Q: Hi, I grew up pretty conservative and I love reading your site but I can’t help but think that sex should only be for after marriage, you know? Isn’t sex better when you wait?
A: I think the answer to that depends on who you are. I’ve known people who waited until after they were married to have sex who were disappointed and I’ve known people who had sex before they were married and regretted it. But I also know people who waited and think that was the best choice for them and people who didn’t wait who are just as happy (notice my wording here – and stay with me).
A study published in 2010 in the Journal of Family Psychology states that couples who waited until after they were married to have sex were much happier. The study involved 2,035 married individuals and showed the following benefits enjoyed by couples who waited until marriage compared to those who started having sex in the early part of their relationship:
- Relationship stability was rated 22% higher
- Relationship satisfaction was rated 20% higher
- Sexual quality of the relationship was rated 15% better
- Communication was rated 12% better
“Most research on the topic is focused on individuals’ experiences and not the timing within a relationship,” said lead study author Dean Busby, a professor in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. “There’s more to a relationship than sex, but we did find that those who waited longer were happier with the sexual aspect of their relationship. I think it’s because they’ve learned to talk and have the skills to work with issues that come up.”
Sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin and author of Premarital Sex in America, was not involved with this research but read the study and shared his take on the findings. “Couples who hit the honeymoon too early – that is, prioritize sex promptly at the outset of a relationship – often find their relationships underdeveloped when it comes to the qualities that make relationships stable and spouses reliable and trustworthy.”
Because religious belief often plays a role for couples who choose to wait, Busby and his co-authors controlled for the influence of religious involvement in their analysis. “Regardless of religiosity, waiting helps the relationship form better communication processes, and these help improve long-term stability and relationship satisfaction,” Busby said.
Okay, well, that’s nice and all but here are a few problems with their study. First off, remember how I said “just as happy”? How does a person who waited know what the might have felt had they not waited? The idea of comparative happiness is a black hole in psychological, sociological, and relational studies. It’s like saying, “I’m happier on Earth than I would be on Mars.” How would I know unless you’ve experienced both? Which leads us to the second issue: Self reporting. Self-reported data is the worst kind of data you can collect because your response could be affected by a variety of factors including your mood, what is happening in your life, and whether you feel like skewing the data. Third, by not following up on with these couples and simply basing their findings on an initial questionnaire, there’s no baseline to judge from. “I’m sick,” may be true during one season and not another, even one day and not another.
But the biggest issues here deal with the source of the studies. Busby’s study skews heavily towards the religious since he is a professor at Brigham Young University (a conservative school since it is the “flagship” college for the Mormons/Latter Day Saints). In fact, when you look at who took this survey, there is an overwhelming religious bend to their “research.” The study says 21% of respondents were Catholic, 39% Protestant, 6% Latter-Day Saints (Mormon), 17% members of “another religion,” and 17% who indicated no religious affiliation.
They didn’t “control for the influence of religious involvement”! That’s 83% religious! Over 4/5 of their sample! The conclusions they make about their “research” should be laughed at since they do not reflect the population of America (or any state in America), much less the world entire. This isn’t an accurate assessment of the population – in fact, if anything, this is a religious (and not sociological or relational) study.
To be blunt, the study is not just unprofessional, it’s dishonest.
But they’re not the only ones connected to this study who are suspect. We’re all familiar with the way that religious leaders can falsify information to prove their point. Case in point: Mark Regnerus, who was quoted earlier. Regnerus’ work has been put under severe scrutiny as well, so much that it has virtually discredited his entire career. Regnerus attended Trinity Christian College in undergrad, which is part of the Christian Reformed Church, a historically conservative part of the Christian community. His sociological research is more professional than the Busby study, but not by much.
Which brings us back to square one – regardless of what “other people” are saying, ultimately you are the one who needs to decide what is best when it comes to your sexual decisions.
The way you phrased your question leads me to believe that you’ve heard pieces of this study and you also say you were raised in a traditional home. Thank you for reading this site and putting your question to me! I love that you are seeking out information on sex and sexuality for yourself! Yay! However, again, the way you phrased your question means you are making a comparative judgment – “sex is better when you wait”, better than what? Not waiting? It sounds like the basis for your valuation here is probably religious – which is great. I’m religious also and think my faith helps guide many of my decisions. Yay for religion! But whether it is or is not “better” depends on you, the choices you are making for your life, and hundreds of other factors (like your worldview and religious views). No one can really determine whether waiting (or not waiting) is “better” except for you – and sadly, that’s – shrug – life. We make decisions every day without knowing how it will play out over the long-haul. We get married, we move, we take a job, we leave a job… Life is a series of adventures and sexual decisions are part of those adventures.
Speaking personally, I go back and forth. I’m glad that I am not a virgin since I thoroughly enjoy sex and all kinds of sexual activity. But there are times when, yes, I wish I had waited because sex isn’t one thing and emotions another. Sex and emotions often go together as a package deal, and sex before you are ready can be traumatic. By all means – and I want to say this as clearly and directly as possible – Do. NOT. have sex until you are ready to have sex. Push, pull, knee, jab, do whatever you need to do to get yourself out of a situation where you do not feel comfortable and ready to continue.
Virginity is not something you should struggle with or feel conflicted about, but you also shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or “dirty” in some way if you do have sex. Sex can be fun with the right person/people and is not a magical experience to save for marriage. Begin by exploring your sexuality today – masturbate, read erotica, read articles, and see what interests you. Many virgins that I know today started out this way and have discovered all kinds of neat things about themselves.
I wish you and I could sit down and discuss this more fully, but for now I want to encourage you to keep reading information and literature that will help you make an informed decision. And once you have sex (before or after marriage), let me know how it went!
Source: Dean M. Busby, Jason S. Carroll, Brian J. Willoughby. Compatibility or restraint? The effects of sexual timing on marriage relationships.. Journal of Family Psychology, 2010; 24 (6): 766