The Sex Crisis Behind the Marriage Crisis

12.20.2012, 8:15 AM

Anna Williams is a Junior Fellow at FirstThings.

The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” demonstrates convincingly that we should try to strengthen the institution of marriage and puts forward many ways we can begin to do so. It falls short only in failing to acknowledge how today’s sex and dating scene has contributed to the marriage crisis.

Given the authors’ hope of attracting the attention of lawmakers, their emphasis on public policy—the social safety net, job opportunities, education programs, and more—is understandable. Such initiatives have proven effective in strengthening marriage in the past, as the authors point out, and we should try to implement them more widely.

My favorite of the report’s recommendations, however, was the last: “Find your marriage voice.” An individual may acknowledge the societal benefits of marriage, but that will not lead him to marry any more than recognizing the societal benefits of fighting obesity will lead him to lose weight. Only a personal desire for marriage, and the faith that marriage can work, will inspire more Americans to tie the knot. Public service announcements are unlikely to accomplish this; more effective would be face-to-face conversations with and support from friends, relatives, social workers, religious leaders, and mentors.

Despite the report’s strengths, I was struck by the authors’ near-silence on the subject of sex. The breakdown of marriage stems not only from economic factors but also from changing standards in the realm of sex, dating, and intimate relationships. Making these standards more conducive to marriage is as crucial as political reform if we are to restore the institution.

Let’s start by acknowledging that there is no such thing as consequence-free sex. No form of contraception is 100 percent effective; even a one-night stand can result in the creation of a child. Aside from pregnancy, sex has dramatic effects on physical, mental, and emotional health. Hookups, for instance, significantly increase teenagers’ [1] and female college students’ [2] risk of depression. The more lifetime sexual partners [3] an adult woman has, the more likely she is to be depressed and to report a lower level of life satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction is highest [4] and the risks of sex lowest in the context of marriage.

But even Americans who hope to get married can easily damage their chances of doing so successfully. Those who first have sex at a young age are less likely [5] than those who wait to achieve satisfying romantic relationships as adults. Studies also suggest that having sex early in the course of a relationship[6] can undermine the relationship’s development and lead (at least for women) to lower relationship quality, possibly because sex causes partners to overlook other important factors.

This should not come as a surprise. It is hard to imagine that young people can transition smoothly from casual flings to the committed, monogamous relationships most of them desire. Those who have spent their twenties in a series of short-lived sexual relationships may struggle to adjust to the long-term demands of a marriage.

Admitting and teaching these things is not tantamount to calling for a return to the 1950s; it is merely to acknowledge reality. And efforts to restore a more conservative sexual ethic may gain more sympathetic reception than some would expect. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, some six in ten teens [7] who have had sex wish they had waited longer before doing so, and nearly nine in ten teens believe they “should be given a strong message that they should not have sex until they are at least out of high school.” Furthermore, despite perceptions that American teenagers are becoming ever more sexualized, the CDC reports [8] that the percentage of teens who are sexually active has dropped in recent decades.

The difficulty, of course, lies in actually living out the call for greater sexual restraint. Sex educators should be more honest about the downsides of the hookup culture, but abstinence-only sex education has been notoriously unsuccessful. Probably the best way to promote a healthier sexual culture is through supporting families: Studies demonstrate [9] that teens who have married parents, who have positive relationships with their parents, and who know that their parents disapprove of teen sex are more likely to delay sexual activity than their peers.

Yet America’s sexual culture is dysfunctional long beyond the teenage years. Young adults—who are quick to enter sexual relationships and cohabit, but reluctant to marry—likewise need the encouragement of relatives, friends, faith leaders, and mentors in order to develop the kind of lasting relationships that lead to marriage.

Love, sex, and marriage remain closely tied in most people’s minds, even as they are less connected in their lives. Helping Americans tie these experiences together again is crucial to fostering a culture where both adults and children can flourish.


