Question: “Is Premarital Sex Always Sinful?”

Question: “Is Premarital Sex Always Sinful?” May 26, 2023

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Yes, religions uphold rules / mary1826,


The question above was the headline with an April article by Talley Cross, a “gender and sexuality” blogger with She responded with a cautious no. A yes answer is the contrary and familiar tradition in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths, and as we’ll see below has lately gotten a degree of backing from surprising places.

That age-old teaching is terribly counter-cultural and also subject to critique from within religions. The Gallup Poll says in 2001 a slim 53% majority of Americans thought sex between an unmarried man and woman was morally acceptable, but as of last year the number reached a record 76%. (Adultery got only 9% acceptance.)

In a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, 57% of those who identified as Christians “always” or “sometimes” approved of unwed sex for those in a “committed relationship” without marriage, with fully 79% approval among the non-religious respondents. As for casual sex without any “committed relationship,” 50% of the Christians accepted this “always” or “sometimes,’ and the non-religious did so by 83%.

Fit to Print?

The influential New York Times has developed an interest in a variant known as “polyamory,” romantic relationships with knowledge and consent among three or more participants, who sometimes take additional partners on the side. (This is distinguished from “polygamy,” marriage with multiple partners, which is barred in the U.S. under “bigamy” laws)

This month, the newspaper’s “tiny love stories” feature depicted a man’s love for a polyamorous woman. The same week a longer article, with the headline “Interested in Polyamory? Check Out These Places,” depicted Somerville, Mass. as valhalla for such practitioners, complete with polyamorous speed-dating. During a 2020 round of Times polyamory coverage, Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, writing in, accused the paper of naïve boosterism that ignored research and real-world results for children.

In Britain’s venerable Jewish Chronicle this month, Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain did not forbid polyamory but wondered whether it could develop ”jealousy, suspicion, favoritism and resentments” or harm children involved, and whether desirable stable relationships become more difficult to sustain.

One religion stands out on this score. There’s a “Polyamory Awareness” caucus among the official “related organizations” in the Unitarian Universalist Association, which serves “polyamorous people,” both church members and outsiders.

A non-religious sex backlash

A bit of a non-religious backlash emerged this past year. British feminist and anti-rape campaigner Louise Perry came out with “The Case Against the Sexual Revolution,” a vigorous complaint that open promiscuity works against women’s interests and benefits cads and not potential dads, though she favors sensible caution, not avoidance of all non-marital sex.

On the academic level, the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox and colleague Lyman Stone wrote in The Wall Street Journal about government data on 50,000 women. Among their findings: “Americans who live together before marriage are less likely to be happily married and more likely to land in divorce court.”

Popular culture and intuition tell us sexual experience and cohabition ought to help prepare couples for marriage. But consider research in an American Psychological Association journal cited by Times staffer Michel Leibowitz, who took to her own newspaper to critique today’s culture of hookups and “situationships.” This study concluded “it is clear that the longer a couple waited to become sexually involved the better their sexual quality, relationship communication, relationship satisfaction, and perceived relationship stability” once they were married. Text here:

Also note federal data on teen sexual activity in the federal “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” here:

What the Bible says

Back to the religious discussion. Patheos blogger Cross, who was raised evangelical and is now Anglican, seeks support for flexibility from the Bible and finds it in Genesis 38:6-30, a notably bizarre passage regarding Tamar, an ancestor of King David and Jesus Christ. Tamar married two sons of Judah, both of whom died. Her father-in-law then spurned her right to the protection of children through “levirate” marriage to his third son (as defined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). So Tamar pretended to be a prostitute, tricked Judah into impregnating her, and was not condemned in the Bible for her seduction and subterfuge!

“Tamar’s story actually calls us to reconsider what kind of sex is ethical,” Cross asserts, and likewise “we are now indeed in extraordinarily challenging and unprecedented times sexually,” in fact “a very messed up situation.” Cross does not advocate anything-goes license, but consideration of “limited circumstances under which some aspects of normative Christian sexual ethics may be – and perhaps even ought to be – abrogated.”

Many New Testament passages denounce “porneia,” an over-all Greek word for sexual misconduct. This covers sexual deeds other than adultery since both adultery and “porneia” are cited in, e.g., I Corinthians 6:9 and Hebrews 13:4. The shunning of “porneia” was one of the minimal Jewish moral requirements that early Christianity applied to new Gentile converts in the first ecumenical council around A.D. 50 (see Acts 15:29).

Christianity took its sexual principles directly from Judaism, in which pre-marital “fornication” and non-marital “promiscuity” were considered to be rejected by extention in the Ten Commandments, though that code literally condemns only adultery. Conservative Judaism’s Bible commentary observes that  “consensual sexual intercourse between singles is censured” in the Bible (Deuteronomy 22:13-29). Reform Judaism’s 1983 compendium of rabbinical rulings stated that sex outside marriage with consenting adults was prohibited “throughout the ages” and “every effort was made to enforce such prohibitions,” so likewise modern-day Jews ”should do whatever we can to discourage casual sexual relations.”

The beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof” portrays the Orthodox tradition against a man dancing with, or even touching, any woman except his wife. The same concern about temptation underlies Islam’s strictures about modest dress and mingling of the sexes, as well as Catholicism’s longstanding system of separate parochial high schools for girls and boys.

There’s been vigorous discussion among Evangelical Protestants about related promotion of “purity culture” complete with wait-till-marriage rallies, pledge cards and rings. Some have gone well beyond the biblical teaching that intercourse should be reserved for marriage and contended that dating should be shunned, even when couples plan to marry. Sheila Wray Gregoire’s 2021 “The Great Sex Rescue” is among evangelical books that contend such efforts have been harmful and unfair to women.

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