Where Logic Meets Love

Why Do I Think Sex Outside Marriage is OK?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

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Why Do I Think Sex Outside Marriage is OK? | Faith Permeating Life

Disclaimer 1: This post is about sex.
Disclaimer 2: This post talks about rape and sexual abuse and has the potential to be triggering.
Disclaimer 3: This post is kind of long. Sorry.

Sometimes there are questions that I avoid until you guys make me confront them head on.

I've talked before about why I don't think it's fair to jump to conclusions about people who have sex outside of marriage or who wait until they're married to have sex. There are too many judgments and assumptions on both sides of the equation, and no two people are exactly the same.

I've also linked to a blog post by John Green about how actually attaching a concrete definition to "sex before marriage" is all but impossible.

But as someone who identifies as a person of faith and comes from a community of faith that says in no uncertain terms that you shouldn't be having sex outside of marriage, I figured I'd have to defend my own personal views sooner or later.

So here I am, after having received a comment on my previous post essentially saying that the problems of sexual assault would go away if we just kept sex within marriage. I couldn't even get myself to start on this post last night because I just kept making loud noises of frustration every time I re-read the last paragraph.

Keep in mind that I had just read this post on Jen's blog.

This commenter talked about the widespread problem of sexual abuse and sexual assault, and then she said, "I do not believe that sex in general is inherently wrong but I do believe that sex in the wrong context is one of the most destructive sins of all. It ruins lives and causes trauma. And that's is why I am rather conservative in my views about sex and believe that it should be reserved for marriage. I think that it is worth doing whatever possible to protect as many women and children (and men, in rare cases) as possible. If everyone saved their sexual impulses for the right context-- a monogamous marriage--I think the world would be a better place. And we might finally be able to view sex as what it was meant to be--a gift from God." [emphasis mine]

Tell that to the woman getting raped by her husband every night. You think that's not traumatic because they're having sex in the "right context"?

Think about that a minute.

To me, what's important is that sex happens in an atmosphere of love and mutual respect, as a way of expressing love and caring for one another by the gift of oneself. I don't see it as much different than the spirit of service that should pervade the rest of a relationship, except that God decided to make it physically pleasurable.

I don't believe a marriage certificate is necessary for the above. And I believe you can have a marriage certificate and not have the above.

The idea that we have to restrict sex to marriage seems to stem from this idea that we have too much sex, that our "sexual impulses," as she said, are just running wild all over the place, and that that's the problem. That sexual abuse and assaults wouldn't happen if we could just have less sex in the world by limiting it to certain contexts.

But here's the problem with that argument: Sex is not the problem.

Let me say that again: Sex is not the problem.

By and large, sexual crimes are not about the sex. Let's face it, if a guy just wanted an orgasm, he has the ability to achieve that all by himself. What we're talking about are crimes of power and domination and control. Sex is the means, not the end. It's a tool. A weapon. Something that is taken, rather than given. And that is the problem.

Not the legal status of the people involved in a sexual act.

I would argue that the man who is forcing himself on his wife at every opportunity is doing way more to corrupt and distort the beauty and Godliness of sex than the couple who is lovingly serving each other in bed but don't happen to have had a wedding ceremony.

I'm focusing on sexual crimes because that's what this commenter was trying to argue about -- that having sex outside of marriage is somehow the reason for sex being distorted in this way. But I don't think that's the only way that sex can be distorted. A woman who withholds sex from her husband as a way to bargain with him or "punish" him for something he did -- that's a distortion of sex too. That's using sex, or the lack thereof, as a weapon.

I'm also not a fan of casual sex -- e.g., hookups, first-date sex -- not because it happens outside of marriage, but because I don't think it's generally an expression of love and service to one's partner in those contexts. If you're having sex with someone you just met, or with a "friend with benefits," then sex is more than likely intended to be solely about your own pleasure. It's a lustful, selfish kind of sex. (And it does have consequences. I did a research paper on "hookups" in grad school and the whole appeal is that it's supposedly sex with no lasting consequences, but there are almost always emotional, if not physical, consequences.)