[1] http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Dec12/TeenSex.html

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17599248?dopt=Abstract

[3] Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, page 139

[4] See e.g. the report cited in first footnote of  http://www.familyfacts.org/briefs/1/the-benefits-of-marriage but I believe many surveys/studies have shown this

[5] http://www.utexas.edu/news/2012/10/18/does-true-love-wait-age-of-first-sexual-experience-predicts-romantic-outcomes-in-adulthood/

[6] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00996.x/abstract (summary at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201208/take-it-slow-if-you-want-your-relationship-last)  see also http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/fam/24/6/766/ (summary at http://www.livescience.com/10935-delaying-sex-relationships-study-finds.html)

[7] http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/pubs/WOV_2012.pdf

[8] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_031.pdf

[9] http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2008/10/teen-sex-the-parent-factor


18 Responses to “The Sex Crisis Behind the Marriage Crisis”

  1. “It is hard to imagine that young people can transition smoothly from casual flings to the committed, monogamous relationships most of them desire. Those who have spent their twenties in a series of short-lived sexual relationships may struggle to adjust to the long-term demands of a marriage.”
    Ms. Williams is absolutely right. Habits are strong predictors of future behavior. As I tell young people in my workshops and presentations, “marriage is a circle, not a line.” Many young people mistakenly believe that they can have sex with a variety of partners before marriage, and then settle down into a monogamous relationship once they “cross the line” into marriage. Even teenagers, when presented with this myth, can see how unrealistic it is. Old habits die hard.
    In contrast, consider marriage as a circle. Sex inside marriage is safe, satisfying and promotes couple well-being. Sex outside the marriage “circle” – whether before or after the wedding – can cause a variety of problems, as the research clearly shows. Reserving sexual relations strictly for one’s spouse is the best way to a healthy, lifelong marriage.

  2. Anna, I strongly agree with you that the marriage crisis is rooted in a “sex crisis.”

    I wonder why though you say that “abstinence-only” sex education has been unsuccessful. First, the label is incorrect. Most such programs talk about precisely the things that you do, healthy relationships, delaying sex ideally until marriage leads to more happiness, less divorce and better sex, etc.

    Second, I know of at least 10 peer-reviewed studies that show the significant positive impact of “abstinence-centered’ programs.

    Third, our experience in teaching more than 100,000 youth in urban areas of NY/NJ shows that they are VERY interested in discussions about lasting love, the importance of committed fathers, etc. Yes, we need to empower their parents to give this guidance as well, but classroom discussions and after-school clubs are ways to reach larger numbers of youth with meaningful conversations and have an impact as well.
    Richard

  3. Schroeder says:

    Second, I know of at least 10 peer-reviewed studies that show the significant positive impact of “abstinence-centered’ programs.

    Dr. Panzer,

    Out of curiosity, what are the ten studies? Are they all behind a pay wall? This isn’t a “gotcha” question, I promise. I’m actually really intrigued and would like to read the studies for myself.

    Why do you think that the “conventional wisdom” is that “abstinence-only” education doesn’t work, if these studies exist?

  4. Anna Williams says:

    Thanks for your comments, all.

    Dr. Panzer, to respond to your three points:

    First, I probably should have been more specific about how abstinence-only sex ed has been unsuccessful, but I had already pushed my allotted word count to its maximum. I meant that, to my knowledge, sex education that focuses on abstinence (and other good things, as you note) usually has little effect on whether students have sex at an early age and become or get someone pregnant. (One example study is here.)

    Second, I know that various studies on abstinence-based vs. comprehensive sex ed show varying results, and I (like Schroeder) would be interested in seeing the ten studies you mention.

    Third, your teaching sounds great. I don’t mean to downplay the role of school-based (or community-based or church/synagogue/mosque-based) efforts but to emphasize the role of parents, who according to teens themselves have more influence on teenagers’ sex lives than teachers, the media, or their peers.

  5. Diane M says:

    “An individual may acknowledge the societal benefits of marriage, but that will not lead him to marry any more than recognizing the societal benefits of fighting obesity will lead him to lose weight.”

    Just a quibble, but I don’t this is the best analogy. There is nothing fun about losing weight. It is extremely hard to do, nearly impossible.

    Marriage involves a lot of fun and love. It’s not all happily ever after, but it’s not a ball and chain, either.

  6. Here are two of the studies and their abstracts showing the effectiveness of abstinence-focused or healthy relationship/ risk avoidance education:

    Jemmott, J. B., Jemmott L. S.,Fong G. T. (2010). Efficacy of a theory-based abstinence-only intervention over 24 months. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2010;164(2):152-159.
    Link: http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/164/2/152?home

    Abstract: Objective To evaluate the efficacy of an abstinence-only intervention in preventing sexual involvement in young adolescents.

