Premarital sex in our time
Women's premarital sexual behavior has changed markedly in the last 50 years. During the 1940's, Kinsey, et al. (1948, 1953) found that about 10% of 17-year-old unmarried women and one-third of 25-year-old unmarried women had had intercourse. In the 1970's one-third of 13 to 15-year-olds and 50% of 17-year-old unmarried women and three-fourths of single college women had had intercourse and, moreover, 85% to 90% approve of premarital sex for themselves or others (Hunt, 1973, 1975; Hass, 1979, Playboy, 1976). A review of the 1988-90 General Social Survey also shows that a majority of American males have intercourse by 16-17, females by 17-18. Over 60% of 18 to 21-year-olds have had sex with more than one person. Premarital sex is increasingly common. Women who are better educated have more premarital sex, more sexual partners, masturbate more, and find oral sex more acceptable (Janus & Janus, 1993). Without doubt, we are getting sexually freer.
In 1963, 75% of young unmarried women and 40% of young unmarried males were virgins; in 1984, 43% of such women and 28% of such males were virgins. During the 1980's, virginity became less common. Women have changed sexually far more than men in the last 40 years. It used to be important to "save yourself," today 75% of single women are having sex. Consequently, 22% of white mothers are unmarried when the child is born. For 85% of recent college students it wasn't considered important to marry a virgin. Today's young wives are also more unfaithful than their mothers or grandmothers were, almost as unfaithful as today's young husbands (Sex, before and after, 1975). The sexual revolution has brought many other changes: fewer prostitutes, earlier intercourse (average age=16), more experimentation (different positions, oral-genital activity, sex with drugs), more partners, higher frequency of sex, more orgasms for women, and more living together.
The sexual activities of teenagers has also changed significantly over the last half of the 20th century. Focus Adolescent Services provides several articles, general information, and advice to parents and teenagers about teen sexual behavior. It is a conservative site but not overly-moralistic. It attempts to clarify the difference between "normal" sexual activities and "dangerous" or risky behaviors; thus, avoiding the unrealistic "just save yourself until marriage" message. The same site also has a section about teenage emotional health. There are other very explicit and liberal (parents may want to check these sites out first) Websites: gURL, Positive Attitude, Condomania, and GoAskAlice. These sites are detailed and give suggestions about "Sex for One" and for the "First Intercourse." These sites are also good places to see what kind of questions young teens have and the advice they are given on many topics.
The AIDS revolution is also having some impact on sexual behavior: surveys of high school students in grades 9 through 12 show that slightly fewer (55% rather than 60%) have had sex in the early 1990's than in the late 1980's. Also, fewer high schoolers (20% rather than 25%) have had four or more partners. The fear of AIDS and sex education may be having some effect, but still only somewhere between 17% and 40% of the sexually active high schoolers use condoms regularly. Unfortunately, the teens with the most partners are the least likely to use condoms--and the most likely to shoot up drugs. In short, if you have sex in high school, the probability is about 50-50 that your partner has already had sex with someone else or shot up drugs (don't trust what they tell you) and, thus, could be HIV positive. Moreover, one out of every 25 high schoolers has a sexually transmitted disease (and the person "coming on" to you is even more likely to be diseased). Therefore, even at a very young age, if you are going to have intercourse (even with a supposed virgin), use a condom. It may save your life (not to mention pregnancy and disease).
The first sexual experience comes early: 40% of 9th graders have had intercourse, 48% of 10th graders, 57% of 11th graders, and 72% of seniors. The first experience is memorable for everyone but for young teenagers it frequently is not fun, particularly not for the female. For one thing, most of the time (78%) intercourse is not planned, it "just happens." Only 25% of the women found it pleasurable at all, for 40% it was painful, for 22% it was frightening and for 40-50% it caused guilt even though 60% felt they were in love (Huk, 1979). Less than 10% had an orgasm. About a third used no birth control! For men having sex for the first time, they were surprised the woman said "yes," relieved they could perform, and found it pleasurable, both in terms of physical feelings and psychologically--"Today I became a man." The old double standard is still psychologically affecting males and females very differently.