And really, sex can be lustful and selfish even within marriage. Like I said in the comments of my previous post, a couple could be adhering to all of the supposed "rules" about sex -- having it in a monogamous married relationship, with no barriers to conception -- but be doing it solely as a way of feeding their individual pleasures and not out of any affection for each other. And I think that is a shadow of what sex should really be.

I believe that sex in its truest form is an expression of love and service. And that's true regardless of whether the partners involved are straight or gay, married or unmarried. Sex is not distorted by taking away the religious or governmental recognition of the partners' commitment to each other. Sex, as given to us by God, is distorted when it's used as a form of domination, of violence, of selfishness.


Having said all of that.

You may know that Mike and I saved sex for marriage. In fact, we saved our first kiss for marriage. So I feel that to give this topic its full due, I also need to talk about why we made that choice. That will be Thursday's post. [Update: Here's that post.]

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

Update: Dianna E. Anderson wrote a fantastic post on this same issue that responds even more directly and beautifully to the problems in the comment I received.


  1. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)

    Jesus said it best in Matthew 5:27-30. He states that not just married men, but “anyone” who “covets through an impure desire” after a woman is guilty of adultery. Even if the act wasn’t allowed to be performed, the mere intention is enough. If Jesus was declaring all forms of sex wrong he would’ve used words like husband or wife. He didn’t because He knew that marriage is the correct and only acceptable context for sex, and so did his audience.

    Sex outside of marriage is wrong. Word

  2. @Bill
    I see we have very different interpretations of that Bible verse. Thanks for sharing yours.

  3. Great article! I agree with everything you said except your characterization of "friends with benefits" as similar to "sex with someone you just met." You have no experience with either, so I'm not blaming you for not understanding the difference.

    When two people are friends, they have an ongoing relationship based in a type of love, though it is not the same as romantic love. Any act between them that is selfish or hurtful will damage their friendship. Their mutual desire to maintain the friendship motivates them to be positive, helpful, and loving to one another. In this context, if the two friends decide to serve one another sexually, they will have to do it in an unselfish, respectful way, both in the moment and in the way they relate to the whole subject afterward, or their friendship will be damaged. That can motivate a very positive bond that is different from being "just friends" but also is different from being "a couple". The understanding of and empathy for each other's feelings that friends already have makes sex much better than it would likely be between people who just met.

    It's a common belief of American mass culture that male-female friendships are inevitably destroyed by sexual involvement, unless the people first "exchange" friendship for marriage or at least dating. In my experience, THIS IS A LIE. I have never had sex with anyone who wasn't already my friend; I have had sex with friends who remained friends for many years afterward. Our friendship was deepened, not damaged, by the aptly named "benefits". The only problems happened when one of us believed we "ought to" become a couple now and the other didn't want that; that is a difficult situation, but it's possible to talk through it and resolve it.

    As for it being solely about one's own pleasure: In my experience of a friendship with gradually accruing benefits that turned into a 17-years-so-far partnership with a child and owning a house together and being very deeply in love...at least half of our sexual encounters are about one of us seeking physical pleasure and the other being willing to give it. Often it's both of us at once seeking, but still, the primary goal is our own pleasure and stress relief, and the opportunity to serve our partner is kind of a secondary perk. I don't see that as lustful and selfish, just pragmatic.

    And in my experiences with friendly sex, the motivation often was to help each other relax, feel happier, and get some physical affection. Sometimes it was explicitly discussed as an alternative to hiring a stranger (or picking one up in a bar) for what we figured would be an inferior version of the same service, since it would be hard to relax with a stranger and he/she wouldn't LIKE you. In other words, it's sort of an alternative to lust (using someone for just sex) and selfishness (valuing your own pleasure only).