    Design Randomized controlled trial.

    Setting Urban public schools.

    Participants A total of 662 African American students in grades 6 and 7.

    Interventions An 8-hour abstinence-only intervention targeted reduced sexual intercourse; an 8-hour safer sex–only intervention targeted increased condom use; 8-hour and 12-hour comprehensive interventions targeted sexual intercourse and condom use; and an 8-hour health-promotion control intervention targeted health issues unrelated to sexual behavior. Participants also were randomized to receive or not receive an intervention maintenance program to extend intervention efficacy.

    Outcome Measures The primary outcome was self-report of ever having sexual intercourse by the 24-month follow-up. Secondary outcomes were other sexual behaviors.

    Results The participants’ mean age was 12.2 years; 53.5% were girls; and 84.4% were still enrolled at 24 months. Abstinence-only intervention reduced sexual initiation (risk ratio [RR], 0.67; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.48-0.96). The model-estimated probability of ever having sexual intercourse by the 24-month follow-up was 33.5% in the abstinence-only intervention and 48.5% in the control group. Fewer abstinence-only intervention participants (20.6%) than control participants (29.0%) reported having coitus in the previous 3 months during the follow-up period (RR, 0.94; 95% CI, 0.90-0.99). Abstinence-only intervention did not affect condom use. The 8-hour (RR, 0.96; 95% CI, 0.92-1.00) and 12-hour comprehensive (RR, 0.95; 95% CI, 0.91-0.99) interventions reduced reports of having multiple partners compared with the control group. No other differences between interventions and controls were significant.

    Conclusion Theory-based abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in preventing adolescent sexual involvement.
    *****

    Adolescent pregnancy prevention: an
    abstinence-centered randomized controlled intervention in a Chilean
    public high school Carlos Cabezon, M.D., Ph.D. a,*, Pilar Vigil, M.D.,
    Ph.D.b, Ivan Rojasc, M. Eugenia Leivad, Rosa Riquelme e, Waldo
    Arandaf, and Carlos Garcia, M.D.ctober 17, 2003 Abstract

    Purpose: To evaluate the efficacy of an abstinence-centered sex
    education program in adolescent pregnancy prevention, the TeenSTAR
    Program was applied in a high school in Santiago, Chile. Methods: A
    total of 1259 girls from a Santiago high school were divided into
    three cohorts depending on the year they started high school: the 1996
    cohort of 425 students, which received no intervention; the 1997
    cohort, in which 210 students received an intervention and 213
    (control group) did not; and the 1998 cohort, in which 328 students
    received an intervention and 83 (control group) did not. Students were
    randomly assigned to control and intervention groups in these cohorts,
    before starting with the program. We conducted a prospective,
    randomized study using the application of the TeenSTAR sex education
    program during the first year of high school to the intervention
    groups in the 1997 and 1998 cohorts. All cohorts were followed up for
    4 years; pregnancy rates were recorded and subsequently contrasted in
    the intervention and control groups. Pregnancy rates were measured and
    Risk Ratio with 95% confidence interval were calculated for
    intervention and control groups in each cohort.

    Results: Pregnancy rates for the intervention and control groups in
    the 1997 cohort were 3.3% and 18.9%, respectively (RR: 0.176, CI:
    0.076?0.408). Pregnancy rates for the intervention and control groups
    in the 1998 cohort were 4.4% and 22.6%, respectively (RR 0.195, CI:
    0.099?0.384).

    Conclusions: The abstinence-centered TeenSTAR sex education
    intervention was effective in the prevention of unintended adolescent
    pregnancy.Journal of Adolescent Health 36 (2005) 64?69
    *****

  7. Anna Williams says:

    Diane M. – Fair point! Definitely didn’t mean to suggest that marriage is analogous to losing weight in that negative sense.

    Dr. Panzer – Thanks for posting those! This seems like a topic that’s studied widely enough to yield some meta-analyses. Do you know of any? I found one from 2001 after a brief search (here). It reviewed 15 years of studies on how well sex ed promotes abstinent behavior and concludes, “The results of the analysis indicated a very small overall effect of the [sexual education] interventions in abstinent behavior.” However, I’m not sure whether that study focused exclusively on abstinence-based education, or whether it also included comprehensive sex ed.

