Historically and culturally, sexual relationships rarely have been granted a place independent of the social, emotional, familial, generational, economic, and spiritual dimensions of human experience. That may be why the idea of premarital abstinence will continue to be a feature of philosophy and practice, even though many avenues of sexual involvement seem to be expanding in contemporary Western societies. Both sexual involvement and abstinence can be expressions of religious beliefs and traditions, the meanings of marriage and family relationships, contemporary cultural philosophies, and features of one's personal identity, commitments, and beliefs. These sources of sexual practices are intertwined, and produce norms and exceptions to any given culture's stance on what is acceptable in sexual expression. Specifically, sexual involvement can be seen by religions, cultures, families and individuals as inherently wrong, as a necessary evil, as an amoral inevitability fundamental to human nature, as an act that can be engaged in morally or immorally, or as a sacred act reserved for specific contexts or persons.
Sexual expression always has been a concern in religious traditions, and has included boundaries usually concerning marriage and family relationships. Although premarital sexual abstinence is frequently central to religious practices, permanent sexual abstinence within marriage is certainly not the norm across religions or cultures. Yet, some couples practice "marital celibacy" for a variety of reasons.
One rendition of early Christian doctrine suggests a fundamental incompatibility between sexual involvement and being "good." Not only was premarital abstinence expected to be the norm, but to marry and thus participate in conjugal relationships was to choose worldliness over godliness. Sexuality was seen as basic evidence of human kind's fallen nature, while abstinence or celibacy was seen as the ultimate sign of spirituality (Elliott 1993). Such a dichotomy creates an inescapable moral conflict between the meaning of sexual participation— marital or premarital—and abstinence. This may have prompted some couples, from the time of Christ to the sixteenth century, to practice various forms of "spiritual marriage," meaning to live in a marital, but nonsexual, relationship. But there is a difference between a culture advocating abstinence as the prelude to marriage, and installing the practice of abstinence in the marriage itself.
Some religious groups, such as the "Shaking Quakers" (Shakers) in the late 1700s, also extended sexual abstinence to the marital relationship. Not surprisingly, this doctrine undermines a fundamental feature of marriage, rarely questioned in history or in general practice. In fact, with this doctrine, the Shakers "abolished . . . the very heart of orthodox society: the traditional family" (Abbott 2000, p.152). Some feminist critics point out that abstinence in marriage, especially in earlier centuries, could serve to liberate the woman from the threat of disease, death, childbirth, and the sexual demands of the male in nonegalitarian cultures.
Not all Christian or religious groups view sexuality as irrevocable evidence of being fallen or depraved, and some philosophies grant sexuality a positive or even celebrated place in human experience. Some religious groups and cultures do formally declare abstinence to be appropriate until marriage, without invoking an antisexual moral doctrine. The Islamic world and Mormon doctrine, for example, do not see marital sexual involvement as a moral compromise, but as an essential or even higher good. In such philosophies, the purposes of premarital abstinence are not grounded in the idea of sexuality as inherently evil, but as a gift not to be used whimsically. In Islamic belief, celibacy in a marital context is forbidden (see Rizvi 1994). Non-Western and religious cultures are more likely to have normative beliefs in favor of premarital abstinence, while Western and secular cultures are more likely to have specific, even pragmatic reasons for promoting premarital abstinence.
Sometimes due to, or in spite of, specific cultural, personal, or religious philosophies, sexual expression does occur outside of marital boundaries, and in Western cultures, has steadily increased in frequency among both unmarried adults and adolescents. While the premarital rate of sexual participation has expanded, a philosophy of sexual exclusivity is still the norm for married couples. Moreover, sexual expression is still defined by its relationship to marriage. For example, Western culture describes participation outside of marriage not as "nonmarital," but as "premarital" sex. Rationales for such behavior seem to have moved from "sex with commitment" (as in the case of historic betrothal practices or contemporary boundaries defined by "being engaged") to "sex with affection," where mutual, voluntary attraction seems to be the fundamental justification for sexual participation.
In spite of data showing public disapproval of premarital sexual involvement among adolescents, there is debate regarding why the majority of teens (typically sexually abstinent until at least age seventeen) abstain. Reasons for premarital sexual abstinence in the West seem related to four factors: (1) personal beliefs about marriage, family, and sexuality; (2) practical concerns about physical consequences, such as the avoidance of STDS, AIDS, or pregnancy; (3) specific moral or religious considerations (usually defining the meaning and value of marriage and family across generations); and (4) the desire to preserve or not jeopardize opportunities for additional education, financial wellbeing, or the future capacity for establishing stable family lives (see Davidson and Moore 1996).
