“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.”
– President Boyd K. Packer (1)
As a sophomore at BYU, I was taking a marriage prep class when I was assigned to write a paper about a topic of my choice pertaining to dating and marriage. I was an active LDS youth and I had heard my fair share of chastity lessons, so I figured I would write about the harmful effects of premarital sex. I knew the basics already: premarital sex was a bad deal and you shouldn’t do it, because if you did, you would be overcome with feelings of guilt. All I had to do was find a few studies to back up my hypothesis and I’d finish my paper before you could say “abstinence.”
So you can imagine my confusion when I found that research was not on my side. According to the research I found, mainstream American adolescents who participated in premarital sex were not overcome with guilt as a rule. Some didn’t even regret their decision.2 I was perplexed. The researchers must have done something wrong, I thought. Maybe the sample size wasn’t big enough. Maybe the adolescents they studied were all liars. Of course you would feel guilty if you had sex before marriage! That’s why we were supposed to avoid it! Or so I thought.
You can probably see the flaws in my logic already. I believed in chastity and I was committed to live a virtuous life, but it was for the wrong reasons. The lessons I and my fellow youth had always heard was a message of fear. It said that we should save sex for marriage because if we didn’t then the emotional results would be instant and catastrophic. Quotes about the remorse and guilt resulting from unchaste behavior were emphasized above all else. In short, it was all about the consequences.
The law of chastity is a strict commandment, of course. The seriousness of the law is made clear in the scriptures and in a plethora of general conference talks. But as with all of God’s laws, chastity is designed with happiness, not fear in mind. Teaching chastity based solely on consequences distorts reality and gives the subliminal message that sex is a thing to be feared. How, then, do we teach chastity? We’ve got to take it seriously, but we’ve also got to make sure we have clear reasoning to back it up. I believe there are three levels of teaching chastity, and while two are somewhat effective, only one will change the lives of youth who understand it.
Level 1: Consequences
We’re all familiar with this approach already. At the consequences level, youth are taught to be chaste so as to avoid the dire consequences that can come if they don’t. Are there consequences to having sex before marriage? Absolutely. But they may not be what you think.
The consequence we discuss most often is guilt. Feelings of guilt are absolutely prevalent among adolescents who have premarital sex, BUT that guilt is highly correlated with an adolescent’s religiosity.3 In other words, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to feel guilty about being unchaste.4 Does that mean the Church has been lying to us, promising feelings of guilt will inevitably follow premarital sex? No. They’re simply saying something that holds true for their LDS audience but not necessarily the world at large.
Don’t jump to any conclusions, though. This finding does not mean that only the religious will feel bad about unchaste behavior while the rest of the world has a grand old time sleeping around. Studies reveal that the nonreligious adolescents who have premarital sex experience something similar, but which is much more prevalent than guilt: regret. Sound the same? They’re not. Guilt comes from knowing you’ve broken a divine law when you knew better. You had the law of chastity but you broke it. Regret comes for different reasons. In one study examining college students who had experienced premarital sex, the majority said they regretted their decision. The most common reasons for regret were feeling the decision violated their personal morals, realizing they didn’t want the same thing as their partner, and because they were pressured into the act by their partner.5 While regret is not universal, it is extremely prevalent, especially among young women.6
Premarital sex also brings with it a risk of marital instability later in life. According to one study, premarital sex is one of the leading factors detracting from the stability of marriages in the United States.7 Another study indicates that the loss of virginity before marriage is highly correlated with an increased risk of divorce.8 Beyond these are the more obvious consequences of premarital sex. Sexually-transmitted diseases and out-of-wedlock pregnancies are always a risk for those who are unchaste. Those who break the law of chastity can run into these consequences and find out that the pleasure of one night doesn’t make up for the pain that can follow.
All of these consequences are very real, but they’re not the end-all of chastity. Each of these consequences have a chance, however slight, of being side-stepped. You aren’t 100% guaranteed to experience any of these consequences if you break the law of chastity, so there’s always a chance you could “get away with it.” But the law of chastity applies to everyone so there must be other reasons for keeping it.
Level 2: Rewards
The step up from the consequences level is the rewards approach. Are there rewards for keeping the law of chastity? No doubt about it. For one thing, you avoid all the negative consequences! Taaaa-daaaaaah! But wait, there’s more! Another great thing about staying chaste until marriage is what could be termed relationship balance. Imagine a couple that felt so close emotionally they could share anything with each other. They knew each other’s secrets, dreams, hopes, and fears intimately, and loved each other for them. Now imagine that couple was afraid to even hug each other. Whoa! There’s a relationship that’s out of whack. Their level of emotional intimacy has gone miles beyond their physical intimacy. The same problem exists in people who are unchaste. When a physical relationship escalates more quickly than the emotional and spiritual relationship, then the relationship is unhealthy. Couples should progress in all areas equally, so when the ultimate emotional and spiritual commitment arrives (marriage), they’re ready for the ultimate physical commitment (intercourse).