  8. Ms. Williams, Dr. Stan Weed has done the best overview of these issues IMO, but I’m not sure I can fit that into the comments section here. I could email you some of that?

    The bottom line in my mind is that we be truthful with young people, which needs to go beyond a discussion of how to make sex “safe,” to the meaning and purpose of sexual intimacy. Traditionally, religion has done that, but since fewer young people participate in church, and the culture often has such a strong, opposing message even if they do, I think the schools are another means. We have to engage the students’ own idealism and hopes for lasting relationships and successful marriages, something that much sex ed doesn’t make a serious attempt to do. Since in many schools, there is little if any discussion of the benefits of marriage or even committed relationships, why should we be surprised that there has been a decline in marriage and a rise in out-of-wedlock births? Tomorrow’s parents are in today’s high schools. We should be talking about these issues with them!

    Here are two more studies which show significant impact of this approach:

    http://sgo.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/03/21/2158244012442938

    and Journal of Adolescent Health 46 (2010) 169-179.

  9. Diane M says:

    “Probably the best way to promote a healthier sexual culture is through supporting families: Studies demonstrate [9] that teens who have married parents, who have positive relationships with their parents, and who know that their parents disapprove of teen sex are more likely to delay sexual activity than their peers.”

    The problem I see with this strategy is that we already have many, many parents who are divorced or never married. Their kids are the ones who are more at risk of having kids early.

    Preventing future divorce might help, but it sounds like a very slow, indirect way to change things.

  10. ki sarita says:

    an abstinence only curriculum does not belong in school because
    A. It either provides misinformation, or fails to convey critical important information like condoms. The goal of ANY educational program is to convey correct, complete information. Anything else is propaganda.
    B. It aims to conveys values that it not within the school’s jurisdiction to offer; personal sexual values are the job of the family to give over, NOT a public school.

  11. Dear Ki Sarita,
    Your post raises some questions in my mind and I hope you don’t mind if I ask them. You write that “convey(ing) values that [are] not within the school’s jurisdiction to offer.”

    Are you against school’s communicating all values? Or just ones that relate to sexual issues? If the latter, why should schools communicate values and recommendations about all kinds of issues, but not about the value of delaying sexual involvement and of committed relationships? It could be argued that these are just as important and impactful on society as almost any other issue discussed in schools today.

  12. ki sarita says:

    Schools should not teach values in which their is such a wide divergence within the cultures. Sexuality is one of them. Some families believe that casual sex is perfectly ok. Some don’t. It is not for a public school to take one side.

  13. Diane M says:

    @Ki sarita – I think almost all parents can agree that they want schools to tell their children to wait for sex and that it’s better to have children after you are in a good marriage.

    That said, we don’t all agree on the details. It’s also very hard to convince young people that they should just wait because they tend to think they are mature now.

  14. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    Hi Anna Williams! So nice to “meet” you and thank you so much for writing here!

    You’re right, we don’t really talk about sex in the report.

    Sometimes I wonder if all of us (you, me, others who write at a blog like this) who have an interest in child well being and family structure tend to cluster in two groups, those who concentrate more on how to prevent people from having children before they are ready, and those who cluster more on how to respond to the needs of children already born.

    It seems to me that recognizing and seeking to strengthen marriage as a nest ready to accept, however imperfectly but still on average better than anything else we’ve figured out, the arrival of children falls more into that second cluster of discussion.

    That said, sex is pretty key to all this and I’m quite interested in how cultural conversations about what sex is and why it matters influence trends in family formation and stability. When some of us wrote a report on the college hook up culture that came out in 2001, one of the things that most struck me in the interviews with college women was the notion that in a hook up you have a physical encounter without feelings. If you have feelings about it, you’re the one with the problem. This attitude did not strike me as a very promising one for developing intimate trusting relationships in college or later in a marriage.

    I look forward to further engagement and hope that you will write here again!

    Best,
    Elizabeth

  15. Elizabeth,
    thank you for writing that “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right” report, which many of us found to be very helpful in understanding the thinking of college women.

    I think you are right in your description of the two groups. I think all of us would agree that once a child is born, regardless of the parental context, we have to find ways to support the mother and child.

