A survey analysis published earlier this week by University of Utah sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger finds that having more sexual partners before marriage correlates to having unhappier marriages later in life.
Wolfinger, who published his report under the banner of the Virginia-based Institute of Family Studies, drew his data from the comprehensive General Social Survey, a biennial survey of Americans on their attitudes on a range of topics, from the political to the personal.
In this case, Wolfinger looked at the very personal. Controlling for divorce rates, religiosity, and socioeconomic status, he found that while 65 percent of women and 72 percent of men with one sexual partner in their lifetime reported being “very happy” with their marriage, that number drops to 60 and 64 percent, respectively, when adding even one other premarital sexual partner. That number further drops with each additional sexual partner, until we get down to 55 and 59 percent satisfaction with one’s marriage above 10 sexual partners.
The survey’s results fall in line with other comparative analyses polling premarital sexual behavior and marriage. Psychologists Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley found that women who have had sex with someone other than their husband report statistically significant drops in marital quality over those who don’t. A 2004 study by sociologist Jay Teachman showed that intimate premarital activities such as cohabitation and intercourse increased the rate of marital dissolution by anywhere between 28 and 109 percent, depending on the activity.
Researchers have advanced several theories about the negative correlation between premarital sex and marriage quality. One theory is what sociologists C.E. Rusbult and B.P. Pluunk call “Interdependence Theory,” which argues that premarital sex with multiple partners expands a person’s knowledge of sexual and romantic alternatives, making it harder for them to commit to his or her spouse. Under this theory, the presence of more choices in one’s memory actually hurts spousal commitment.
Another theory advanced by sociologist Philip Cohen is that refraining from multiple sexual encounters is more typical of committed men and women, and that promiscuity before marriage is more typical of relationally challenged people. What is left unclear is whether relationally challenged people have more premarital sex or if premarital sex challenges relationships.
The results come with a few caveats. The respondents, especially married ones, may have been embarrassed to mention that they had multiple sexual partners before their own spouses. But the percentage of respondents who described having no other sexual partners––a surprisingly high 27 percent of women––is in line with other studies about the same question.
What’s Wrong With Premarital Sex?
However, the flipside of this number is that the vast majority — 90 percent — of Americans have had premarital sex, usually with multiple partners, before marriage. Furthermore, Americans generally don’t mind premarital sex, with only 26 percent of Americans saying that sex before marriage is morally wrong, as of 2016.
The study’s authors are very direct in their assessment about where these laissez-faire attitudes on premarital sex came from: the sexual revolution of the 1960s, fueled by the pill. Prior to the sexual revolution, “shotgun weddings” and other cultural norms usually led to sex partners becoming married if a child was conceived. After the pill, sex became easily accessible and materially inconsequential, leading to the breakdown of those norms and the birth of sex-for-all as the default cultural paradigm.
So how much should we care about the new scientific evidence that shows that even materially inconsequential practices such as premarital sex are likely to have long-term emotional consequences that affect happiness in marriage? Would even definitive proof that premarital sex negatively affects marriages be enough to convince the legions of young twenty-somethings to restrain their libidos for the sake of future satisfaction with a still-unmet spouse?
We Still Live Happily Ever After, Right?
Olga Khazan, a writer for The Atlantic, certainly does not think so. She concludes her review of Wolfinger’s study by stating dismissively that “all this prenuptial bonking isn’t hurting marriages writ large,” citing Wolfinger’s remark about 64 percent of people reportedly being “very happy” with their marriage. “For the most part,” she concludes, “we still live happily ever after.”
But Khazan’s “no big deal” analysis about premarital sex and marriage misses a crucial point: some of us live far more happily ever after than others. For well-educated, wealthy, and socially strong couples, perhaps the emotional consequences from premarital sexual habits can be assuaged by social status and financial security. But for those who have less of a support apparatus, their personal habits can play a much bigger role in defining the success of their marriage.
This is especially true in poor communities with low marriage endurance rates. While one might scoff at the idea that premarital “bonking” is an issue somehow worth addressing in the same breath as structural poverty and drug use, premarital sex — especially among adolescents — has a strong negative effect on academic performance, especially among males. Above all, it is the primary driver for sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, and out-of-wedlock births. All these factors discourage marital stability among the populations that perhaps need such stability the most.
This is not to say those of us bachelors who are wealthier and better-educated don’t have reasons to reconsider our sexual habits, especially if we desire marriage. Evidence supports the hypothesis that our short-term sexual relationships can cloud our ability to develop meaningful longer-term ones. If we value these long-term relationships, returning our culture to an emphasis on chastity might make sense.
The Kids These Days Might Be Getting It Right
There’s an argument to be made that Generation Z (people born after 1996, roughly), which has only recently blossomed into adulthood, and millennials are starting to internalize these considerations toward premarital sex. After all, adolescent sexual activity reached its peak in the 1980s and has slowly declined ever since, according to the Los Angeles Times.
We now have a reasoned, positive case for why we should weigh the long-term risks of our sexual decisions with our short-term desires. But the question remains: will anyone change his or her behavior based on this kind of evidence?