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The Secret Sexual Revolution

A recent study reveals most single Christians are having sex. We undress why.

Like other believers she knew growing up, Maria Kearn* planned to save sex for marriage. She made it through high school with her virginity intact, but when she was 20 she started having sex with her college boyfriend.

“It seemed everyone in my life, older and younger, had ʻdone it,ʼ ”Kearn says. “In fact, I waited longer than most people I knew and longer than both of my sisters, even though we were all Christians and came from a good home.”

Kearn continued to have sex with her college boyfriend for years as they maintained an on-again/off -again relationship. “I was so hooked on him that it took me too long to finally break up with him,” Kearn says. “The straw that broke the camelʼs back was that I came down with HPV, highlighting the fact that even though I was only with him, he [had been with] other people.”

Stories like this arenʼt often heard in church, but that doesnʼt mean they arenʼt common. In fact, a recent study reveals that 88 percent of unmarried young adults (ages 18-29) are having sex. The same study, conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, reveals the number doesnʼt drop much among Christians. Of those surveyed who self-identify as “evangelical,” 80 percent say they have had sex.

Eighty percent.

So much for true love waits.

Whatever Happened to Abstinence?

Apparently, the concept still exists even if few are following it.

Dr. Jenell Williams Paris, an anthropologist and the author of The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are, says the high rates of premarital sex are a call to the Church to live in reality.

“We need to talk to people as they really live in the world they really live in,” Paris says. “If rates of premarital sex are really that high, but we continue to talk as if the vast majority of people are virgins when they get married, weʼre out of touch. We need to address reality."

And the reality is the numbers arenʼt going down. Of those 80 percent of Christians in the 18-29 age range who have had sex before marriage, 64 percent have done so within the last year and 42 percent are in a current sexual relationship.

In addition to having premarital sex, an alarming number of unmarried Christians are getting pregnant. Among unmarried evangelical women between the ages of 18 and 29, 30 percent have experienced a pregnancy (a number thatʼs actually 1 percent higher than among those who donʼt claim to be evangelical).

According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of all pregnancies in America are unintended. And of those, 40 percent end in abortion. More than 1 million abortions occur in the United States each year. But perhaps the most disturbing statistic for the Church: 65 percent of the women obtaining abortions identify themselves as either Protestant or Catholic (37 percent Protestant and 28 percent Catholic). Thatʼs 650,000 abortions obtained by Christians every year.

The pregnancy stats are shocking to many—and the abortion stats horrifying— but the root problem is the willingness to have sex before marriage. Without sex, pregnancies and abortions donʼt happen.

If abstinence messages were actually working—and this generation of Christians was genuinely committed to saving sex for marriage—then the other issues would dwindle considerably.

If this generation wants to reverse the trend and reduce the number of Christians having premarital sex, the first step is trying to figure out why so few are waiting.

Why Waiting Is So Hard

The mediaʼs marketing of sex, the cultural endorsement of the “do what feels good” mentality, the prevalence of pornography and the widespread misunderstanding of sex that prompts people to chase after love and acceptance in unhealthy physical relationships are all factors that make it difficult to practice chastity. The reality is chastity is not the norm. And such a discipline is certainly not easy.

Godʼs picture of sex and marriage is certainly a beautiful one, but itʼs also … old. Biblical times were a lot different than current times. Is such a picture still relevant?

Scot McKnight, author of One.Life and professor in religious studies at North Park University in Chicago, is aware of the difficulties facing unmarried Christians and the shifts in the “reality” of living chastely.

“Sociologically speaking, the one big difference—and itʼs monstrous— between the biblical teaching and our culture is the arranged marriages of very young people. If you get married when youʼre 13, you donʼt have 15 years of temptation.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age for first marriages for both men and women has been increasing for the last 45 years. In 1965, the average man first married at age 22.8; the average woman, 20.6. In 2010, the average age was 28.1 for men and 26.1 for women.

Abstinence messages have often been geared toward teenagers, but as the average marrying age creeps closer to 30, the time period when Christians are called to be chaste can easily extend a decade beyond their high school graduation—or much longer. So what does abstinence look like as Christians “grow up” and enter the real world but are still single?

“Itʼs absolutely not realistic,” McKnight continues. “But itʼs also not realistic not to do a lot of things, and that doesnʼt mean the Bible doesnʼt tell us the ideal and design of God is to not have premarital sex.”

As young Christians mature into their 20s, itʼs natural for them to reevaluate their beliefs as they strive to figure out how faith fits into their expanding worldview. If they determine they can drink responsibly and watch movies and listen to music with a discerning spirit, is it possible the “donʼt do it because itʼs wrong” message gets tossed aside along with all those other “legalistic” messages of youth? That they start to believe they can also have sex “with discernment”?

“We have to recognize that people are not married during the years when their hormones are hardest to control,” McKnight says. “So weʼre dealing with a very serious issue that needs to be treated from a variety of angles and not simply the moral angle that itʼs wrong outside of marriage.”