When a couple engages in sex regularly, as you would expect, they generally (90% of teenaged males and 70% of teenaged females) say they like it (Hass, 1979). However, an estimated 30% of adolescents are "unhappy non-virgins" and are avoiding sex until they meet the right person; some were dumped, some felt like sexual failures, some were disappointed, some felt used (Kolodny, 1981). At a later age, about 90% of engaged couples, while sexually involved, say sex strengthens their relationship (Beach, 1973; Macklin, 1974). On the other hand, couples who do not have sex before marriage are just as likely to stay together as couples having sex (Knox, 1984). About 75% of women who have had premarital sex (not necessarily with the man they married) say they have no regrets and would do it again. Presumably, 25% had some regrets. Premarital sex may not improve post-marital sex (Frank & Anderson, 1980). Indeed, one large study found that people with many premarital relations often have many extra-marital affairs and unhappy marriages (Athanasiou & Sarkin, 1974). Masters, Johnson and Kolodny (1985) acknowledge the Athanasiou and Sarkin results but contend that premarital sex also yields some positive results, such as fewer sexual inhibitions, better sexual communication, and earlier (before marriage) breakup of incompatible couples. In short, the consequences of premarital sex are not predictable, i.e. positive for some and negative for others.
One study showed that women tend to save their virginity until they are going steady (58%) or at least "dating" (22%) or perhaps engaged (10%) and only 10% lose it with friends or casual acquaintances. Men are less likely to save their virginity until going steady (39%) or engaged (1%) or dating (20%) and 40% have their first experience with friends or acquaintances (Zelnik & Shah, 1983). In another study, a Playboy survey (1976) asked college students (most of whom had lost their virginity long before) how well they needed to know someone before they would have sex with them. Remember the source, but Table 10.2 indicates the percentage saying "this is the least known person I'd have sex with":
Table 10. 2: Least well known acceptable partner for sex.
Casual Acquaintance & Friend & Lover & Fiance & Spouse Males 27%
8% Females 7%
In other words, 27% of college males say they would have sex with a casual acquaintance and all the other categories; 39% say they would have sex with a friend (and the others in the Table to the right), and, thus, a total of 66% would not consider sex to mean "I love you." About half as many (36%) females say they would have sex with a friend (or acquaintance) but 64% (80% of teenaged women) say they would wait until love and perhaps some commitment was present. Yet, 42% of teenaged females want the male to touch their breasts within the first two weeks of dating. Being very willing to cooperate, one-third of teenaged males say they want intercourse within the first two weeks, 50% within a month and 80+% want sex if "in love" (Hass, 1979). Obviously, "friends" develop very rapidly under these conditions.
You might be asking yourself, "So what?" This research data may merely tell us what men have always known, namely, to "score" you have to become friends first and maybe, if she's really conservative, convince her that you love her. On the other hand, the data may reflect the current status of the old conflicting traditions, namely, casual sex is wonderful (old male role) and intercourse should only be with someone you love (old and current female role). It is unknown how these conflicting sexual attitudes will be resolved in the future. How many women in 2010 will accept casual sex? How many men will chose to save sex for loving relationships? We don't know. Perhaps it doesn't matter.
Frankly, I suspect that many young people are not living according to their morals. For instance, I wonder how many junior high students, who haven't had sex, believe premarital sex during high school is immoral, but yet have sex before they are out of school? In the Janus and Janus (1993) surveys, 70+% of "very religious" adults admit they had premarital sex (30% have had extramarital affairs too). Do we pay a price for disregarding our morals or do our morals change as we "fall in love" or do we easily dismiss our morals after losing them? Actually, 35% to 45% of religious people believe women should have sexual experience before marriage. We don't factually know the probable consequences of many actions... but we need to know. My advice: if your morals are strong, do not break them without careful consideration.
In any case, regardless of the sexual decisions your peers make, your sexual activity is your own personal decision and a very important one. Your sexual decisions may influence your self-esteem, your reputation, who your friends are, who you marry and how good the marriage is, when you become a parent, your career, how you get along with your parents, how many marriages you have, and many other things.
