ever talks about post-marital sex. The discussion seems culturally more rooted in a worship of virginity (whatever that is) than an actual concern for healthy relationships. You won’t be surprised to hear me say that burdens women more than men. (It’s pretty blatant on right-wing chastity sites, which are entirely devoted to keeping little girls “pure” because us men can’t help ourselves)
    • I’m loaded with scars – but the sexual ones come mainly from church mis-teachings (and non-teachings) and being molested by an ex-pat new-age guru in Guatemala because I had no context for understanding what was going on, or how to say no to anything. Sexual relationships have been better and worse, but always depending on the strength of connection and respect in the relationship, never on the number of previous relationships of either partner. The curve actually seems to tend the other way (which is not evidence of anything, scientifically. just circumstantial observations).
    • Sex doesn’t ruin you – but the condemnation and social-shunning of being involved with the wrong person might. The church is a much more powerful force for ruining your second attempt at a relationship than any amount of sex you had the first time around. Here is the crux of the issue for me. As with “abstinence only education” (which studies now discredit entirely) the church’s don’t-even-think-about-it stance is entirely unhelpful in developing strong relationships, and only gets cited in condemnation and shunning. The church should focus on helping people do better, not yelling at everyone who makes mistakes.
    • I find it funny that anyone in a marriage for which they “saved themselves” could possibly have anything to say about the personal pros and cons of multiple relationships or sex while engaged. I’m glad you’re happy with your choice – but you have no frame of reference to be condemning from. I “saved myself” for marriage, and that was fine, and the relationship wasn’t and it really didn’t matter one way or the other and now I’m moving on. Get over it.
    • I love Dahlia’s comment, and would further ask Brian – why aren’t Christians romantics? Shouldn’t we be infatuated with this life that God has created, full of Joy and pleasure and love and beauty (and butter and sex and art)? Shouldn’t we continue to create and love beauty and pleasure (and butter and sex and art)? I always thought romanticism was one of the highest forms of worship. Joy in creation.
    • And thanks, Luke, for the beautiful (as always) reflections. I think there’s something powerfully more honest about a commitment to each other’s best benefit – along the lines of the Quaker commitment to marriage as long as it is God’s will (or something along those lines, does anyone know more about the Quaker approach?).
    • Skylark, what is self-denial and why is it good? I see situations in which I would love to stay up all night talking, but need some sleep. Is one choice self-denial, or are they both just choices? I’ve never really seen an ethic of self-denial work out for anyone – though I have seen many who are happy to refrain from certain activities.

      Recognizing larger issues of self-interest can be helpful. Sometimes I get a bit co-dependent, or I will eat or stay up late to avoid pain in my life. I don’t consider it self-denial to choose against my neurosis – which are dangerous exactly because they are denial of my healthy self. Conscious, honest, thoughtful decision-making is good. Understanding your neurotic impulses is good. But why self-denial?

  26. j alan meyer

    Great (faux-organized) thoughts, Eric. I particularly love the sex score per encounter idea. Could we add a die roll in there somewhere to incorporate the random element? So your sex score includes some encounter modifiers added to 1d4 plus your constitution attribute modifier? Never mind… Anyway, I’ll add a few less-thoughtful initial reactions.

    • I agree with your general observations about a focus on virginity, but I think people do talk about post-marital sex. This post is titled “Sex outside of marriage” not “Premarital sex.” So I think we’re discussing extra-marital sexual activity in general (at least I am) — you’re right that premarital sex is just one part of that. I know you like to write in hyperboles, but it’s simply not true that “No one ever talks about post-marital sex.”
    • Brian, I had a similar response to your comments about Christians being romantics. In my opinion, the good news of Jesus includes a call to become the “new human” (I love Ephesians), and “living life to the fullest” is an integral part of that calling. While this needs to be nuanced in order to not become a simple defense of all impulsive expressions of human desire, I hold that perhaps it is a good place for Christians to start. But others (Dahlia, Eric, Luke) have already expanded on this idea, so I’ll stop here.

