Christian Sexual Ethics: Should singles have sex before marriage to make sure they are sexually compatible?

“Making sure we are compatible…”:  Recently I had a friend explain that his Christian father was a divorced but re-married over twenty years ago.  Before his father and now step-mother were married the two person (both professing Christians) actually made sure that they had sexual intercourse before they got married.  This was done to to make sure they were compatible “in that way”.  They wanted to be certain they would have pleasurable sex in marriage before they committed to a permanent life union.

I also have heard this argument before, primarily from non-Christians.  A friend of mine in high school, balking at my commitment to celibacy before marriage, asked, “What if you marry someone, and they are a bad lay?”  Sex before marriage in her mind was a way to make sure the other person was sexually pleasing to you, something necessary for a long term relationship.  In the movie Fight Club, a creative critique of our culture from within, there is a line that is chillingly similar to the argument of this Christian couple: “A condom is the glass slipper for our generation. You slip one on when you meet a stranger. You dance all night, and then you throw it away.”  The fact that the Christians and non-Christians have argued for the same thing along the same lines makes me suspect that they share some common assumptions about marriage and sexuality.  I believe the couples arguement contains a number of assumptions about marriage and sexuality, in line with the wider culture, of which I would like to highlight two.

First, this couple operated under the assumption that pleasure in sexual intercourse is a binary and permanent result of physical and relational chemistry between two individuals.  A couple will have a specific degree of pleasure in sex based on pre-determined factors that do not change.  If this is the case, then sex, before and forever after in the marriage will be the same and premarital sex could be used as a litmus test for future sexual pleasure in marriage.  If this is not the case, if, for example sex is more of a learned skill between two people and the result of emotional intimacy as well as physical intimacy, the couple would not need to make sure they were compatible as sexual pleasure would naturally increase the more they had sex with each other and the deeper their unity as persons.

Second, the couple was apparently unwilling to get married if they had unpleasing pre-marital sex.  This means that they were assuming the above point, and also that good sex is necessary for a good marriage.  A marriage that was doomed to have bad sex was another divorce in the making and should be avoided.   For the couple in question, this is as far as I can reasonably take my argument without more information on them.  However, I would suggest the wider issue at work here is what is a couple basing their marriage on?  Given that they were unwilling to get married if they did not have “good sex” their marriage was based in part upon sexual fulfillment.  I suspect this couple, and many couples like them, actually base their marriage on their spouses perceived capacity to meet their needs (in things such as finances, sex, security, etc.).  Marriage is about one’s own personal fulfillment or more selflessly a mutual fulfillment by two people who “complete” one another.  This fulfillment is true unspoken basis for many marriage inside and outside the church, but more about this later.

The argument overall goes like this: If a couple has “good sex” before marriage they will have “good sex” the rest of their marriage. “Good sex” is necessary for a healthy marriage and with this now proven they can get married (assuming the other needs are getting met).   If the couple in question had “bad sex” before marriage they will have “bad sex” the rest of their marriage.  “Good sex” is a pillar of a healthy marriage and since they are incapable of “good sex” they should not get married (regardless of if other needs are getting met or not). If the these two assumptions about sex and marriage are true, then what they did made sense, regardless of the morality of their actions.  Given these assumptions, to avoid a divorce making sure you are sexually compatible with your spouse by having sex before marriage would be a prudent thing.  Even if this sex is immoral, some argue that the sin of divorce is greater than the sin of pre-marital sex, and this should be tolerated if not advocated for in the Church.

My Critique of “If the shoe fits…”:  First, this couple engaged in fornication.  The presence of a committed relationship, love, and other mitigating factors does not change what I believe is an objective moral fact: sex before marriage is immoral.  The couple were both Christian adults aware of marriage and marriage’s role in the church and intentionally engaged in fornication for their own reasons.  I believe they sinned with the best of intentions and given these two presuppositions I can even understand why they did what they did.  This does not change the fact that what they did was a sin that Jesus Christ had to die for.  I would argue that both of these presuppositions are wrong and would counsel my church family to think about sexual fulfillment and the basis of marriage differently.

In response to sexual fulfillment being permanent based on the persons involved, I have always been taught that this is not so.  That pleasure in sex is not pre-determined by outside factors never subject to change.  I have been taught by numerous persons that sexual pleasure is variable and can generally speaking increase as marriage goes on.  In a trusting, secure, and communicative  relationship the partners in a marriage can communicate freely their specific likes and dislikes.   Over time the spouses learn the sexual needs and wants of their spouse.  As one Christian put it “You don’t have to be an expert in women to be good in bed, just an expert in woman [your wife].”  One Christian teacher advised our dorm in undergrad to not see our first sexual encounter as the be-all-end-all of our sexual endeavors in marriage.  Comicly she said, “The first time [you have sex] you’ll probably prematurely ejaculate and this is something you’ll laugh about in your marriage in the future.”  I have read statistics that suggest older couples rate their sex life as improving as their relationships mature because they “know what they are doing.” If this is true (and I believe it is) having sex to make sure your compatible is not necessary.  Sexual fulfillment should be expected to increase overtime and your first sexual encounter with a person is not a permanent indicator of the rest of the sex you’ll have with the person.

