It’s good to be vindicated about sex!

Rev J John writes that a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family has proven what Christians have known for a long time – relationships are better when sexual involvement is delayed

It’s no secret that there are major points of disagreement between Christians and our secular, consumerist, post-Christian culture. One of the areas where there are significant differences concerns sex.

Biblical Christianity has always held to the ideal that sexual relations should take place only between a man and woman who have been bonded together in marriage. Such a belief flies in the face of the widely held contemporary view that sex is no more than a pleasurable, physical activity, in which everybody over a certain age ought to be engaged, and that it’s no one else’s business what happens in the bedroom.

Imagine, then, the surprise – if not distress – of Independent readers, at an article that appeared on Sunday 2 September 2012 describing sound, psychological support for the Christian view of marriage. The research cited – a study of ‘The tempo of sexual activity and later relationship quality’ by Sharon Sassler and her co-workers – was published earlier this year in The Journal of Marriage and Family and was also featured in a recent edition of Psychology Today (28 August 2012). Their study was based on a detailed and carefully analysed online survey of nearly 600 married or co-habiting couples, in which the female partner was under 45 years old.

“It has been known for years that couples who cohabit before marriage, without the commitment of an engagement, are more likely to divorce or, if they remain together, that they may well experience poor marital quality.”

Presented without any moralising on premarital sex, it came up with a number of interesting conclusions. The first sentence neatly summarises their results: ‘Rapid sexual involvement may have adverse long-term implications for relationship quality.’ This conclusion is not unique: it has been known for years that couples who cohabit before marriage, without the commitment of an engagement, are more likely to divorce or, if they remain together, that they may well experience poor marital quality. This ‘cohabitation effect’ occurs because many people who live together before getting engaged slide into marriage through a process of inertia. Rather than critically evaluating whether the relationship is right for them, they may decide to marry, based on factors such as convenience, economics or unplanned pregnancy.

The Independent article made a number of observations based on the research findings, and among them were the following:

  • The postponement of sexual involvement is associated with higher levels of  relationship quality.
  • Women, who deferred sexual involvement for over six months, reported  significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment, intimacy and emotional support, as well as sexual satisfaction with their partner, than did those who became sexually involved within the first month.
  • Courtship is a time for exploration and decision-making about the relationship, when partners assess compatibility, make commitments, and build on emotional and physical intimacy.

 The only real advice put forward by the original researchers seems to go not much further than ‘Don’t leap into bed with someone immediately.’ In the Psychology Today article, Susan Krauss Whitbourne pointed out that if, in your own marriage, sexual activity started ‘sooner than it ought to have done’ doesn’t mean that your relationship is ultimately doomed to failure! She suggested that being able to spot the signs of relationship difficulty could help you prevent problems before they become unmanageable: improving the ways in which you listen to, and communicate with, each other is one of the primary ways of building emotional bonds. Yet I think it is possible to draw some other conclusions from the work undertaken by Sassler and her co-workers.

First, this research suggests that the idea, widely promoted in the media, that a couple must fall into bed on the first or second date, is actually harmful for the future of the relationship. We need to build psychological and emotional bonds before we get physical. The Independent is right: ‘those who abstain during their courtship or build up a gradual sexual relationship, rather than leaping into bed on the first date, are more likely to have happier and longer relationships.’ The logical conclusion is that the biblical view, of sexual intimacy being reserved for committed, long-term relationships – ideally signified by marriage – actually provides the best prospects for healthy, life-long partnerships.

 Second, it supports the idea that God sets down moral standards for us not because He wants to spoil our fun, but because as a loving God He wants to keep us from harm – His rules are meant to protect our pleasure, not prevent it. If, however, these moral standards have not been maintained, we have a loving and forgiving God who is able – when we turn to Him in repentance – to equip us to live in a better way, offering hope for renewed and improved relationships in the future.

Finally, I also see here a warning to those who constantly want Christian beliefs and ethics to change into something more appropriate for our contemporary culture. This research suggests that when it comes to sex and marriage, it is not the views of Christians that need changing, it is those of society.

Rev Canon J. John is Director of the Philo Trust.  Visit for more details, or follow on Twitter  @Canonjjohn 

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