We've all heard the schoolchildren's chant that goes, basically, "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage," or some iteration thereof. Of course, in this day and age, that's not always the chronology at all, and sometimes whole bits are missing, sometimes there are whole new ones. Maybe there is a baby and no marriage, maybe there's no baby, maybe—and this would be the saddest option—there's no love. Jill Filipovic has an excellent piece in the Guardian today in which she explores "The moral case for sex before marriage." This seems to have been a long time coming, but no time is like the present as we remain a nation of people conflicted about things Puritanical and things Titillating.
Filipovic writes that in America we "love to tout the value of waiting until marriage to have sex," and in that vein of thinking, there are the pro-abstinence programs frequently funded by state and federal money; there are also those who rail against discussions of anything but abstinence as a way of promoting sex in teens. But even as the abstinence talk would seem to be an obvious line for some evangelicals and staunch conservatives, "sex-positive liberals hesitate to say that having sex before marriage is an equally valid – if not better – choice for nearly everyone."
Filipovic decides to be one of the first to say it, and so she does: "Having sex before marriage is the best choice for nearly everyone," backed up with several arguments. Pretty much everyone does it (even back in the old days); sex is more happiness-producing than is money; sex is good for your health; she explains—and those things hold true regardless of marriage. Further, the problem with waiting, she says, is that those who wait are usually those who marry early and have traditional views on marriage and gender. Those are also the people who tend to have higher divorce rates and unhappier marriages, she argues, citing the benefits of marrying later and having more gender-egalitarian marriages, with shared housework duties and a corresponding uptick in sex. Filipovic admits that not all sex is good, that unintended pregnancy and abortion rates are a problem, as are STDs (which can, of course, happen regardless of marriage). But her key point, I think, is here:
Instead of fooling ourselves into thinking that waiting until marriage makes sex "good", we should focus on how ethical, responsible sexual practices – taking precautions to protect the physical and mental health of yourself and your partner; having sex that is fully consensual and focused on mutual pleasure – are part of being an ethical, responsible human being.
Sexual morality isn't about how long you wait. It's about how you treat yourself and the people you're with.
There's another discussion underlying all this, though. Views of premarital sex have clearly changed, and Filipovic is right, we see it in movies, we read about it in books, most of us do it, with varying degrees of regularity and commitment. We're grown-up consenting adults, after all, free to live our lives. And culturally it's gotten to the point that there's even a bit of a reverse shaming at work: Despite what the abstinence promoters would say, "virginity" past a certain age is regarded with more confusion and possibly even concern than the opposite. The 40-Year-Old Virgin is perhaps the most obvious cinematic example, where that sexual status is a joke, even, and definitely a bit weird.
So why has it taken so long to say what Filipovic does? It's not "couth"? We're afraid as women that we'll be branded with one of those Limbaugh-slung words, one of those scarlet letters, as something no longer desired as marriageable? At one point the attribute of "virgin" seemed one of the most important of all for a woman going into marriage. Vestiges of that likely remain, but other parts—the judgments or criticisms, particularly of sexually empowered women—may never have gone away.
Even with the progress evidenced in society with regard to gender equality and women's rights, we still have a ways to go. And the institution of marriage remains in some ways a last hold-out for those steps of progress (just look at gay marriage, which still is an option in fewer than 10 states). This doesn't mean marriage is outmoded, but a lot of the trappings certainly are. Many women who would never support abstinence in their long-term cohabiting, committed adult relationships are likely to wear a white dress while walking down the aisle, because it's tradition. And just as a grown-up couple might register as if they haven't been living together with the normal number of fully functional pots and pans prior to being wed (and requesting new ones as gifts), we act as though these old no longer relevant traditions and beliefs (to help set up a working household for a new couple who may not be able to afford it otherwise) still hold true and are a crucial part of the experience. If we'd all be upfront about what was what, you'd imagine that quite a lot of the tooth would be taken out of the real and imagined judgments. And maybe we'd do better at being happy, having successful relationships and marriages, loving each other.
Filipovic writes, "But our cultural view of premarital sex as morally tainted makes it harder for couples to engage in real talks about their sexual needs and desires before marrying, the same way they would talk about their religious values, how many kids they want or whether the wedding cake will be chocolate or vanilla."
Moral or not, it would be freeing to admit that if we're old enough and adult enough to get married, we're old and adult enough to admit to having had premarital sex. And that maybe that old form of "morality" is the least of our worries.
Image via Shutterstock/alphaspirit.