    Here's the other thing that's different from hooking up with a stranger: You can trust your friend to tell you the truth about STD exposure. If your friend gets you pregnant, you know where he lives, you know you can count on his support in difficult times, you know the two of you can problem-solve together, and you probably already know his views on abortion and his plans for his future. For men, intercourse with a stranger raises the appalling possibility that your child could be born 9 months later and you'd never even know--this cannot happen with your friend that you see every day. So I think it's very different.

    Of course, I don't think that sex is necessary for male-female friendship or that everyone needs sex so much that in the absence of a romantic partnership we have to turn to our friends. I think it's fine to abstain from that whole option. But I'm glad I didn't! :-)

  4. @'Becca
    Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts! I wrote this article with the knowledge that you had previously discussed having sex with friends, so I knew that you would have something to say :)

    I should clarify first that I was not trying to say that having sex with friends was the same as having sex with strangers. As you noted, there are many differences. I was saying that these are two different situations (in addition to other ones I mentioned) in which I don't think that sex generally happens in its fullest expression of love and service. While I'm willing to defend sex between unmarried partners even from a Christian standpoint on sex, I would not defend either of these situations as being expressions of what I believe sex was created for.

    Even though I don't personally have the experience of having sex outside of marriage, I'm not basing my ideas on it on simply what I imagine it would be like. (In fact, the post I wrote for tonight kind of blasts this kind of "armchair judgment," if you will.) I based it primarily on the research project I mentioned, in which I spent an entire semester of graduate school reading every article I could get my hands on that dealt with sex outside of a committed romantic partnership. This ranged from "hookups" with strangers to arrangements that friends had made to have sex with each other (which, it was noted, was preferable to sleeping with strangers for many of the reasons you mentioned). The majority of the researchers reached similar conclusions across the hundreds of interviews, which is that it is a rare encounter indeed that leaves the partners with more positive than negative feelings.

    Given this, I really think that you are a rare individual who has the maturity to have sex outside of a committed romantic relationship with a clear understanding of what sex means to you and what is important to you in a sexual situation, and to talk through any emotions or misunderstandings that may arise as a result. I agree with what you said here: "In this context, if the two friends decide to serve one another sexually, they will have to do it in an unselfish, respectful way, both in the moment and in the way they relate to the whole subject afterward, or their friendship will be damaged." I believe that's an incredibly difficult thing for most people to do! However, if that's something that is possible for you, then I'm not going to sit here and say that you are wrong and shouldn't be doing that. It goes back to my original notion that I think sex is at its best when it happens in a loving, supportive environment as a way of serving one another, and in the rare cases where that is possible between friends, then so be it.

  5. @'BeccaI love what you wrote! I'm trying to navigate the world of relationships and friendships without the strict ideas from the religion I was raised in... The idea of a friendship turned to partnership sounds beautiful... and the way you work together and have a good understanding of what sex is (and isn't) for each of you... It just sounds amazing.

  6. @JessicaThank you for writing this. It helps me to read lots of different perspectives, and it helps me to see that my life wasn't "normal"... Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  7. @jen
    Thank YOU for being brave enough to share your story. You may not know it, but you will be a guiding light for someone--probably many--who needed to hear your story, either because they couldn't see their own situation from the outside looking in, or because they were clinging to the lie that everything that happened within a marriage was perfect and holy. Minds and lives are changed through stories. Thank you.

  8. (Hey, this time my iPad gave me the name/URL option for commenting! I still do not understand its ways. Pardon the late response; I have been sick.)

    It is strange to me that someone who was friends with a man for years before marrying him thinks it would be incredibly difficult to base a sexual relationship in friendship. Most of the people I have known who believe sex and friendship don't mix, also believe that a husband and wife cannot be friends due to irreconcilable differences between men and women, so each of them always will be closer in some ways to same-sex friends; they believe friendship and romantic love are two separate things that happen with different people, normally different genders of people. You are not like that, and in fact it seems to me that you and Mike did decide to serve one another sexually in an unselfish, respectful way that would enhance rather than harm your established friendship--you just decided not to do that until you were married. So are you arguing that it is incredibly difficult to be unselfish and respectful regarding the activities of one night, but EASIER to make a permanent commitment to unconditional love and shared credit ratings and all that?? Doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