McKnight also wonders if part of the problem is a devaluing of marriage. If young Christians no longer deem marriage a worthwhile endeavor—or see it as a temporary thing (proven to them by the brevity of their parentsʼ marriages and the prevalence of divorce in Western culture), then sex within marriage certainly loses some of its profundity—and sacredness.

“I think churches need to value marriage so highly that they teach the meaning of love and marriage on a regular basis,” McKnight says. “The Church needs to encourage and prepare people for marriage, but they need to do this without offending people who choose to remain single and people who are single who donʼt want to be single. I donʼt think the reason to get married earlier is to avoid temptation for sex or to avoid abortions, but simply because itʼs a good thing. If we valued marriage higher, I think we would have more people getting married earlier.”

Itʼs Possible (No, Really)

If the statistics are correct and 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals between the ages of 18-29 have already had sex, then what does this mean for the majority of Christians in their 20s? If chastity is understood as “one strike and youʼre out,” what hope is there for the large percentage of Christians who have essentially “failed” by having sex outside of marriage?

“I absolutely think we should encourage ʻrenewed abstinence,ʼ” says Joanna Hyatt, the director of Reality Check (Los Angeles), a sexual and relational health education program that promotes sexual integrity. “You cannot talk about sex within the Christian community without also [mentioning] Godʼs grace. If weʼre serious about people growing in their faith, we have to help them see this issue will stand in the way of their relationship with God, but it doesnʼt have to keep them from God.

“Renewed abstinence is a way to make a stand, to commit again to living a life of purity in body, heart and mind. There may be consequences youʼll have to deal with from past decisions, but those decisions do not define who you will be going forward or the nature of your relationships.”

In spite of the discouraging statistics, Hyatt knows itʼs possible to wait for marriage.

“Having lived through it myself, I can actually say it can be done, but it will take work,” Hyatt says. “[Abstinence] is incredibly difficult—and itʼs a decision you have to proactively make every day. For couples in serious relationships, it means not letting down your guard, remembering that temptation gets stronger and being smart about how you handle your relationship. No one, and I mean no one, is exempt from sexual temptation once theyʼre in a relationship, which is why it is so important to have clear physical boundaries, to have accountability with people youʼll actually be honest with and to regularly remind yourselves why it is youʼve chosen to wait.”

Giving the Abstinence Message a Makeover

Everyone knows we live in a hyper-sexualized society where sex is constantly available—online if not in person—but the idea of chastity has become even more complicated by a shifting definition of what sex is.

“Iʼve heard people say oral sex is sex, but it doesnʼt breach virginity,” Paris says. “Even the terms seem to be shifting. And thatʼs not just people trying to get away with sin. I think itʼs [the result of] honest questioning: What does my sexuality mean? What exactly is sex? And as a Christian, what is holiness? Where is that line?”

But when the focus is on “the line,” it becomes easy to lose sight of what it means to be abstinent, to be chaste, to “wait.” Abstinence shouldnʼt be about whatʼs OK to do or how far itʼs possible to go without sinning, but rather it should be about honoring God in all things.

Even though most Christians believe abstinence is the right thing, something needs to change for believers to truly live out their faith and pursue holiness in every area of life—including oneʼs sexuality.

This article is adapted from one that appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of RELEVANT magazine. Subscribe to RELEVANT magazine here. You can also check out a lengthy conversation about this article on CNN. 

Top Comments

Angie Canavan


Angie Canavan commented…

"If this generation wants to reverse the trend and reduce the number of Christians having premarital sex..."

Don't the numbers indicate that this generation DOESN'T want to reverse the trend?

Nicholas Cameron


Nicholas Cameron commented…

As one of the non-sexed, I find this so depressing. I know that ironically the non-virgins can feel super isolated... maybe we are all more painfully aware of those that are different from us than those who are the same.

I'm 32, male, and female interest isn't at all foreign to me. I think of the image of two virgins having sex and waking up the next morning to begin their new life together is simply beautiful. Really, what can be better than that? Contrast it with the guilt or secrecy or just the lack of special-ness in getting drunk and going too far, or losing your virginity in your dorm room, and it feels like we've just forgotten what to hope for.

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” -CS Lewis

I wish I didn't feel so alone in this. I really don't know who around me is having sex and who isn't - it's awfully hard to think that the lovely female I just ran into at church may have been thrusting and moaning with some other guy last weekend. Sorry for the image. Ugh. (Of course it could well be that she wasn't, and hasn't.) I don't say it to be hurtful, but to express my own hurt - I wish we could lose it with each other instead of all that grief and baggage. I still hope I might meet someone who is great for me, and who happens to be a virgin.

PS: this isn't my real name.


