Sex Before Marriage

Can any religion that doesn't permit it influence bedroom ethics in America?

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After twenty years of churning out "Savage Love," the Seattle writer can lay a legitimate claim to being America's most influential advice columnist. He is syndicated across the world in more than seventy newspapers--mainly alternative weeklies in the United States--with well over one million in total circulation. Online, he reaches millions more readers. He is a frequent contributor to the popular radio program This American Life, and a "Savage Love" television show on MTV is said to be in the works. His podcast has a higher iTunes ranking than those of Rachel Maddow or the NBC Nightly News, and his four books have sold briskly (a fifth is due out in March). And when it suits him, the range of his commentary has become increasingly broad...

While he built his following by talking without fear or euphemism about the technical aspects of intimate life, Savage has moved inexorably over the years toward focusing on the moral ones. In so doing, he has carved a unique place for himself in the culture's discourse about sex. For years, there have been moralizing voices on the right standing athwart the rush of sexual freedoms yelling "Stop," and there have been others whose policy is to remain nonjudgmental toward sex as a form of expression. Savage yields to no one in his sexual libertarianism, but he has not been content to relegate the ideas of right and wrong to cultural conservatives. Wading deep into the free-fire zone of modern sexuality, he has codified a remarkably systematic--and influential--set of ethics where traditional norms have fallen away. The question is, into what kind of world do his ethics lead us? ~ Benjamin Dueholm, writing in Washington Monthly

Among my many friends from Catholic school, I can't think of anyone who waited for marriage to have sex. Perhaps I'm forgetting someone. But I doubt it. At the very least, hundreds of former classmates went against the church on this one - even devout believers who were married by priests, attend mass weekly, and plan to send their infant children to Catholic schools.

My Catholic friends have tended to marry younger than my non-Catholic friends, but almost all of them got married later in life than did their parents. This seems significant. It is plausible to ask a generation to postpone sex until they turn eighteen or twenty-one. Less so if they're marrying at twenty-four or twenty-seven or thirty, ages at which divorce is statistically less likely.

Orthodox Catholics believe sex outside marriage is sinful, that it goes against the wishes of God. In asserting so, they exert powerful influence on a very few people, and effectively cede all ethical questions concerning pre-marital sex to Dr. Drew, Dan Savage, sundry glossy magazines, the Office of Campus Life Orientation Coordinator, and the films of Judd Apatow. I'm less familiar with other Christian denominations. But I've never encountered one that has answers to most questions Dan Savage fields.

I don't mean to suggest that religious institutions should abandon their ideas about truth to become better at the advice-giving game. I am merely observing that the prohibition on pre-marital sex cannot survive a society where people get married in their late twenties or early thirties; that pre-marital sexual relationships are fraught with ethical questions apart from whether they should exist at all; that the teachings of Jesus Christ might easily be applied to a lot of those questions; but that the folks who normally provide guidance in how to follow Jesus eschew that role.

So Dan Savage has codified one of the most systematic and influential sets of sexual ethics in America. And in a small-circulation magazine of neo-liberal thought, a Christian minister has cogently critiqued it! Either click through, or take my word for it that the exercise proved fruitful. I wonder how American sexual ethics would change if other devout Christians engaged in more of the same.

(Fascinating that someone anticipated some of this in Time magazine circa 1950.)

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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