    I understand your point about research supporting generalitles about the effects of various sexual arrangements--and I am not arguing that "friends with benefits" is an equally healthy and beneficial type of relationship to a loving long-term partnership--but I have to ask if you compared these "sex outside of a committed romantic partnership" situations to the typical contemporary American "committed romantic partnership" in which people who just met go on three dates and then start having sex and after about two years get married unless/until they change their minds about being together. To me, that approach always has felt wrong, unhealthy, lonely, and sad. (but because of that, I have no direct experience of it!)

    Maybe I am so mature and super-evolved. I like that idea. :-) But I don't think it is impossible for the majority of people to base sex in friendship rather than "dating." I mean, 40 years ago research studies showed that traditional gender roles were much better for everyone--because the majority of people who had experienced maternal employment, fathers doing a lot of childcare or housework, etc., had these experiences because the father lost his job or the mother died or something went wrong; very few people were so experimental and brave as to choose non-traditional roles on purpose. Huge shifts in our society since then have made non-traditional roles more available and acceptable, which has increased the number of healthy people who feel allowed to try those roles and the number who thrive in them. We may see a similar shift if there is a large-scale change in the type of sexual relationships considered normal. From my perspective, having attended a university where sex with friends was common and most romantic relationships (including those that turned into longterm partnerships) were based in friendship, it does not seem like a strange or difficult thing at all!

    Jen, I am glad you found my perspective helpful! I feel very lucky to have reached it so early in my life. Even before finding the right university for me, I had a crowd of friends in high school that was excited about the possibilities of friendship-based sex; we were only about 10 people, but what are the odds of finding 10 like-minded, norm-questioning people in small-town Oklahoma?! I'm sad that not everyone has the experience I did, but I hope I have something useful to share.

  9. @'Becca
    I meant to say this on my other comment, but--I hope you feel better soon!

    So are you arguing that it is incredibly difficult to be unselfish and respectful regarding the activities of one night, but EASIER to make a permanent commitment to unconditional love and shared credit ratings and all that??
    Nope, that is not what I'm arguing. Those are both difficult things. But when you have chosen to make that permanent commitment to unconditionally love someone, then I think sexual activity within that relationship is more likely to come from a place of unselfishness and service than during a one-night sexual encounter. You have a lot more invested in the relationship--this is the person you're going to be with for the rest of your life--so you have more incentive to have their needs and their pleasure in mind when initiating sex than with someone outside of that kind of a relationship. Clearly this is not always how sex happens in a long-term partnership (which was part of the point of my post), but it seems to make sense to me that you would be more likely to have a focus on the other person's satisfaction if they are your life partner than if they are your sexual partner for that night.

    I didn't make the kind of comparison you suggested in my research paper, mainly because I didn't find any research that had been done comparing these kinds of relationships, but also because my interest in the topic initially came from another angle. I worked with alcohol abuse prevention for two and a half years in college, so for my Interpersonal Communication class I was originally looking into how alcohol influences sexual decision-making, communication, and consent, but ending up expanding it to include all research related to sex outside of a committed relationship, with only a small portion on the relationship between alcohol and sexual decisions.

    You bring up some excellent points about how contemporary models of what constitutes dating and marriage aren't necessarily any "better" than sexual friendships in terms of the effect it has on the people involved. And really, that comes back what I was trying to say in this post--that the relationship context in which sex occurs is less important to me than the emotional context. If I am more troubled by sex in some relationship contexts than others, it's only because I think they are more likely to involve partners who have selfish or lustful reasons for having sex, are more likely to lead to negative emotional consequences, and are less likely to include a sincere investment in satisfying one's partner. But in cases like that, what troubles me is the selfishness, the negative consequences, and the lack of true connection during an activity that I believe was created for connection--not the relationship context itself.

