Americans love to tout the value of waiting until marriage to have sex. We teach abstinence-only education in schools across the country, and even comprehensive sex-ed programs often point out that "abstinence is best." Pop stars from Britney Spears to Jessica Simpson, to the Jonas Brothers, to Miley Cyrus, to Justin Bieber routinely assert that they're waiting 'til marriage – putting them into the Good Role Model category (at least, until someone leaks a sex tape). There's a booming "purity industry", complete with jewelry, elaborate events, books, t-shirts and DVDs.
Our state and federal tax dollars have long been spent promoting "chastity". While conservative commentators are happy to assert that waiting until marriage is the best choice for everyone and people who don't wait aren't doing marriage "the right way", sex-positive liberals hesitate to say that having sex before marriage is an equally valid – if not better – choice for nearly everyone.
So here it goes: having sex before marriage is the best choice for nearly everyone.
How do I know? Well, first of all, nearly everyone has sex before marriage – 95% of Americans don't wait until their wedding night. And that's a longstanding American value. Even among folks in my grandparents' generation, nine out of ten of them had sex before they wed.
Of course, just because lots of people do a thing doesn't mean it's a good thing. But sex is. In terms of happiness, sex is better than money, and having sex once a week instead of once a month is the " happiness equivalent" of an extra $50,000 a year. People with active sex lives live longer. Sex releases stress, boosts immunities, helps you sleep and is heart-healthy.
Sex is good whether you're married or not, and certainly folks who wait until marriage can have a lot of sex once they tie the knot. But waiting until marriage often means both early marriage and conservative views on marriage and gender – and people who marry early and/or hold traditional views on marriage and gender tend to have higher divorce rates and unhappier marriages. We know that, on the other hand, there are lots of benefits to marrying later and to gender-egalitarian marriages. Couples who both work outside the home and also share housework duties have more sex. Financially independent, college-educated women who marry later in life have extremely low divorce rates.
It turns out that feminist values – not "traditional" ones – lead to the most stable marriages. And feminist views plus later marriage typically equals premarital sex.
Most adult human beings naturally desire sex. And despite the rightwing emphasis on concepts like "purity", having sex does not actually make you a dirty or "impure" person. On the contrary, sex is like most other pleasurable things in life – you can have sex in ways that are fulfilling, fun, good and generous, or you can have sex in ways that are harmful, bad and dangerous. Marriage is not, and has never been, a way to protect against the harmful, bad and dangerous potential of sex (just read the Bible if you want a few examples). Instead of fooling ourselves into thinking that waiting until marriage makes sex "good", we should focus on how ethical, responsible sexual practices – taking precautions to protect the physical and mental health of yourself and your partner; having sex that is fully consensual and focused on mutual pleasure – are part of being an ethical, responsible human being.
Sexual morality isn't about how long you wait. It's about how you treat yourself and the people you're with.