In regards to the basis of marriages, healthy marriages are marked by relational and sexual fulfillment.  We are often glad to see a couple that compliment each other well and meet each others needs.  It is a good thing for a wife to cure a husbands loneliness, it is a good thing for a husband to be a caring and compassionate ear for his wife’s concerns, it is a good thing for spouses to enjoy each other sexually.  It is good for spouses to meet each others’ needs. However, when these things are the basis of a marriage we are bound for trouble.   If my marriage is based on my wife affirming me (meeting my emotional needs), what should I do when we have a big fight and she is no longer affirming to me ? If a woman marries an honest and hard-working man (he is meeting her financial needs), what should she do when he gets laid off?  If we base a marriage on on the other person’s capacity to fulfill our needs,  divorce and affairs become the obvious solutions to times where our spouse inevitably does not meet those needs.  If Person A is no longer doing what I married them for, then changing Person A for Person B is the simple solution.

I believe that Christian who marry should see their marriages as based upon God, His Kingdom, and the sacrament of marriage; nothing more and nothing less.  Lewis Smedes argues that marriages, families and sexual intercourse are for the Kingdom of God, not personal fulfillment and I am prone to agree.  To look towards a spouse, sex, or children as instrumental in one’s own fulfillment turns such things into an idol and something to be used rather than stewarded for the purposes of God’s work here and now.  I definitely want marriages to be fulfilling to both persons but I do not believe this should be the basis for a marriage.  If we base a marriage on God and the sacrament of a permanent life-union, needs can temporarily go unmet or partially unmet and the couple can work towards resolution still within the safety of a permanent union.  Furthermore, in college on a class on marriage and family I was surprised to learn that a large number of people who have rated their sex life as less than satisfactory still rated their satisfaction with the marriage as very high.  Pleasurable sex is a good thing to work towards in a marriage but good sex is not a requirement for a good marriage.

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About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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6 Responses to Christian Sexual Ethics: Should singles have sex before marriage to make sure they are sexually compatible?

  1. Joel Gonzaga says:

    “For the couple in question, this is as far as I can reasonably take my argument without more information on them.”

    …and…

    ” I suspect this couple, and many couples like them, actually base their marriage on their spouses perceived capacity to meet their needs (in things such as finances, sex, security, etc.).”

    How closely have you paid attention to the needs, circumstances, emotions, and beliefs etc of such couples?

    • “How closely have you paid attention to the needs, circumstances, emotions, and beliefs etc of such couples?”

      Not much. First, of all this was a quick anecdote where very little information beyond what I’ve stated was presented. Second, I’m using it to explore the inherent assumptions in the argument that I believe are the root of the problem (Christians arguing for an unorthodox Christian sexual ethic). My current task at hand is to develop a Christian ethic. I have clearly stated that I believe to develop a public Christian ethic such an ethic has to be grounded in Scriptures and not the highly subjective circumstances of each individual relationship. As such the nuances of husband previous marriage, their current relationship, emotions, circumstances and beliefs are irrelevant to the task at hand. The needs, wants, circumstances, beliefs and emotions of human beings do not change what has been revealed in Scriptures. Now if I were approaching a couple coming in for counseling or otherwise advising such a couple in my congregation I would definitely seek to understand their emotions, needs, etc. to appropriately counsel and care for them. But for determining a sexual ethic, the highly subjective circumstances of an anecdote are quite simply of no use or credibility.

  2. Joel Gonzaga says:

    “The needs, wants, circumstances, beliefs and emotions of human beings do not change what has been revealed in Scriptures. ”

    Including Christian charity? I guess Jean Valjean really was just a petty thief who got what he deserved. His beliefs, circumstances wants etc do not change “thou shalt not steal.”

    Kevin, if what you want to do is hold the choir in rapt attention, then I believe you have succeeded. However, if your goal is to affect hearts and minds, than I fear you have no audience.

    • The priest who treated Jean Valjean graciously was not suggesting that stealing was okay or suggesting stealing is morally appropriate in certain circumstances. The priest was being gracious towards a sinner not developing a Christian ethic regarding stealing. Circumstances around a sin do not change it for what it is. A man who steals to feed his starving family is a thief in need of forgiveness as much as a CEO who embezzles out of greed. Christians can and should see the circumstances of each sinner and react accordingly. If I were the pastor of both of the men in this situation I would still see their actions as sinful but would approach them differently as their circumstances are wildly different. I would seek to be gracious to both but having compassion on a fellow sinner according to their circumstances does not require me to see what they did as not sinful or advocate that other Christians partake in theft.

  3. sex before marriage is a sin sexual pleasures are meant for married people

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