How common is premarital sex?

The Relationships in America survey asked participants when they began having sex with their current spouse or partner. The question keeps recurring—just how common is premarital sex? The topic particularly piques the interest of clergy and youth workers, who want to better understand the culture in which the people they serve are living. The question, however, is not as straightforward as you might think. In one sense, anyone who has ever had sex before getting married can be said to have experienced premarital sex. On the other hand, the term implies an eventual marital relationship. In a context where fewer people marry, the term makes less sense. This is why some scholars have spoken of “pre-premarital” sex, or the sexual activities many people experience with others prior to those experienced with an eventual spouse.45 The phrase arguably now refers to all unmarried nonmarital sex—a sexual relationship that occurs outside of marriage and typically without marital intent—as distinct from premarital sex (sex between eventual spouses) and extramarital sex (historically dubbed adultery). In these analyses, then, we are talking about premarital sex in the technical use of the term—sexual experience with a spouse prior to getting married (among currently-married persons). Because we define premarital sex in this way, we focus our attention on married respondents and tally those who report having sex with their current spouse before they married as those indicating premarital sex.

Figure 12.1Premarital sex, by age group

In what might appear at first glance as ironic, older married respondents tend to report higher levels of premarital sex. The percentage of each age group reporting premarital sex increases as the age of the respondent increases through the age group 35-44, where the percentage of each group reporting premarital sex levels off. But before you conclude too much about this, remember that younger married respondents likely exhibit lower frequencies of premarital sex because more religious young adults are more apt to marry prior to age 25, or shortly thereafter. Which brings us to the key question we hear about premarital sex: does religion matter?

In short, yes. Increased religious service attendance is negatively associated with reports of premarital sex. Among married weekly religious service attenders, 65 percent reported first sex prior to getting married, compared to 88 percent who report occasional attendance and a full 96 percent of those who never attend religious services. But perhaps those who attend regularly are more prone to social desirability bias and less likely to give a straight answer to the question. What about inward rather than outward religiosity?

Figure 12.2Premarital sex, by religious service attendance

Those married Americans who report religion being “not at all important,” “not very important,” or “somewhat important” report approximately the same proclivity to premarital sex. But there is a statistically significant difference for those who report religion being “very important” and “more important than anything else.” In these two groups, increased self-reported importance of religion corresponds with a lower percentage of the group reporting premarital sex. Among those for whom religion is “very important,” there is a 15-percentage point drop in premarital sex, and another 20- percentage point drop among those who said religion is “more important than anything else.” So yes, religiosity appears to make a difference, whether it’s a public form of religiosity or a private one.

Figure 12.3Premarital sex, by religious affiliation

Affiliation differences?

Different religious traditions treat the matter of premarital sex with greater or lesser seriousness. Some stick to the practicalities of sex outside marriage as largely unwise or constituting a physical or emotional health risk, but one largely lacking spiritual ramifications. Others almost exclusively privilege possible spiritual consequences of sex outside marriage. Evangelical Protestants often emphasize marital “sexual boundaries,” that is, sex after and within marriage. Mormons tend to encourage the “law of chastity” which prohibits “any sexual contact outside of marriage.” Roman Catholicism formally emphasizes premarital abstinence. Among Catholics in (or not in) the pews, however, there are varying degrees of sexual conservatism.46

And the results largely support these assumptions. Those reporting their religion as “Nothing” or “Spiritual but not religious” report the highest levels of premarital sex, while Mormons (LDS) report the lowest levels. Among Protestants, those that classify themselves as “liberal Protestants” report the highest levels of premarital sex while more conservative “evangelical Protestants” report the lowest levels. Similarly, more conservative “traditional” Catholics report the lowest levels of premarital sex among Catholics while “liberal” Catholics report the highest levels.

THOSE REPORTING THEIR RELIGION AS “NOTHING” OR “SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS” REPORT THE HIGHEST LEVELS OF PREMARITAL SEX, WHILE MORMONS (LDS) REPORT THE LOWEST LEVELS.

45 Gagnon, John and Simon, William. “The Sexual Scripting of Oral Genital Contacts.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 16 (1987): 1-25.

46 Regnerus, Mark. Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford, 2007.

Next: How common are sexually “inactive” marriages?
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