These factors are expressions of personal beliefs and cultural contexts, and generally are not evidence of an extensive antisexual philosophy. Rather, individuals can articulate a philosophy of sexual involvement that takes into account the time, place, and person—all contextual factors— with whom sexual involvement would be appropriate. Western media (television, movies, pop magazines) unfold stories, plots, and advice that, at the least, presents sexual abstinence among unmarried adults as atypical. Given the data on adolescent behavior, the media seems to ignore or discount a view of abstinence or celibacy subscribed to behaviorally by the young. Personal beliefs about sexual expression may be more conservative than media philosophies, but personal practices can be more liberal than personal beliefs—given the sexual participation rates of those who express a belief in abstinence before marriage, for example (Miller and Olson 1988). Moreover, beliefs and practices about sexual involvement in any culture are not necessarily congruent, and often include a double standard by gender. Nevertheless, in cultures worldwide, there seems to be a link between one's philosophy of sexual involvement (including the options of abstinence or celibacy), and one's philosophy of marriage and family relationships.
Most studies in the United States show that, generally, the majority of adolescents (junior high and high school age) were sexually abstinent until the 1970s. In this decade, some research samples obtained self-reports from the majority of adolescent males that they had been involved in sexual intercourse. By the 1980s, more research studies obtained reports of involvement by a majority of adolescent females, although few studies indicated the frequency of participation. Clearly, premarital sexual abstinence is less a norm than prior to the 1970s (Davidson and Moore 1996).
In assessing both broad cultural beliefs and an individual's commitments, sexual abstinence or engagement is grounded in more than mere physical satisfaction. Especially in egalitarian cultures, the meaning of sexual participation is grounded in the quality of the relationship itself, and takes on the meaning of that relationship. In exploitive relationships, sexual involvement becomes an expression of that exploitation. In relationships characterized by mutuality, equality, and commitment, sexual involvement becomes an expression of these characteristics. Similarly, in cultures where sexual abstinence is recommended before or even during marriage, it is often linked to issues of mutuality, equality, and commitment. As examples, consider that sexual abstinence can become a recommended (and usually temporary) course of action when relationships are not mutual, not equal, and not in a context of commitment. Voluntary sexual abstinence, however temporary, is also dictated within marital relationships for a variety of other reasons. In a 1987 survey (Pietropinto 1987), stress and work pressures were cited as the most common reasons, but illness, marital discord, and decreased personal interest were reasons also given.
A resurgence in calls for sexual abstinence prior to marriage has taken place in Africa, where the threat of AIDS threatens to decimate whole populations. In 2002, King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu tribe in South Africa used a major tribal gathering to appeal to young people, "male and female, to abstain from sex until they get married or until they decide to raise their families." He "called for a revival of the traditions and culture of the tribe, once the most powerful in Southern Africa. . . . The spread of HIV/AIDS and other associated problems, such as drug-taking and promiscuity, reinforced the need for traditional values and unity" (Unruh 2002). His words are similar to that of Janet Museveni, the first lady of Uganda, who has issued calls to the youth of her country.
This plea from Africa integrates traditional religious beliefs, a philosophy of marriage and family relationships, cultural practices, and pragmatic concern for the physical well-being of the population into a stance in support of abstinence. It is not the only view or even a prevailing one, but it illustrates an attempt to acknowledge abstinence as a historic and contemporary foundation for sexual relationships.
Similar arguments and calls to abstinence are a feature of dialogue in the West, and often also include assumptions or research about the impact of premarital sexual involvement on the stability of later marital relationships and the cohesiveness of a pluralistic society (Gallagher 1999). Non-Western cultures that mandate or prefer premarital abstinence or marital celibacy usually match Western cultures in that they do so for religious reasons, out of culture-wide norms and beliefs, or as prevention strategies for the preservation of a generation in the face of life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases.
Abbott, E. (2000). A History of Celibacy. New York: Scribner.
Davidson, J. K., Sr., and Moore, N. B. (1996). Marriage and Family: Change and Continuity. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Elliott, D. (1993). Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gallagher, M. (1999). The Age of Unwed Mothers: Is Teen Pregnancy the Problem? New York: Institute for American Values.
Miller, B. C., and Olson, T. D. (1988). "Sexual Attitudes and Behavior of High School Students in Relation to Background and Contextual Factors." The Journal of Sex Research 24:194–200.
Pietropinto, A. (1987). "Survey: Sexual Abstinence." Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality 21(7):115–118.
Rizvi, S. M. (1994). Marriage and Morals in Islam, 2nd edition. Scarborough, Ontario: Islamic Education and Information Centre.
Unruh, J. (2002). "Good News from Africa." Abstinence Clearinghouse web site. Available from http://www.abstinence.net.
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