The data confirms it: don’t have sex before marriage, and don’t shack up

By Jonathon Van Maren

As the Sexual Revolution inches past the half-century mark, it is becoming increasingly obvious to anyone who happens to be looking closely that this collective social experiment has not worked out particularly well. As I highlighted in the first several chapters of my 2016 book The Culture War, broken marriages, shattered families, sexually transmitted diseases, ubiquitous porn use, and the ugly standoff between the genders has shredded the fabric of society and resulted in a generation of very lost men and women.

Interestingly, new studies that purport to deliver ground-breaking conclusions seem to confirm, time and again, that it is time we took a good hard look at what we left behind when our culture abandoned marital monogamy for sexual “liberation.” Consider this recent story from The Atlantic:

Over at the Institute for Family Studies, Nicholas Wolfinger, a sociologist at the University of Utah, has found that Americans who have only ever slept with their spouses are most likely to report being in a “very happy” marriage. Meanwhile, the lowest odds of marital happiness—about 13 percentage points lower than the one-partner women—belong to women who have had six to 10 sexual partners in their lives. For men, there’s still a dip in marital satisfaction after one partner, but it’s never as low as it gets for women…

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, when it comes to sex, less experience is better, at least for the marriage,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies (and an Atlantic contributor). In an earlier analysis, Wolfinger found that women with zero or one previous sex partners before marriage were also least likely to divorce, while those with 10 or more were most likely. These divorce-proof brides are an exclusive crew: By the 2010s, he writes, just 5 percent of new brides were virgins. And just 6 percent of their marriages dissolved within five years, compared with 20 percent for most people.

Notice some of the language here—we have moved so far past the age of courting, marriage, and family that it is now the conventional wisdom that having more sex with more people is better for an eventually monogamous and lifelong relationship down the road, as counter-intuitive (or perhaps stupid) as that sounds. Wolfinger later notes something that has long been obvious to many: That one reason those who marry as virgins are happier is simply because they do not have a compulsion to constantly compare their partner to previous sexual partners, or have any concern that their spouse is doing the same to them. To put it simply, they are both the best sex partner the other has ever had. Exclusivity has enormous merits, and provides marriage with an enormous security.

The pattern of “hook-up, shack up, break up” is also still in effect, despite the “conventional wisdom” being that it is wise to move in together before making the decision to actually get married. In reality, those who move in together are more likely to get divorced than those who do not, according to all available data. A recent study confirms this, noting that “Premarital Cohabitation Is Still Associated With Greater Odds of Divorce”:

A new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family finds that the “premarital cohabitation effect” lives on, despite what you’ve likely heard. The premarital cohabitation effect is the finding that those who live together prior to marriage are more likely, not less, to struggle in marriage. It has a long and storied history in family science.

Michael Rosenfeld and Katharina Roesler’s new findings suggest that there remains an increased risk for divorce for those living together prior to marriage, and that prior studies suggesting the effect has gone away had a bias toward short versus longer-term effects. They find that living together before marriage is associated with lower odds of divorce in the first year of marriage, but increases the odds of divorce in all other years tested, and this finding holds across decades of data.

The data confirms it: When it comes to sex and marriage, previous generations had it right and we have it wrong. This comes as no surprise to those who predicted this outcome in the first place, and certainly comes as no shock to those of us who have been privileged to see the marriages of our parents and grandparents. (My paternal grandparents, at 92 and 97 years old, still hold hands in church for the entire service.)

It reminds me of a wonderful statement made by on old lady named Rozena Pride, who was interviewed by a local newspaper in the US on her long marriage to her husband Charley. She was asked what the key to being married for so long was, and she found the question quite confusing. “The main reason,” she responded tartly, “is that neither of us has died.”


For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.

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