Knowing these kinds of things--with whom and when other people lose their virginity, how many people (about 75%) have premarital sex with how many (1 to 5) partners, the more active 40% of women have 10 sexual partners or more (Knox, 1984), how often promiscuity before marriage continues afterwards, etc.--may not be highly helpful in making decisions about your sex life. Yet, an informed person knows the facts about other people without feeling the need to follow the herd. A knowledgeable person considers the pros and cons of many alternative courses of action, such as the different sexual life styles discussed above. An example: any observer of young people has seen 7th and 8th graders (not all) fall in and out of "love" quickly; many 13-year-olds have a new heartthrob every week or two. Some 18 or 19-year-olds (not all) become so infatuated so quickly that they can not possibly foresee potential problems. If young people become aware of the many emotional roller-coasters and sexual pitfalls, like these, they would, hopefully, develop more self-control and, at least, reduce their emotional pain and avoid unplanned pregnancies. That is what self-help and being informed should be all about.
Guard against unwanted pregnancy
Unfortunately, sexual intercourse produces babies. (Think of the advantages of sex just being for fun and love, then, when ready, going to Wal-Mart to get a new baby for $999.98.) 57% of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned or unwanted. About one third of all U. S. babies are born "out of wed lock." 80% of teenaged mothers are unwed, 80% didn't want or plan their pregnancy, and 80% go on welfare. European teenagers have as much sex as we do, but our pregnancy rate is 2 to 6 times higher than theirs. Why? Because we don't educate and train our teenagers in sexual matters.
Unwanted pregnancy is a terrible problem for the terrified, embarrassed, confused teenage girl, for the panicked college coed who dreads the disruption of her life, of her relationship with the guy, and of having an abortion or a baby, for the married woman who says, "Oh God! I don't want a child now--I can't handle it," and for society that pays billions for aid to unwanted-at-this-time children. Consider this: the approximately 4-6 million sexually active American teenage girls have over one million pregnancies and 400,000 abortions each year. About 40% of all American teenage females get pregnant in their teens. That's at least double the percentage in any other educated, developed country. What's wrong with us? We can't blame all teenage pregnancies on innocence because 1 in 5 teenage mothers get pregnant again within two years. Two-thirds of teen mothers are impregnated by 20-year-old men or older; many are "predators," fathering several children with several women.
As we saw earlier, about one-fourth of U.S. 15-year-olds have had sex and by 18 two-thirds have had. Only 7 out of 10 use a contraceptive the first time but if they become "sexually active" 9 out of 10 use protection. The most used methods with teenaged women are the pill (44%) and condoms (38%). Please note: Condom use is strongly influenced by talking openly about it. If you don't talk to your partner about using a condom or contraceptive, you are 50% less likely to actually use one. Likewise, in turn, the teens who never or only rarely talk to their parents about sexual issues are four times less likely to talk to their sexual partners about condom use (study done by Richard A. Crosby (email@example.com) in the March issue of Health Education and Behavior). This underscores the importance of parents talking frankly and in some detail with their teenager, especially daughters--teens need practice talking about sex, condoms, the pill, and such. Only 1 in 6 teenaged women used two methods, such as both the pill and a condom; even that doesn't provide certain protection against STD. Every year 15%-20% of sexually active teens get pregnant (85% unintended). When they get pregnant, about 14% miscarriage (1/3 do not get adequate care), 30% to 35% have an abortion, and 55% have a baby.
It is really tough to have a baby as a teenager (much harder than many of them believe). Most drop out of school; 90% will be abandoned by the teenaged father of the child. It is almost impossible to hold a full-time job and care for a new baby too, even if the father and the family help out. If these teenagers get married (only 10% marry the real father), it often doesn't last. Many are miserable; they wanted love but a baby takes love, not gives it. The suicide rate is high among teenage mothers (Masters, Johnson & Kolodny, 1985). The U.S. Center of Disease Control recently (2002) disclosed an appalling fact: your chance of being murdered on the first day of your life is 10 times greater than on any other day! And on that day, your murderer is likely to be your mother! The risk of infanticide on day 1 goes up if Mom is a teenager, has had mental illness, and delivers you outside of a hospital. Teenage pregnancy is a horrendous social and personal problem, in contrast to the sentimental anti-abortion TV ads that explicitly say unplanned pregnancies are wonderful. Get real!
