For the most part, we reviewed the perilous state of moral values in the United States today. In fact, even though they were coming from a religious perspective and I from a secular one, we agreed on almost every issue. This is what gave me the courage to bring up the question of premarital sex.
I began by explaining that the average age at which women now marry is 26, while that for men is currently 28. Then I suggested that since this is more than a decade past puberty, it is foolish to expect people to remain virgins until they marry.
My assumption was that my guests would disagree. I expected them to tell me that premarital sex was a sin and must therefore be forbidden. But no, both of them agreed with me. They too recognized that physiologically mature individuals are likely to experiment with sex, given how long they remain unwed.
Indeed, statistically speaking, there is a lot of experimentation going on. Males have their first sexual encounter, on average, at 16. Meanwhile, the age at which females first engage in intercourse is also 16. For many years, it had been 19, but things have apparently sped up.
The reason we must now examine what is taking place is that concurrent with these developments there has been an explosion of out-of-wedlock births. Fully 40 percent of American children are presently being born to unmarried parents. What is more, most of these parents are poor.
There has been a lot of talk in recent days about trying to even the economic playing field by transferring tax money from the rich to the poor. Whatever the merits of this policy, it is doomed to fail poor children who are raised by single parents. As sociologists know, such children are frequently ill-prepared to achieve success in a society such as ours.
So what to do? If more unmarried people are having sex, and more of these are parenting children who suffer from being raised without both a mother and a father, how should we deal with pre-marital sex?
Here, it turns out, is another area in which my Jehovah’s Witnesses guests and I agreed. Pre-marital sexual encounters may be impossible to eradicate, but they do not have to be indiscriminant. Both men and women are going to test the sexual waters, yet they need not be promiscuous.
In fact, most are not — especially women. These latter know that if they are too easily available sexually, they will get a reputation for being “sluts.” This is not a nice word, but neither is being regarded as sexually uninhibited. For rather obvious reasons, most men are wary of marrying a woman they fear might cheat.
No doubt, this is unfair — yet it is the way things are. So what to do? If young people have sex, and most do so carefully, what should our collective attitude be? Shouldn’t we recognize the current state of affairs and try to control it with reasonable restrictions?
Let me be clear. I am suggesting that we stop being hypocritical. Let us not condemn people for simply having sex before they marry. But let us also make it plain that promiscuity is frowned upon. Too often, in the media, we see wanton sexuality portrayed as if it were penalty-free fun. This is troubling.
No society has ever sanctioned haphazard sex. The consequences, most notably for the young, are too dangerous. Our society is not exempt. We too must draw the line regarding what is acceptable. I am therefore suggesting that it is promiscuity, not sex per se, that should be vigorously discouraged.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.