The Rules are simple. Don’t have sex before you’re married. Get married once. Don’t get divorced.
These are the rules I learned as a boy, and these are the rules that are still being taught by Christians all over the country, particularly the evangelicals and fundamentalists. There’s a big problem, though. The rules are staying the same, but society has changed. People are waiting longer to get married. Sometimes, they’re waiting a lot longer. The average age of first marriage in the U.S. is about 26 for women and 28 for men. That’s as high as it’s ever been.
Back when the rules were all the rage, most people were ready for marriage between 18 and 22 years old. My own grandmother was sixteen and my grandfather was eighteen. Not today. When I was 24, I entered graduate school. At 24, my grandfather had four children. Many of my friends are in their thirties, and are just getting married for the first time. Off the top of my head, I can name three female friends who are approaching forty and have never married.
Society has changed. In many ways, it has changed for the better. With Women’s Liberation came the freedom for women to choose their own life paths, which may or may not include marriage or childbearing. Though women still earn less pay than men in many jobs, it is quite common for women to support themselves without the need of a man to “bring home the bacon.” Women don’t need marriage anymore. (If you haven’t read it, now would be a great time for you to read my article on marriage myths.) Without the societal and financial pressure for a woman to secure a breadwinner immediately after “coming of age,” marriage simply isn’t an attractive prospect for a lot of women today.
There’s also the nasty truth that young marriages fail. There really isn’t any way around it. The best predictor of divorce is the youth of both partners. Then there’s the expence of children. Most 18-20 year olds today don’t have the financial means to raise a child. To many people, marriage means family, and there are a lot of men and women who have very good reasons for not wanting to commit to raising a family so early in life.
The bottom line, then, is that real world realities make marriage a bad choice for a lot of today’s twenty-somethings. This wouldn’t be such a problem except for The Rules. For anyone who’s been twenty one before, let’s be honest. Sex is a really big deal. It’s a really big deal when you’re 31, too, but if you’re still a virgin at 21, you’ve got a LOT of pent up sexual frustration. We’re evolutionarily designed to be thumping like bunnies from somewhere in our teens (we can talk about how young is too young another time) until our biological clocks run down a few decades later. There’s nothing in biology or evolution that suggests that we, unlike any other animal, are designed to have a prolonged period of abstinence during our most fertile years.
Hence the dilemma for Christians — marry too young, or live in sin. Sociological data suggests that most people, even evangelicals, opt for living in sin. Between eighteen and twenty-three, over 93% of couples have sex. If we can believe the self-reported statistics of conservative Protestants, 80% have sex before marriage. (And let’s be realistic. They have good reasons to lie.)
The truth is, people have always had sex when they were in their late teens to early twenties. We’re not living in some kind of decadent, immoral sexual orgy. Young people are doing what they’ve always done. They’re just not bothering to get married to do it. For those of us who value fact over fiction, this doesn’t present a very big problem. We tell young people to wait until they are ready, to use condoms every time, and to get on the pill in addition to condoms if they don’t want an unexpected pregnancy. Only marry when you’re sure you’re ready. Your value is in your personality — who you are, what you do — not in your virginity. Live life. Enjoy life. Love.
Christians, on the other hand, can’t figure out what to do. Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas and an evangelical Christian, says that people ought to marry earlier. That’s right. Damn the statistics, and full speed ahead. Marry as soon as possible so that you don’t have to be abstinent, since it’s really hard to be absinent. In typical theist pretzel logic, he calls himself out for his own opinion:
Well, yeah. You do want people to marry because you don’t want them to have premarital sex. You’re a scientist, for crying out loud! You know that young marriages don’t work, and yet you want people to get married earlier. The pretzel twists again:
“I think marriage is just a fantastic institution for people who think rightly about it, have realistic ideas about it and put the requisite work into it.”
I’m sorry, but this kind of Orwellian doublethink just makes my head spin. No, Mark. Marriage is not a magical universal good. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn. We’re talking about people here, not a magic spell. Mark and other theists like him believe in magic. They think that a priest or pastor can sprinkle fairie dust on two people, and instantaneously, the magical property called “Good and Holy” fixes itself onto the man’s penis and the woman’s vagina, and henceforth, anytime they want to touch naughty bits, it’s great and wonderful.
Pardon me, but what a crock of shit!
Mark is not alone in his dunderheadedness. Michael Lawrence, an evangelical pastor in Washington, DC, said this: “We probably haven’t served our young people well by on the one hand emphasizing abstinence, but on the other hand telling them to wait to get married. It seems to be setting them up to fail.”
Well, smack me in the face and call me Betsy, but YEAH. You haven’t served your young people well. You’re sending a mixed message. To those of us not blinded by dogma and faith, it’s easy to figure this one out. Marriage is just a piece of paper. It’s not a stain remover for genitals. The de-emphasis on marriage since Women’s Liberation has been a good thing in many ways. It is the end of one of the most powerful weapons employed by patriarchies everywhere since the invention of patriarchy. It has given both men and women permission to discover their own individuality — to become their own person and then decide whether or not it makes any sense to commit to one person in a legal and permanent contract. This unscientific, patriarchal, bull-headed insistence on abstinence before marriage is not helping anybody. It’s just screwing up perfectly good lives by pressuring people into early marriage.