  27. Skylark (Post author)

    Eric either can’t read or is forgetful. Nobody talks about sex after marriage, eh? What was I talking about with this paragraph from comment #14?

    >>And I’ve known senior citizens who have lost their spouses to disease or old age, and they meet someone while living in a retirement community or nursing home. As one person told me about his sexual experiences with his neighbor down the hall, “I’ve had the love of my life. I’ve had the till-death-do-us-part. Nothing can compare with that. Now I just want a little companionship, and neither of us wants the complications of marriage.” At that point in life, pregnancy and STDs are probably non-issues.<< Care to cite the studies you say discredit abstinence-only education? I've read a few–and rebuttals to their "discrediting"– so I'm curious which studies you're using.

  28. eric

    You got me. I’ve been a bad boy.

    Though, as Katie pointed out to me today, sex after marriage includes sex in marriage. Which I think is important. And why aren’t we talking more about when that sex is a sin? (Maybe because it’s off topic?)

    While I’m quoting things without taking the time to look them up – wasn’t there a case recently where it was determined that marital rape is (at least legally) an oxy-moron? Marriage as universal consent. I’ll link to it later if I can find it.

    The (on topic) point being: sex is good or bad depending on factors much more important than a marriage ceremony. The marriage ceremony actually has very little effect on the quality of the sex, and often can act as a cover for really bad sex (or rape) in ways that make it much more difficult to address.

    As for abstinence-only “education” – this linked blog has a run-down and links to the federal report. And Here is another blog reporting on the same report.

    Ask and ye shall receive.

    (I love the dice idea, j.)

  29. Skylark (Post author)

    If Wikipedia is to be believed, marital rape is illegal in the U.S. and many other countries:

    I read over the Executive Summary portion of the abstinence report, and a few things jump out to me:
    1. This was one year of instruction, which is not the same as a lifetime of hearing the church say “Sex outside of marriage is a sin.”
    2. This was based on students at four schools. Shouldn’t the sample size be larger so you know you don’t just have schools with really crappy teachers?
    3. The differences between the students taught to be abstinant and the “control group” (I didn’t see where they defined their control group) were negligible. When I hear “Oh, the program failed,” my first thought is, “Oh, the kids are worse off now than they were before,” which doesn’t seem to be supported by the data.
    4. Is abstinence perhaps something that is just hard to teach in a school setting? Are kids more likely to refrain from sex if their parents and/or church are backing it up?

    And now for your statements about good/bad sex is not determined by being married. Do you think a couple who has unsatisfactory sex or bad sex can improve and eventually have good sex? Aren’t the skills you’d need to address that before you’re married the same skills you’d need to address it afterwards? Or are people who are virgins (whatever that means) when they get married (whatever that means) less likely to be inclined to openly address problems in their sex lives (whatever that means)? How would you know what they’re willing to discuss? How would you know what they’ve tried, or even what they both like?

    Do you think people shouldn’t abstain, or do you think people should quit telling others they have to abstain?

  30. AmyKate

    Just a few random, spontaneous thoughts regarding Skylark’s recent comment.

    I definitely think people who have unsatisfactory or bad (or couples who don’t have sex for one reason or another!) sex can improve. My experience is limited, I acknowledge that, but I’m thinking of one couple in particular who improved their practically non-existent sex life after years of marriage. Also, I think sex is one component (like many others) of a relationship that takes communication, experimentation, time and an ability to laugh and not expect fireworks each time. I don’t think the quality of sex with some one can be set in stone.

    Also, your question about whether “virgins” are less likely to discuss their sex life is a good question. I think it may depend more on personality and dynamics, but I’m not really sure. My husband and I were both virgins, and we definitely discuss what’s working and what needs improvement.

    And regarding number 4: abstinence-only education in schools. I teach high school and because of what I teach (child development, parenting, nutrition), it is not uncommon to discuss sex, abstinence, birth control (shhh-don’t tell the administrators we talk about that!).