    On the other hand, in our discussions with mostly urban youth in NY and NJ, we have found that they do respond strongly to the issue of fatherlessness, which is both a moral issue and a very real source of personal anguish for many of them.

    Many of these youth do not have involved fathers and express a lot of anger and pain about that. I can tell you that they DO NOT want to replicate what they experienced. What they lack are adults to talk honestly about these issues and to show them a clear way to achieve lasting relationships/marriage. I know that the dominant culture is skeptical about the feasibility of this idealistic approach and prefers to focus on contraceptive technology in one form or another to avoid the “values” issues.

    We can see the effectiveness of the contraceptive approach among 20 somethings, who I’m pretty sure we would all agree receive none of the abstinence messages given to middle school and high school youth, and who have 60% rates of having unwed births.

    I know from personal experience working with federal and state health departments that discussions with middle and high school youth about monogamy/marriage are not encouraged. There is a trend to redefine the meaning of “abstinence” to include a number of sexual behaviors short of intercourse.

    While I understand that in the adult world more sophistication is in order, I do not think that erasing distinctions between being sexually intimate and not doing so will be helpful to the youth and their future lives. Then my next question is, who are we trying to help? The young people? Or adults with concerns and agendas that have little or no connection to the needs of these youth?

    All the best,
    Richard

  16. mythago says:

    Ms. Williams, one of the reasons people are suspicious that this is a call to go back to the 1950s is that, well, it so often is; witness the push for “abstinence-only” education.

    The studies and news articles you cite also don’t quite match your arguments, in that you assume correlation/association is a straight causal line between ‘casual’ sex and bad outcomes. For example, the study mentioned in the Cornell article observes that depressed teens may be more likely to engage in hook-ups; in other words, it’s not a simple matter of “if you have casual sex, you dramatically increase your risk of bad things”. Another study to which you refer actually finds that teenagers who are sexually active in romantic relationships have lower rates of delinquency, and one of the study’s authors explicitly says that it’s an oversimplification to say that abstinence is always good for teens. Nor does your cite regarding the rate of sexual satisfaction in marriage support the claim that the “risks are lower; if I’m having more sex because I’m married, surely I’m also increasing my risk of pregnancy? (Also, unfortunately, you’re citing second- and third-hand references, and I can’t actually look at the study in question, whose abstract does not reference its findings.)

    I think we can all agree that sex has risks and consequences, that sex is for adults, and that people should not engage in sex they don’t really want or need because they’re depressed, emotionally wounded or trying to hang onto an exploitative partner. But when you layer that with dubious and unsupported concerns about how “casual” sex (which always seems to mean “sex at a less-committed level than I personally engage in) is the road to ruin – then, yes, it creates the impression that you are less interested in discussing an ethical sexuality than in rolling back the clock to a mythical time of innocence.

  17. Diane M says:

    @mythago – You raised a lot of good questions about the studies and what they show, but you lost me here:

    “But when you layer that with dubious and unsupported concerns about how “casual” sex (which always seems to mean “sex at a less-committed level than I personally engage in) is the road to ruin – then, yes, it creates the impression that you are less interested in discussing an ethical sexuality than in rolling back the clock to a mythical time of innocence.”

    Being against casual sex is a legitimate ethical position.

    I am concerned that people often find the study results that fit what they think is ethical. When it comes to sexual behavior, I think both sides actually do this. (There was a study a while back that found that abstinence only education made sense for a group of middle school students, for example, and people on the left didn’t want to hear the results.)

    And I think you’re right here – depressed women probably are more likely to engage in casual sex. There may even be a link between previous sexual abuse and casual sex which could then lead to a correlation with depression.

    So I would suggest to the author of the blog, that it’s important to not overstate the risks of casual sex. If you do, young people are going to disbelieve you on the issues that are real – STDs, pregnancy, regrets.

  18. mythago says:

    @Diane M: certainly, it’s a legitimate ethical position. The problem is in misstating or misinterpreting available evidence to say that ethical position is objectively true.

    I do not recall any abstinence-only study where “people on the left” didn’t want to hear the results; certainly, being “on the left” doesn’t insulate anyone from selectively reading evidence, but I’d be interested in seeing the study you’re referring to.