About 25% to 30% of all adult women in this country--single, married or divorced--have had an abortion (Janus & Janus, 1993). It is a preventable trauma. But, did you know that both the anti-abortion movement and the pro-choice movement have avoided encouraging birth control? Wouldn't birth control solve the abortion problem? Of course, but the two major movements have gotten so absorbed in a futile argument over whether abortion is murder or a woman's right, the run-away accidental production of unwanted children is neglected. Why do I say it is a futile argument? Because it is based entirely on religious definitions and beliefs--on ideas that can not be proven right or wrong, just opinions. (It is good to have your own beliefs and to live by them, but don't try to force others to follow your arbitrary beliefs.) While closed-minded zealots preach their self-righteous religious doctrine, elected government, health, and school officials timidly placate the over-emotional religious pontificators. People are politically afraid to advocate birth control. The result: millions of American women have unwanted pregnancies. It may surprise you but about 30% of all Protestant and Catholic women have had at least one abortion, but only 11% of Jewish and 22% of unreligious women have had an abortion (Janus & Janus, 1993). The number of abortions is ridiculous because there has been a "morning-after pill" available in Europe for some years. Why not in the US? Because of opposition from religious conservatives. To be effective in preventing pregnancy, these pills must be taken within 72 hours of having intercourse. That means you and the physician must act quickly. Consider using your physician but not all physicians will prescribe the drug, so if you need to find a cooperative local doctor you may go to the Web site or call the national Emergency Contraception Hotline at 1-888-NOT-2-LATE. Remember, act within a day or two of the "accident" because the doctor may need some time for tests, etc. before prescribing the pills. Note: Contraception will be discussed in more detail in the next page below.
Americans close their eyes to the fact that 57% of all children born in the US are unplanned (which usually means unwanted at that time)! In addition, in 1970 about 20% of unmarried pregnant women gave up their child for adoption, today it is only 3%. Moreover, as young women today wait until they are 28 or 30 to get married and have several sexual partners between puberty and marriage, more go on the pill and, consequently, are less likely to use condoms. The result is sexually transmitted diseases (STD) running rampant. 12 million of us are infected by a STD every year. As mentioned before, one out of every 25 high school students has a STD.
Avoiding sexually transmitted diseases
We, as a society, are not controlling pregnancies and we are not controlling sexually transmitted diseases. Partly because we deny or underestimate the risks involved, e.g. about 70% of sexually active teens think they are not at risk (Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 1999). I want to show you that this is a foolish idea. By age 25, about one third of us Americans actually have or have had a STD. Many of that one third didn't realize the risks they were running. I want to remind you of several risks we tend to overlook when the urge to have sex takes over. First of all, we are prone to forget that having sex with any one person exposes us to sexual diseases he/she may have gotten from any of their previous partners...and from their partner's previous partners...etc. Thus, by the time you have 3 or 4 lovers, especially if some of them have been rather "active," you have potentially exposed your genitals to various dangerous little organisms coming from a fairly wide range of strangers. And it only takes one diseased source within this chain of contacts to infect you for a life-time, e.g. with HIV, HPV or Herpes. Not a pleasant thought--if you focus on the diseases. Yet, I don't wish to turn off any of your hot passion. But this is reality. Moreover, as mentioned above, there is often 10 to 15 years between the first sexual experience and marriage. That is a long time and lots of sex. One implication is that we need to carefully protect ourselves from STD; thereby, reducing our risks, lessening our anxiety, and freeing our passions.
Warning a major risk: An astonishing number of deadly HIV-positive young people do not protect their sexual partners (or their unborn children). A recent survey found that 66% of HIV-infected women under age 22 have unprotected sex! 46% of infected women over 22 have gone unprotected (and, one might assume, many don't tell their sexual partner). (These figures include getting pregnant and exposing the fetus to infection.) It is apparently true that only 3% or less of babies born to HIV+ mothers become HIV+ and one can understand the longing for a child a HIV+ woman or man might have, but the certainty and severity of the AIDS death in that 1-3% makes pregnancy a very inconsiderate choice. Among HIV-infected males under 22, 28% did not protect their partners. 16% of infected males over 22 went unprotected (Diamond & Buskin, American Journal of Public Health, 2000, 90, 115-118). Almost 50% of young HIV-infected homosexual males are now having unprotected anal sex (Web MD Medical News, Aug 20, 2001)... and 20% are having unprotected sex with women too. This is all very dangerous behavior, maybe even murderous. No one has been cured of AIDS yet. Be very careful, you are risking your life if you don't know your partner's history very well (and often you can't know it).