    Still, and this goes to my subsequent post, I don't find it productive to sit around judging anyone's sexual decisions because I think it takes the focus away from what we actually can do in terms of promoting healthy sexuality and preventing sexual abuse and assault. More health and less hurt are way more important to me than measuring up to anyone's notion of "morality" when it comes to sex.

    Can I just say how much I enjoy having these discussions with you? :) You help me to clarify my thoughts and beliefs. I wish more people understood what respectful disagreement looked like!

  10. 1) I didn't know you read John Green! Me too! 2) Ever read Susan Walsh's website "Hooking Up Smart?" It's a WEALTH of information, and I tend to agree with her on most issues. Here's a relevant article on casual sex and its effect on girls and women: http://www.hookingupsmart.com/2010/03/01/hookinguprealities/how-feminism-got-drunk-and-hooked-up-with-a-loser/

  11. @lifewithabean.com
    1) Yup, totally! I feel like I need a badge or something that says "Proud Nerdfighter since 2007." I still never miss a vlogbrothers video and follow John on Twitter and Facebook. I'm pretty much a John Green fangirl :)

    2) I hadn't heard of her site, but it looks great. It reminds me of how we approached alcohol abuse counseling in the office I worked in: We never told students they "shouldn't" get drunk or drink underage, but we gave them information about the research on alcohol use and then helped them think through what their goals and values were and how they could make decisions about alcohol that were in line with those. It sounds like she's doing much the same thing with sex. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Can't believe I missed this post when it was first posted, but hey, I'll add my two cents anyway.

    You know that Husband and I had sex before we were married, a couple weeks after we started dating, in fact. However, I feel like my story is literally the object lesson demonstrating that "the plural of anecdote is not evidence." Our relationship has been very, very strange. There was an uncanny feeling of intimacy between us before we even started dating. We felt very close to one another, we understood one another, we needed each other. In one toast at our wedding, which was the story of how we got together, it was stated that we had been "inexplicably drawn toward each other," and as much as the idea of soul mates and destiny squick me out, it's the truth. So, we'd decided to get married before we had sex, a little over a week after we started dating, 4 months after we'd first met one another. Insanity! Just retelling the story gives me the heebie jeebies! I cannot believe this resulted in a healthy 4.5 year engagement and a healthy marriage.

    At the same time, there were also some very logical reasons that our relationship was so healthy and so happy from the very beginning, even though I was only 18 and he only 21. We both had negative experiences in our families where we developed not only the desire to prevent the same harm in our own relationships, but the skills necessary to avoid harmful behaviors. So while we struggled with our mutual immaturity and inexperience, that foundation of wanting to do right rather than be right, and the understanding that problems could be solved with communication, understanding, respect, etc. helped us learn from our mistakes to get where we are today.

    What I feel would decrease sexual assault in our society includes comprehensive sex education with emphasis on the nuances of what constitutes consent and the harmfulness of slut-shaming and gender stereotypes. But sex outside marriage? To say that the only "proper context" for sex is inside monogamous marriage is to say that the respect, love, trust, and intimacy Husband and I shared back then were all irrelevant, and that is a very dangerous thing to imply. As you said, when it comes to sex, those are the things that keep us from hurting one another, not marriage certificates or wedding bands or white dresses.

  13. @Mórrígan
    It's kind of funny how your own story freaks you out a bit :) That's another reason I try not to dismiss other people's experiences simply because they seem strange or unlikely--because who knows if they will happen to me!

    I agree with what you said about what kinds of things actually help decrease sexual assault, and I think trying to deny that your own experience was a healthy one is an unwise and, frankly, unproductive discussion.

  14. What i find so interesting about the verse that the first commenter talked about (Matthew 5:27-30) is that Jesus talks to Jews that try to go around the laws but not break them and just do everything except the real 'sin'. And he just says that that is hypocritical. It aint about that if you only think you are doing really wrong.. It is about people trying to hold to the rules and not seeing the heart of God behind it... All the while doing bad but not breaking the rules... If you are pure in your heart and breaking the rules it is better than feeling really sinfull and not breaking the rules..


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