    In my opinion, only based on my experience: I think abstinence ONLY education is unrealistic. Even as a person who was always given the message top abstain until marriage(in church, at home, in school) I was so glad to learn about contraceptives and options in my high school child development class (at a Mennonite school!). It was important for me, as a female, to be informed about what choices were available. The underlying message was still – don’t have sex, and here’s why… – but at least we were informed about how to prevent a pregnancy or STD transmission.

    I carry that opinion still as my students and discuss issues surrounding sexuality and sex and making wise decisions. The reality is, high school students want to discuss sex and all the complications – not just be told “don’t do it”. I think they need to know how to play it safe if they choose to have sex and they need to know it’s okay to not have sex if they don’t want to.

    I honestly don’t know what the curriculum for abstinence-only education looks like. I’d be interested in seeing it. Anyone know of any links?

  31. eric

    Skylark: Yeah, that last thought – which for me answers the first parts. The questions are really irrelevant, because it’s the wrong framing all together. I don’t feel a need to prove that abstinence-only education or marriage actually make your sex life worse (they may or may not depending more on you than them), because I’m not the one telling people what to do or not do from afar.

    I think the attitude of self-denial, shaming, blaming, and guilt is wrong. I think life should be lived and loved. I think Jesus says that. So I don’t care if you can fix your sex life in a marriage or screw it up outside of one – it can always go either way and will with different people. Just treat it with the awe and power it deserves as a beautiful part of creation wherever you are.

    Then do what you want.

    I’m not hands-off. I believe in accountability and community. If I think someone is getting hurt, I’ll say what I see. But the focus is on caring about people where they are, commenting from my experience and observations of them, not on the theoretical “rightness” or “wrongness” of “sex” in or out of “marriage.”

    (And so, Brian from way back: Wink separates the love ethic from sexual mores past and present alike not because they are outdated, but because they are (even now) unreflective, secular, regularly-changing cultural mores and not the love ethic of Jesus; A love ethic which stands in contrast at every point to any condemnatory and legalistic understanding of either love or ethics.)

  32. carl

    I’m not hands-off. I believe in accountability and community. If I think someone is getting hurt, I’ll say what I see. But the focus is on caring about people where they are, commenting from my experience and observations of them, not on the theoretical “rightness” or “wrongness” of “sex” in or out of “marriage.”

    Well said. This is an important distinction. The difference is illustrated perfectly in the threads on homosexuality right here on YAR. Luke has repeatedly asked the proponents of religious homophobia to explain to him, personally, how his relationship with his partner is harmful to him or anyone around him, yet no takers so far.

  33. Elaine

    I know this is a very old post, but I’ve just been directed to it by a beloved nephew, and as a Quaker for almost 20 years, I feel a need to clarify “the Quaker approach” to marriage. Although the intensive clearness and oversight processes used before marriage among Friends does allow for some variation after much discernment, the vows that have been traditional among Friends for many years and are still almost always used do indeed “promise, with divine assistance, to be loving and faithful as long as we both shall live”. Friends may be relatively non-judgmental of cases where marriages do not in fact last, but the ideal of marriage in Friends testimonies is certainly of a lifetime one. The cases I have heard of myself of vows like those quoted were not between people of faith.

    Not that I’m adding anything to the topic of sex, but in defining marriage, I’d say that I hope that being loving and faithful includes commitment to each other’s best benefit, and that aspiring to lifetime commitment, while definitely superhuman, is not necessarily dishonest.

    And thanks, Luke, for the beautiful (as always) reflections. I think there’s something powerfully more honest about a commitment to each other’s best benefit – along the lines of the Quaker commitment to marriage as long as it is God’s will (or something along those lines, does anyone know more about the Quaker approach?).

  34. Ruth Tepin

    I came across your blog while researching Quakers opinions on sex and thought, for anyone intereseted, I’d leave you this link. It will answer many questions.

  35. Pingback: Sexuality and the young Christian » Young Anabaptist Radicals

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