On top of that, sex within marriage is much more likely to be selfless, which can actually make it better. According to family sociologists Waite and Gallagher, in selfless intimacy the “love and concern for one’s partner shifts the focus away from the self in a sexual relationship and toward the other person. This selfless approach to sex, paradoxically, is far more likely to bring sexual satisfaction to both men and women.”9 Not bad, huh?
The rewards approach is better than the consequences approach. It portrays sex as a good thing to be experienced in due time and it’s more positive. But is this the best we can do? Will dangling rewards in front of people really change their hearts and make them want to keep the commandments? It’s good, but it doesn’t get at the heart of the matter.
Level 3: Purpose
What’s the purpose behind chastity? Why does the Lord want us to be chaste and what is the role of sexual intimacy once you’re married? We believe the highest covenant we can make on earth is that of celestial marriage. So it’s a no-brainer that sex and chastity are designed to help us in that covenant. Spencer W. Kimball once quoted Billy Graham when he said,
“The Bible celebrates sex and its proper use, presenting it as God-created, God-ordained, God-blessed. It makes plain that God himself implanted the physical magnetism between the sexes for two reasons: for the propagation of the human race, and for the expression of that kind of love between man and wife that makes for true oneness.”10 And it was Elder Holland who said physical intimacy “is the ultimate symbol of total union, a totality and a union ordained and defined by God. From the Garden of Eden onward, marriage was intended to mean the complete merger of a man and a woman—their hearts, hopes, lives, love, family, future, everything.”11
The reason we’re chaste is so we can use sex to help build celestial marriages rather than playing around with it in a big lonely world that’s more concerned with cheap, fleeting pleasure. Sex helps us accomplish something and live married life to the fullest. It opens the door to eternal intimacy between spouses. It’s focused on eternal love. That’s the greatest thing you could ask for in a relationship, isn’t it? That’s what chastity’s about. Real chastity is about working toward a divine marriage filled with pleasure and romance on earth and then love throughout eternity. It’s about celebrating sex and letting it fulfill and enrich marriages where husbands and wives have no regrets. Once you truly know that in your heart of hearts, then you aren’t as interested in breaking the law of chastity because you see that anything contrary to chastity will divert you away from the eternal love God’s way provides.
Consequences? Sure, they’re important. But they’re just one little part of this amazing thing we call chastity. We must remember that as we teach chastity to others. We must remember that God gives us the spirit of power and love and not of fear (2 Timothy 1:7). Let’s teach chastity with this in mind, because it’s not all about the consequences. It’s about love.
- Packer, Boyd K. “Do Not Fear.” Ensign, May 2004.
- Else-Quest, Nicole M., Janet Shibley Hyde, and John D. DeLamater. “Context Counts: Long-Term Sequelae of Premarital Intercourse of Abstinence.” Journal of Sex Research 42, no. 2 (2005): 102-12. Accessed June 4, 2015. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/ehost/search/basic?sid=92e077d1-d45d-446b-9c15-a108144bcdb9%40sessionmgr4001&vid=0&hid=4206.
- Young, Michael, and Betty Hubbard. “The Relationship of Religious Literalism and Other Religiosity Variables to Sex Guilt and Sexual Behavior.” Wellness Perspectives 8, no. 3 (1992): 36-50.
- Cowden, Craig R., and Scott D. Bradshaw. “Religiosity And, Sexual Concerns.” International Journal of Sexual Health 19, no. 1 (2007): 15-23. Accessed June 4, 2015. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/ehost/search/basic?sid=92e077d1-d45d-446b-9c15-a108144bcdb9%40sessionmgr4001&vid=0&hid=4206.
- Oswalt, Sara B., Kenzie A. Cameron, and Jeffrey J. Koob. “Sexual Regret in College Students.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 34, no. 6 (2005): 663-69. Accessed June 4, 2015. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/ehost/search/basic?sid=92e077d1-d45d-446b-9c15-a108144bcdb9%40sessionmgr4001&vid=0&hid=4206.
- Fisher, Maryanne L., Kerry Worth, Jerry R. Garcia, and Tami Meredith. “Feelings of Regret following Uncommitted Sexual Encounters in Canadian University Students.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 14, no. 1 (2012): 45-57. Accessed June 4, 2015. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/ehost/search/basic?sid=92e077d1-d45d-446b-9c15-a108144bcdb9%40sessionmgr4001&vid=0&hid=4206.
- Heaton, T. B. “Factors Contributing to Increasing Marital Stability in the United States.” Journal of Family Issues 23, no. 3 (2002): 392-409.
- Paik, Anthony. “Adolescent Sexuality and the Risk of Marital Dissolution.” Journal of Marriage and Family 73, no. 2 (2011): 472-85.
- Waite, Linda J., and Maggie Gallagher. The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2000. 89.
- Kimball: Kimball, Spencer W. “Guidelines to Carry Forth the Work of God in Cleanliness.” Ensign, May 1974.
- Holland: Holland, Jeffrey R. “Personal Purity.” Ensign, November 1998.
(Special thanks to Dr. Larry Nelson from the BYU School of Family Life for his insights, especially those pertaining to relationship balance.)