Of course, AIDS is a real horror story in certain African, Asian, and South American countries. (See http://www.unaids.org/) Most appalling is the ignorance in some places, such as denying that AIDS is caused by the sexually transmitted HIV virus or believing that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS or seeking to avoid AIDS by having sex with very young girls. Accurate information is badly needed world-wide.
Why aren't we better educated sexually? (I don't have the answer...ask your politician.) The degree of denial and ignorance about STD everywhere is disconcerting. I will give several important examples of dangerous blindspots. Many kinds of serious risks are denied: 50% of low-income women have sex with men without using condoms, and 70% who have unprotected sex believe they "aren't running much risk." Many people who have a STD have no symptoms and, thus, mistakenly believe they are "disease free." Of course, they tell their sexual partners they "don't have anything." (Then there are others who just simply lie about it). This lack of awareness of STD was seen by researchers testing a random sample of teenagers; only 5% initially said they had a sexual disease but 25% actually had a STD, according to reliable tests. This is 25% of teenagers just starting their sexual life!
Did you know that if you are "sexually active" you should be tested every 6 months? The U.S. Center of Disease Control reported (3/6/2002) that 25% of the 1 million Americans with HIV do not know they have it! Like with HIV, which may lay dormant for 10 years, many of the other STDs are also quiet and perhaps unknown for a while but lead to serious problems later. For example, 85% of women and 40% of men with Chlamydia have no symptoms. Likewise, 80% of women and 10% of men with Gonorrhea have no symptoms. Many carriers of Herpes have no symptoms. CMV often has no symptoms but causes permanent disabilities to babies. Testing could catch many of these infections early. See your physician.
If you observe a new infection or get positive results on a STD test, who should you notify? Some experts say you should, if you test positive, tell everyone you have had sex with during the last 60 days or tell your last partner if it has been longer than 60 days. (Since so many people do not have symptoms, I wonder if every previous partner shouldn't be notified.) Who do people tell? A little over 90% of adults (more women than men), who find out they have a STD, tell their current partner, but only about 25% tell previous partners. Actually 32% to 40% of teenagers do NOT even tell their current partner when they find out they have a STD. It's a scary world.
There are other risks: many people may be switching to oral sex because they think it is safer than intercourse. It is true that oral sex eliminates the risk of pregnancy and reduces the risk of HIV but you still run many risks--herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, HPV, and several other sexual diseases. So, oral sex is not a good easy solution. By the way, about 20% of young people believe that oral sex is not sex; therefore, they could tell you "I've never had sex" but still pass on STDs to you. From the standpoint of "sexual disease," oral sex really IS sex!
Another risk is very well known by everyone but often overlooked at the critical moment. Alcohol and drugs reduce our self-control, including sexual inhibitions (study released by Kaiser Family Foundation, Feb 12, 2002). Between 25% and 35% of 15 to 24-year-olds say substance use influenced their sexual behavior, mainly doing more than they planned to do. Drug & alcohol-using teens are twice as likely to have sex with four or more partners as non-using teens. One in four young people say they have failed to have protected sex because of drinking or drug use. Mixing alcohol and drugs with sex is popular but keep in mind that a clear, well functioning brain is an important part of good, smart sex. Don't get pushed by your own unclear brain or by anyone else into something you don't want, like pregnancy or a STD.
There are serious misunderstandings about Herpes. That STD is growing rapidly. It is estimated that almost 30% of Americans over 12 have genital Herpes (drkoop.com, Nov 27, 2001). Part of the problem is that a person can have and pass on Herpes without having significant symptoms. For some people, Herpes sores or outbreaks are quite painful for a few days and then repeatedly reappear every week or two for a life-time (especially when stressed). The people, who carry the Herpes virus but do not have many or any genital outbreaks, may believe they don't have the disease. About 75% of the people with Herpes do not have obvious outbreaks. Thus, it spreads with astonishing speed! Also, it is commonly believed--falsely--that Herpes is not contagious unless there is an outbreak (blisters, skin lesions) at the time one has sex. So, how do you protect yourself? Avoid contact with infected genitals when there is an outbreak. Even when there is no active outbreak, use a condom. It is not perfect protection because the lesions or any fluid near them may contact skin not covered by the condom (often lesions are not on the penis or in the vagina). Please note that the number and severity of Herpes outbreaks can be reduced by prescribed medication. In the last couple of years, reliable blood tests for Herpes have been developed (go to herpes test. Herpes will not kill you, but you certainly don't want it. There is no cure. Be careful.