Joe Szczepaniak


Joe Szczepaniak commented…

As one of those in the minority who've continued to remain abstinent late into their 20s, I can tell you that there was no secret sauce in holding fast. My parents raised us to stand firm in any ideals that we had. That's why I'm 27, a successful businessman, have never been drunk, had drugs, or had sex. Those are MY ideals. I was given the strength to hold to them. They weren't someone else's ideals to me. I have a number of Christian friends who actually look down on me for my choices, and say that my behavioral choice indicates some kind of "holier-than-thou" attitude. However, I recognize that I've made all sorts of bad decisions where my own ideals weren't solid. More often than I'd care to admit, I use profane language, break minor laws (driving, etc.), and club people on the head with Truth instead of offering love. Nobody is perfect, but I've found that the combination of 1) Concrete Beliefs and 2) Confidence in my own decisions has led to some successes. It's pretty basic. I don't understand how someone can be unsure of what the Bible says about premarital sex, or drunkenness. Read your Bible, know what God commands, and then stick with it. You'll only falter when you're not sure. It's like the serpent in the Garden of Eden saying, "Did God REALLY say...?" Yes! He DID say.

Louis Thorndon


Louis Thorndon commented…

We live in a hyper sexualized culture. There is little we can do about that. The Left has played a long game. We have not. Many of us do not know that there is a war on us. That means we will lose. In terms of public policy, Republicans and Conservative Democrats and churches win where there is less college education (indoctrination), more small business, cheaper houses, fewer government jobs and earlier marriage. The GOP has to move to giving preferences for marriage and children in terms of tax deductions, not refundable credits or rebates, so that it is affordable to marry young. The money that is wasted on student loans should be given as marriage loans for people setting up a family with low interest rates and long term repayment plans so they can have a home and then a business. Income tax should be on family basis with the income divided between the spouses at least, if not the children as well, to eliminate progressivity. There should be no move against abortion. It is wrong, but it is the safety valve that stops us from being swamped culturally and fiscally. There should be no income tax and no corporate taxes on building and developing affordable housing and residential land. There should be federal grants conditioned on winding down restrictive planning rules. The federal government should litigate 5th Amendment claims against planning laws of States and localities that make land artificially scarce. Student loans should be put on a commercial basis and the concept of proof of discrimination by differential hiring results should be abolished - perhaps by Supreme Court litigation - so as to eliminate the need for much higher education. Why is it that the GOP foolishly defends federal statutes that it does not support, yet Obama abandons the Defense of Marriage Act? The GOP has to get real. Christians have to start behaving with a bit of guile and have to play a long game too. Otherwise, we will be persecuted. It is instructive what is happening in the Australian State of Tasmania. There is no Bill of Rights. Now the State Government is trying to ban any speech that suggests a woman should not have an abortion.



KristineKruszelnicki commented…

It's not hard to wait until you're 22 or 23. Try adding another decade to that. Christians have nothing to say to abstinent adults unmarried at 30, 40, or 50 other than "keep waiting" or "it's God's will".

Abstinence programs aimed at secular teens are even less likely to yield virgins until marriage. You have nothing to offer an unmarried 35 year old atheist who isn't worried about pregnancy anymore and knows how to put on a condom.

Maurie Speed


Maurie Speed replied to KristineKruszelnicki's comment

Haha! TRUTH. At this point, I believe that is between you and God alone, and it's a decision you must make on your own, knowing both sides of the argument:)

Brad Carpenter


Brad Carpenter replied to Maurie Speed's comment

Kristine I think you have a little right... and a little wrong. You're right, its much harder to say wait for a spouse to 30, 40, 50 year old singles. Better to say (as Tim Keller does) you may never get married, but God is still better than the world. Sex is not the be all end all, and we aren't just waiting for marriage...we are walking in God's path now, the path of righteousness, because we appreciate him more than what the world has to offer. We may fail in this way and have extra-marital sex... BUT to go into open rebellion against God (disobey his commands intentionally) is a much bigger problem. The underlying lie here is that you can only be satisfied if you are having sex. That is idolatry and it simply isn't true. As for atheists... you're absolutely right. Without God's help through the holy spirit there is simply NO hope that they will remain obedient to God. For them the only hope is in repentance. Lets be thankful that through Christ we are no longer slaves to sexual sin!

Tim Herndon


Tim Herndon replied to Brad Carpenter's comment

Brother, thank you. Well said, and full of love and truth.

Angie Canavan


Angie Canavan commented…

"If this generation wants to reverse the trend and reduce the number of Christians having premarital sex..."

Don't the numbers indicate that this generation DOESN'T want to reverse the trend?

Tara Wagner


Tara Wagner commented…

I can wholeheartedly agree that marrying late is what has been the downfall of my generation. Teaching men to pursue women earnestly, and women to respond appropriately is the only way to keep us from sinning sexually. I used to think marrying late was smart, but now I see it really harms us.

Being part of the 22% is a very lonely island to live on, but like Joseph, the Lord always rewards long enduring faithfulness.

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