There are other STD's that you can't protect yourself against by using condoms because they can spread by skin contact, such as Herpes (just discussed), HPV (discussed next), and all of the bacterial sexual diseases. Chlamydia (now the most common bacterial STD) can be cured easily with antibiotics but if untreated it can make you sterile and infertile. Untreated gonorrhea (bacteria) can produce the similar results. Syphilis (bacterial) goes through a series of symptoms which clear up on their own but the internal infection remains active, eventually, if untreated, it can cause serious damage to the heart, brain and other parts of the body. The bacterial infections are treatable if detected.
Another very common STD that most of us know little about is HPV, human papillomavirus. Apparently, more than 70% of us have contact with some of the 100+ strains of HPV sometime during our lifetime. Our immune system handles most of the virus in time, but a few strains cause genital warts and a few other strains are connected with different cancers, especially cervical cancer. Only 10% of women with HPV develop cancer but that outcome is very serious... and you can do something about it. There is no cure for HPV or genital warts (they can, of course, be avoided). The virus may incubate for months or years before any abnormality shows up on the Pap smears. New screening procedures are being developed for women; there is no lab test for HPV in men. New medical treatment is evolving but for now HPV is a scary, hard-to-treat disorder.
You need to think about sex in advance and discuss with each new lover the impact that having sex might have on your relationship, what having sex means to you, and how it fits with your long-range life plans. Of course, there should also be blunt talk about every possibility of getting a sexually transmitted disease (and pregnancy too, of course). If you are tempted to think "just this one time, nothing will happen," think again. What are your risks if you have unprotected sex just once with a person infected with HIV? 1% risk of getting a deadly disease!...with a person with Herpes? 30% chance of having Herpes all your life!...with a person with gonorrhea? 50% chance of getting it! Discuss what both of you will do to prevent pregnancy and disease. Your thinking must include the possibility that the partner (or you) has a STD and doesn't know it. Much less than half of sexually experienced teens have this kind of serious discussion before having sex; it is hard to do but when the consequences are so grave, there is no excuse. Note: 25% of the sexually active get a STD in one year. Yet, you can protect yourself, perhaps not perfectly but pretty well.
The self-control of sexual behaviors in this country is terrible compared to other countries. We are the only country listed below with an official national one-rule-fits-all policy of "Abstinence until Marriage." Something is wrong...and it isn't that our young people are irresponsible and uncaring. Our adults--parents, schools, politicians, and churches--have been uninvolved, aloof, naive, too preachy, and too insecure to deal with sex education realistically. We adults can learn much more about helping/teaching young people the details of abstaining or protecting themselves from unwanted diseases and babies. Consider a few facts from Advocates for Youth: (See their URL below)
Average Age at First Intercourse:
United States – 16.3 ...France - 16.6 ...Germany - 17.4 ...Netherlands - 17.7
1997 Teen Birth Rate (per 1,000 women, ages 15 to 19):
United States - 52 ...Germany - 14 ...France - 9 ...Netherlands - 4
Teen Abortion Rate (per 1,000 women under age 20):
United States - 26.8 ...France - 8.9 ...Netherlands - 4.2 ...Germany - 3.1
1997 AIDS Case Rates in the General Population (per 100,000 population):
United States - 21.7 ...France - 4.8 ...Netherlands - 2.2 ...Germany - 1.7
How can we do better? See these sites:
Society is at fault: http://www.sxetc.org/library/genLibArticle.asp?CategoryID=1290&ArticleID;=art_1293
North Carolina agrees :-) http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/rrr/video.htm
Advocates for Youth: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/news/press/100198.htm
I have not discussed all STDs. There is much more to learn about STD: CDC-STD Prevention, Planned Parenthood-STI, Dr. Koop.com, Herpes Zone. For more information about STD's call Kaiser Foundation Hotline at 1-888-BE-SAFE-1 or the National STD Hotline at 1-800-227-8922. For people with herpes, there is a good book by Ebel & Dulude (1998), Managing Herpes: How to Live and Love with a Chronic STD.